Most summer classes do not require students to don hard hats and protective padding for course credit, nor do they hold “classes” 200 feet underground. But the students of Jason Knowles’ Multimedia and Film Production summer intensive class at Georgia Southern University have found themselves in that situation twice since the beginning of June.
As part of Knowles’ ambitious summer project — completing a feature-length action-adventure film before the beginning of August — the students and a small cast spent several days filming the feature’s climax deep in the caverns of Raccoon Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Film boot camp
The student crew of “Relics of the Madré Véna,” an adventure story in the tradition of Indiana Jones, have been filming on an intense schedule since the beginning of June. Many of the students have participated in area film festivals and acting projects, so they are familiar with the rigors of production. However, with its limited time frame and travel requirements for on-location filming, “Relics” has proven to be a challenge beyond anything the young crew and cast members have encountered before — particularly the 27 pages of scenes filmed in Raccoon Mountain Caverns.
“Just to sum it all up, it was basically our film boot camp,” said Rion Koon, Jr., a recent film production graduate who stayed to take the class. “Everything had to be a certain way, everything had to be organized, and if we didn’t get it quick, everything fell apart.”
Knowles, who wrote the script for “Relics,” said the class is meant to simulate a professional film set, with similar scheduling demands and expectations. The caverns, however, presented several unique challenges made harder by limited time on location.
Thanks to a storm the night before filming began, the cave floor was slick and muddy as water seeped into the caverns, and while the cast and crew were well armored in protective padding and hardhats, there was still some head-banging on the cave ceiling and slipping in puddles. In addition to getting everyone into the caves safely, the crew also had to move in all of their delicate and expensive lighting, sound and camera equipment. During one particular day of filming, the crew had to slide gear through the “mail slot” — a narrow chute connecting two “rooms” in the cavern, 200 feet underground.
As if simple navigation weren’t difficult enough, crewmembers had to do it all while minimizing their contact with the walls, where a small amount of oil from human skin could stunt the cave’s growth for years. They also had to be mindful of the wildlife: cave salamanders and protected spiders, among other critters. Because the local bat population has been suffering from an outbreak of whitenose syndrome — a fungal growth on the bats’ snouts — cast and crew had to disinfect their shoes if they were to travel between caves in an effort to keep the disease from spreading to uninfected bats.
“This was wild caving, so it was to the extreme,” Knowles said. “We were in rooms that had never seen that much light before, ever.”
Once they were finally in the caves each day, filming would begin in earnest. At the end of each day the actors and students would return to their cabins, where the work would unofficially continue: The actors spent much of their time in the cabin running lines for the next day’s scenes, while the crew sat on the deck tackling the project from the technical angle.
“There was one night we just stayed up until 1:30 in the morning, talking about the shoot we’d just done and then the shoot we were trying to do the next day,” said Erica Pierno, first assistant director and unit production manager.
The shot in question was a 360-degree pan following the lead actress around the cavern without cutting away and without getting any of the lights or equipment in the shot. Pierno estimates that the crew spent four hours talking about that one shot the night before they filmed it. Their focus paid off: They got the shot within five takes.
“It was a moment that all of us collectively just yelled, because we got the shot that we thought of in our heads but didn’t see until we got there,” said Madison Reynolds, the film’s main camera operator.
That’s what it was like every night, Pierno said: Moments of intense stress, hard work and concentration, mixed with jubilation and triumph when a scene came out just right.
Christina Shores said that it was a similar experience for the film’s actors. Shores plays Maggie, the film’s protagonist, an adventurous grad student whose research brings her to the edge of a historical treasure hunt. She is a junior at Georgia Southern, but she has done several acting projects in Savannah and has an IMDb credit for a supernatural apocalypse film shot in Atlanta.
“This is the best group that I’ve ever worked with, hands-down,” Shores said, adding that the cast and crew’s work ethic sets them apart in her experience. “Most of us are students, and this is unpaid. We’re busting our butts to get this done, but you have to have such a strong passion for what you’re doing, and that’s what drives everyone here. Everyone is passionate about this, and it’s work first.”
A labor of love
For Knowles, “Relics of the Madré Véna” has been in the making for seven years. He wrote the script, basing it off of research he’d done on legends of buried treasure in the Ozark Mountains. As professor and director, he wears many different hats — including a wide-brimmed Australian Akubra hat, for when he is on camera as rival treasure hunter Hawk. When the film’s IndieGoGo campaign failed to deliver the expected budget, Knowles put in his own money to help with travel expenses and other necessities to finish the film — not just for himself, he said, but for the cast and crew who have worked so hard on it, and for the university’s film department.
“We know that if this is a successful film, not only does it help the program and not only does it help the class grow in summers to come, but it will put the university on the map,” Knowles said. “There are a lot of folks out there who don’t even know we have a film program here, and we’re trying to get the word out.”
When the film is finished, he added, he hopes to enter it in film competitions looking for features with strong female characters.
Reaching that goal is still about a year in the future. While filming should be “wrapped” by the beginning of August, the laborious process of editing the footage and the sound lies ahead, which could take all of the next academic year. Knowles said that the students in his post-production course will likely be working on “Relics” in the next semester or two. But the film’s crew is so attached to their project that they want to try their hands at editing before they pass it off to other students, he added.
“I’m just happy that they’re having fun with it, and that they’re learning a lot while they’re having fun and that we’re getting a quality product,” Knowles said.
Brittani Howell can be reached at (912) 489-9405.