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April 2014
Issue: August 1, 2010

DEPAUL UNIVERSITY'S 'PROJECT BLUELIGHT'

By: Jeffrey P. Fisher
CHICAGO — “We are serious filmmakers making professional films who just happen to have a student crew,” explains Matt Irvine, assistant professor at DePaul University’s College
of Computing and Digital Media (www.cdm.depaul.edu/cim). “Project Bluelight is where our students get hands-on experience in motion picture production.”

The idea for the program started in 2003 with a discussion between Irvine and fellow assistant professor Gary Novak. According to Irvine, when he was in school he never saw any faculty films. “I wanted to find a way for faculty to make films and have students work on them and gain real moviemaking experience. That would then make them better filmmakers.”

What the two came up with was an educational and community outreach program led by both faculty and area filmmaking professionals with the dual goal of creating high-quality independent films while providing an intensive, practical, film production experience for DePaul students.
All DePaul students must earn an experiential learning credit. Typically that entails service work in the Chicago area. Irvine saw his idea as a way for students to earn that credit while staying within the Digital Cinema program. He wrote a proposal to start Project Bluelight and the initial film, Last Call, brought together between 20 to 30 students who worked for three weeks to complete the principal photography. “It was a test balloon of whether or not we could really do this. It could have failed, but by pressing on we got it done,” recalls Irvine. “We all learned a lot during the process.”

Encouraged by this initial success, Irvine and Novak focused on another side to Project Bluelight. Instead of a faculty-based film, there would be a contest among advanced students to submit a screenplay. The one story deemed best would get made. Students who then applied for the class would be assigned key crew positions as they worked to complete the student film during the summer. However, the project doesn’t stop after the shoot. “Students continue to work on the post production editing, visual effects, sound design, and submit their films to independent film festivals and explore distribution options.”

HANDS-ON LEARNING

For the next few years, the digital cinema program grew rapidly. That resulted in both additional faculty and more production resources. Two years ago, associate professor Ron Eltanal approached Irvine with the idea of making a musical under the Project Bluelight banner. In Love With a Nun tells the tale of Rob who breaks up with his girlfriend Jill because she has decided to become a nun. In addition to writing and directing the film, Eltanal wrote all the songs.

During the summer of 2008, students worked alongside faculty and other professionals shooting in Chicago and its suburbs on the Sony EX-1 camera. In Love With a Nun screened at the Cannes Short Film Corner and the LA Shorts Festival in 2009.

“It’s unbelievable what the students can learn by working on a real, professional film production,” he says. “They see that every position is crucial and that it can be as important to work in craft services as it is to operate the camera. Making a film is a giant beast, and without all the arms functioning, it simply won’t work.”

Irvine says that they also hire other professionals to come in to work with students. “We have a professional assistant director, casting agents in Chicago, NYC and LA, a makeup artist, location sound mixer and location manager. As the scope of these projects grow, so does our need for extra help.”

Having close ties with one of America’s oldest and most respected theatre conservatories, The Theatre School at DePaul, proved to be a good match for 2009’s Project Bluelight film, Scott’s Dead. The script attracted actor Michael Rooker (Eight Men Out), himself a DePaul Theater School alum, who played a lead role. Co-written by Irvine and Novak, and directed by Irvine, Scott’s Dead is a gritty story about family and redemption. “It’s the complete antithesis of last year’s In Love With a Nun.”

Project Bluelight also serves as a testing ground for new equipment and workflow that then trickles down to the regular Digital Cinema core classes. For example, Scott’s Dead, was shot on the Red camera. “We test drove this new technology in the summer and overcame its challenges in time for fall classes,” explains Irvine. “You only really learn these new workflows by working through them on a real project.”

They will use the Red once again on this summer’s Project Bluelight film, The King, which is a TV pilot written and directed by another faculty member, Dan Klein. Irvine says they may take the DSLR route in the near future.

There is another benefit to Project Bluelight: “Making a film is an ideal way for a faculty member to ‘publish’ and create a body of work that raises the profile of DePaul and can lead to tenure. As far as I know, we’re the only program in the country doing this.”

Project Bluelight pays for itself with student enrollment. Budgets vary but average about $50,000. “When you throw in the facilities and equipment provided by DePaul, these in-kind items take us to the $300,000 range.”

Students can even participate in Project Bluelight more than once so they have the opportunity to try many hats and move up into important positions. About half the students who worked on In Love With a Nun worked again on Scott’s Dead. “It’s simple really: If you want to learn how to really make movies, work every Project Bluelight that you can and see how movies get made.”
Irvine’s thoughts are echoed by student John Psathas, who functioned as production manager last year. “If a student came up to me and asked whether or not they should be on Project Bluelight, I would tell them without a doubt, take as many as you can.”

“What we are trying to do is create a community and make some great films. In Chicago, our reputation continues to grow and people want to get involved and work with us, multiple times. That’s the mark of doing something right,” says Irvine.

For more information on the DePaul University College of Computing and Digital Media and Project Bluelight, contact projectbluelight@cdm.depaul.edu or visit cdm.depaul.edu.