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An Original CU Denver Production

STUDENTS PREPARE WEBSERIES FOR SHOOTING

When a student voice yells out, “lights, camera, action,” the end result isn’t always Hollywood material. This semester, CU Denver Film and Television students are producing an eight-part web series with the intention of bringing their artistic collaboration to life, after critical fine-tuning.

Last semester, students wrote the scripts; this semester, they are in a class to produce and film them. The two-part class is based on the way the industry actually works. In terms of the relationship between teacher and student, this class is set up as if the students were working in a studio, for a pair of producers, rather than in a classroom, for teachers.

Before getting to production, these film and television students went through a complex writing process. Associate Professor Craig Volk taught last semester’s Writing for Episodic Television. Volk did not start out working in television, but studied poetry and playwriting until one of his plays drew the attention of people in the film and television industry. “At the end of the day, I didn’t want to say I’d never tried to do the Hollywood thing, so I did,” Volk said.

“If you haven’t done your homework, the magic can’t happen.”

—Jim Phelan

Instructor | College of Arts and Media

His experience shaped the way he designed the classes. “I worked in episodic television for 12 years,” Volk said. “This completely replicates that, except for it being a webseries.”

Last semester he helped students on the writing portion of the webseries. “Everybody pitches a series in that class, then I combine people who want to work together into a team,” Volk said.

Scripts, with the names of the writers removed, were then sent out to other members of the faculty, who decided which show to actually produce. They tried to choose based on practicality, as well as artistic considerations.

“We had a very good series this year that required a lot of exterior shooting,” Volk said. “Well, that’s very difficult to do in Colorado in March.” The series chosen is, by contrast, almost entirely set in one location: a plant nursery.

The chosen series was written by students Nigel Wickens and Luke Austin. Both of them have loved film since childhood. Wickens learned the basics of filmmaking by reading about the $7,000 production of Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi, while Austin got into film through watching movies with his grandfather.

“Luke pitched the idea of a group of kids working at a plant nursery, and I came up with the idea of an anthology series where each episode was centered around a character who was a criminal,” Wickens said. “The way I originally thought of it was that it was going to be the anti-Law And Order, where it was about the criminals, not the cops.”

The idea soon evolved. “We pitched our two ideas together and they liked it so much they said, ‘Well, why don’t you combine the two?’” Wickens said. So the two did, creating a series called Seven Days Straight as “A group of social misfits employed at a plant nursery become entangled in a conspiracy to cover up their illegal activities and protect their friend,” Wickens said. Austin describes the series as “Clerks meets The Wire.”

Their initial script was well-received. “After that it becomes kind of like a bracket competition, so everybody writes four episodes and then they knock it down to like six series, and then they knock it down again,” Austin said. “Whoever gets knocked out of their own series, they put them in with you.”

Although their series was selected, and the original versions of all eight scripts were done last semester, Wickens and Austin ended up polishing them early this semester.

“We thought they were really well set up,” Austin said. “The first day back, we read them all out, the entire time the first day was just reading every episode, and people were like, ‘No, this isn’t going to work,’ and, ‘Oh I don’t like this style choice,’ and, ‘I don’t like this dialogue, it just doesn’t make any sense.’ So we had—I still have it—just pages of rewrites, and we spent the whole weekend rewriting it, and now that we have that, it’s solidified, and we’re going to move forward.”

Part of what made the scripting process so difficult was trying to create solid characters in little time. “The plot’s an anthology,” Austin said. “It’s just these people at the nursery. But the episodes are episodic in that you follow different characters. They have their own episode, but they only have 10 minutes.”

The writing duo have also struggled this semester, as they have transitioned into new responsibilities as the series’ showrunners. “It’s a weird paradox where we can’t give everybody leeway to do whatever they want, but we can’t keep it so structured that the show becomes formulaic and boring,” Austin said.

Roma Sur was one of the faculty members who selected the Seven Days Straight pilot script. She was drawn in by the rich ensemble cast the writers worked so hard on, particularly the series’ strong female characters. Though she usually teaches screenwriting, she decided to get involved with the production class.

“I wanted to slowly start teaching production classes also,” Sur said. “I thought it would be an amazing opportunity to work with a team of students who’d written their script already, and take the script from script stage to screen.”

Jim Phelan is the other instructor. He stressed the importance of preproduction, the phase the class is currently in. “80 percent of a good production is done in pre-production,” Phelan said. “Every class to the day we shoot is as critical as the days we’re filming. If you haven’t done your homework, no magic can happen.” Students are currently working on casting and mapping out their primary shooting location as part of that homework.

Still, Phelan says pre-production is not the most important part of creating the series. “Craft service, whoever’s setting up the coffee, better be there first,” Phelan said.

CU Denver student Nicolas Scroggins, who is directing two episodes and working as cinematographer for two others, believes that their webseries can surpass those produced in prior years. “We have a lot of really passionate people who want to make it really great,” Scroggins said.

Still, he reiterates the concern Wickens and Austin shared. “Being in art school, everyone has their own unique styles, and now we have to try to come together, to collaborate together, in order to make one vision,” Scroggins said. “Right now it’s like a tug of war, and everyone’s trying to get their full vision in there.”

Scroggins has a bit of an edge in contributing his own vision, as he is cinematographer for the pilot episode, which will be directed by Austin. “I’m lucky enough I get to help Luke, who is kind of the creator. I get to help him set the tone,” Scroggins said.

Cinematography will bring its own challenges. The goal is to give the series a film noir feel while still keeping everything fairly gritty and realistic.

“There’s this tricky thing you learn in film school, where you come in freshman year and you want to make an Oscar-winning film,” Scroggins said. “You want to make it something so great, and it is great there’s so much passion in those projects. Then you get to junior year, and you’re just like, ‘This is so ridiculous.’”

He thinks that, with the now more matured students, the series will manage to balance ambition and practical realities. “It’s not a lot of time, but I think we can pull it off,” Scroggins said. “We really want to up the ante and get people to tell their friends about it.”

—Gideon Simons

Seven Days Straight

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Luke Austin

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Nick Scroggins

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Above:  Film and Television students Josh Hale and Yonas Seltene work on an eight-part webseries.

photo: Korina Rojo • CU Denver Sentry

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