Want to make a movie? That typically daunting idea was broken apart and put on display for several weeks at Penn State University, where students, staff, and faculty were invited to participate in the production of a crowd-sourced movie. Everything from story writing, to acting, to sound recording was presented as participatory art in and around the Borland Project Space. The goal was to involve as many people as possible, lowering the barriers to entry all the way to the ground and revealing the intricacies of filmmaking to the public.
The movie began with twenty feet of blank paper and color-coded prompts like “character flaws,” “inciting incidents,” and “macguffins.” Visitors to the gallery left ideas on the wall, and I patrolled campus with a clipboard to round up some additional suggestions. A scheduled event at the end of the first week, invited film professor Martin Camden and two members of Happy Valley Improv to help plot a story through the myriad suggestions. Not every suggestion made it into the final story, but participants developed ideas during a fast track writing session that served as a crash course in screenwriting. I wrote the script over the following weekend in preparation for a marathon two weeks of shooting.
Given that the project took place on a college campus, the story focused on a college student finding their way in the world. The formal structure of characters being portrayed by multiple actors meant that shifting appearances would be an inherit part of the movie. Experiments like Star Wars Uncut and my own test reel convinced me that the story would be legible despite this effect, but I wanted to reference that effect in the actual story somehow.
Based on the results of the story workshop, gender-neutral protagonist Alex, would be an indecisive triple-major whose family and friends were pulling them in a dozen directions at once. As the deadline for choosing a major approached, Alex’s fractured persona would start to unravel—hallucinating voices from inanimate objects until they flee the college into the woods, where (according to a written suggestion) they would dig a tunnel beneath the school. A group of subterranean refugees offer Alex a glimpse of unstructured life, and they eventually find a path forwards that simultaneously embraces and refutes the notion of higher education.
With script in hand, I asked random passersby to “help make a movie” for a few minutes each. Surprisingly, most people were glad to participate, though I constantly assured people that they didn’t have to be good actors. The resulting performances are occasionally cringe-worthy, but at the best moments achieve gleeful camp and some people surprised me with their genuine performances. Once again, the goal was to lay bare the production process, explaining lighting and composition techniques to anyone joining the shoot. Some film and art students assisted me throughout, and while certain scheduled events ensured willing participants, I ambushed over one hundred people with a camera and microphone.
Unedited dailies were displayed back in the gallery, where props and storyboards were strewn about in a constantly evolving workspace. A few roughcut scenes were projected in a makeshift recording studio, where participants could record foley sound effects with a variety of found objects. I led several workshops about sound recording, and enlisted participants to record voiceovers as well.
The Final Cut
The final film screened at the Palmer Museum of Art in February 2018. Watch the full film here: