“I pinch myself every day I step into this space,” says Alexander Sherman.
The “space” is DePaul’s new film production facility at Cinespace Chicago, the largest professional studio in the United States outside Hollywood. As a graduate student working toward an MFA in cinema, Sherman was one of the first students to move into the new space one year ago, helping to get it up and running and working there ever since.
“It’s certainly rare for students to learn on a professional lot,” he says. ”We’re getting fast tracked to great career opportunities.”
At Cinespace Chicago, DePaul students get film and television production experience inside a real-world facility, right next door to stages where the TV shows "Chicago Fire" and "Chicago P.D." are filmed. The 20,000 square-foot space includes a 10,000 square-foot soundproof stage, instructional classrooms, a prop shop, offices and set storage. A new Alexa camera system is among the professional stage equipment, along with green-screen stages, set design equipment, 3-D camera rigs, motion-controlled camera systems and a fully loaded three-ton grip truck.
Sherman just wrapped production on a series, “Day Drinking,” which follows a handful of graveyard-shift workers who meet up for a drink at 8 a.m. every day to unwind after a long night on the job. The set was built by DePaul students under the guidance of local union professionals. The scenes were lighted and shot with DePaul's equipment, and the crews were made up of digital cinema students and alumni. The series will soon be available at Funny or Die and on YouTube.
Ward Crockett, also an MFA candidate, agrees that the Cinespace resources are amazing: “We have access to an extraordinary stage, high-end equipment, sophisticated sets, the best sound quality and lighting—all the resources that give us the control and flexibility needed for professional filmmaking. With this resource for students, our program’s reputation is growing all over the country, and our students are getting a leg up in this super-competitive industry.”
During the spring quarter, Crockett wrote and co-directed a short horror film, “Hypno” (working with MFA cinema student Brandon Ciarlo and BA digital cinema student Blake Bishop). Half the film takes place in a house that’s a Cinespace set. “Shooting at Cinespace allowed us to use stylized lighting to capture the ethereal atmosphere of a dream,” he says. “We made eerie beams of moonlight by focusing lights on small areas of the set—like spotlights—and then spraying the rooms with a fog machine. We also created ghostly moonlight outside the windows of the set and a creepy splash of red light on the stairs in the front hallway.”
DePaul University and Cinespace Chicago entered into an alliance with the understanding that students would not only have their own space, but also find opportunities to work as interns or apprentices on the productions of the other tenants.
“Our students can get plugged in as crew to any production, and that happens a lot,” says Matt Irvine, director of the School of Cinema and Interactive Media.
“It’s cool, because they’re not only learning in this environment, working next to major television directors, cinematographers and other production heads, but they’re also working on the same gear that they’ll use as professionals after they graduate. In fact, it’s in the best interest of Cinespace Chicago if our students do well, and it’s that mutual advantage that really makes the alliance work.”
The space fits in well with the school’s reputation as one of the country’s best academic institutions for film and media education, as evidenced by being ranked among the top 25 film programs by The Hollywood Reporter. In developing its 2013 rankings, the publication consulted industry professionals, as well as members of the Writers Guild of America West, American Cinema Editors and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
“Our space at Cinespace is one of a kind, as far as I know,” says Irvine, “and it makes our program stand out like no other. The films our students are shooting at Cinespace are exceptional—in scripting, acting, directing, set design, sound, everything—and I think it’s because the environment itself is making them step up to their ‘A’ game.
"We’ve dared to dream big, and that’s really paying off for our students.”