Before Zotfilm surfaced at UC Irvine, film and drama majors were limited to theory-based academics that gave them the itch to produce films. Film majors wanted to direct and shoot, and drama majors wanted to act and be seen.
Zotfilm, part of UC Irvine’s Film-Arts-Drama Alliance, brings film and drama students together to practice their craft and take a hands-on approach to what they learn in their classes.
Teams of 20 members work on their projects over the course of eight weeks to create short films that premiere at the end of the quarter gala.
Third-year film and media studies major Yoshi LeaVesseur and fourth-year film and media studies and international studies double major Nicolas Plottier met as producer and writer in their first Zotfilm group in fall quarter 2012. That would be the beginning of a successful partnership, which has already generated two student films: a Zotfilm, “Shuffle,” and an independent film of their own, called “Screenplay.”
“Zotfilm taught me that filmmaking is a lot more complex than I thought, with a lot more moving pieces,” Plottier said.
The passion for creating these moving stories made it easy for LeaVesseur and Plottier, along with their Zotfilm team to pull all-nighters and fall asleep in lecture just to get the film finished by the 8-week deadline. Once they finished “Shuffle,” though, the result was worth all the sleepless nights and 3 a.m. cram sessions.
In their Zotfilm short, “Shuffle,” a girl walks around campus listening to her iPod playlist. With each change in song, her entire environment changes and she seems to be alone, living out her songs in vibrant scenes that travel over the decades and across genres.
“I had written and created films before, but with Zotfilm I have been able to collaborate with multiple creative minds to write a single script,” Plottier said. “It is amazing to see all the steps needed to create a short film, from pre-production to post.”
For a month, the crew filmed each weekend from dawn ‘til dusk, because Aldrich Park was only empty on weekends without weekday student traffic. “Shuffle” won second place at Zotfest in 2012.
“Hearing fellow filmmakers cheering and laughing at things you wrote is the best feeling in the world,” LeaVesseur said.
Since her freshman year, LeaVesseur has climbed her way to her junior year position of executive director of Zotfest, Zotfilm’s student film festival.
“I don’t know what else I would do besides film,” LeaVesseur said, who declared her film major three years ago not having ever taken a film class.
With a Zotfilm under their belt, LeaVesseur and Plottier decided to take the process into their own hands. LeaVesseur brought her idea to Plottier and over the course of spring, summer, and fall quarters, they co-wrote, co-directed and co-edited their first movie outside of Zotfilm.
The film is based on LeaVesseur’s experience as a screenwriter who struggles to deal with her two main characters when they come to life, fighting her to change the story. The screenwriter is commissioned to write a romantic comedy, but her characters don’t seem to fit together.
“When I sit down and write, whether it’s a script or a short story, I often get into debates or full-blown arguments with my characters. They don’t like me much. So we decided to use my tendency to speak to fictional characters as a plot device,” LeaVesseur said.
LeaVesseur and Plottier had fun giving the actors things to complain to the screenwriter about, and they couldn’t help but laugh whenever the character would shout out toward the camera how unreasonable the screenwriter’s ideas were.
“I think what makes ‘Screenplay’ unique is the dynamic that the actors bring to it. I am really proud of the script Plottier and I churned out, but we gave the actors a lot of room to ad lib. I think that makes dialogue even funnier, but also more natural,” LeaVesseur says.
They finished the script in May, setting out to film a short that involved a story in which the actors broke the fourth wall, speaking to the audience as if they are the screenwriters.
Using a UCI network for student actors and filmmakers, fadenetwork.org, LeaVesseur and Plottier called for actors they had worked with on previous films to audition for their first independent project.
“I like my actors to read through the script, but I also think it’s important to watch them improvise a little, so I can get a feel for their sense of humor, and see how they see the character,” LeaVesseur said.
Trying to hold professional-style auditions on campus during finals week turned out to be more of a laugh than the two had expected. Students in the Courtyard Study Lounge were cramming for finals all around them while LeaVesseur and Plottier held auditions. Plottier was forced to call out new challenges for the actors, telling them to “pretend that if you make one more noise you’ll be kicked out of your apartment.” After a long day of auditions, the duo picked 2013 graduate Autumn Harrison to play “Screenwriter,” fourth-year drama, business and political science triple major Jimmy Lin as male lead and fourth-year drama major Alyssa Schindler as female lead.
“When we found a Zotfilm group that worked together well, we felt like we were unstoppable,” LeaVesseur said.
Directors of photography, fourth-year film and media studies major and digital arts minor Justin Asilo and recent graduate Henry Pham, helped film while LeaVesseur and Plottier directed.
Extras and film crewmembers from Zotfilm made up the rest of the set. Addie Dorsey, fourth-year film and media studies major and earth system science minor, worked on sound crew for the weeks of filming that ensued in the summer.After working behind the scenes, Dorsey felt lucky to be an extra in the final scene of the film.
Campus faculty like Matt McCabe, UCI’s film department media coordinator, helped LeaVesseur and Plottier with their editing process by giving them space and resources in the editing lab fall quarter.
Kristen Hatch, professor of film and media studies, offered her lecture hall for the film and helped the team work through some of their later challenges on set.
While LeaVesseur and Plottier poured weeks into their script, they appreciated how well the actors improvised, and found that they had so many good takes, they didn’t know which to choose. They had it good, and they knew the reason.
“We casted people we knew and trusted, so it was really fun. In Zotfilm, you meet new people and bond over challenges when filming. The next step is coming together with those Zotfilm students who you work best with to create something new,” LeaVesseur said.
While the final day of shooting on Balboa Island made for some stressful shots, with some of the crew missing and locations falling through, the lackluster finish is nowhere to be seen in the film itself.
Even when the chaos of filmmaking erupted behind the camera, the set, characters and acting made for a completed independent piece that the duo believes is ready to submit to Zotfest in spring quarter.
“I love when this thing that didn’t exist at all becomes the thing we all care about,” LeaVesseur said.
After the camera turns away and the set locations are left without actors, the film is still in its formidable stages.
The next step is the hours of editing in the lab of mac computers in Humanities Gateway.
“This is where we lived for all of fall quarter,” LeaVesseur said. In order to make a high quality film, they filmed the picture and recorded the sound separately.
The biggest challenge ahead of them was to match up the sound amoment.
“It feels like you’re never done. And when you actually do finish, all you want to do is move on to the next project,” Plottier said.
The final step is enlisting a music editor to help them input original music into the film before they submit their completed film.
“I’ve liked writing since I was a kid. I used to write short stories, but writing is only half of the fun,” Plottier said.
“With film I get to see my writing come to life. With film you can edit your story and see it materialize.”