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Fire Escape fires up campus filmakers

As a lighting designer with University Theater in 1995, Allan LeSage, AB’97, was inspired by UT’s rise from a grass-roots student group to an organization that facilitated the creation of 13 studio theater classes in the College. If UT could do it, LeSage reasoned, so could he—and the University’s student filmmakers. With help from UT backer and humanities professor Herman Sinaiko, AB’47, PhD’61, LeSage started what’s now known as Fire Escape Productions.

Affiliated with the Documentary Film Group, Fire Escape makes film and video supplies available to campus filmmakers. Next spring, it plans to begin an outreach program to spread the filmmaking experience to Chicago elementary and junior-high schools and, ultimately, it hopes to win the inclusion of filmmaking classes in the U of C’s curriculum.

Fire Escape’s growth to date has come mostly as a result of its ability to cater to a range of different filmmakers. Some, like the four to six English and humanities concentrators each year who seek help from Fire Escape to produce a B.A. film, are most interested in the marriage between film and their academic disciplines. Others see filmmaking as a purely artistic venture. “One set of members has no experience,” explains Francis Shen, ’00, “but are interested and would like to participate. The others really want to produce but just need the resources.”

The resources of Fire Escape include two Bolex 16mm cameras, video equipment, a linear film editor, lighting and sound equipment, and an Avid system—the professional standard for digital editing. Though this isn’t quite a full complement of editing machinery, the group supplements its technical resources with opportunities for education about filmmaking. Last year, as Fire Escape’s visiting-artist program coordinator, Shen started a program that brought some of Chicago’s best filmmakers and production engineers to campus for free quarterly lectures.

“The year was a success,” says Shen. “All of the workshops were filled to capacity.” Expanding the program this year, Fire Escape will bring more industry professionals to campus to lead a series of three four-hour workshops on topics such as lighting and 16mm film production. The professionals will also lecture on—and screen—their own work.

Filmmakers seeking assistance from Fire Escape start with a proposal. Biweekly meetings give them a chance to form working relationships with other student filmmakers and discuss scripts and scenes. As ideas take shape, filmmakers obtain funding: New filmmakers receive a fixed subsidy, and experienced filmmakers may submit proposals for additional funds. After borrowing equipment as needed from Fire Escape, filming begins. Newer members can help out on a project to learn the basics of filmmaking, and experienced members often offer advice.

At the end of the long process to produce the short films, Fire Escape members may also get the chance to screen their completed projects two to three times a year at either the Film Studies Center or Max Palevsky Theater, bringing to campus an eclectic mix of documentaries, fictional narratives, and animation.—M.D.B.

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