Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that already has claimed thousands of lives, cratered economies globally and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing the industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon. If you have a story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Like the rest of the faculty at Los Angeles’ big film schools, USC School of Cinematic Arts professor Gail Katz had to quickly modify her teaching methods and curriculum once the coronavirus pandemic hit. As a longtime producer, she knows all about adapting on the fly, with credits on blockbusters including the Wolfgang Petersen movies Air Force One, In the Line of Fire and The Perfect Storm.
Those credits also include Petersen’s 1995 action thriller Outbreak, which starred Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo and centered on a deadly virus that spreads through a California town. The film has understandably come back into the spotlight given its obvious resonance in today’s world—it resurfaced in March as a Top 10 movie on Netflix.
“When making Outbreak, it was unimaginable that we’d ever see stay-at-home orders, ubiquitous masks, and makeshift hospitals like in the film,” the tenured professor says. “I trusted that our scientific advances and governmental preparedness would protect us, and we’d never see anything like we’re witnessing today.”
In the middle of March, when college campuses were shut down across L.A., Katz was one many professors struggling to figure out how to continue teaching from a distance. At film schools like USC’s, collaboration in person and in groups is a critical component of the curriculum, meaning the shift to online classes proved challenging on a number of levels.
In recent weeks, Deadline spoke with a number of film school faculty members—including Barbara Boyle (Associate Dean, UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television), Susan Ruskin (Dean of the AFI Conservatory) and Peggy Rajski (Dean of LMU’s School of Film and Television)—to get their perspectives on pandemic education. Below, each explains the issues they’ve faced, and how their institutions have adjusted to contend with an unprecedented global crisis.
When campuses shut down indefinitely, production students lost out on the chance to shoot in groups, meaning that projects they’d been developing for months now couldn’t be finished. In the moment of this realization, graduating students were, of course, top of mind, for each of the four faculty members. “There was the concern about the films that they had planned, and keeping them on track for graduation,” Rajski says. “We didn’t want people to be penalized for a pandemic hitting, causing them to have to slow down the trajectory they were on.”
For faculty, the sudden shift to online classes was jarring. “The first two weeks were, I would say, chaos,” Boyle says. Students suffered, too, given the general state of confusion early on about when campuses would reopen. “We sent everybody home, but not everybody could go home, because they didn’t know when we were going to come back,” Boyle explains. “The first date was April 10th; the second was April 30th. Now, [it’s] the whole quarter.”
TESTED BY TECHNOLOGY
When faculty gathered to discuss the transition to a different form of teaching, one fundamental question presented itself: How could they provide students used to hands-on, collaborative work with an equivalent learning experience at home? As an Oscar-winning producer of almost two dozen films, Rajski felt that having the filmmaker’s skill-set and mind-set made rising to the occasion at least a little easier. “The great thing about being a filmmaker is, it’s all about problem solving,” she says. “So, this is a great exercise in that.”
In order to handle the transition, though, each university would need to overcome a number of technical hurdles—the first being to get students and faculty acquainted with apps like Zoom. At USC, professors were required to engage in Zoom training, subsequently diving into a “trial period” of online teaching, which went smoothly for Katz despite the fact she’d never taught online classes before. “There were little technical glitches and Internet issues that people had,” she says. “But generally, people felt like it was very doable.”
At AFI, task forces were assembled to ease the online transition. While IT teams were put together to aid faculty and students, Ruskin collaborated with her own team—including discipline heads and her two Vice Deans—on a revised curriculum. “Our faculty and staff put an entire curriculum online—and there was no online component of AFI before this—in less than two weeks,” Ruskin says. “It was pretty remarkable.”
Another technological challenge had to do with the diverse student body at each university. With international students comprising up to 50% of the population—many of whom are now scattered around the world—the scheduling of online classes became a major consideration. For faculty at UCLA and LMU, the solution to the situation has been to conduct some classes live, while recording others for students to watch on their own time. At AFI, the decision was made that all classes would happen live.
