The show must go on!

Student projects shine at film festival despite virtual environment

Aleena Hassan
Mercury Staff

UTD filmmakers were recognized for their exceptional talent in an unprecedented year by the Cosmic Film Festival.

The festival is hosted by Meteor Theater, a student-run program that works to cultivate student interest and appreciation for films. While they received a total of seven submissions, two films swept all the awards.

Night Shift, an animated short created by ATEC students enrolled in Animated Lab I and II, won Best Sound Editing, Best Editing, Best Director and Best Film. Close to 90 people were involved in the development of the film, and it took two semesters for it to be completed. For those working in pre-production – like co-director and recent ATEC graduate Alyssa Fontanilla – the process began even earlier.

“The spring [2019] semester just ended, and Nicole Solis [the director] and I started working together. I remember we got boba and we were sitting there for three hours writing a script,” Fontanilla said. “We’re both Filipino, so we tried to put some touches of Filipino culture and include little homages to our lives growing up.”

The film follows a little girl waiting for her mother to come home from her night shift, inspired by Solis’ memories of waiting for her father to come home from working as a nurse. Fontanilla said they aimed to evoke a sense of childhood nostalgia and wonder.

The group started officially working in spring 2020 but had to switch to virtual collaboration two months after starting. ATEC senior Connor Kirkpatrick was the only producer to stay on for the full year, and she helped ensure that the film was completed on time.

“This class is the crown jewel of ATEC, and we had really talented people working on it,” Kirkpatrick said. “The hardest issues were technical, which I think we would have had if were in-person anyway. I think it was better that we premiered [on Twitch] last December because we had over 500 people watch the film, including industry people from LA and New York, and they wouldn’t have been able to fly in and see our short film if it were in-person.”

Around the same time, computer science senior Raashi Kulshrestha and ATEC senior Frederick Ezeala were in between shoots of their short film Thou Swell, which won Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay and Best Actor.

Thou Swell explores something close to both of our hearts: the fear that an artist will be forced to stay in the role of a dreamer, and it’s from the perspective of the inhibitor,” Kulshrestha said. “We hope that people who watch it will see the need for artists to create.”

The duo were semi-finalists in the Dumbo Film Festival in 2018, something she said bolstered them to keep creating films.

“As time has gone by, we’ve become a little more introspective in figuring out what message we want to give through our films because we both have a lot to say,” Kulshrestha said. “No one will usually just listen to a college student, but if you put it through a film, then suddenly your voice is amplified.”

Kulshrestha and Ezeala took five months to write and finalize the script, then shot it in four days. They plan on turning their submission into a 30-minute-long film so they can more fully explore their story. While the duo is still considering what they’ll do in the future, Kulshrestha said they now know that they can work together even if they’re in different cities.

“Freddie and I met as freshmen at a Cosmic workshop, and we’ve been working together since,” Kulshrestha said. “We’ve submitted films to the festival every year and want to keep working together.”

In preparation for the festival, Meteor Theater holds screenwriting, editing, directing and acting workshops throughout the year, so even novices can try their hand at the annual event. Such was the case for literary studies senior Hallie Brouillette, who submitted her first film to the festival two years ago after attending the workshops. Now, she is the executive chair of Meteor Theater and helped organize this year’s event. She said she hopes to expand the small, talented filmmaking community on campus.

“We have ATEC people who are taking animation and digital production classes but no filmmaking classes. The closest is film theory,” Brouillette said. “I think in the future if we include more schools, we can increase competition, and then when more people get interested, they can be like, hey, maybe we should have a filmmaking program.”

Behind the scenes of filming Thou Swell. Photo courtesy of Raashi Kulshrestha.