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‘COVID definitely helped my learning experience’: Kentucky’s film programs adapted to the pandemic

By Debra Murray | Arts Angle Vantage Reporter

Western Kentucky University, Sophomore

Outside of the closed Chili’s restaurant on Western Kentucky University’s campus looks like a vacant restaurant where students used to go grab food with friends, but while the restaurant has been closed for the past year, it has still been useful to one film student looking for the perfect set. A film student shot their entire film in the former lively restaurant using lights and fake vines to look like an upscale restaurant perfect for a man to impress his date.

Carter Ford, a Western Kentucky University junior, directs scenes from his comedy "Bumblebee Cafe," which he filmed during the pandemic at a vacant Chili’s restaurant that had been closed on the university campus. Photo courtesy Carter Ford.

While Western Kentucky University film students typically were able to use actual restaurants with customers as extras, the pandemic caused many owners to tell the young filmmakers "no."

Prior to roughly 14 months ago, college students were getting up each day to attend their classes filled with other students sitting next to them. COVID-19 has completely changed what getting an education means — especially for film students. Rather than heading to class to create and edit films, film students were learning through Zoom from their homes.

Many film programs at universities throughout Kentucky, including Western Kentucky University, University of Pikeville and Bluegrass Community and Technical College were forced to adapt to regulations while teaching students the ins and outs of filmmaking. Social distancing, mask mandates, and online classes affected the typically hands on film process for students.

Carter Ford is a junior at WKU, but they recently completed their first year in the university's new bachelor of fine arts program in film. The program started this past fall, and is typically a three-year program. But for their class, it was adapted into a two-year program.

A year ago, when the spring semester went online, two films scheduled to be made were canceled. Ford said many students were concerned about what their next year would look like. Would they be able to make films?

During this past year, they created a film titled “Bumblebee Cafe,” which was filmed in the Chili’s at WKU after it closed prior to the pandemic.

“Bumblebee Cafe,” an eight-minute comedy, depicts “a special night” that is a blind date between a seemingly overbearing man named Kennedy, and an equally overwhelmed woman named Alex. Kennedy comes on incredibly strong for a first date even singing for Alex in front of the restaurant, which causes Alex to attempt to escape several times.

Crew members working with Carter Ford on his comedy "Bumblebee Cafe" which they worked on during the pandemic by adapting a vacant Chili’s restaurant on Western Kentucky University campus. Photo courtesy Carter Ford.

Ford said COVID-19 made film-making more challenging, but was a positive learning experience. Even small things such as how the cast and crew were fed while on set, and how the crew communicated were different because of the pandemic.

“One of the big things about the film industry is being able to think on your feet,” Ford said. “Making movies is going to be your best experience but I think the COVID definitely helped my learning experience. We were turned down a lot more, and had to learn how to adapt to it.”

Given the pandemic and their involvement in the film program, Ford has been unable to find a job that will fit into their busy schedule. Prior to the shutdown, they worked at Lowe’s.

“I want to work here but I can't work four days of the week - give or take,” Ford said. “The days that I can work. I'm going to be super busy also because of college. Most places just are not trying to sign on to deal with complicated schedules like that.”

Ford plans to enter their film into a festival, and continue making films during their last year of college.

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Much of the work that Ford and other film students were able to accomplish over the past year came about in part due to their own drive but also to efforts of their professors.

WKU film professor, Sara Thomason, created the COVID-19 plan for the film program over the past summer for the Fall 2020 semester.

“So we looked to the film industry. Like the unions had created some guidelines for restarting shooting in the industry,” Thomason said. “There were some things that worked for us and some things that wouldn't work for us. So, I started there and I looked at all the stuff that they had and kind of borrowed from that and then I actually did like a certification to become a COVID-19 compliance officer.”

Thomason said she compared all the different COVID-19 guidelines when creating the university’s film program plan.

“I knew California's COVID-19 plan was a lot different than Kentucky's and the university had a lot more strict guidelines than the film industry just generally,” Thomason said. “So I took all of the industry stuff, and kind of cross-referenced that with federal, state and local, and university guidelines so that I could create something that kind of met in the middle of this.”

The film industry has utilized zones to keep people doing specific jobs grouped together instead of having everyone gather together. Thomason said zones don't work for college students because it is hard for them to get tested prior to each class or each time they work on their films.

“They've split into zones now so like all of the grip and electric people are in a zone,” Thomason said. “All of the actors and directors and everybody, they're all in a zone. And those zones never meet, we can't do the zones.”

The film program has been following precautions during production, and have created a total of 53 films during the past year without a single positive test, which was confirmed by Thomason.

One of those films was created through a collaboration with the theater department and called"The Covid Monologues." Months after premiering in September via a live-streamed production, the film was shown in May at Lexington's Lyric Threatre and Cultural Arts Center. (Update: Over the summer of 2021, the Cannes World Film Festival named the film an official June 2021 award winner for Best COVID Theme Film.)

An image from the streamed version of Bluegrass Community and Technical College's "The Covid Monologues, which went on to win an award from the Cannes World Film Festival. Photo courtesy YouTube/Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

While some universities took an industry-based approach, others focused more on better adapting to teaching film during a pandemic.

Stephanie Fitch is the film major coordinator at Bluegrass Community and Technical College. BCTC has about 50 students in their film program. Fitch reached out to professors at other universities when the campus began shutting down in order to see how their film program was planning to adapt.

“I'm really close to the professors at Asbury University because that's where I went and then I have a cousin that teaches at WKU so I wanted to know as much as I could to see how we adjusted instantly,” Fitch said.

With some universities transitioning to hybrid classes for the fall semester of 2020, Fitch continued researching to cater classes for in-person and online classes. Online classes attracted students from all of the state to BCTC, Fitch said.

“Even this [past] summer, I spent a lot of time online looking at apps figuring out what I could give as resources for people,” Fitch said.

A professor at the University of Pikeville utilized recommendations from the Appalachian College Association. The association is a non-profit consortium of 35 private four-year liberal arts institutions located in the central Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. Andrew Reed, the associate professor of film and media arts there, said the association offered advice about live-streaming events.

With the pandemic, the University of Pikeville worked to get its annual film festival streaming to reach a large audience. Post from Twitter.

“There are different ways you can do a live event but having it live on YouTube or Facebook is pretty easy for people to watch,” Reed said. “I was much more of a fan of that than anything that requires you to register, go to some kind of third party site. It was an easy way to get viewers.”

Reed used the knowledge he gained about putting together a virtual version of the university's annual film festival and live-streaming it.

“The whole pandemic in terms of what we accomplished was being able to do a film festival online and Q and A,” Reed said. “I had not really done much live-streaming before. I mean I've been involved in some television, like sports broadcasts, but I hadn't really live-streamed online yet.”

Now, with a downturn in the rates of transmissions and the easing of mask mandates and other guidelines, students in film programs are likely to adopt more hands-on experiences in the coming year.

Debra Murray, a journalism major at Western Kentucky University, is a reporter at The College Heights Herald, the university newspaper, and also works for the student university magazine Talisman. Murray began reporting for Arts Bureau Edge while attending Pleasure Ridge Park High School (2020) and covered Actors Theatre of Louisville's 2019 Humana Festival of New American Plays and the 2020 Governor's School for the Arts.

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