Student Filmmakers Seize the Moment as Industry Adapts

Once coronavirus lockdown orders and social distancing rules went into effect, people began to consume more visual media than ever before. Streaming platforms saw their numbers surge as subscribers binged new shows and watched movies into the wee hours of dawn. Behind the scenes, however, million-dollar film and television productions were forced to come to a halt. In the interval, many independent filmmakers began to rise and release fresh media. Working with the resources and knowledge they had, new filmmakers seized the moment to tell stories that were important to them.

I was interested in how Duke’s student filmmakers were adapting to the times. I interviewed three seniors, Omolola Sanusi, Peter LaBoy, and Andy Ju, about the process and experience of making art “behind locked doors.”

Making “Gurus” at Duke

Omolola Sanusi ’21 and Seun Oguntunmibi ’22 on set for “Gurus,” a short film produced by Peter LaBoy and directed and written by Omolola Sanusi. “Gurus” was filmed off campus.

Omolola Sanusi, a Duke senior, Global Cultural Studies major, and former StudioDuke mentee in love with everything arts, had plans at the beginning of 2020 to shoot a short film based on a TV pilot she wrote. The resulting project, “Gurus,” is Sanusi’s ninth student film. She called up her friend Peter LaBoy Jr, also a senior at Duke, for production support and they agreed to complete the film in March.

We all know what March brought instead: Duke students were sent home and, along with so many other things, producing the short was tabled.

Sanusi and LaBoy were still interested in telling this story, so they decided to keep in contact over the summer and discussed ideas for picking things back up when they arrived back on campus in August. They soon learned that shooting the project would require even more flexibility than it would have in “normal” times.

“I ended up rewriting the short a couple of times, but the most major change was it initially centered on a family of four,” Sanusi said. “And then I thought, let’s just have a brother and sister because COVID-19 requires social distancing. After we reworked it, I let Peter know early on that I wanted to shoot as soon as possible during the fall semester, just because I wasn’t sure how long we’d all still be allowed on campus.”

A young man holding a microphone.
Peter LaBoy ’21, recording sound for “Gurus.”

“Gurus” was LaBoy’s second time working as a producer. His first short, “Mixtape,” was produced with DUU Freewater Productions, Duke’s student-run film and video production group. It was shot during February and March 2020 and released after the virus hit, during the typical spring showcase season. LaBoy shared that when working on any project, and especially in such uncertain times, you have to learn to adapt and think quickly on your feet—because nothing ever goes as planned.

“Going forward, I definitely want to make sure I have a team of people I can trust and that I’m being true to myself, so I can be quick to adapt to any circumstances that arise,” LaBoy said.

“I definitely want to make sure I have a team of people I can trust and that I’m being true to myself, so I can be quick to adapt to any circumstances that arise.”

And that’s what he and Sanusi did when recruiting the cast and production crew of the short film. From finding actors on the C1 to working with people they had collaborated with before, they were able to find a talented group of students to safely turn Sanusi’s words into a visual masterpiece.

After two full days of intense shooting following COVID-19 precautions—including everyone wearing masks unless they were directly being filmed from a distance—and a couple of months of post-production work, Sanusi and her team were finally able to share “Gurus” with the world at the beginning of February.

“A burgeoning beauty guru tells the story of the making of her YouTube viral back to school morning routine video.”

Filming for StudioDuke on the West Coast

On the other side of the country, Duke senior Andy Ju had his own plans for making content during lockdown from his home in San Jose, California. As part of the 2020–21 StudioDuke cohort, where he’s being mentored by filmmaker Ryan White ’04, Andy planned to make a documentary about two women in his neighborhood who had a significant influence on him.

Being part of the Duke in LA program during Spring 2020, helped Ju feel confident enough to try and tell their story. He realized that there was no better time to work with such familiar subjects, with whom he shared a deep level of comfort.

Although he followed all COVID-19 safety precautions while filming, he said he didn’t want the coronavirus to be the main story.

“I think sometimes we forget that even amidst pandemics, we still are individuals, and we still carry the same memories,” Ju explained. “Just because you’re making a film during the pandemic, doesn’t mean it has to be pandemic-centered.”

“Just because you’re making a film during the pandemic, doesn’t mean it has to be pandemic-centered.”

Ju’s film will be finished and released later this semester. Despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic, student filmmakers have adapted to continue to make new work, learning new lessons of trust and collaboration in the process.

Andy Ju (top left) interviewing students on Zoom for his documentary.

Making Films Safely During COVID-19

camera gear with clorox wipes
Image courtesy Megan Mendenhall.

As these student stories demonstrate, filming under COVID-19 protocols requires planning, trust, and working at a smaller scale. Joshua Gibson, director of the Cinematic Arts program at Duke, says that many of the film practicum courses have been held in person with much lower capacity in order to run safely. “In many ways it has been a very pleasant teaching experience with fewer students who seem grateful to have ‘in person’ contact,” shared Gibson.

Filming under COVID-19 protocols requires planning, trust, and working at a smaller scale.

Students who choose to film in person must comply with Duke United safety regulations. (There are currently no country-wide filming protocols in the US, but states have issued guidelines included in this guide from the American Film Market.) The Cinematic Arts equipment cage at the Rubenstein Arts Center has also adapted to protect community safety. Students may now check out equipment for longer, to cut down on staff contact, and returned gear enters a 72-hour quarantine. Cleaning gear during and immediately after recording sessions might also be helpful.

Full Frame Festival Goes Virtual

While filmmakers around the world are adapting to COVID-19 protocols, it will take much longer to return to the pre-pandemic audience experience. Duke University’s Full Frame Film Festival is typically hosted in downtown Durham in April, but in 2021, the festival is moving to June 2–June 6, and will be presented entirely virtually. Emily Foster, associate interim festival director and marketing director, says that film festivals are being very intentional about how they are presenting films in the virtual space.”It really is a balance of trying to find a way to both engage our audience and still honor the work of our filmmakers,” says Foster. The Full Frame team is making plans for a rich virtual experience, and Foster predicts that virtual panels and webinars will be here to stay.

One silver lining about the virtual shift is that Full Frame and festivals around the country are, in many ways, more accessible than ever before. This year, you will be able to attend Full Frame from anywhere. “It is an incredible feat to be able to share these stories beyond the Durham community,” says Foster.

2021 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Veronica Niamba is a senior from Las Vegas, NV, studying History and Visual Media Studies. As a content creator for Duke’s Creative Arts Student Team, she hopes to bring light to different stories and experiences within the arts community in Durham and beyond.