It's only noon when someone cracks open an energy drink and slips into the darkness opposite a group of brightly illuminated actors.
Shooting started at 3:30 a.m., and the end is hours away.
A voice calls out from the tangle of bodies, equipment and cords.
“Quiet please. Let’s roll camera, let’s roll sound.”
Ashley Sanders, a Liberty University Zaki Gordon Center for Cinematic Arts senior, leans toward the video village in the corner and begins noting every detail in the scene.
“It’s not an exercise,” said Stephan Schultze, executive director of the center. “We are making movies.”
And when this spring’s production of “Altar Egos” — a religious film featuring Victoria Jackson and Robert Amaya — hits screens in the near future, dozens of LU students will see their names in the credits.
Film students literally can “walk on [to the set of] the Hobbit and feel comfortable working," after this experience, Schultze said.
That’s because the school, just two years old, has eliminated the learning curve for graduates. Students spend their first two years taking all their general education courses and then are immersed in every aspect of film production for two years.
With classroom time out of the way, students work movie-crew hours in slow-going 12-hour stretches and learn by working beside industry professionals.
“It really helps build your confidence in your ability,” Sanders, 22, said.
“What we learn is directly applied to what we do, what I learn on Monday I am using on Thursday,” she said.
Every spring, a film company partners with the school — last year it was Echolight Studios, this year it's Spirit Fruit Productions — and provides just a few professionals to work side-by-side with LU students. Together, they create a full-length feature film using locations in and around Lynchburg, giving the students a film credit before they’ve graduated. Residents can see students filming movies everywhere from downtown Lynchburg to inside restaurants like Wasabi, where they were hunkered down this week.
Following last year’s film, “Letting Go,” six juniors landed internships on the set of the Sony film “Mom’s Night Out.” Just weeks into the filming, Sony promoted all six students to paid positions.
“They weren’t even seniors yet,” said Jill Acosta, administrative manager of the Zaki Gordon Center. “We were really proud of them.”
At the LU film school, students learn everything: screenwriting, directing, producing, lighting, camera and sound, and they edit with the same equipment production companies use.
Liberty has made a substantial investment in the school, building the only THX-dubbing stage on the East Coast, an HDE-editing stage, a color-timing facility for DVD and theatrical releases and a computer lab and editing suites. Most film schools do not use the “learn by doing” model to teach students, simply because it is cost-prohibitive.
The commitment from the school goes beyond the financial, though, Schultze said.
The faculty — who all are involved heavily in the film industry — work the same hours as students and parlay their contacts into opportunities for students and the college.
Their priority is to integrate students into the industry.
“I have not only learned to appreciate the importance of a good story and technical information about the equipment but also professional conduct, making contacts, negotiating deals and working within established rules of whatever location I am using,” said Sharon Chimere-Dan, an LU student and production office intern for Altar Egos.
“Overall, it has made me more confident in my ability to begin projects of my own,” she said.
This June, the school graduates its first class of Lynchburg-trained producers, directors and screenwriters and looks to bring 45 new students into the program this fall. Students graduate with a credit on six short films, a credit on at least one feature film and have a full-length screenplay in hand to show potential employers — not to mention a 15- to 20-minute film based on the screenplay they have directed.
In the coming years, Schultze wants to weave students from other disciplines, such as history and music and worship into the program and add more physical space. As amazing as the facilities are, Schultze wouldn’t mind having some sound stages, a back lot, more classrooms and a movie theater.
“I’m just grateful to be part of this,” Schultze said. “The amazing thing for me is that I get to be a part of that at the largest Christian university in the world.”