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Crash course on the big screen

In just 7 days, students learn film production.
Tuesday, January 9, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:21 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Director and producer R.J. Visciglia Jr. traveled all the way from Los Angeles to teach a seven-day course in film production at Stephens College and to shake up some students’ academic lives. Rather than merely lecturing on methods and processes, Visciglia throws his students into leading the production and editing themselves.

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Professional director and producer R.J. Visciglia Jr. teaches students in the intensive film production class at Stephens College on Friday. Rather than lecturing on the film process, Visciglia throws students into directing and editing the production themselves. (Photos by ADAM WISNESKI)

Stephens’ official description of the class, which began Wednesday, is “intensive film production.” Visciglia puts the emphasis on “intensive.” Students have class from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, which usually runs late, and many stay for “movie night” afterward to watch Academy Award contenders and then critique the films.

Although some might shy away from such a seemingly daunting schedule, the students who arrived Friday for class showed nothing but enthusiasm for working with Visciglia on a mock set in the basement of Stephens College’s Helis Communications Center.

“Do you all have your scripts?” Visciglia asks. A row of 11 female heads turn downward, a shuffle of papers follows, and each woman produces a stack of bound papers labeled “My Boys.”

They sit at a long table in the center of the large studio, their faces lit by the hot glow of stage lighting hung high in the rafters. The corners of the room are lost in shadow, illuminated only faintly by the light falling on the table. The whole scene is reminiscent of an office in an old detective movie.

In this room for most of the class, Visciglia, who has directed and produced TV series such as “Touched by an Angel,” teaches his students the art of film production. His method? Step back and let them take control.

“In the beginning, I just throw a student in as a director, and we just stumble through it,” Visciglia said. “I do that purposefully so they can see where things don’t work.”

During his class, which runs through today, the students do everything on their own, including developing a character, directing, breaking down scripts and operating a camera.

“At the end,” Visciglia said, “they know the importance of each one of these departments.”

The class is producing an act from the TBS comedy “My Boys” and creating a short film for the video-sharing Web site YouTube. Visciglia brought a script from “My Boys,” a series he produces in Los Angeles about a female sports journalist whose friends are mostly men. The class will produce the script just as it was produced on the real set of “My Boys” and will critique its work against the actual episode.

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Visciglia coaches students Laura Wilson, center, and Cara Blome, right, during filming. The class is producing an act from the TBS comedy series “My Boys” and will create a short film for the video-sharing Web site YouTube.

“Having R.J. as our teacher is probably the best opportunity,” said senior Katie Nesbit. “He teaches everything he knows and holds nothing back.”

Visciglia likes the fact that he can create a professional, hands-on atmosphere for the students. “There’s reasons for everything, but if you don’t go in there and get your hands dirty, you’ll never know what those reasons are.”

The class is part of Stephens’ five-year effort to improve its Performing Arts School curriculum. Several classes similar to Visciglia’s have been offered during Stephens’ Summer Film Institutes, said Amy Gipson, vice president for marketing and public relations at Stephens College. Each class has used a similar model, featuring host professors from Hollywood who offer valuable true-life experience.

Stephens spokeswoman Sarah Berghorn said the five-year plan also spawned Stephens Performing Arts School two years ago, combining existing majors so that graduates could gain more varied experiences. Stephens has also proposed cooperating with MU on future film productions; talks are still under way.

MU has done two feature productions in which several Stephens students participated.

The joint projects are intended to offer film production opportunities to not only Stephens students, but also students at MU, which offers no major in that area. MU film studies professor Roger Cook said a proposal for a film studies major has been approved at the campus level, and he hopes it will be instituted this year or next.

Stephens has seen a steady increase in enrollment at the Performing Arts School. David Adams, Stephens’ dean of enrollment management, said enrollment in 2005 was 50 but has since risen to 70.


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