Spring 2008: The Creative Campus

Eddy Von Mueller 07PhD teaching a film production class

Kay Hinton

A New Angle

Film Studies rolls out production class

By Paige P. Parvin 96G

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Senior Susan Talbot 08C leans slightly forward in her seat as the lights in the classroom dim and Eddy Von Mueller 07PhD, a lecturer in the Department of Film Studies, begins to play a film clip on the screen at the front of the room. As a film studies minor, Talbot is well accustomed to watching movies and clips in class, but this time is different. Mueller is showing her movie, her first attempt at narrative filmmaking, created in the first course on the subject ever offered at Emory.

Talbot’s three-minute movie is a single take, shot on Super 8 mm film. The assignment was to make a short movie with “no cuts and no sound,” Mueller explained. “It’s very old school. Video has really spoiled these students. This way they don’t know if they have an image until it comes back from the lab. I think they found it infuriating and frustrating—and fun.”

Although Emory has offered a film studies major since 1990 and a master’s program and PhD certificate since 1992, the focus has been on film theory, history, and criticism rather than production. Senior lecturer Bill Brown has taught documentary filmmaking through the Visual Arts Program, and screenwriting courses are offered in both film studies and the Creative Writing Program.

But film studies department chair Matthew Bernstein has long believed a narrative filmmaking track would complement the available course of study.

“It has always seemed to me to be essential to a film studies education that students get experience in capturing and editing images and sounds,” Bernstein says. “It is a form of research equal to slowing down a scene from a Hitchcock film and analyzing what he’s doing with lighting, staging, shot composition, editing, and sound—and then writing a term paper on it.”

The idea of adding production to the department’s repertoire caught the interest of Emory College Dean Bobby Paul, who has become a key supporter of the initiative. Alan Cattier, director of academic technologies, helped the department acquire two high-end digital video cameras and some editing software, and Mueller pitched in a few 8 mm cameras from his personal collection.

This semester, Mueller is teaching the first film studies course in fictional filmmaking, with plans for a second, more advanced course to follow next spring. The class has met with tremendous enthusiasm among students.

“Filmmaking has always been something I’ve been interested in,” Talbot says. “I’ve always watched films with a critical eye, which, coupled with my acting experience, makes production a viable career choice. But this class is the first time I’ve really been able to try my hand at making narrative movies, and I love it.”

Mueller, who received his PhD in film studies from Emory’s Institute of Liberal Arts in 2007 and also has experience in filmmaking, has taken care to structure the course in a way that will enhance the film studies department’s core mission. Both Bernstein and Mueller feel that Emory may be able to blend filmmaking and theory in a way that will set the program apart from those that are more technical and vocational in nature.

“Properly handled, production experience is a tremendous asset,” Mueller says. “I have long maintained that film theory makes more sense when you have tried to make a film, and theory is also incredibly useful to filmmakers.”

Mueller works to achieve this connection in class, peppering his lively lectures on production with standard film studies fare. “If we ask, what makes a Hitchcock film a Hitchcock film? The answer is that Alfred Hitchcock is the guy who interpreted the characters,” he says. “A lot of people think that structure and systems eliminate creativity, but that’s not true. Even if the shots are the same, each director’s awareness of what makes people tick is different.”

In addition to teaching them to wield the camera, Mueller has the students stage and act out scenes, design sets, edit, and produce film projects in teams.

“It’s a really great way to set up the class, because then everyone will get a chance to act in each of these roles and learn what it takes to succeed in all the different aspects of film,” Talbot says. “There’s a lot more that goes into the filmmaking process than I had thought. I’m basically hoping to learn not only the technical side, but also the behind-the-scenes work and the social skills it takes to be a filmmaker.”

Talbot’s first film, Boy Meets Girl Meets Boy, is a sweet study in fickle college flirtation. Watching the simple, silent, black-and-white film unfold, a viewer could almost be seeing one of the earliest efforts from a century ago—a fitting creation for a student just beginning to make movies.

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