When local production company Gray Productions went looking for dependable volunteers to staff the set of their new film, Gray Matters, their first and only stop was the Vancouver Film School.
Ted Jones, a VFS instructor with numerous ties to the film industry, received their call. Gray Productions needed numerous positions to be filled, including camera assistants, lighting electricians, grips, sound labourers, production assistants, and even personal assistants to the film’s cast, which included Heather Graham, Sissy Spacek, Bridget Moynahan ( I, Robot,) Alan Cumming (X2), and Molly Shannon (SNL).
Jones quickly grasped that the variety of skills needed was a perfect fit for the Foundation Visual Art and Design curriculum – especially for those students specializing in cinematography. So he packed the students into a van, drove them to the set, and instructed them to guide their own learning for a week.
Working in the Industry
Aaron Von Hagen, an aspiring film editor in the Foundation program, was selected by the film’s camera department to perform numerous functions. “I did all kinds of things: cords, lenses, filters,” Aaron says. “I learned a lot about the Thompson Viper High Definition system,” in which the film is being shot, “as well as how they film in digital and transfer it to tape. I also did the slate for a while, which was awesome.”
Of course, the students also performed a lot of “gopher” work – though, for Aaron, personally fetching coffee for Heather Graham was, nonetheless, a highlight. “Yeah, Aaron remembered coffee for Heather but forgot to grab some for the director,” says classmate Nicole Forsman.
Nicole, who wants to be a filmmaker, was hired by the props department and saw up-close how detailed a film set can get. “I put license plates on cars and made some props, like fake drinks for the bar scenes and fake nametags. I also had to distribute props to the actors. I even handed a chair to Gloria Gaynor.”
One Nude Scene at a Time
Perhaps no student interacted with the production on a more personal level than Sean Duffy, who was charged with holding a light steady during a nude scene. “They asked me to hold this light and then everyone started leaving the set except the actors and director and some camera guys. They told me to ‘just turn your back and don’t look.’” When asked how he felt about being on set when the cast was nude, Sean admits, “Well, I wasn’t looking, supposedly.”
Sean took care of several other duties as well, including assisting the lighting electricians, swapping bulbs between shots, and setting up light stands. “Mostly I just observed. It was great to watch the cinematographer, John Bartley ( of X-Files fame ) and see how he sets up his shots. That was one in a lifetime.”
The Whole Film Experience
Foundation students were such a hit on the set that some have already had callbacks for work on other shows. “The students did such a wonderful job,” says Ted Jones. “They have established a high level of credibility for VFS.”
Because of the success of this experiment, Jones and other faculty are committed to pursuing similar experiences for future classes. “A practicum of this nature is perfect because it supports the learning process and continues to foster the production environment VFS is famous for,” Jones says. “It allows the student to take the VFS experience into the real world of entertainment production.”