“For those that are all around the world, the individual faculty has adjusted. Like, one of the faculty has had two different sections,” Ruskin says. “They’ll do it at different times, just to make it easier for some of those students, or they’ll allow them to do work online, and then have a private mentor meeting with them separately, just because it’s so difficult.”
A final technical challenge for each school has been getting students the equipment and software they need to finish coursework off campus. “We had to get programs to students in lots of classes, so they could do budgeting and scheduling online,” Katz says. “A lot of students don’t have the money, so they use the computers at school for things like that. So, we were negotiating deals to get them some of the software for free.”
CREATIVIY IN CURRICULUM
While video conferencing applications answered the question of how to teach in quarantine, it was entirely up to professors to figure out what to teach—how they might adjust their curriculum at a time when production in groups is impossible.
At the film schools, students’ experiences have run the gamut. Some had finished production on projects, including thesis films, prior to the campus shutdowns, and are now working remotely on post-production. Others were in the middle of shoots when COVID-19 struck, while some students didn’t make it into production at all.
As the head of USC’s producing track, Katz teaches a class called “Straight to Series,” requiring students to film four 10- to 12-minute episodes over the course of the spring semester. “Basically, we decided that we would continue post-production on the projects that had been shot, as much as possible, remotely,” she says of the adjustment to her curriculum, “and that anything that was to be shot, we would continue prep, as if we were going to make it.”
In terms of projects that haven’t been shot, table reads have become popular as a way for students to continue to refine their material. When it came to the final episode of “Straight to Series” that hadn’t gone into production, Katz elected to try one out, engaging with her students and their respective casts over Zoom. “The table read was so good that we’ve decided to virtually produce the episode. The students and actors will be using Zoom, FaceTime, smartphones, green screen, visual effects, and other technology,” she says. “It will all be done using social distancing rules—for example, actors filming themselves—with all post [done remotely].”
As far as professors getting creative in quarantine, this is just one example. At each university, students have been asked to see what they can make remotely, with the resources available to them. “Trying to figure out what can be done with the facilities they have in their control—that was the first two weeks,” Boyle says. “What do you have that you could use, and how can we help you?” Students at AFI and LMU have even used puppets or dolls for certain exercises when no one else is at home. Meanwhile, at USC, Katz has embraced unconventional and exciting methods of lecturing, naming cinematography professor Bruce Finn as someone who has excelled in this pursuit. “[Bruce] has built all these miniature sets in his house, and he’s lecturing to the cinematography students. He’s got lights set up and everything, and he’s created various lectures with examples, instead of showing it on stage or in person,” she says. “So, people are getting very creative about how to teach from a distance.”
While technology has presented issues in quarantine, and professors have had to think differently than ever before, perhaps the greatest challenge of teaching during the pandemic has been dealing with students’ emotions.
“Students are very, very busy when they’re at AFI, and they’re still very busy, but it’s very tiring to be busy online,” Ruskin says. “It’s much more energizing if you’re on campus, creating with your colleagues, and it’s really tough. This adjustment, for them, is lonely.”
“We’re dealing with students’ fears, and their disappointment, and their anger, at times. It’s hard for a lot of them, and we have to obviously acknowledge it, and help them talk to the right people about it,” Katz adds. “Some of them are university issues, but we’re giving them what we can.”
At the same time, professors are struggling to deal with emotions of their own. Of life in quarantine, Boyle bluntly says: “I hate it. I’ve worked hard all my life to have control—control of where I go, what I do, who I see. And now, I have none of it.”
While classes are conducted remotely, many professors are on Zoom from morning until night, altering the nature of classroom interaction. Without the ability to speak face-to-face, it’s been difficult to keep students engaged. Additionally, there’s a certain awkwardness to some virtual exchanges. “[Student] questions are more difficult. I mean, you stick up your hand, and of course there are TAs, but you’re talking about the technological facility of doing this when you have 50 people in your class,” Boyle says. “Even if you’re going to see them on your screen, [they appear in] very little pictures.”
