Learning by Doing | Department of Media Arts

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October 10, 2019

Learning by Doing

The crew members for the TV pilot The Fairview Chronicles thought they were prepared.

They found the perfect diner in Gainesville to evoke the small-town feel of the story about a history professor who unravels mysteries in his hometown.

Then, on the first day of shooting there, they found the restaurant had been renovated.

"We walked in and had to stand there and say, 'What can we do here?'" said camera operator Tanner Matthews.

Fairview Chronicles publicity poster

It was one of many lessons learned by the crew -- Media Arts students -- during their unique class. Over the course of three semesters, they wrote, shot, and are now editing a TV pilot. Besides earning a grade, students also get a credit on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) website.

The crew learned to work together -- such as when they adapted to the renovation by putting blankets over the new hard flooring to protect the equipment. That sense of teamwork was evident during the entire shoot.

"Everyone knew their job and got it down," Matthews, a senior Media Arts major, said. "We got done in a pretty awesome fashion."

The class was created and overseen by Johnathan Paul ('12, '16 M.F.A.), adjunct professor in Media Arts after he talked to department chair Eugene Martin about how they could help students keep up with the changing film industry.

"We didn't have any classes that go through the process," Paul said. "So we thought, 'What if we simulate that to the best of our ability?"

The department fast-tracked the course for 2019. In the spring semester, 17 students took part in the writing and preproduction process.

Paul chose the story since he knew the material so well. The Fairview Chronicles is based on his mystery/horror/fantasy novel that will be published in March 2020 by Lake Dallas-based Madville Publishing.

Shooting -- with a 30-student crew and Paul as director -- took place in Gainesville for 20 days during the 10-week summer course. Paul enlisted UNT alumni who work in the industry to serve as actors and "above the line" crew.

These alumni included Alex Simon ('02), a professional director of photography in Los Angeles who served as the film's cinematographer; Omar Milano ('06, '11 M.F.A.), a professional sound mixer who's worked for Disney and New Line Cinema and supervised the audio team; Barak Epstein ('01), CEO of Aviation Cinemas, which operates the Texas Theatre in Dallas, who advised the team on distribution and deliverables; Chad Gunderson ('00), a film producer who is working with his production company to take the show to the networks; and Andrew Nelson ('14 M.F.A.), a production coordinator who consulted about prep work.

These professionals gave Paul feedback that served as the students' grades. They also gave students invaluable advice.

"They would take the time to stop -- here's why you do this, how you set up a light, why you add this piece to the camera -- all these little things they wouldn't get in class working with their cohorts," Paul said.

Sharie Vance ('16 M.F.A.), a video producer who served as Chronicles' first assistant director, said the students worked hard on the production and were eager to do a good job.

"I was always giving them tidbits whether they wanted them or not -- and made sure they understood that everything on location needs to be returned to its original position before leaving," she said.

For the fall semester, the focus was on postproduction, such as editing. Drew Schnurr, assistant professor of Composition and Media Arts, was scoring the music. In November, students will simulate the process of pitching a show to TV executives. Although she is not officially representing her company, Jill Snider ('98 M.S.), director of acquisitions at Starz Network, will give the students invaluable feedback.

Paul said he learned from the class, too, because he connected with the students beyond lectures and film clips. When he was a student, he didn't get to work on productions of this scale. "To be able to give the students that experience is massive," he said. "It sets them up to be able to go right in and work on a large industry crew right after graduation because our production followed all of those standards. I wish I had that when I was in school, but I'm so happy to be able to give that opportunity to my students."

Students are already pleased with what they've accomplished.

"It's so cool to put that on my resumé," Matthews said. "And I'm not even out of college yet."

-- Jessica DeLeón | Sept. 27, 2019 | North Texan