‘Lights, Camera, Action!’
Inside a well-appointed north Houston mansion on a sweltering August day, University of Houston students Gabriella Cecco and Daniel Padron are carefully hanging sparkling ornaments and garland on a towering Christmas tree.
Celebrating Christmas in summer? Not exactly.
Across the living room adorned with beautifully-wrapped gifts and other festive decorations, classmate August Estes works with first assistant camera operator Andrew Olson to establish the perfect shot for the next scene.
The students are working 12-hour-plus shifts on the set of “Hip Hop Family Christmas,” a feature film debuting on VH1 Monday, December 6. It tells the story of a powerful music industry family dealing with the pressures of living under the microscope.
As production interns, the students are doing everything from set design, grip and sound engineering, to doing make-up, and, at times, appearing as extras.
“The first time I stepped on the movie set, I looked around and said to myself, ‘Yep, this is it. This is everything I’ve pictured.’”
That’s right students, welcome to show business!
“How many people can say they are doing this? Just being in this environment, every single aspect is amazing,” said a visibly excited Padron, a junior studying media production at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication.
And perhaps the best part… it’s all for class credit.
“The first time I stepped on the movie set, I looked around and said to myself, ‘Yep, this is it. This is everything I’ve pictured,’” recalled Estes, a senior studying media production and business management.
A Cinematic Experience
This unmatched cinematic experience was made possible by Greg Carter, the movie’s original screenwriter, director and executive producer. As a visiting professor in the UH Provost’s Visiting Scholars Program, Carter just wrapped up an interdisciplinary course on filmmaking through a joint appointment in the Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts and Valenti School. In the spring semester, Carter will teach an online course called "Social Aspects of Film" which will be open to undergraduate and graduate students.
"We are trying to give them an immersive experience in filmmaking from a network perspective."
In between shooting the movie and post-production, Carter is training the students on the finer points of film and video production. Under his guidance, these aspiring movie moguls are learning script development, production, editing and promotion, as well as the business aspects of management, marketing and digital distribution.
“We are trying to give them an immersive experience in filmmaking from a network perspective. That means seeing the development process from storyboarding to post-production,” said Carter, a native Houstonian, who grew up in the city’s Fifth Ward.
The course also aims to highlight the city’s unique diversity both in front of and behind the camera.
“Stories have the ability to transcend time and connect us in a way. What we do now echoes through to the future,” he said. “We want to make sure our students are able to lead in that arena.”
In addition to learning from Carter, students have engaged with guest speakers from the Houston Film Commission, Houston Cinema Arts Society and the Texas Film Commission in the classroom under the instruction of teaching assistant Jacob Shideler. A graduate student in UH’s Arts Leadership Program, Shideler is weaving this course experience into his required practicum placement for his master’s degree and will also embark on developing a strategic plan for future film curriculum offerings at UH.
“Bringing in outside expertise from the film and television industry and leveraging our existing assets will help put our academic units at the forefront of training arts students in multiple disciplines to help them make the shift from the ‘attention economy’ to the ‘content economy,’” said Fleurette Fernando, director, UH Arts Leadership program.
"Houston has a lively film and production industry."
Houston is well positioned to be a leader in film and television production given its strong economy, diversity and talent pool, both in the arts and in business and entrepreneurship.
“Our faculty and staff are constantly building relationships and pursuing opportunities with one goal in mind: getting our students access to hands-on, career-defining experiences,” said Jennifer Vardeman, Valenti School director. “Through this interdisciplinary partnership, we aim to signal that Houston has a lively film and production industry.”
Back on the Set…
Back on the set of “Hip Hop Family Christmas,” it’s so quiet you can hear a pin drop. The actors are in position, sitting around the dinner table with cameras ready to roll. Cut to the UH students, strategically posted across the home, watching in anticipation.
“I will never look at another movie the same again. I will have a critical eye,” said Cecco, a film production student, who discovered during her time on location that she loves to work in audio.
… And “Action!”
The movie centers around the Nixons, who are “hip hop royalty.” The fictional family is supposed to receive an honorary degree from UH (which is not a coincidence), but their troubled past rears its ugly head and is preventing them from receiving the recognition. To avoid the negative press, the Nixons invite cameras into their home during Christmas to show everyone what a loving family they really are. But, in a true Hollywood twist, things don’t quite go as planned.
Carter didn’t have the opportunity to work on a movie set when he was a college student, so he relishes the fact that he’s able to give back. But there’s one important aspect he’d like future filmmakers to take from his class: their first job will probably be as a production assistant, which is not all glitz and glamour.
“I hope students will understand the nature of the business and to be frank, get a dose of humility. If you come on set, be prepared to work.”
If the experience on the set of “Hip Hop Family Christmas” is any indicator, these UH students are prepared to do just that.
We can all enjoy the Christmas holidays with the Nixon family premiering on VH1 Monday, December 6. Check your local guide for complete encore airing dates.
“Hip Hop Family Christmas” is produced by MTV Entertainment Studios, actor Jamie Foxx’s FoxxTale Entertainment and Carter’s Nexus Entertainment.
As they say in show biz, that’s a wrap!