MCJ and Theatre Arts collaborate on web series ‘Specula’

MCJ, Theatre Arts team up to produce supernatural web series

~ By Kaitlin C. Meier, student writer for the College of Arts and Humanities

Fresno State’s Department of Media Communications and Journalism along with the Department of Theatre Arts came together for a collaborative supernatural web series titled “Specula” this past fall.

The project was part of a film assignment in which students from the courses MCJ 115 Field Video Production and Drama 33 Fundamentals of Acting formed teams to create a portion of the assignment. Through the guidance of MCJ Professor Candace Egan and Theatre Arts Professor Kathleen McKinley, the result was a five-episode web series with original storylines developed by the students. “Specula” was screened on campus on Dec. 13 to an audience of students and invited guests.

The collaborative assignment, designed by the professors, began in fall 2010. Each semester, the students from each of the courses have been brought together as a production team from MCJ 115 pairing with three or four actors from Drama 33 to produce original works.

Previously, the collaborative projects have been aimed at creating movie opens (a six-minute opening of a movie), but in fall 2017, the professors decided to try something new through the incorporation of a web series.

“This semester’s project is the first time the films have been coordinated so the end result is an episodic supernatural/horror series,” Egan said.

Professors Egan and McKinley said Kathie Fong Yoneda, a former film studio executive, was the inspiration for the use of a web series after she came to campus last fall to speak with the students about the benefits of using a web series format.

Egan explained how she came up with the concept for the basic plot arc of the series with help from Warren Lewis, a screenwriter and one of her former colleagues from CSU Northridge, who guest lectured for the classes.

Aptly named for its object of focus, “Specula” presents a pair of spectacles with supernatural abilities that affect the wearer. These powerful specs delve into deeper areas of the host, accessing core facets of the person’s mind by seeking “their greatest aspirations or worst fears,” according to the project website.

The web series features five episodes corresponding to the five production/acting teams. Aided by Egan’s basic plot arc, the students incorporated their own creative spin to develop the characters and storyline for their individual episode.

The students worked with the concept of evoking an aspiration or fear from the host through a variety of creative facets. This is apparent throughout the series, such as in Episode 2 when the featured host becomes blind as a result of the spectacles’ influence.

MCJ student Ediberto Gonzalez, who worked on Episode 5, explained that there was even some overlap in whether there would be a positive or negative effect on the wearer:

“When coming up with what the glasses do, we thought they should tempt people but in the end destroy them somehow, so the concept of it being a good response or a bad one was something we were always trying to play with.”

The setting of the series takes place on the Fresno State campus. McKinley felt there are such great locations right here on campus that it would be fantastic to use them, especially for a horror series.

“These are the greatest locations and they are creepy; nothing like a dark theater. Even the little space that I teach in is a theater with a backstage area. It’s frightening looking,” McKinley said.

The students responded well to filming here on campus.

“I really enjoyed the filming process,” said Jason Duong, an MCJ student who worked on Episode 3. “It’s always nice to get out of the classroom. I personally learn the most through on-field troubleshooting.”  

Some challenges arose for this experimental web series when considering how to establish a cohesive set of episodes that would each feature a different set of actors. This challenge was overcome through a suggestion from Lewis in using a MacGuffin (sometimes referred to as McGuffin), which Egan explained is “something that characters encounter and interact within each episode.” Thus, the idea to incorporate a pair of mystical glasses formed as the object of cohesion.

Each semester, this project provides new experiences for both Theatre Arts and MCJ students.

“This was the first experience in making a film for many of the students and I think this was a good effort for them,” Egan said.

This project stands as an example of departments working together within the College of Arts and Humanities to develop opportunities for student collaboration in creative expression.

McKinley expressed how the Theatre Arts students are given the opportunity to try out a documentary style of filming, while the MCJ students are able to work with a dramatic piece that they would not be likely to have encountered at that point in their production careers.

“This is all about giving actors a chance to work with other students who are approaching this in a little different way,” McKinley said, “bringing MCJ students together with the theatre students and merging the two arts together; really exposing the students to each other and the different processes.”

The students involved in the project expressed how much they enjoyed the collaboration:

“Throughout the whole process, there was a clear mutual respect for both sides in that we both had parts in this project,” said Theatre Arts student Andrew Trevino, who worked on Episode 3.  “Theatre students would act and MCJ students would put these short episodes together in a short amount of time, allowing the collaboration to function well as a whole.”

Trevino’s classmate Cecilia Cantu, who was a part of Episode 1, expressed her admiration for the project and its potential for providing students with opportunities to attain new skills in their field:

“I thought the collaboration was an amazing experience. I think the class should keep doing this, it gives both classes the ability to work with new people and learn from each other.”

When asked if the web series format will be used in future collaborations for the courses, McKinley was cheerful in expressing, “Oh yes! I wonder if we can even continue on the stories. That would be kind of fun. It’s a great storyline, or we might come up with a different one.”

The professors have worked together each semester to improve the collaborative assignment, which will continue this spring 2018.

The series is available for viewing on the “Specula” website. The web series has also been submitted to LAWebfest to be considered for acceptance into the festival award nominations. The festival will take place April 2018.

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~ Photos above courtesy of MCJ Prof. Candace Egan

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The College of Arts and Humanities provides a diverse student population with the communication skills, humanistic values and cultural awareness that form the foundation of scholarship. The college offers intellectual and artistic programs that engage students and faculty and the community in collaboration, dialog and discovery. These programs help preserve, illuminate and nourish the arts and humanities for the campus and for the wider community.

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