5 Emerging Media Arts students intern with branching narrative film project

Clockwise from left: Assistant Professor of Emerging Media Arts Ash Smith, Mitchell Guynan, Parker Reil and Ally Hall in Boston. Photo courtesy of Ally Hall.
Clockwise from left: Assistant Professor of Emerging Media Arts Ash Smith, Mitchell Guynan, Parker Reil and Ally Hall in Boston. Photo courtesy of Ally Hall.

5 Emerging Media Arts students intern with branching narrative film project

calendar icon26 Feb 2020    user iconBy Kathe C. Andersen

Left to right: Ryan Hovland, Mitchell Guynan, Parker Reil and Ally Hall in Boston. Photo courtesy of Ash Smith.
Left to right: Ryan Hovland, Mitchell Guynan, Parker Reil and Ally Hall in Boston. Photo courtesy of Ash Smith.

Lincoln, Neb.--Five students studying Emerging Media Arts in the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts have worked as interns on a new branching narrative film project that will debut later this spring on major platform.

Non-disclosure agreements prevent details about the project from being released yet, but the project has received backing from Hollywood insiders.

A recent high-profile branching narrative project was the popular “Bandersnatch” on Netflix, an interactive film in which viewers were asked at various points to make a choice that affected the storyline. This new project is similar to that concept, but different in ways the participants cannot describe yet.

“It is a science fiction project that takes place in space, and it has a really vast story and worldbuilding,” said Assistant Professor of Emerging Media Arts Ash E. Smith, who is also working on the project. “My role in it has been doing story consulting, some worldbuilding and then acting in it.”

Emerging Media Arts students Annie Wang, Mitchell Guynan and Parker Reil all did previsualization work on the project remotely in Lincoln last semester. Guynan, Reil, Ally Hall and Ryan Hovland worked in various roles on the project over the winter break in Boston through paid internships.

“Being an intern, you’re expected to do pretty much anything that’s needed for the production,” Hovland said. “Some days were spent rearranging the green screens and moving set pieces, while other days, I was cutting out reference images in Photoshop to use as part of our animatic sequences.”

Hovland, a senior Film and New Media major from Omaha, Nebraska, returned to Boston this semester to continue working on the project.

“My responsibilities have grown since my first trip, and now my focus has shifted to post-production,” he said. “The genre of this film is sci-fi, with a lot of it taking place in space. That being said, there is a hefty amount of visual effects, which requires optimizing communication between various VFX houses to ensure everything is getting done in a timely manner. That's where I come in. I'm helping bridge the communication between these professionals to make sure they each have what they need, while also keeping track of the progress being made.”

In addition, he continues to make previsualization materials for the director so he can begin to see how each branch of the story might unfold.

“The materials are often videos created by me using stock footage, still photographs, and even bits of other sci-fi movies to create a rough outline of what each scene may look like,” he said. “These assets are extremely beneficial to gain a sense of how the pacing and emotional beats of the scene will be portrayed.”

He said branching narrative films are at the forefront of what films in the future may look like.

“The only major branching narrative film to date is ‘Bandersnatch,’ which was a viral success when it debuted,” he said. “It’s obvious there’s a huge market potential for this type of media, and people will be seeing a lot more of these films going forward.”

Reil, a junior Emerging Media Arts major from Ogallala, Nebraska, said his internship work in Boston was more hands-on than what he was expecting.

“We thought that we were going and just being a normal production assistant, and that was not the case at all,” he said. “It was actually a lot more hands on for us, and there was a lot more asked of us than what we expected, which is great. So what we were doing, at least the four student interns, we were building animatic. What that means is we were taking stock footage from the internet and creating our own images to build animatic that were like rough cuts of the script. Those animatics get sent out to the visual effects houses so they knew what they wanted. But what that means is that we also had an unlimited amount of creative freedom. Basically, we were given a script, and this is your branch for today. Go for it. And so we just got to play, and it was just incredible.”  

Guynan, a sophomore emerging media arts student from Blair, Nebraska, said everyone was wearing a lot of different hats on the production.

“The director was not just the director,” he said. “He was an editor. He was an actor. He was a producer. The original director of photography was also sound mixing.  So we became part of this group that was very much hey, you are not one person that is specified to do this one thing. We were editing, but we were also production hands. We were also running errands, and we were also giving and getting feedback about the work itself, which is extremely bizarre for a film set to be talking to the director as much as we did. It was super cool just to see how everything worked firsthand. It was the most collaborative experience I’ve ever had.”

They were working at Boston’s Midway Studios, which is a converted artist space with live-work studios for artists.

