By Connor Smith
Beyond a red carpet entrance and into a dimly lit Mayo Concert Hall, the Campus MovieFest finale on Wednesday, April 19, was a night of careful celebration and uncertainty.
CMF provided computers, software, cameras and sound equipment for students to write, shoot and edit their own 5-minute films in one week. Out of 46 films, 16 were screened, and only four were granted Jury Awards to advance to the national level. The prizes ranged from a personal drone with a built-in camera to a trip to the national competition at the 2017 TERMINUS conference and festival. The hosts also got the audience involved with raffles and giveaways.
The four Jury Awards went to two teams: The Aperture Legacy for “Obsidian” and “Arke” and Burnt Toast Productions for “Just The Tip” and “Recollection.” Four Silver Tripods were also awarded for sound design, best special effects, best performance and production design. Unlike Jury Awards, Silver Tripod Awards are divvied out by on-site CMF representatives and it’s not guaranteed a school will earn any.
Anyone could enter the competition, which included groups from the Student Film Union, Lions Television and the Department of Arts and Communications.
Kevin Walsh Jr., a sophomore communication studies major, sat front and center with his friends and Burnt Toast Productions teammates. This was his second CMF finale, and he and his team, mostly members of Lions Television, were just hoping a few of their four total entries would be screened.
Walsh and company didn’t have to wait very long: The first film screened was the group’s comedy “Living the American Meme: The Story of Jebediah Dartmouth,” which was written and directed by sophomore communication studies major Tyler Law.
Law’s mockumentary followed a farmer who tries to support his wife and son by growing plants that sprout memes, which were printed out and attached to stems. When compared to its often-serious competition, the lighthearted nature of “Living the American Meme” drew some of the loudest laughs of the night.
As the night progressed, anxiousness gave way to a mix of celebration and desperation, as the odds against the majority of entries began to unravel. For Ryan Laux and Chris Lundy, both senior interactive multimedia majors and former DreamWorks Animation interns, the question was never “if” their two films would be screened, but “when?”
Laux and Lundy are CMF veterans, with multiple best special effects awards and top 5 national placings when working with IMM alumni Josh Lewkowicz ( ’15) and Andrew Kuserk ( ’15) as part of The Aperture Process production team.
“Last year, after Josh and Andrew graduated, Chris and I were left to build our own crew and continue the legacy that our former teammates had left,” Laux told The Signal. “This certainly wasn’t easy, but we found some great students that helped us to produce ‘Lucidity’ in 2016, which went on to win special effects nationally, as well.”
Lundy’s and Laux’s new team, The Aperture Legacy, witnessed their films’ impact first hand when “Obsidian” premiered on Wednesday night. The film, about a deep-space mission gone wrong, mixed a powerful message and astonishing visuals. When the credits hit, there was silence — the audience sat in awe of what they had just witnessed.
“We had so much fun experimenting with new techniques that we never tried before,” Laux said. “For the ‘take off’ scene, there was no VFX involved at all — it was literally just a black sheet, plastic photo frame cover, projector and a fog machine all set up in our basement.”
Both Lundy and Laux credit CMF for much of their growth as filmmakers.
“In our first year at CMF, I had never held a DSLR nor any kind of advanced video/audio equipment. I just wanted to make a film,” Lundy told The Signal. “Through CMF, Ryan Laux and I met friends and now TCNJ alumni that would grow to be our mentors (Josh Lewkowicz and Andrew Kuserk) and happily collaborate and share in the filmmaking process. By learning from others and gaining experience anyway you can, great things will happen.”
“As a senior IMM student, I now have an impressive portfolio of award-winning films and have come to be known for filmmaking on my college campus and beyond,” he added.
Another standout was “Luna,” which was written, directed, acted and edited by senior communication studies major Gracemarie Loretta, and featured Loretta’s character fighting her way through would-be attackers in a late-night parking garage. The film earned a Silver Tripod award for its sound production.
Loretta also starred in The Aperture Legacy’s second film, “Arke,” which energized the crowd in its four-minute runtime, and also brought home a Silver Tripod for best special effects. In contrast to “Obsidian’s” experimental practical effects, “Arke” utilized heavy VFX to tell its story. In the piece, Loretta’s character uses advanced technology to relive her last memory from before her brother disappears. The memory was filmed by the ocean in Beach Haven, N.J., and the temperature dropped to 40 degrees by the time the shoot wrapped, according to Lundy.
“When it comes to CMF, really anything goes to get the production done,” Laux said. “For the beach scene in ‘Arke,’ we decided about 12 hours before we went to shoot that we wanted to go at all. I actually joked about it, but then everyone was like ‘Hey, why not?’ I totally think the trip was worth it.”
Walsh and his teammates, meanwhile, would witness all four films screened in the top 16. To contrast its mockumentary was “Recollection,” which included two homosexual subjects being tortured in gay conversion therapy.
“We knew we wanted to do a drama, of sorts, and then some comedies,” said Ellie Schuckman, a junior communication studies major. “I’m not great at writing comedies, so I was like ‘Let’s take a stab at the drama!’
The initial script faced several criticisms from a member of the LGBTQ+ community, whose feedback the team sought.
“It kind’ve blindsided us when that happened, and we really took a step back and ultimately came together as a team to rewrite certain parts of it,” she said.
At one point, it’s revealed Vice President Mike Pence was involved in the experiments, which Schuckman believes helps viewers realize the film is grounded in reality.
“This is what our government believes in, in a sense, and this is our way to take a stance against that,” she said. “It wasn’t even about the line, it was about the story we were telling.”
The final film to earn a Jury award, “Just The Tip,” was a tremendous underdog. The piece was an homage to alumnus Dylan Short (’16), who ate an entire pizza for his 2016 CMF entry. In similar fashion, Law begins eating a whole pizza when several increasingly absurd encounters brings him full circle.
“We were probably saying there was a 50/50 chance that ‘Just the Tip’ could even get screened,” said Peter Weiland, a junior communication studies major. “When we saw it screened, we were going nuts. We were like ‘That’s amazing!’”
With all the winners on stage to accept their awards, Walsh couldn’t believe the company his films were keeping, side by side with Laux and Lundy.
“It’s a position I’d never imagined I would be in,” Walsh said. “They are so great. I’ve watched their stuff last year, and even before I came to TCNJ, just looking at the Campus MovieFest channel, and it’s always so beautiful. Their stories are so creative. When you have a perfect story and you just know everything about VFX and production design? That’s them.”
For Lundy, CMF will always be a formative experience for both he and Laux.
“CMF has been an intrinsic force in providing a motivation for refining our craft and building our portfolios,” Lundy said. “In drawing creativity from a lack of time and resources during the one-week film festival, we’ve learned not only how to jumpstart a production but the value of connections and collaborations in and outside of our production team at The College of New Jersey.”
While both he and Laux are set to graduate this May, Lundy is confident this won’t be the end of their award-winning partnership.
“We plan on staying very well connected with each other as well as our past and present teammates after graduation,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, Campus MovieFest was only the beginning of our collaboration and aspirations as content creators.”