Chen Yu – Changemaking Through Filmmaking

I received a grant from Newcomb-Tulane College to fund my senior thesis film, titled The Lottery. I wrote, directed, produced, edited, and color graded this film all by myself and am in the process of submitting the film to various social justice-centered film festivals in order to engage more viewers in dialogues surrounding immigrant justice. This film is the culmination of my academic career at Tulane because I was able to combine my knowledge from two academic disciplines, gender & sexuality studies and digital media production, to produce thought-provoking media content. Centered around the immigration lottery system, this film explores the ways in which the legal status of so-called “skilled immigrants” complicates the discussion around immigration and portrays the ways in which people of color are complicit in oppression.

I used my grant to cover most of the costs associated with the filmmaking process. As per union rules, I was required to provide food and snacks on each of the shooting days for my cast and crew. I also had to purchase various set dressing items in order to make locations look realistic on camera. Before I purchased anything, I made sure to communicate with my art director and production designers so that the colors of the set dressing items would fit the ideal color palette. I did test shoots for several scenes where I made unconventional lighting choices to make sure that the color graded version would look like what I envisioned.

I became a lot more comfortable with producing short films after doing it by myself. Not only was I able to secure two grants from Tulane to fund my film, I also improved my negotiation skills throughout the process of location scouting and negotiating sponsorships. As a student filmmaker on a very small budget, I had to reach out to several property owners and persuade them to allow me to film there at a low cost or for free; I communicated with several restaurant owners and secured discounted food for my cast and crew. For example, in order to secure a high-end restaurant for my film shoot, I called up and emailed over 30 restaurants, talked to managers and restaurant owners, explained what my film is about, and was lucky enough to secure one restaurant where I could shoot for free. I became a lot more confident to sell what I do to people, and this would come in handy when I produce more films in the future on a tight budget.

In terms of scheduling, everything in the filmmaking process is time sensitive. I’ve become well-versed in different scheduling tools and schedule shoots with the busy actors first and work around their schedules. I also made the actors leave certain days free for me just in case of reshoots. It was definitely stressful to do all of this on top of being a full-time student. But I think the ability to juggle different tasks is so important for changemakers to pursue their social innovation projects while making a living.

This is my first time directing a short film, and I realized how difficult it was to work with actors who are very persistent about their ideas even though they don’t align with yours. I’m open to actor feedback by all means, but often times I would like to stick with my vision because I’m directing. I had to work with actors who were perfect for the roles but would not follow my directions because they think I’m only a film student and that they know better. We were always on a time crunch on every shoot, and so people skills are instrumental in student films in the sense that the director has to make the actors follow yet not feel their voices go unheard. (Well, if you’re a famous director working on a big budget film, that’s a different story.) Moving forward, I would make sure to set up clear expectations during the audition and the table read with actors so that they know I’m open to feedback but at the end of the day, actors need to follow the director.

Regarding time management, I’ve learned to move a lot faster on a film set. Coming from a cinematography background, I always make sure to work with the gaffer and print out lighting plans before each shoot. I also delegate a significant amount of tasks to my 1st Assistant Director who keeps an eye on everything while I rehearse with actors. On my first few shoot days, a one-page scene took me 4 hours to shoot. During my last shoot days at the Bayona Restaurant, I only had 3 hours (including set-ups and wrap-ups) to shoot a 3-page scene and I was able to get all the shots that I needed.

On May 16th, my film premiered at the Prytania Theatre. Throughout the filmmaking process, I’ve been able to further improve my filmmaking skills, as well as my ability to work with actors, secure funding, ask for sponsorships, and schedule shoots. Changemaking through filmmaking is almost always going to be a costly yet artistic process. With this experience under my belt, I’ll be more competent in visual storytelling and confident to seek out resources in the future to produce more films that explore social justice issues. In the future, I would love to attend more networking events to get to know other filmmaking professionals working at the intersection of filmmaking and social change. I would love to foster a community of filmmakers in New Orleans where people workshop their story ideas together and brainstorm the ways in which their films can maximize their impacts.

Written by Chen Yu, Dean’s Grant recipient, 2018-2019