Emory Report
March 17, 2008
Volume 60, Number 23


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March 17, 2008
Lights, camera, action:
Film studies adds an action track to classes in theory, history and criticism

By Paige Parvin

Senior Susan Talbot leans slightly forward in her seat as the lights in the classroom dim and Eddy Von Mueller, 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, “Boy Meets Girl Meets Boy,” is a single take, shot on Super 8mm 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 1987, and a master’s program and Ph.D. 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 both in 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 said. “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.”

Recently the idea of adding production to the department’s repertoire caught the interest of College Dean Bobby Paul, who has become a key supporter of the initiative. 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. Limited to just 13 film studies majors and minors, the class has met with tremendous enthusiasm among students, he said.

Mueller, who completed his Ph.D. in film studies 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 rather than detracting from it. “In a lot of situations, when production has been added to the curriculum, it has functioned as a distraction in terms of students’ research and energies,” he said. “One of our central objectives is that production augment and support the education we offer through the department. We are proceeding with care.”

At the same time, 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 said. “I have long maintained that film theory makes more sense when you have tried to make a film, and theory is also more useful to filmmakers than to a lot of other people.”

“We are not trying to be UCLA or NYU in offering vocational training for entering the film industry,” Bernstein added. “We are simply striving to give our students the best education we can. Especially now that many students arrive with the experience of shooting and editing video at home, we should be able to provide systematic instruction in something that many have learned intuitively.”