Updated: Jan 25
In a time of covid-19, Cal Poly students still have the opportunity to become award-winning filmmakers by taking ISLA 340 and ISLA 341, the crash courses in screenwriting and short film production taught by professor Randi Barros.
"The slogan of the class has always been, even pre-covid, 'the enemy of art is the absence of limitations' because that's filmmaking - it's always going to have limitations," Barros said. "Now it's especially true. So what creative way can you get around those limitations and take your film to the next level?"
Second year computer engineering student Alex Johnson rose to the challenge in Fall 2020 and created a short film titled: The Debt Movie, which tells the story of five college students sharing opinions on whether it is worth it to be paying tens of thousands of dollars on what is now an online college education.
Video courtesy of Alex Johnson
"It was fun for my homework to be telling a story
instead of solving 20 equations"
Describing ISLA 340 as "a breath of fresh air that kept me very engaged," Johnson plans to take ISLA 341 in the winter, where he'll pitch the screenplay he made in 340 "On the Rocks" for production into a short film.
"I think my favorite part of the class was the sense of accomplishment that accompanied it," the computer engineering student said. "It was fun for my homework to be telling a story instead of solving 20 equations, and I could see in my own work the muscle-memory paying off the more I wrote, instead of moving on to a new topic and not getting to see immediate results like most classes in the fast paced quarter system."
Fourth year political science major Sophie Ganion affirms ISLA 340 as a creative respite from the monotony of Zoom university. Ganion describes herself as a student who"thrives off the social environment of being in a physical classroom," so the format of Zoom classes was in no way ideal. Many times she found herself wishing she could be back in the physical classroom again, but said Barros did a great job of keeping the class engaged despite the obstacles.
"For a political science major who is used to writing in a very structured and condensed way, writing screenplays based off of vague prompts gave me an opportunity to tap into my creative side, let my mind wander, and just write freely," Ganion said.
Ganion co-created her film "I Skate On the Side" with friend Daisy Kuenstler. The short documentary is about breaking the stereotypes of skateboarders as bums and stoners and how they should not be defined by their hobby | Video courtesy of Sophie Ganion
"Honestly, I had such an amazing experience taking ISLA 340 online," Ganion said. "Out of all my online classes, I thought ISLA 340 felt like the most "normal" class. The discussion was always lively between my peers and I, Professor Barros was extremely organized, yet allowed for a completely judgement-free creative space."
In a pre-covid-19 world, Cal poly students Casey Wieber and Shanti Herzog became an award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter, respectively, at the 2019 CSU Film Festival. 2021 brings that same opportunity to ISLA 340 and ISLA 341 students, and any individual with a passion for filmmaking as the SLO Film Festival will be making its return virtually from March 9-14, providing students with the perfect opportunity to showcase their work in front of big film industry names.
"The Deep End" short thriller, cinematography by Kailey O'Connell, edited by Casey Wieber | Video Courtesy of Randi Barros
Barros' ISLA 341 class will be collaborating with the SLO Film Festival once again this winter quarter, as well as with ART 483: advanced video production. The videos students make at this time will be screened during the virtual film festival in March, that with any luck, Barros said, will be converted into an in-person viewing event at the Sunset Drive-Ins or similar outdoor setting if the festival's managers can find a safe and reasonable way of doing so.
In ISLA 341, students learn the fine details of video production such as how to shoot close-up, medium and wide shots, pans and tilts. Before coronavirus, they would also collaborate with student actors. Given the circumstances, several of Barros’ students had family members star in their films | Photo courtesy of Randi Barros
Now that a lot of filmmakers are working from home, two industry professionals were able to join Barros' class Zoom sessions as guest speakers. In the fall, she invited set and production designer Kris Moran, who has worked on several Wes Anderson films and other well-known titles, to share her expertise and years of experience with the ISLA 341 students. Then in the fall, the ISLA 340 section heard from Los Angeles-based TV writer Christina Nieves as she shared her own stories and extensive experience in TV writing rooms throughout her career.
For now and into the foreseeable future it would seem, Zoom university is here to stay. Though Barros has gotten used to the distance learning format and said it has actually helped with her organization, she still has a hard time with the absence of physical interaction that Zoom calls just can't replace.
"To me, the strangest thing is that I have not met these students in person," Barros said.
"So if I were to walk past them on the street, even though I feel like I really got to know them through their work and through their face, you know, the rectangle of their face, I wouldn't necessarily recognize them in public. And that is really odd to me. I hope I will get a chance to meet them in person, you know, but it's crazy times."
Next time class registration comes around, consider taking ISLA 340 and ISLA 341. Whether you're an aspiring filmmaker, are looking for an exciting upper division elective, or perhaps just appreciate the art of filmmaking, consider the possibilities of what you could create and where it could take you. Whether or not you win an award for your production, you'll have learned the evergreen art of storytelling - a priceless skill to have for any career path.
"I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who's interested in any way in film or TV because even if it's not something you want to do long term, storytelling is an essential tool to have," Johnson said. "Even brand names are created through storytelling. It's also an extremely fun class and one of my favorites I’ve taken."