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Student Filmmakers Get Professional Experience in Semester Cinema Program

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Austin Pellegrino on the set of Martin Eden - COURTESY OF KINGDOM COUNTY PRODUCTIONS
  • Courtesy Of Kingdom County Productions
  • Austin Pellegrino on the set of Martin Eden

Breaking into any field is a challenge, especially a competitive, creative one such as the film industry. But students at Northern Vermont University-Lyndon, working in conjunction with Kingdom County Productions, have an opportunity to jump-start their careers through the biennial Semester Cinema program.

Under the supervision of Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven, as well as a team of industry professionals, young creators will assist in the filming of Craven's next feature, Lost Nation, during the spring 2022 semester.

The film's story centers on several Vermont historical figures, including Revolutionary War patriot Ethan Allen and poet-activist Lucy Terry Prince. The latter's 1746 poem "Bars Fight" is regarded as the first recorded work of Black American literature.

"[Prince's] eloquence led her to use the court system to argue for civil rights ... at a very critical moment," Craven said by phone. "Part of our goal in making the film is to emphasize this diverse early history."

Craven founded the Semester Cinema program in 2006 at the now-defunct Marlboro College. A group of 35 students worked on his 2006 film Disappearances, based on the novel by Vermont author Howard Frank Mosher and starring Kris Kristofferson. Craven repeated the process for his next three features, moving the program to New York's Sarah Lawrence College in 2019 as Marlboro faced viability issues.

Though Semester Cinema is now based at NVU, students from many liberal arts colleges are eligible to attend the experiential learning project.

Students are folded into the filmmaking process early on, beginning with an excursion to the Sundance Film Festival, held every January in Park City, Utah. The trip allows students to get to know each other outside the classroom and exposes them to a bustling, film-centric environment.

"That's way better than name games in a classroom," filmmaker Austin Pellegrino, 22, said by phone. He participated in the 2019 Semester Cinema program while studying cinema production at NVU-Lyndon. The program that year focused on Craven's adaptation of Jack London's Martin Eden. The film screened at the Peacham Library last week.

Pellegrino, who cofounded the cinema production studio Midnight Industries in Bethlehem, N.H., said the semester-long program was, at the time, the most immersive and professional filmmaking experience of his career.

"Everything [from] the quality of the gear [to] the language being used on set" was an upgrade from anything he'd done previously, he said.

Production for Martin Eden, shot on location on Nantucket, Mass., lasted for six weeks. Pellegrino said he got through the initial learning curve pretty quickly and afterward felt more fluid in his role on the editing staff.

"A lot of time was spent running back and forth ... bringing cards back [from shooting] and making sure that the data was stored properly and taken care of," he said.

One new piece of tech Pellegrino had never worked with was a Jellyfish, a kind of high-capacity editing server.

"It didn't really work at all," Pellegrino recalled. "I spent a lot of time with other students on tech support. They definitely put us in charge of all of that."

In addition to working in their concentrated areas, Pellegrino said, students were encouraged to learn about their peers' disciplines. Before shooting, the department heads took students through the various units to give them a feel for what each entails. During production, Pellegrino learned on the job about hair and makeup design after being cast as a background player in the film.

Currently, Craven is in preproduction for Lost Nation. So far, his crew has only gathered in Zoom meetings to hash out elements of the script and planning processes. Wellesley College student Hazel Kevlihan said that, with a little effort, he and other current students have been able to start making connections outside of those sessions.

"Even though I'm pretty sure moviemaking is something I want to pursue after college, I see Semester Cinema as kind of a trial run to make sure this is a thing I really want to do," Kevlihan wrote in an email. "I feel as though I'm gaining valuable insight into what it's like to make an independent film."

"We're making a real movie," Craven said. "We're opening doors to students to participate substantially in a project where there are professionals mentoring and collaborating at the department-head level of the production."

Correction, September 6, 2021: An earlier version of this story included incorrect pronouns for Kevlihan, who uses he/they pronouns.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Green Light"