By Michael Davis (B.A. ’03)
By Michael Davis (B.A. ’03)
n a cool spring morning, sophomore Imani Okwuosa laces up her sneakers near Woodruff Park and starts running.
Trailing a camera mounted to a modified e-trike, she wends her way through the streets of Georgia State’s urban campus.
Not far away, on a soundstage in a high-rise just off the park, fellow sophomore Kenan Mehovic puts on a suit jacket, grabs a smartphone and places a call to a “hitman” while standing against a two-story LED wall.
As the character Trinity, Okwuosa has the lead role in a groundbreaking film produced by Tom Luse (B.A. ’74, M.S. ’81), whose storied four-decade career includes credits as executive producer on the AMC phenomenon “The Walking Dead” and consulting producer on the MGM+ series “From.”
As the character Calhoun, Mehovic is the sole live actor seen onscreen during a short film created digitally using the same software used to develop some of today’s most popular video games.
Okwuosa’s running sequence is the opening of “Rejuvenation” which, while featuring a student crew, student co-director and largely student cast, is anything but your typical student film.
The “hitman” Mehovic talks to in “Cataclysm” is a figure built from the thousands upon thousands of data points generated by the movements of another actor, Logan “Duke” Allen, in a motion-capture suit.
“Rejuvenation” is what Luse, an artist-in-residence at Georgia State’s Creative Media Industries Institute (CMII), is a calling a proof-of-concept — a new way of thinking about filmmaking that sets aside 100 years of moving picture protocol and attempts to redesign the process as if the artform were invented using the tools available today.
“Cataclysm” is the fourth of five short films produced in one semester by Morgan Hager (B.I.S. ’20), a candidate in the new Master of Fine Arts program in Digital Filmmaking, using Unreal Engine, a 3D graphics software developed by Epic Games and widely used in film and television to create virtual environments and digital characters.
“The idea of storytelling using emerging technology is what drives us,” says Brennen Dicker, executive director of CMII. “Our emphasis is to see where the tech is going and to put it in the hands of our students.”
The student-led feature film "Rejuvenation," shot this spring at Georgia State's Creative Media Industries Institute, was built from the ground up to reinvent the filmmaking process using the tools and techniques available to today's creators.
Georgia’s history as a choice for film and television production locations goes back decades, but the industry boomed following the 2005 passage of tax credits for companies spending at least $500,000 in the state. In 2022, film and television companies spent a record $4.4 billion, according to the Governor’s Office, with 412 projects undertaken, including 32 feature films and 269 television and episodic productions.
To help meet the growing need for a capable, creative workforce, CMII opened in 2017, bridging the College of Arts & Sciences and College of the Arts to offer programs in emerging media technologies, including digital filmmaking, visual effects, and game design and development.
The tech in use by students during the spring 2023 semester to create “Rejuvenation” included the latest solutions for lighting, video and sound, according to Luse, who first joined CMII as an artist-in-residence in 2019. In addition to advanced lightweight cameras and lenses provided by Canon, the project received grant funding from Fox Entertainment Studios and AMC to finance other equipment purchases.
The idea, Luse says, was to facilitate a student-led feature film built from the ground up to reinvent the filmmaking process. That meant collaborating across the university, including with partners in the College of Arts & Sciences and the College of the Arts’ School of Film, Media and Theatre and School of Music. It also meant the project needed the right script — one that could be shot on and around Georgia State’s campus — with a cast of characters mostly in their late teens and early 20s. (Though the initial script was rewritten, its basis was formed in a screenwriting class led at the time by Susan-Sojourna Collier, who is known for writing for daytime dramas “Port Charles,” “One Life to Live” and “All My Children.”)
Instead of tripods and dolly track, the camera was affixed to a body-mounted Easyrig a fair bit lighter than a traditional Steadicam apparatus and much easier to use, Luse says. And instead of intensely bright lights mounted atop metal stands and controlled with barn doors and colored gels, the lighting of each scene was “practical,” meaning it blended into the location, emitting from a lamp on a table or from existing overhead fixtures fitted with LED bulbs that could be adjusted remotely for color and brightness.
The result, Luse says, is that the camera operator can be the only crew member in the room with the actors — which can result in a more natural, intimate performance — and camera angles and blocking can be quickly changed without having to move stand-mounted lights and tear up and replace dolly track. If a scene needs to be lit differently, a crew member has only to adjust the LEDs using an iPad app.
Luse says “Rejuvenation” also took advantage of the streamlined workflow made possible by high-speed data transfers, cloud-based audio/video syncing and an almost real-time connection with the film’s post-production house, Moonshine Post, founded by Georgia State alum Drew Sawyer (B.A. ’09).
