Four students from Western Carolina University’s Film and Television Production Program, their professor and the program’s equipment manager served last spring for three days and nights as camera crew members for a motion picture location shoot that was almost as much “Indy” as it was “indie.”
An invitation from the production team of the independent film “Shifting Gears,” sent to Arledge Armenaki, associate professor of cinematography, put him, the students and equipment manager Jason Ledford ’13 behind the cameras for a complex shoot of a dirt-track auto race at Elkin in April.
The invitation came from R. Keith Harris ’92, co-producer and star of the film, who has worked with Armenaki and WCU students before on the independent period film “Wesley,” also featuring Harris in a major role and shot in North Carolina locations. (See the Fall 2007 edition of The Magazine of Western Carolina University.)
“Shifting Gears” tells the story of a career-challenged father moving his family to his old hometown to keep his late dad’s service station business going, only to find that he’ll have to partner with his dad’s dirt-track racing friend to win enough money to keep the station. “The movie has elements of a Disney story,” Armenaki said. Among all the other challenges the character faces, he added, “the dad is trying to get his son to go to college.”
Harris wants “Shifting Gears” to be a family movie. “In the industry, they say there’s the film you write, the film you shoot and the film you edit,” he said. “We’re definitely aiming for a wide middle ground.” Harris also acted in the 1940s-era road-racing film “Red Dirt Rising” (produced by Gary Lewallen ’04 and based on experiences of Lewallen’s father Jimmie – see “Changing Gears” in the Fall 2010 edition of The Magazine of Western Carolina University).
Harris considers the students’ involvement in the current production a win-win situation for both parties. The students received professional experience and will get title credits at the close of the film. The filmmakers benefited from students’ expertise. “It was great that they brought their experience with WCU’s Sony camera – which is pretty incredible – and that we all got to work with Arledge Armenaki,” Harris said.
Ledford agreed. “It was an honor to be asked to join Arledge Armenaki and four of our finest cinematography students – Brandi Anderson ’15, Brittnee Baskin ’15, Josh Scharfman ’15 and rising senior Jason Miller,” he said. “It was a fantastic experience.”
A 2013 graduate of the FTP Program, Ledford has worked regularly on films, especially on the North Carolina independent film circuit. “I learned a lot about shooting racing,” he said of his “Shifting Gears” experience. “I had never shot racing scenes before, so that was a first and a great learning experience. The crew and set were extremely professional and gracious. That was the largest set that I had been on to date.”
The movie’s director of photography, James Suttles, allowed Ledford to set up and operate the camera on a stunt. “There was a scene where the ‘hero’ car, Clem’s Revenge, was supposed to come to a smoking stop just before the finish line,” he said. “I was able to set the camera up on the track and press the ‘record’ button before jumping over the retaining wall as the stunt played out. So I was relieved when I reviewed the footage and it was all there.”
Another member of the “B” and “C” camera units from WCU, Anderson also felt the film experience was invaluable. “I learned a lot from being on set,” she said. “I’ve worked on a few film sets outside of college, but this was a higher budget film. So it was more intense, but really fun. It is very cool to see the correlation of what we do on our school film sets and real life film sets; it’s pretty much the same thing – just on a bigger scale.”
Anderson says that she had learned first-hand the importance of communication and how to distribute work. “With three or sometimes four different camera units out on the track getting shots, it’s important to know who should be covering what. I learned the necessity of having multiple cameras out there capturing footage,” she said. “Overall, it was so much fun I would go out and do it again in a heartbeat. I grew a lot closer to my classmates during this trip and had a blast!”
The production team wrapped principal photography in the spring. “Ideally, we’ll have a final edit locked down by the end of July,” Harris said. “Then comes the sound design and mix, and color correction by Halloween.”
Armenaki, a veteran of Hollywood filmmaking, estimated that editing could take as long as six to nine months. “Post-production always takes longer than you think it will,” he said.
Securing distribution for the film will be the end of a long road. “We worked out a partnership to film at the track four years ago, but the financing fell through,” Harris said. He feels confident that there’s a happy ending ahead. “I think we’ll end up with a movie that’s poignant, funny and coherent,” he said.
An ending scripted for “Shifting Gears” features a resolution of a plotline that could endear the film to members of the WCU community. “We had great cooperation from the university on location shooting and use of properties,” Harris hinted … but would not say more.
“Shifting Gears” is not the only film being released in the near future that features Harris. He also is featured in the role of Sam Bryson in this fall’s “A Walk in the Woods,” starring Robert Redford, Emma Thompson, Nick Nolte and Mary Steenburgen.