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In the Frame: Emerson Narrative Film for Armani Premieres at SXSW

Usually, students in Reggie Life and Harlan Bosmajian’s team-taught Narrative Production Lab make films for themselves and their instructors.

Last semester, they worked for Giorgio Armani.

Since 2014, the Italian fashion house, in collaboration with Rai Cinema and Luxottica, has selected four to five different film schools from around the world to write and produce a movie used to highlight the brand’s eyewear. The films have been shown at major festivals, including Toronto and London, and on the Armani website.

This year, Emerson College was one of the schools selected and premiered their film, Human Nature, at SXSW in Austin, Texas, last weekend, at an event featuring a discussion with actor Dev Patel. Life, along with the film's co-directors and a couple of other students from the class, attended the screening. 

The other schools selected this year were Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg in Ludwigsburg, Germany; Beijing Film Academy; Prague Film School; and The Steve Tisch School of Film and Television in Tel Aviv.

Visual and Media Arts Chair Brooke Knight said that when Rai Cinema contacted the department about working on the project, they were honored to be recognized as a top media arts program internationally. 

“I also saw it as a great opportunity for our students to engage in a meaningful and real-world learning experience,” Knight said. “Armani was a tough but fair client, and really pushed our students to do their best work. And the film they produced is something the College is really proud of.”

Watch Human Nature.

“This is becoming a trend now,” said Life, senior distinguished director-in-residence at Emerson. “Even the Tribeca Film Festival has a [corporate] category.”

The Narrative Production Lab had already solicited scripts from student screenwriters last summer when Rai contacted Knight about Armani's Films of City Frames campaign. Knight and School of the Arts Dean Rob Sabal decided Life and Bosmajian’s class should take it on, since producing narrative films from scratch is what they do.

“This was a natural for us,” Life said.

But that meant putting aside all the scripts they had and putting out a call for new ones that would tell a compelling story using Armani glasses. And they needed the scripts within 10 days.

Writing for Film and TV major Alexis Roy ’17 answered the call — both times — and her Human Nature was selected.

“It was unbelievable,” Roy said. “I was so, so excited. I called my mom and she screamed. I was…like, ‘This is really happening.’”

The final cut of Human Nature involves two vignettes of people – a workaholic young father and a struggling actress working in a diner — who are in need of glasses for one reason or another. A central character called simply the Young Man lends each of them his pair of Armani glasses, and when they put them on, they see the joy and the possibilities in their lives.

Emerson viewers may see a number of campus and Boston locales, as well as a cameo by President Lee Pelton.

Roy said the premise came from a conversation with her mother about how people frame their lives in different ways—you can see your successes, or you can see all the mistakes you’ve made.

“That’s really where I got the idea,” she said. “What if we could inspire people to frame their lives a little differently?”

In her original script, each person would put on the glasses and see his or her life without all the good things in it, a concept that Armani found “a little bit dark.” So she flipped it and made it more positive.

“They really liked what I pitched, really liked the direction I was going in, but it was definitely an interesting process, trying to marry my writing style and what they were looking for, commercially,” Roy said.

Once the script was ready, it was time for the Narrative Production Lab to start making it into a movie. The class was divided into two sections, each scheduled at the same time. Life’s team takes care of pre-production, production, and direction; Bosmajian’s team does the camera, sound, and editing work. They get set design help from senior production designer-in-residence Charles McCarry.

“This course is really breaking new ground at Emerson,” said Life, who added that he hopes someday, five instructors in direction, cinematography, production design, sound design, and editing would team-teach the lab as a capstone.

It’s not just Visual and Media Arts students who are working on the project. The film used actors, makeup artists, and a costume designer from the Performing Arts Department. Bosmajian said he could eventually see the entire School of the Arts brought into the process, with a Writing for Film and TV major adapting a story written by a Writing, Literature and Publishing student.

As it is, the students learned valuable lessons about filmmaking and communication.

“I think what this class forces them to do is communicate more, and really, you can’t make a narrative film of this scale on your own,” Bosmajian, an associate professor, said. “You really learn how to communicate, not just with one other person, but with 20 other people. How do you do that and how do you do that efficiently?”

Life said making a film for a third party taught students the importance of pre-visualization and storyboarding. That’s crucial when someone has to sign off on a project, but it’s also important from a creative standpoint, because it forces the filmmakers to be disciplined about the choices they make and to be “clear and specific in their storytelling.”

It also taught them about the realities of filmmaking, whether for a corporate client or a Hollywood studio.

“I think it’s also good that the students understand that there’s always somebody above you,” Life said. “You have to entertain their creative concerns as well as business concerns.”

Luis Mejias ’17 was one of two directors on Human Nature. He said shortly after the first weekend of shooting in October 2016 that things were “going great,” but it wasn’t easy.

The first day, they had to close down a section of Arch Street in Downtown Crossing to film a scene (deleted from the final cut) with 30 extras and a stunt involving a woman almost getting run over by a car. One shot was three minutes long and required that they choreograph extras and a child actor. If anyone made a mistake, they would have had to retake the entire shoot from the beginning.

“We managed to do it [in one take] and it looks really good,” he said.

Mejias said he really discovered the value of collaboration.

“So far, I’ve kind of learned that everyone has great ideas, and everything that has been put out there by Giorgio Armani, by my co-director [Luke Zvara], and the teachers has been pretty good, and they have improved the project a lot,” Mejias said.











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