“What makes it really different than, say, shooting in L.A., where you might have to go meet with your production designer and have to drive all the way across town,” Smith said. “We were able to do everything pretty much in this building, so there’s everything from visual effects to production design, two different green screen studios. And all of the interns got to stay in the building.”

It helped the students learn a variety of different new skills. Reil said one person’s studio was converted into a green screen studio for the production.

“We learned what it means to build a green screen studio, and the lights that are required because you have to have it so the light on the green screen is even. Otherwise, it doesn’t key very well,” Reil said. “So we hung out with this guy named Rob, who is the co-director of photography of the shoot. We were just hanging in there, listening to music, talking and hanging lights for six or seven hours. It was laid back on some days and very push forward on others. It really was just all hands on deck. If we wanted to do anything, they just let us.”

Hall, a sophomore emerging media arts student from Lincoln, also had the opportunity to work with costume designer Erin Robertson, who won season 15 of “Project Runway,” during the internship.

“She worked in a different part of Boston,” Hall said. “I got to go to her studio a couple of times and shoot some behind-the-scenes there. It was really fun to see how she was making the costumes, and they were doing fittings and stuff.”

Hall said she learned a lot just by being around the crew.

“Just being around those people and them having such a small crew, you really have to learn how to wear a lot of hats,” Hall said. “You can’t just be specialized. You basically have to be able to do everything kind of at the same time, which is how this was going. So it was interesting to see how organized you have to be, but also to see how organized sometimes it’s not, which is just how it goes. It was great to see how other people do things and approach things.”

Smith said the internships were valuable to students.

“So much emerging media has really changed the landscape of production and how things get made,” she said. “I think if we can teach students that kind of flexibility of pivoting and pivoting quickly between ‘Oh, now I’m shooting behind the scenes. And now, I’m behind a computer doing the animatic. And now I’m up here hanging a light. And now I’m painting a seesaw.’ Then, that’s amazing because when I came up through that system, which was much more like the Hollywood film system, where you go to P.A. [production assistant] something, and that’s what you do. And then maybe another movie comes along, and then I’m in the art department and doing set dressing or whatever. This is about being able to move fast and breaking down the hierarchies of who can do what and when. And I think it’s really cool to be able to feel like you can work in these different spaces and move quickly and flexibly between them.”

Reil said internships like this are important for students to see what is out there.

“We see what’s happening because we absorb that content, but we don’t see the trials and tribulations in the workload or in what production hours look like for a project like that,” Reil said. “To go out and be an intern and just experience that, as not only as a fly on the wall, but also you’re in the mud with them. It’s incredibly beneficial to get an idea of what can be expected of you before you get out there. That’s one of the things I’m really looking forward to about our school. It’s not just film anymore. It’s moving into places that we can get internships working on a branching narrative like this or working on a videogame or working with an opera that is doing projection mapping. There are so many more internship opportunities for us now that are graspable. It’s so important to get that experience.”

Real-world experiences are important for emerging media arts students.

There’s something to be said for project-based, experiential learning where you are working to create a final project,” Smith said. “It’s definitely real-world networks and connections and living in places—the same kinds of reasons that study abroad is really healthy for you as you get outside of your comfort zone and to see other people’s kinds of processes and ways of working that can help influence your own systems and techniques and approaches to making work.”

Wang, a junior emerging media arts student from Omaha, said getting an internship like this can be  challenging.

“Gaining experience and building a network is so crucial for those who want a career in film/media production. In Nebraska, most of the production internship opportunities are in broadcasting or advertising. Out-of-state internships are incredibly competitive. It’s rare to find one where you can work remotely,” she said. “I feel very lucky to have this opportunity. Working on this project really solidified for me that a career in this field was possible. It was crazy realizing I could get paid for doing something I loved to do.”

And she has realized her learning must go beyond her schoolwork.

“Though I have learned a lot in school from classes and projects, I think the biggest thing I’ve realized recently is that your education and learning needs to go beyond school,” Wang said. “All the successful students I know that have come out of the Carson School have not only excelled in their school projects, but they have also constantly learned and practiced in their own time.”

Hovland said the internship has been extremely important for his future career goals.

“Although I may not be interested in making branching narrative films myself, being able to work with such a dedicated team has shown me what lengths you must go to become a successful artist,” he said. “This team has been working around the clock trying to finish this project, and it’s incredibly inspiring to be surrounded by.”

Reil said working on the project taught him the passion level required for his own projects in the future.

“The director, Raber Umphenour, is such an incredibly hard-working man,” he said. “Seeing his dedication to the project and seeing the hours he puts in and seeing how passionate he is about the subject matter proves to me that it’s not about what I’m working on, but how passionate I am about it. I know what I’m passionate about, and that’s what I’m striving for now.”