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Movie theaters closed and film production halted amid the pandemic. Now, filmmakers are reimagining the future of the art form.

Following the closure of schools across the country in mid-March, Barnard’s and Columbia’s film departments began operating entirely remotely. In the film industry, production halted, movie theaters closed, and filmmakers reckoned with the limitations and possibilities of remote movie-making. Now, more than four months later, both Columbia’s film department and the film industry are ramping up operations—with adjustments. 

Loren-Paul Caplin, a professor of screenwriting and script analysis at Columbia, had trepidations about teaching a screenwriting class to students he would never get to meet in person. 

“I was concerned that if I were to teach a class without having seen or met people in a regular classroom, that I wouldn’t be quite as able to run such a joyous, contributive, and stimulating class,” he said.  

Despite these hesitations, Caplin remarked that teaching students remotely both in the spring and summer was “a seamless experience”—a note of optimism for those hoping to make films remotely in the fall both at the University and in the industry. 

The shift to digital production techniques is more needed than ever. According to Peter Jackson and Kenneth Williams of Fortune, the global film industry could see as much as a $17 billion loss in box office revenue, forcing filmmakers to get creative to keep the industry running.

In an article published in The Conversation, Sarah Atkinson, a professor of screen media at King’s College London, along with Helen Kennedy, a professor of creative and cultural industries at the University of Nottingham, discussed the rapid shifts in production techniques for the global film industry, particularly in post-production techniques. For instance, “automatic dialogue replacement” is a technique that allows actors and actresses to replace pieces of dialogue by remotely recording them and patching them over the original clips. Giving actors and actresses the opportunity to record their dialogue at home can help film and television shows continue to be produced on schedule despite current social distancing measures in place and ensure the health and safety of all participants.

Experts also anticipate seeing an influx of virtual sets in upcoming movies, usually generated by game engines such as Unity. This technique had previously been used in movies such as “Solo: a Star Wars Story” and in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” and will likely be used as social distancing measures remain in place.

Atkinson and Kennedy also discussed the Screenlife method of film delivery, which uses software to produce films for computer screens rather than the silver screen. The method has been used for movies such as Leo Garbriadze’s “Unfriended” and Aneesh Chaganty’s “Searching.” Industry experts anticipate a surge in the popularity of these techniques in the coming months to prevent the industry’s financial and artistic decline. 

Student filmmaker Fergus Campbell, CC ’22, said he is unsure if Columbia will use these techniques. However, he expressed concern that more traditional filmmaking tools will become less accessible this fall. 

“I used Columbia services for everything from a green screen to tripods to audio equipment, so I won’t have access to any of that,” he said. 

Caplin anticipates that the pandemic will affect not only how movies are made but also their content: The pandemic might make its way into the plot. 

As an example, Caplin noted that in his summer screenwriting class, a number of his students wrote scripts in which they set popular sitcoms such as Seinfeld and Black-ish during the pandemic. 

“This is a time where people are restless and maybe will draw on their unique experiences during this very specific time,” Caplin remarked. 

Campbell concluded that the shift to remote production might have implications for movies’ content and budgets. 

“I’m sure you could find more subtle changes in tone and in budget since the studios have a lot less money,” he said. “I think you’ll have maybe a pandemic series. I know there are series being developed about people living through a pandemic.”

Arts & Entertainment fellows Irene Madrigal and Mariam Nasief can be contacted at Follow Spectator on Twitter @ColumbiaSpec.

To learn more about the Spectator Summer Fellowship Program, click here.

Film production Coronavirus Loren-Paul Caplin Fergus Campbell The Conversation
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