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Illustration by Jeongin Lee

On Set: Film Capstones in Production

How has the pandemic affected film production for Film and New Media seniors at NYUAD? Read on to learn more about the challenges and changes the seniors are making as they try to creatively maximize their film production experience this semester.

Oct 11, 2020

A film on screen will never look the same as the first time a filmmaker imagined it in their mind. Inherently, films are made three times — once in the writing process, once during production and lastly while editing. A filmmaker is most free — not restrained by any physical boundaries — in the writing process. However, during production, even with the most intricately prepared pre-production plan, things go wrong and the crew must adjust. Through cuts, sound, special effects and color grading, among other things, editors can seamlessly weave shots together. Theoretically, if you are well adapted to cope with changes and can plan well, you are going to make a good film.
Yet, nothing can really prepare you to film your senior thesis during a global pandemic.
Film capstones are always collaborative, regardless of the project style. Through four years of classes as well as taking part in capstone film sets, students get acquainted with the different responsibilities of being on a film crew. Although everyone does a little bit of everything in a short film, students tend to gravitate towards one or two of the traditional roles: cinematographer, producer, director, gaffer or screenwriter.
In the spring semester of junior year, film majors familiarize themselves with each other in order to explore the capstone topics and form working relationships. The relationship between a producer and a director will often be one of compromise, while that between a cinematographer and director will depend on their understanding of each other's vision. These relationships require nurturing and practice. However, for NYU Abu Dhabi students, the pandemic has impacted their peer-to-peer collaboration, with several students deciding to study remotely or take a leave of absence, rendering these previously formed capstone relationships obsolete.
For some, a leave of absence allowed them to avoid the numerous technical and creative constraints inflicted by shooting this semester, as pandemic-induced limitations have even shut down some professional productions. Although the pandemic has caused a lot of doors to close, the situation has forced students to practice working under limitations.
“It’s challenging and if I somehow overcome this challenge, it’s going to be a very liberating feeling,” said Latifa Khoory, Class of 2021.
In order to maintain social distancing, a maximum of six people are allowed on set, including the actors, crew and one professor. Film students cannot shoot in closed locations in the city, and bringing external actors would be difficult, if not impossible, since capstone budgets will not pay for their Covid-19 tests. This is especially significant for documentary students; the nature of documentary is to film everything, even if it appears mundane on the surface. Therefore, filming consists of going out at odd hours and shooting. This semester, however, due to the fact that professors are required to accompany students when filming, the timings students can do so are restricted, and complete creative freedom is impeded.
“It’s just difficult for everyone, as much as they’re incredibly supportive and taking their time out for this, it means that I also have to be careful of the hours that I do this and I can’t be as spontaneous as I would have liked to be,” explained Nandini Kochar, Class of 2021, who is working on a documentary on female migrant workers in the UAE.
Although capstones are usually the biggest sets students experience during their undergraduate program, directors will have to be extremely picky about who they need around and the crew will have to be creative. Fortunately, this is actually common, as cheating the camera is an industry standard. For example, in my current script, I have a total of five actors but can only have two actors present on set at a time. With editing, good preparation of eyelines and color matching, the audience will never know that the shots were filmed on completely different days.
Typically, capstone films are filmed in the fall, but this year has provided the option for some students to shoot in spring. However, this may affect post-graduate plans as some students may be required to stay during the summer to finish the project.
“It will feel weird if I do go back in spring because I will feel like I am just back here to finish up the last semester and graduate instead of having a full senior year experience like a lot of others look forward to,” shared Jeremy Hsiao, Class of 2021, who is currently in Taipei, Taiwan doing a virtual semester. He plans to start shooting his capstone later than the normal timeframe, but the department is being flexible.
In Abu Dhabi, restrictions are changing on a weekly basis. Instructors and professors are constantly working with other departments in order to aid film capstone seniors in every way possible. It is clear that they are spending time to ensure we are not being unrealistically and unreasonably restricted.
After two amusing sessions of in-person class, I have become optimistic. In the Arts Center, there are three rooms connected to each other: the soundstage, the green screen room and the lighting equipment room. With meticulous preparation using walkie talkies, director’s monitors, extra long cables and a lot of sanitizer, we were able to successfully accomplish class exercises while respecting Covid-19 regulations. It has become clear that although seemingly impossible, with efforts from all sides and a lot of luck, an unprecedented capstone festival will be underway.
Vitoria Ikeda is a contributing writer. Email her at
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