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Waylaid by pandemic, ASU film students' projects get help from Hollywood

Previsualization technology used in 'The Mandalorian' helps class finish capstones

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December 16, 2020

When film students at Arizona State University were unable to shoot their capstone projects because of the pandemic, the New American Film School reached out to Hollywood for help.

About two dozen students were taught how to use Epic Games’ Unreal Engine game development software to create their film projects, thanks to an ASU partnership with two industry stalwarts — the John Hughes Institute and the visualization studio The Third Floor.

Janaki Cedanna, a clinical assistant professor who teaches production and postproduction, said that typically, students in the final capstone filmmaking course spend the summer filming their projects, and they then complete postproduction during the fall semester. That didn’t happen last summer.

“We had students coming to us panicked, asking ‘What am I going to do?’” he said.

Cedanna and Adam Collis, director of the Film Spark program and professor of practice, knew that the art and craft of previsualization had become standard practice in the entertainment industry across a multitude of storytelling platforms, and they understood that the knowledge of these workflows and technical skills would be invaluable to the ASU film students, in the short and long term. And Film Spark, which is ASU’s industry relations program in Hollywood, had already built the relationships to make it happen.

“Since Film Spark is based in Los Angeles, we have many relationships in the entertainment industry. It was very meaningful in this time of COVID-19 to be able to help students in this way by reaching out to our friends at the John Hughes Institute and The Third Floor,” Collis said.

The John Hughes Institute is an educational organization headed by visual effects producer John Hughes. During his stewardship of Rhythm & Hues, team members of the animation/effects company won Oscars for “Babe,” “The Golden Compass” and “Life of Pi.” The John Hughes Institute designed the course with film school faculty and taught the course with help from The Third Floor. Patrick Haskew, The Third Floor’s creative head, taught students how Unreal Engine is used to plan and create cinematic storytelling through visualization techniques used by Hollywood filmmakers in projects like “Avengers: Endgame,” “The Mandalorian,” and “Game of Thrones.”

"Since the production of 'Avatar,' virtual filmmaking has been a large and visible feature of Hollywood productions,” said Dariush Derakhshani, academic dean of the John Hughes Institute.

“This collaboration with ASU, with valuable insight from The Third Floor, allows our professional artist faculty to bring Hollywood’s best and most current practices to the film production students at ASU. JHI looks forward to helping the New American Film School build a world-class, future-forward program."

The practice of visualization allows the filmmaker to digitally plan and design complex scenes in advance with 3D animation. Blocking out the set design, cameras and lighting ahead of time can drastically cut the amount of time that people must be on set because fewer takes are needed.

“It’s to preview your movie and make the best movie for your story,” Cedanna said. “So you can say, ‘OK, we need more light here.’ It has inputs for costumes, hair and makeup, location, cinematography.”

Previsualization is a virtual sandbox for creatives and other crew to explore creative ideas, including staging, camera composition, editing and lighting, long before the final product is attempted. Previsualization gives directors and producers incredible foresight to hone in on ideal solutions and realize them on-set and in postproduction much more efficiently.

The Third Floor has implemented visualization techniques on several projects across many mediums including film, television, games, virtual reality, commercials and location-based entertainment, effectively providing filmmakers with digital blueprints of their films while cutting production costs in the long run. From franchises like Star Wars to Marvel, the entertainment industry recognizes visualization as an effective way to limit contact on the set and keep people safe from COVID-19, as well as a key component of the production processes of the present and future.

“We decided to bring this in. If the students can’t safely leave the house, they can still get their vision done,” Cedanna said.

“We know this is cutting edge and will make them more valuable in the professional world.”

So instead of their fully realized films, the ASU students were able to complete their film visions in an animated form, using the Unreal software, to which the John Hughes Institute made sure that students had free access.

“We didn’t want our students to have to pay for this because it’s not their fault,” Cedanna said. “It’s nobody’s fault.”

Students also were able to use the software on the school’s computer labs.

“The inclusion part was very important to me, because not everyone has access to a professional-level Mac or PC,” he said.

Everything happened at the beginning of the semester, so the learning curve for the software was steep. But because of the partnership with the John Hughes Institute, the educational coursework and the Zoom course was set up quickly.

Because it was so last-minute, the course was “dynamic,” essentially meeting when everyone could, including weekends.

Film student Omar Hashem said that because he was tied up with other film projects, he skipped two classes, but the institute instructors worked with him one-on-one to teach what he missed.

“With this software, you can imagine what the sets will look like and what are your problems,” said Hashem, who completed two film projects this semester.

“I know where to put the equipment and the people and if anyone needs to be outside the set because there are too many people there.”

Cedanna was happy that about half the students taking the course were women.

“That’s another huge piece for us because in the film industry, in postproduction, it’s still a boys’ club, and audio and visual effects is a lot of guys,” he said.

Some of the students’ work can be seen in a virtual showcase.

“They’re not narrative films, but they are all cool and artistic and something our students don’t normally do,” he said.

“That’s a positive in this pandemic.”

Top image of "The Child" from "The Mandalorian" courtesy of Disney+

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