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Innovation in experiential learning

During the last week of November, the crew of an upcoming feature film did test shoots in the stairwell of the Art Building here on the University of Utah campus. Set-up, logistics, shots sound—all were tested by the crew under the supervision of the directors.

This was not the first time a film crew came to campus—where else could basketball scenes be shot for “High School Musical 2″if not the Huntsman Center? However, this particular film and its crew are unique: They are part of an exciting new endeavor that marries professional experience, experiential learning and artistic research. This film is a creation by Miriam Albert-Sobrino and Sonia Albert-Sobrino, professors in the U’s Department of Film & Media Arts, and their film crew is almost completely comprised of U students.

The Also Sisters giving direction to the student crew prior to the filmed table read event

This expansive project will have its principal photography in March 2024, but its beginnings can be traced back to 2021 when the story concept was first used in collaboration with the U’s Department of Theatre. Professors Alexandra Harold and Rob Scott Smith wanted to collaborate with the Sobrino sisters, and so reached out to them to create a concept. The result was “Liminal,” a transmedia theatre piece that premiered in February of 2021.

Now in a new setting, “The Stairwell” (working title) will be a cosmic horror feature film set in the 1990s, starring two women. It’s a “bottle” film, placing the characters in a confined space for the majority of the story. Behind the scenes is an incredibly thorough and rich learning experience that will continue to benefit the department and the wider community in years to come.

At the core of everything, however, are the Sobrino sisters who use their collective professional adopted name of the Also Sisters. The Also Sisters, who are originally from the Galicia area of Spain, have found considerable success with their short films. They have screened their work at several major film festivals including Sitges, Raindance, Edinburgh and a substantial number of Méliès and Academy Award Qualifying venues. You might have even caught one of their films on the streaming service Shudder. Much of their work explores horror with a feminist and experimental lens and has often been crewed, in part, by students.

“Miriam and Sonia are award-winning filmmakers and passionate educators,” said Department of Film & Media Arts Chair Andrew Patrick Nelson, Ph.D. “They have an exemplary record of bringing their real-world experience into the classroom, and of involving students in their professional projects.”

There’s no doubt that this project will very much be an Also Sisters production. It will be a professional feature-length film they’ll submit to film festivals and other distribution venues. “While we acknowledge that creating a feature film with a student team can pose challenges,” said Miriam Albert-Sobrino, “we are confident that the final product will stand on par with more expensive productions.” The sisters will serve as directors, writers and cinematographers, and will also edit the film.

Student John Mazurowsky adjusts a film light.

The film will be crewed by U film and media arts and theatre students, who will be in all roles from production assistants to department heads in production design, grip and lighting, sound and more. These students are taking a pair of courses, one in fall semester, one in spring and get to be fully involved with the development and the filming of the project. Referred to as the “Brain Trust,” these students have contributed to the story and have already participated in all elements of production, including the test shoot and filmed table reads.

This is an absolutely priceless experience for the students involved. “The opportunity to help make a feature film is a truly exceptional educational experience, and one that sets our students up for success after graduation,” said Nelson.

The film is also a learning experiment. The Also Sisters want the film to be an exploration of intersectionality, and for the production of the film to be a practice in producing “robust and authentic fiction using an intersectional approach.” The film is receiving support and funding from the U’s Transformative Intersectional Collection initiative (TRIC). In speaking to the overall pedagogical goal, the Sobrinos said their film “aims to create a handbook for filmmakers that includes strategies for better developing multidimensional characters with intersecting identities.”

In line with this, the project has and will continue to have intensive documentation, including a feature-length documentary, shot by a student, on the making of the film. Eventually, the film and the other documentation will be used in the future to teach filmmaking concepts as well as serve as an example of how to better create intersectional stories.

Filmed table read event

As a final element, the Also Sisters are involving other professionals, most notably seasoned Hollywood screenwriter Melody Cooper, who will be assessing the screenplay and providing insights into character and story development, particularly regarding the intersectional identities of the characters. In January, Cooper will visit campus to teach a master class and attend a partial table read of the script. Lastly, leading up to the film shoot, the Sobrinos are connecting with local film professionals to mentor their student department heads and help them navigate their roles.

Overall, the project is an exciting endeavor weaving teaching, practice, and research into a tangible tapestry of product and experience.

“Innovation and collaboration are what our faculty does best here in the College of Fine Arts,” said Associate Dean for Research Rebecca Zarate, Ph.D. “Professors Miriam Albert-Sobrino and Sonia Albert-Sobrino are bridging gaps in pedagogy, research, and artistic ways of knowing. Enlisting the equally innovative ideas and skills of our students is not only a shared, empowering experience, but also important strides in how we learn and gain new knowledge about the craft of film and media arts and how we teach it.” Zarate also noted that the Sobrinos’ project is funded by several grants available to U professors, including the College of Humanities and College of Fine Arts Dee Grant and the University of Utah Teaching Grant.

With many of the components in the process, the Also Sisters film is already a fantastic example of collaboration. Much is yet to come, and you’ll hear more about “The Stairwell” as the project progresses. In the meantime, Miriam and Sonia Albert-Sobrino are enjoying the journey.

“Working in a respectful and collaborative space is key to creating a good movie, but more importantly, it is crucial for an overall wonderful experience,” Sonia Albert-Sobrino said. “Our goal is to craft a film that every contributor takes pride in, ensuring they fully enjoy the learning process.”