By Elaine Smith
An intensive five-week course called Shooting the Set offered 30 students valuable experience working with a green screen, taking advantage of York University’s Motion Media Studio (YUMMS), which is based at Cinespace Film Studios, the company’s one-million-square-foot industry studio space in Toronto.
The experiential education (EE) course – created during the pandemic by Ingrid Veninger, assistant professor of cinema and media arts, and John Greyson, associate professor of cinema and media arts at the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD) – made its in-person debut in May. Students in the course had the opportunity to study current aesthetics and practices of new neo-realist cinema; workshop a broad range of film studio and green screen methods; be trained in professional on-set and studio production techniques; work in teams to develop, script and shoot original short dramatic films; and perform key creative roles on at least two dramatic shoots.
“This is a studio-based, collaborative course that teaches the art of the green screen and shows that it isn’t just useful for stories about superheroes,” said Greyson, who taught the in-person version. “There’s a unique approach to how you can tell stories with actors using the green screen.
“As a student, having that entrée and exposure is an extraordinary gift.”
The course was open to all third- and fourth-year film, theatre, visual arts and dance students at AMPD, as well as graduate students, but it required an application and an interview.
“The application focused on their skills and on the stories they wanted to tell – stories told in a neo-realistic style with a social justice theme,” Greyson said. “These are social justice stories coming out of their own lives; the stories that Hollywood ignores. We chose salt as a theme that tied them all together.”
Fourth-year acting student Natasha Advani Thangkhiew drew on personal experiences with eating disorder and anxiety that inspired a story written by classmate JJ Mokrzewski. It became one of six screenplays the class filmed and told of the challenge the protagonist faced in going out on a dinner date with someone on whom she had a crush.
Advani Thangkhiew found the process of acting in a story based on her own experiences “enlightening.”
“When it comes to telling a personal story, what I learned is that as an actor, it is very important to detach yourself and look at the experience as an entity that is separate from yourself, because this allows the story to evolve in the way that it is supposed to,” she said. “Eventually, it is not only my story; it becomes a story where every person in the group finds ownership and meaning.”
Veninger agreed that although each writer took one of the stories selected and wrote the draft of a script, the feedback and commentary turned the process into a collaboration that brought out the students’ creativity and allowed them to find ways to make the story their own.
“It became an amazing think tank of ideas around social justice, and the best ideas won,” she said. “There was a general attitude of receptivity, active listening and meaningful collaboration. Everyone had a desire to see the script improved.”
Added Greyson, “Having the writers in the same room as the actors from the beginning meant they could tailor the roles to the actors, which transformed the stories.”
The cinematography crew shot the location footage in advance, and it was added during post-production. A still from the footage was projected onto a video screen before the actors began working so they could imagine the location in their minds and adjust their movements accordingly.
“It was my first time acting in front of a green screen, and it forced me to activate my imagination,” said Advani Thangkhiew. “I’m glad I had the opportunity to do it in class where the stakes aren’t as high.”
Working at YUMMS in the Cinespace facility was also a revelation.
“Even having access to that kind of space, equipment and property houses is amazing,” Advani Thangkhiew said. “The studio is such a valuable resource and being able to shoot scenes in one of the best studios in the city was incredible.”
Veninger noted that AMPD is grateful to have such outstanding studio space, originally a gift from the Mirkopoulos family, the owners of Cinespace, and recently renewed by TPG Real Estate Partners. It has two sound stages, equipped with teaching resources, a standing set, a green screen stage and professional equipment.
“Students are working in a space with real productions such as ‘Law & Order’ swirling around them,” she said, “and they get inspired knowing that shows like ‘The Umbrella Academy’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ were shot just down the hall.”
Shooting the Set received generous contributions from industry collaborators. In addition to the gift from Cinespace Film Studios, in-kind sponsorships were received from Wiseacre Rentals and MBS Equipment Co., as well as an iHUB innovation grant from CEWIL Canada that allowed them to provide students with a stipend. CEWIL is a leading organization for work-integrated learning in Canada and champions it through partnerships with educational institutions, governments and others.
At the end of the five-week course, Greyson and Veninger organized a movie preview night at the York U Motion Media Studio to showcase the films to family, friends, colleagues and industry guests, followed by a networking mixer.
“This is one of the best courses I’ve taken at York,” Advani Thangkhiew said. “Everyone who came learned and grew so much.”
Shooting the Set will be offered again in May 2024. Contact Professor Greyson for more information.