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An adventure in filmmaking at Exeter Summer

ACCESS EXETER students get the red carpet treatment at their films’ premiere.

By
Cassandra Barnhart
July 31, 2019
Exeter Summer filmmaking students on Star Island

A group of filmmaking students plans out the perfect shot on Star Island.

The sound of crashing waves and an overcast sky above Rye Harbor greet a group of Exeter Summer students as they step off a school bus and onto the sandy Seacoast shore. Carrying boxes of snacks and large duffel bags filled with camera equipment, the students board a ferry and jockey for position for the best view of their destination — Star Island. As they head toward the small island off the coast of New Hampshire, the breeze whisks away the groggy morning energy. Excitement for what lies ahead builds. The transformation from student to filmmaker has begun.

This field trip is part of the Film Production course within ACCESS EXETER’s Filmmaking Academy. Given that this is their second major project, the students have some experience with the task ahead of them. Film Production is one of three courses in their schedule. The others, Screenwriting and Film in Society have helped them grow as storytellers and become more aware of how film affects culture.

Filming on location

After a short hike the instructor, Shana Gilbert, presents the challenge. Given vague details of a scandalous murder that took place in 1873 on a nearby island called Smuttynose, students must film a period piece. Though all inspired by the same story, students are given the creative freedom to build their own stories. Gilbert is a filmmaker herself. Between her work on two feature length documentaries, she’s spent twelve summers at Exeter. On Star Island, she spends her time engaging with the four student groups, encouraging them to collaborate on their own creative approach to this infamous mystery.

 

 

An aerial view of the island would see the groups scattered across the rugged terrain. One crew captures their protagonist among shrubs and berry bushes. Another films a fight scene on the rocky coast. A third group ditches the outdoors for the island's Victorian era hotel. It’s clear that though the source material is identical, they all approach it in their own unique way.

After a few hours of filming, the ferry comes back to pick them up in the late afternoon. Despite limited time to shoot they have all the footage they need to put together their short films. 

Getting down to business

After their return to Exeter, students meet up in the film lab, their home base for film production. The film lab, located in the The David E. and Stacey L. Goel Center, has everything the students need to turn their raw footage into a three-to-four-minute masterpiece. With access to film editing software and computers, students are able to express their artistry from the opening scene all the way through to the final credits. 

Exeter Summer students share footage in the Goel Film Lab

The students have one week to perfect their projects before they are screened at the Goel Center mainstage. Time ticks down to the day of the film festival as students work on their films as well as a final script for Screenwriting and a research project in Society in Film. Though the final week is rigorous, it’s also fun, built on collaboration and camaraderie.

The premiere

On the day of the film festival, the lobby of the Goel Center sports film posters for the premiere and a red carpet is laid out at the entrance of the theater. Students, dressed in their best attire, are buzzing with energy. They walk the carpet with their production teams and enter the theater, settling down into their seats in anticipation of the film showing.

 

 

First up is a set of black and white films where directors take on everything from Buster-Keaton-style physical comedy to the lies and treachery of film noir. Next up are the murder mysteries. Given the same outline, all four groups have told a different story. "Le Cimetière" demonstrates the woes of an unhappy marriage. "In Another Life" declares that joy is always possible, even after death. "Home" ponders the importance of places and the people that make them important. "Death by the Docks" forces the audience to sympathize with the villain.

Through telling these stories, the students also tell the story of their summer. Giggles echo around the theater as the class relives the experience of filming and cheers for each passing film.

After deliberation from the judges, awards are handed out. "Death by the Docks" is declared the Best of the Fest, and the team is invited on stage to accept the award. “I’d like to thank Erick for being a cool dude,” one of the actors says referring to a classmate, “And of course Ms. Gilbert,” another chimes in. The students convene in the lobby and celebrate all that they’ve accomplished in just five weeks.

Check out the winning film, "Death by the Docks" on YouTube.