Changemaking through Filmmaking

As a Changemaker Catalyst Award recipient, Chen Yu finished a short film titled The Lottery, which breaks down the white-nonwhite binary and explores our everyday complicity in oppression, and in this film specifically, immigration policies as productions of global racial hierarchy.

I received the changemaking catalyst award to fund my senior thesis film, titled The Lottery. I wrote, directed, produced, edited, and color graded this film and am in the process of submitting the film to various social justice-centered film festivals in order to engage more viewers in dialogues surrounding immigrant justice.

I used my grant to cover most of the costs associated with the film making process. As per union rules, I was required to provide food and snacks on each of the shooting days for my cast and crew. I also had to purchase various set dressing items to make locations look realistic on camera. Before I purchased anything, I made sure to communicate with my art director and production designers on the set dressing items so they would fit the ideal color palette. I did test shoots for several scenes where I made unconventional lighting choices to ensure that the color graded version would look like what I envisioned.

I became a lot more comfortable with producing short films after doing it by myself. Not only did I secure two grants from Tulane to fund my film, I also improved my negotiation skills through securing locations and sponsorships. As a student filmmaker on a very small budget, I had to reach out to several property owners and persuade them to allow me to film there at a low cost or for free. I also reached out to restaurant owners to secure discounted food for my cast and crew. For example, to secure a high-end restaurant for my film shoot, I had to reach out to over 30 restaurants, talk to managers and restaurant owners, explain my film. After securing a restaurant for free, I became a lot more confident at selling what I do to people, which will come in handy when I produce more films in the future on a tight budget.

Chen YuIn terms of scheduling, everything in the film making process is time sensitive. I’ve become well-versed in different scheduling tactics like scheduling shoots with the busy actors first and working around their schedules. I also made the actors leave certain days free for me just in case of re-shoots. It was definitely stressful to do all of this on top of being a full-time student. But I think the ability to juggle different tasks is so important for changemakers to pursue their social impact projects while making a living.

From my first time directing a short film, I realized how difficult it was to work with actors who are very persistent about their ideas even when they don’t align with yours. I’m open to actor feedback, but often times I want to stick with my vision. I had to work with actors who were perfect for the roles but would not follow my directions because they think I’m only a film student and that they know better. People’s skills are instrumental in student films in the sense that the director has to make the actors follow yet not feel their voices go unheard. (Well, if you’re a famous director working on a big budget film, that’s a different story.) Moving forward, I would make sure to set up clear expectations during the audition and the table read with actors so that they know I’m open to feedback but at the end of the day, actors need to follow the director.

Regarding time management, I’ve learned to move a lot faster on a film set. Coming from a cinematography background, I always made sure to work with the gaffer and to print out lighting plans before each shoot. I also delegated a significant amount of tasks to my 1st assistant director who kept an eye on everything while I rehearsed with actors. On my first shoot days, a one-page scene took me 4 hours to shoot. During my last shoot days at the Bayona Restaurant, I only had 3 hours (including set-ups and wrap-ups) to shoot a 3-page scene, which I was able to shoot.

On May 16th, my film will premiere at the Prytania Theatre. I’m excited to engage with community members in a dialogue around social justice and prompt the audience to think about their own complicity in different forms of oppression. Throughout the film making process, I’ve been able to further improve my film making skills, as well as my ability to work with actors, secure funding, ask for sponsorships, and schedule shoots. Changemaking through film making is almost always going to be a costly yet artistic process. With this experience under my belt, I’ll be more competent in visual storytelling and confident in seeking out resources to produce more films that explore social justice issues. In the future, I would love to attend more networking events to meet other film making professionals working at the intersection of film making and changemaking. I would also love to foster a community of filmmakers in New Orleans where people workshop their story ideas together and brainstorm the ways in which their films can maximize their impact.