UNCW film professor’s short film production serves as classroom for students
When Shannon Silva was six years old, her uncle brought home the 16mm Bolex camera he used to shoot footage for the Army during the Vietnam War.
Watching her uncle load the camera, seeing how it was used, hearing the sounds it made was an experience that sparked Silva’s life-long love of filmmaking.
It’s a passion that the UNC Wilmington professor shares with her students, well outside the confines of her classroom. She recently completed a short film called “Baby Oil,” with her husband Andre Silva, a fellow UNCW professor who served as director of photography. About half of the crew for the film were current students, while the rest were alumni. Silva called the process “a learning set.”
“I do flipped classroom projects all the time in my teaching,” said Silva, who wrote and directed the film. “I utilized students who had shown outstanding producer qualities as apprentices. Once we finished pre-production, we set up directed independent studies with students who would work in the sound department and the camera department. So they got course credit while working as assistants.”
The flipped classroom is an education model in which students learn from video lectures or readings outside of the classroom while spending class time in more hands-on activities. A film set is an ideal example, since the students are gaining hands-on experience about the aspects of making a film during what would be considered class time.
Not only does Silva use the model for the movie-making process, but she also incorporates the same philosophy into UNCW’s Visions Film Festival and Conference, an international film festival aimed at student filmmakers.
Lights, cameras, plenty of action
During the production process, students weren’t restricted to a single department, such as sound, for example, but instead allowed to work on different aspects.
“When you’re on a set, you often have a role and you don’t deviate from that role. But these are students who are early in their process. I had a producer who was also in the art department but also had an interest with the cameras. On certain days, we would rotate positions so they could try out other interests.”
Kevin Smith, who graduated from UNCW in May, was one of the producers of the short film. He said Silva put a lot of trust in him and the other students, allowing them to work on various aspects of the production.
“She taught me time management, not just on a movie set, but for life in general,” said Smith, a High Point native who worked as a producer, art director and assistant director on the film. “I learned how to set up a shoot and get everybody together. She loves letting the crew members branch out. It was a good collaboration.”
“Baby Oil” tells the story of two sisters who are trapped in a trailer during a storm in rural North Carolina during the 1970s. Currently, Silva is in post-production, which she hopes to have complete in December to start entering the film into film festivals.
Much like her students, her time on “Baby Oil” also was a learning experience for Silva, who had never directed a dramatic film before. Her previous directing experience was done through documentaries.
Silva was awarded a $10,000 NC Artist Fellowship by the North Carolina Arts Council earlier this year, allowing her to finish the movie. Silva hopes “Baby Oil” will gain funding and attention for a feature film she is writing and directing.
“I decided to experience directing a movie and directing actors by doing the short, working in the creative side of the process instead of the producing side through budgeting and scheduling,” she said. “The arts award is a fellowship. It doesn’t support a particular project, but it supports you as an artist.”
Her full-length feature, “Red,” is set in 1939 rural North Carolina and based on a story that Silva’s grandmother told her about being a 14-year-old girl playing softball while her family struggled with poverty.
Silva has had other shorts and documentaries appear in film festivals in the past, and she also has served on the screening committee for several notable film festivals, including South by Southwest. She also founded the Wilmington Female Filmmakers Collective.
She has extended the film festival experience to her students by working with the Visions Film Festival and Conference, an annual event held at the Lumina Theater on the UNCW campus.
The festival and conference are both flipped classrooms, with the students planning and running the event, which is aimed at student filmmakers across the globe.
“It’s a year-long class and allows 20 students to run an international event that we hold on campus,” she said. “It’s another really intensive applied-learning course.”
Smith said he worked on the festival and conference for two years. Just like working on the film, Smith said Silva had a hands-off approach and let people learn on the job, as well as assume leadership positions.
“That’s one of the things I liked about her class,” he said. “It helps you understand your position. She throws you in the deep end. When it comes to our next stop, it will help us be more independent.”
Written by Phillip Ramati