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Student Films Highlight New Emphasis on Production Design

Jake Vollmer ’17 has worked on a fair number of film shoots in his time as a Visual and Media Arts major. Usually, for him, that’s meant “dressing” the location: throwing together some props and scenery to make a set look less like what it actually is.

But since November, Vollmer has worked as the production designer on fellow students Mike Robida and Trevor Dalton's BFA project, which involved designing and building an actual set from the ground up. And last weekend, the cast and crew of The Men of Tomorrow, a science fiction movie about a woman who accidentally blasts herself into the future with a shock from a broken toaster, took over the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre.

It was one of two films being shot at the Paramount Center that put a new emphasis on production design.

“I think the time commitment and the level of importance given to production design on this project really separates it from other projects at Emerson. It wasn’t slapped together last-minute or drawn up on a napkin,” Vollmer said. “It gives you a more realistic experience as to what it is to be a production designer, and for everyone involved in the art department, it gives you a more realistic expectation of what this is like in the real world.”

Complicated stage sets have long been part of the Performing Arts Department, but the same weight hadn’t been given to Emerson film sets. Charles McCarry, production designer-in-residence, was hired three years ago to change that by starting a production design curriculum within VMA.

“There [are] really three important people at the beginning of a movie—and the screenwriter is obviously supreme: the director, the cinematographer, and the production designer,” McCarry said. “And of course, the producer is down the hall in a big office with mahogany paneling.”

McCarry said interest in production design at Emerson is growing, and last semester he had about 30 students in two classes.

“One group is folks who find it rather interesting and want to know more about it, and the other group of students think, ‘Gee, I’d like to do this,’” he said.

Vollmer belongs to the latter group. Along with set decorator Elissa Nechamkin ’17 and art director Camille Gardner ’17, he has worked on The Men of Tomorrow since November, and said he wishes there were more real-world projects for students to get involved in.

But it’s not just aspiring production designers who appreciate a realistic film set.

While The Men of Tomorrow was filming in the Black Box, upstairs, on the fourth-floor soundstage, El Chapo and his confederates were breaking out of a Mexican prison via an underground bunker that McCarry designed and VMA students built for The Tunnel, a film shot for associate professor Harlan Bosmajian’s cinematography classes.

In Bosmajian’s ripped-from-the-headlines script written entirely in Spanish, one of the infamous drug lord’s henchmen is sent down the escape tunnel to give one of the diggers some items to give to El Chapo when he arrives, knowing full well El Chapo will most likely kill the digger.

The film was shot entirely differently by each class, but both had the benefit of a realistic set — complete with train tracks, camo netting and a ventilation fan — and sophisticated lighting and sound design.

Bosmajian said that ever since McCarry came to Emerson, the two had wanted to collaborate on a project, particularly since they had both worked in the industry, particularly in narrative film, and “were on the same wavelength” in terms of production.

“We kind of knew what the potential was; we just needed to figure out how to make it work,” Bosmajian said.

One snag was that unlike Performing Arts, VMA has no carpentry component—students didn’t know how to actually build things. The two decided to design a relatively simple set and find a “very patient” carpenter to teach them the tricks of the trade.

Bosmajian said that in the future, he’d like to get other classes involved in collaborative projects.

“I feel like other disciplines, like producing, directing, sound editing, could all be integrated into a shoot like this,” he said. “It just takes a lot of coordination.”

Bosmajian’s student, Erik Fattrosso ’17, was director of photography for the second shoot of The Tunnel (his class went with a handheld style). He not only directed the shots, but he also helped hammer the nails.

He said having a full week to build a set allowed the students to create something far more interesting than would have been possible on the soundstage.

“I had helped build it earlier in the week, [but] seeing it all together, it was by far the coolest thing that I’ve ever seen built on this stage,” Fattrosso said.

“It doesn’t look like a set; it looks like there’s actually a cave and a tunnel there.”

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