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College of Arts and Sciences

Narrative Filmmaking class shows resilience in pandemic

By Bryan Gentry | July 10, 2020

Lights, camera, drawing board.

Students who took the Narrative Film Production class at the University of South Carolina this spring had a surprise scene change.

The major assignment of the course is to make a film from beginning to end, from script to the screen, in one semester. They audition actors, record the scenes with high-tech cameras, and edit the final product together.

But after the COVID-19 pandemic closed campus and took the course online for the second half of the semester, they had to rethink all their plans. Cast and crew members were separated by hundreds of miles. They no longer had access to the professional equipment in the School of Visual Art and Design.

“We couldn't do these big projects they'd been planning,” says Jennifer Tarr, instructor of the course. “I had to reimagine the whole class. We went back to those basics of what you have in front of you. You always have your own experiences. You always have your own perspective.”

“What we're really trying to do is connect with others and communicate.”

― Jennifer Tarr, Senior Instructor, Media Arts 

Tarr surveyed her students to find out what filmmaking resources they had available. And, fortunately, all of them had smartphones with cameras, computers that could run video editing software, and access to the Adobe Creative Cloud. Tarr changed the final project. Each student was to adapt a story from their own lives and create it as a genre film.

The students rose to the challenge in creative ways.

Narrative class screening University of South Carolina Spring 2020 from SVAD Media Arts on Vimeo.

Hannah Shikle decided to poke fun at the disaster film genre with a story about her family getting caught in a dust storm. But she didn’t have actors. “I didn’t think my family was quite ready to make their screen debut,” she says.

Shickle made a stop-motion animation video with characters driving toy cars down a paper highway as clouds made of cotton floated past. Her family members voiced their own characters.

She enjoyed the process, and she says Tarr made it an educational experience. “She had to completely change the course halfway through the semester, but still managed to make the final project not only doable from home in a short time frame, but also something worth doing,” she says. “She also gave useful feedback on every step of the process from script to final cut.”

Emily Staton did something a bit more experimental. She used Garry’s Mod, a computer game customizeable with characters and props, to make a film noir. She recorded the screen as the video game characters interacted, and her friends voiced the film.

“Professor Tarr was very interested in the idea of using a game, but she was initially worried about how I would be able to produce a film by using a video game," Staton says. “When I explained how it is done, she was very excited to see what I would come up with, and the positivity from her really helped to get the project done on time.”

Another student, Fen Rockwell, also mentioned Tarr’s positivity, both for the final project and for class sessions. “She did a great job at maintaining a positive and constructive classroom environment,” he says.

Tarr was impressed with the results her students brought to their online screening. “They were very creative in thinking about what they had available to them and how they could use it,” Tarr says.

Ideas, not technology

Tarr has taught cinematography and film for more than 20 years, including 14 years at the University of South Carolina. In her time as a filmmaker and educator, she has seen numerous changes in the technology used to make films, including a relatively rapid shift from 16-millimeter film to digital cameras.

Because of those changes, even her classes that cover how to use a camera and edit video on a computer are really about ideas, she says.

Students want to make better art when they are in Professor Tarr’s class. We want to learn, grow, and improve our craft because of her.

― Zack Spencer ’20

“Working in a field where the technology has developed so quickly has reinforced that what you bring is your experiences. your ideas, and how you can make those clear to others,” Tarr says. “What we're really trying to do is connect with others and communicate.”

Filmmaking technology doesn’t take the back seat in her classes, though. Her lectures cover how to use video technology, and her assignments are all about putting it into practice. “More so than just give them the tools, I give them ways to use the tools,” she says.

Tarr is one of three 2020 recipients of the Undergraduate Teaching Award from the College of Arts and Sciences. Her students call her one of the best and most popular teachers on campus.

"She does an amazing job at understanding how to work with each individual student, knowing when to praise them and when to nudge them forward," Zack Spencer ’20, who took all of Tarr’s classes, says in a letter supporting her nomination for the award. “Her love for what she teaches is contagious, and it helped me and countless other students gain a finer appreciation for the art of filmmaking. Students want to make better art when they are in Professor Tarr’s class. We want to learn, grow, and improve our craft because of her.”

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.