For the professors, these everyday challenges result in an intense level of fatigue. “At the end of the day is a kind of exhaustion I never knew was possible,” Ruskin says. “I’ve produced movies over the years that had tons of night shoots, and long, long hours are never my issue. But it is so interesting, how you cannot even think clearly, after a little while of looking at a flat screen.”
Despite been taxing for all involved, the new normal has ultimately resulted in a number of positives. With production shut down across the country, each film school has benefited from access to an unprecedented number of guest lecturers, whose presence has made the semester more valuable than it might have otherwise been. “It’s harder to get those people to drive across town. Generally, they’re working and really busy,” Rajski says. “So, the gift of this has been access to incredibly talented people, who now have the time to talk to students and work with them.”
At AFI, Ruskin has already lined up over 30 A-list speakers including Edgar Wright, Rian Johnson and Kathleen Kennedy, many of whom are engaging in private conversations with students. “The list is unbelievably long, and it keeps going. We’re actually going to add a whole new summer section of just private conversations,” she says. “It’s a great way for the students to just ask the questions they want to ask, because I really think it’s important that it’s not just myself doing the interview. It’s a private conversation between the students and them.”
At UCLA, students have benefited from a further extension of industry support. The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, a longtime friend of Boyle who established a generous fellowship for the university’s animation students, is now reallocating those funds to help students in financial need. In recent conversation with him, Boyle said, “We have quite a bit of money that’s unused. Can I just give it to the students, because they’re hysterical and need money? I don’t want to send them a computer. I want them, where they are, to buy a computer.”
Responded Groening: “Absolutely. Just use it for what your students need.”
“I thought that was fabulous,” Boyle says. “It was a lot of money, and it was money that I could now say, ‘Go ahead and buy what you need.’”
For Rajski and Boyle, among the biggest positives of late has been an increased sense of intimacy and respect among professors, their colleagues and their students. “I think we’ve grown more intimate, in its own kind of strange way, because we’ve shared pain…Instead of submerging it, I can say ‘Me too,’ and that intimacy, I think, is the positive,” Boyle says. “People are speaking to each other [about] very problematic issues they’re facing. I think we now have the ability to share, because there’s a commonality of stress that we’re all going through that levels everything out.”
Teaching resilience through hardship—an essential trait for filmmakers—the shutdown has also allowed students and faculty to reconsider approaches they take to their work. “Part of what this has brought about for us is that you’re actually getting students to focus on what they should be focusing more on—which is less on technology, more on the storytelling,” Rajski says. “Which means focusing more on concept, sharp visual design, and how that’s executed through the tools you have at hand.”
Joining AFI’s faculty just last year, Ruskin has seized upon the moment as a time to reflect on the practices of the conservatory—what was working prior to the pandemic, and what can be improved. “[The pandemic] has really forced people to not rely on the same way they’ve done things in the past,” she says. “Change becomes more reasonable and feasible and doable when there’s this kind of unrest.”
At the moment, each film school is laying out plans for a fall semester. All are hoping to allow students to return to campus later this year to complete production on projects left unfinished. “Right now, we still have everything lined up for an in-person semester,” Rajski says. “And then, like any good producer, you go, ‘OK, what’s the B plan?’”
At LMU and AFI, faculty are looking as far ahead as plans C and D, with so much information surrounding the pandemic still unknown. “We are instructed to prepare for four different alternatives,” Boyle says. “Number one, returning to school; number two, some returning to school, and some being online; number three, all online; number four, shut down completely.”
Unfortunately, students graduating this year are getting the short end of the stick with production shut down and coveted internship opportunities drying up. And without another semester, they won’t be able to benefit from improvements made to remote teaching. That said, the professors are extending themselves as much as they can, providing students with extra attention in the form of career counseling. “Obviously, [students graduating this year] have extra concerns,” Katz says. “So, really to try to get a jump on that—how to best plan at the beginning of a career, and how to move through that—I think we’re all giving them extra attention that way.”
For students confronting a frightening future, Rajski has a simple message. While some of the methods involved in creating entertainment may change, “entertainment ain’t going away,” she says. “There are going to be plenty of opportunities, now and in the future.”