“The industry has embraced digital as a replacement for the way we do film, but what I think is, if it was a new medium and there wasn’t a history, how would we go about doing it?” Luse says. “Would we say, for example, take the people who are cutting the film and put them 3,000 miles away in a room and only talk to them every once in a while? That’s not what I think you would do. I think you would bring them on set, which is what we did. If we have any questions, we can ask them, and we can look at things. We made them part of our production team.”
From a list of hundreds of students who expressed interest in the project in late 2021, 31 were picked in spring 2022 to be cast and crew members on “Rejuvenation.” That fall, students enrolled in classes with Heath Franklin, a professor of practice in directing and cinematography, and Susan G. Reid, an assistant professor in TV and film directing with an extensive acting and casting background, to prepare for their roles.
This spring, the 31 mostly undergraduate students working on the film took no other classes but earned 15 credit hours toward their majors.
Okwuosa, an interdisciplinary studies major with a concentration in acting, says the eight-hour days during the four-week production schedule were challenging, but rewarding.
“Georgia State keeps surprising me, and telling me, ‘You’re so much more than you think you are,’” she says.
The film is slated for a screening this summer for cast and crew at Atlanta’s Plaza Theatre. Since production wrapped, several “Rejuvenation” crew members have been working with Franklin on his latest feature, “Sonny Boy,” and will receive on-screen credits.
Students use the studio at the Creative Media Industries Institute, along with its LED wall, to produce short films as part of Professor of Practice Jeasy Sehgal's Virtual Cinematography course.
While those 31 students spent the semester on a feature film, a pair of master’s candidates spent the semester producing five short films apiece using the latest virtual production software and motion-capture technology available in CMII’s ultramodern studios.
Students in the first cohort of the Master of Fine Arts in Digital Filmmaking, which began in fall 2022 and concentrates on virtual production and visual effects, take Virtual Cinematography with Professor of Practice Jeasy Sehgal. An award-winning filmmaker with more than two decades experience in cinematography, editing, fight direction and choreography, and performance capture, Sehgal founded the Virtual Production Dojo in his native New Zealand, the only Epic Games-certified Unreal Engine training program in that country.
Sehgal’s transfer to the U.S. last October makes him the only certified Unreal Engine instructor in the Southeast. (There are three such programs in southern California, one in Texas and one in New York.)
During the spring Virtual Cinematography course, students used Unreal Engine to create shorts based entirely in virtual worlds. While Sehgal gave them subject matter prompts from which to create their first two films, the final three were completely conceived and scripted by the students. The class was listed by Animation Magazine as one of the top five most popular virtual production classes in the U.S.
Sehgal says while teaching the tools used to create virtual worlds and digitally rendered characters is an important skill for graduates, the focus on storytelling will prepare them for a career in which the toolkit will almost certainly change. It also prepares them for careers not only in media, but the myriad industries where visual literacy is vital — from education to defense to medicine to retail.
“All of the assignments were designed as if the students were running an independent studio,” Sehgal says. “And the course has been designed to be solution-specific rather than tool-specific because storytelling is crucial, irrespective of what cameras, what tools or what workflows anyone is using.”
The hitman character in "Cataclysm," a short film by M.F.A. candidate Morgan Hager, was created using Unreal Engine and controlled by the movements of an actor in a motion-capture suit.
Sehgal says while the films may not be “pixel-perfect,” the students — at the close of the semester — are ready for the workforce.
“The industry is scrambling to find people to drive this technology,” Sehgal says. “And these students are production-ready, in that they know what to bring to the industry.”
Bobby Majoch, an Atlanta-area native who has worked in marketing and graphic design and already has a master’s degree in philosophy, had never made a short film before joining the program. He’s taken screenwriting courses, and had film-related jobs while previously living in Los Angeles, but says “I didn’t really know how to tell a story, visually.”
“Jeasy wanted a focus on narrative storytelling with visuals,” Majoch says. “And I think that’s why people watch films. Primarily, they want a good story and want to connect with some kind of arc.”
“Cataclysm” creator Hager, whose bachelor’s degree is in Game Design and Development, says the stories are what attracted her to games in the first place. And it’s why she’s excited for the next steps in the master’s program.
“I’ve had a lot of fun being challenged to make that many films, because I’ve never made that much content in such a short time,” she says. “There’s a million different ways you can do things in the software, so I’m excited to keep pushing.”
Photos by Steven Thackston; Video by William Davis