Reel It In
Voice Magazine / Stories / 2023 Winter / Reel It In: The Virtual Future of Filmmaking

Reel It In: The Virtual Future of Filmmaking

University of La Verne film students participated in a weeklong pilot education abroad program featuring access to a state-of-the-art digital studio while working collaboratively with students and filmmakers from Taipei.

In the heart of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of La Verne, digital film production students Kaitlyn Moran ’24, Andrew Morris ’24, Andrew Patterson ’23, and Amanda Torres ’24 geared up for the journey of a lifetime. Packed with excitement and fueled by artistic passion, they were mere moments away from beginning a two-week pilot program that would transport them from sunny Southern California to the beautiful bustling streets of Taipei. Their mission? To explore the cutting-edge world of virtual filmmaking at Shih Hsin University in a state-of-the-art LED studio, otherwise known as: The Volume.

What is “The Volume”? Let’s immerse you into the scene:

Reel It In
Students stand on The Volume stage displaying a winter forest landscape.

A massive air-controlled set is lit by four IMAX-rivaling, LED test screens that envelop the ceiling and sides of the staged area, shaped around in a blazing bright rainbow hue test screen of colors. The 360-degree panels are built so seamlessly together it looks like a pocket into a new dimension. The screen goes black. People in headsets tap computer screens for a virtual scene change. Sophisticated cameras are adjusted. An actor walks up the stairs to a fluorescent floor-taped marker.

The scene is set. Everyone awaits the director:

“Quiet on the set. And…marker.”

A far-off land appears for take one.

Alumnus Nathan Chow, MS ’01, DPA ’11, a man whose connection to the institution runs deep, made this opportunity possible. Chow holds a special place in his heart for both the University of La Verne and Shih Hsin University. Shih Hsin is Chow’s family’s institution and he serves as chairman of the board. His unwavering support for the arts, superior filmmaking, and generosity were the driving forces behind this unique educational endeavor.

Standing at the forefront of this adventure was Professor of Digital Film Production Morgan Sandler, a creatively dedicated documentary award-winning cinematographer and digital film production extraordinaire. His passion for storytelling translates effortlessly into his life as a professor. Experience as a cinematographer and producer ignites his professional prowess and helps guide his students into movie industry success.

Sandler says utilizing this “rad” virtual LED studio in collaboration with Chow and the Taipei university makes a significant impact. The technology is so sophisticated and cutting-edge, that access to this multi-million dollar equipment is nearly out of reach to most in the U.S. Visual effects such as commercial driving scenes are filmed this way, as the screens effortlessly transport actors and viewers into a completely new landscape. For instance, the Star Wars franchise utilizes this technology in The Mandalorian, where most galactic scenes are filmed.

University of La Verne students got an industry advantage, learning about the intricacies of the LED set technology, while Sandler shared more about the American film industry with Shih Hsin University students during a rigorous schedule of six all-day classes. Technical lighting, camera work for non-virtual sets, and the creation of a practical set for future projects with the LED screens was also part of the curriculum.

But it wasn’t all work and no play. Outside the classroom, students were immersed in the vibrant tapestry of Taiwanese culture and history. They visited tea house villages on top of scenic mountains, viewed Buddhist shrines, and tasted new cuisines.

This fusion of classroom learning and real-world cultural experiences was a transformative journey. Morris ’24 called the trip a “phenomenal experience,” saying it furthered his skillset and cultural perspectives.

“I now have more of a technical grasp of gaffers and grips and what they do,” explained Morris, who transferred to the university for film composition. “This trip was a valuable experience and I know way more than what I did of the industry before.”

Torres ’24 is already working in the film industry. She currently works on big-budget sets mostly in their lighting department, and recently started working as a camera assistant. She plans to be a leader in cinematography and directing.

“I feel extremely grateful to have made these connections in Taiwan,” Torres said. “I went home feeling very motivated and excited to go into my senior thesis and apply my knowledge to make it one of the best films La Verne has seen thus far.”

Program organizers anticipate further collaborations and opportunities for current and future students, so the Leopard community continues to make its mark in the global cinematic landscape.