By Mathewson Parks
Aspiring filmmakers are often told that making movies isn’t a realistic career path. As a high school student, I certainly avoided discussion of my plans to study film. This disposition changed upon meeting local filmmaker and Berry alum Ryan Simmons, who surprised me by introducing my fellow students and me to world of filmmaking right here in Rome.
Simmons is an award-winning filmmaker and founder of Brand Red Studios just off Broad Street in downtown Rome. He works with mostly corporate clients to help them realize their creative vision, whether it be for commercials, short films, or documentaries. Recently, he has tried his hand at teaching his craft, first in a cinematic lighting course offered by Berry’s department of Communication in the fall, then last month in a short film practicum taught as a Maymester.
He said he wanted to better prepare aspiring filmmakers like me for life on set and for working in the film industry.
“When students transition out of college and start working on film productions, they often don’t know the basics, like what a shock mount is,” Simmons said. “Another big challenge is understanding set etiquette, what people expect from you, and how to vibe with everybody.”
After teaching the lighting course, Simmons said he thought about the possibility of a more immersive experience for students. In collaboration with Brian Carroll, chair of the Communication department, Simmons designed a two-week summer class in which students could work under industry professionals to make multiple short films of varying genre, locations, and length.
I signed up, and it proved to be the most important, most exhilarating film class I’ve taken.
Learning different film styles
The four films we helped make included The Other Guy, a parody of romantic comedies; Oh Crap, an irreverent comedy; The Heist, a gangster film; and Dinner with the Parents, a futuristic sci-fi comedy. Each film had a different tone and, therefore, shooting style, and each one presented different responsibilities and challenges.
This became most apparent making Dinner with the Parents and The Other Guy.
Though Dinner with the Parents was only technically one scene, set construction and art work took us a full day. Ryan envisioned a distant future during which everything, including props and costumes, were white. We spent hours looking for and painting futuristic props to populate the set.
The Other Guy didn’t require quite as much attention to set construction, but five separate shoot locations kept us moving. Oh, and we had to build a rain machine. Shooting for four full days, managing actors and extras, and other logistical challenges gave us a taste of the varied demands of making movies.
To provide professional movie set experiences, Simmons brought in collaborators and Atlanta-based actors to work with us. Katherine Dudley served as assistant director for the full two weeks. Bryan Tan stepped in as director of photography on The Other Guy. Hayden Mason talked about gaffing and communicating with the director of photography. And Jesse Scimeca stepped in as director of photography for The Heist.
“The advantage of bringing in crew professionals was in creating for students the experience being on set with other professional crew,” Simmons said. “I could tell the difference on shoot days that had people from Atlanta on set, just in the way that you students were more focused.”
Simmons structured the practicum so that we each had a different position on set each day. These duties included camera operator, gaffer, grip, art director, hair and makeup. For the first week, he factored in learning time but as the second week rolled around, it became clear that we had learned what needed to get done.
“I remember thinking ‘I really didn’t teach them that much today,’” Simmons recalled. “They just did it.”
Simmons said he hopes he gets to do the practicum again, perhaps even on a larger scale. Carroll said this is indeed the plan.
“Filmmaking is one of our largest concentrations, and our proximity to Atlanta’s growing film industry suggests that what Ryan can offer our students is invaluable,” Carroll said, lauding the Maymester practicum. “We would be irresponsible if we didn’t look to grow this and see where it might take us, and we’re so thankful to have Ryan, a Communication alum, be so generous with his time and expertise.”