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Students collaborate with actors to make film on perseverance

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Carson-Newman University students join Backlight Productions actor Alena Dingeldein, fourth from left, and director Jordan Scott, at far right, during filming for "Of Birds Who Try." Participating students include, from left, Shelby Flenniken, of Knoxville, Riley Wilson, of Taylorsville, North Carolina, Helen Donahue, of Madison, Alabama, Khushbu Patel, of Chattanooga, Aliyah Trammell, of Mascot, and Daniel Cox, of Chattanooga.

(April 15, 2021) JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. — Being in the film industry used to be a pipe dream for Khushbu Patel, who was originally pursuing a career in forensic science. On the other hand, a young Aliyah Trammell had long wanted to be an actress and make it big in the industry. Meanwhile, Daniel Cox did not make the decision to pursue a career in film until he was a junior at Carson-Newman University.

Patel, a senior film and digital media major, Trammell, a freshman marketing major, and Cox, a senior communication, film and digital media major, were part of a team that worked in collaboration with Backlight Productions to make the short film “Of Birds Who Try.”

Other C-N students who worked on the project are Helen Donahue, Riley Wilson and Shelby Flenniken. Backlight Productions is a nonprofit disability theatre in Nashville. The film tells the story of a penguin who learned how to fly and an ostrich who learned how to run. The project was filmed in January.

The film is about perseverance, and its central message states that if one sets their mind to something, even the impossible, they can do it,” Cox said.

For the three film students, perseverance has played a great role in helping them overcome challenges they have faced in school, life and while making the film.

“When I first came to Carson-Newman, it didn’t feel quite like I belonged here,” said Patel. “However, the longer I was here, the more I realized that this is a very accepting and well-rounded community of students and faculty whose main goal is to learn and teach.”

Trammel had been having a hard time last semester in math and was really discouraged.

“I was determined to be successful, though, and I ended up reaching out to my professor for help and finished that semester with a 4.0,” she said.

For Cox, the challenge is always with homework: “Many long hours and not much sleep!”

Dr. Jerod Hollyfield, associate professor of Film Studies and Communication, offered his students a chance to earn extra credit by participating in the Backlight project.

My students can watch thousands of films and hear numerous lectures, but the best way to teach filmmaking is to throw them in the mix on a set and see how they respond to a lack of time and limited resources,” he said.

During the two-day filming, Patel worked as the script supervisor and oversaw anything that was on camera to help with the postproduction editing.

Trammel oversaw the slate, meaning that she kept track of the sound, the scenes and the takes. Cox worked as the gaffer on the first day of shooting and helped with sound on the second.

Hollyfield said that he was impressed by their professionalism and easy adaptability — even though it did not surprise him.

“That we were able to work with such talented actors from Backlight made the project a true collaboration that showcased all of our strengths. I hope they learned as much as I did,” he said.

Being at C-N holds special meaning to each of the students and has positively impacted each of their lives.

“The expectations placed on me did not allow for much deviation from very specific career paths,” Patel said. “Coming to C-N allowed me to be able to see the film industry as a viable career option, and for that I am grateful.

Cox said his work ethic and time management skills have increased tenfold. Being at C-N challenged him to pursue new things, including the chance to be in theatre plays and perhaps even hold a lead role in an upcoming production.

For Trammel, C-N has shown her that she can accomplish anything.

“It’s made me more responsible and resourceful with my time,” she said. “It has brought me closer to God in many ways and helped shape some great friendships.

Despite having limited time to film and the actors not being used to performing on camera, the three students say they felt a sense of accomplishment, because they were able to learn new things and finish their project on time.

For the three, teamwork really stood out as a value that made the project successful.

“Filmmaking is a difficult and stressful career choice, but the result is worth the long days on set and nights prepping for the next day,” Patel said. “It also helps to surround yourself with people who you work well with, and its way more fun to make magic with people who have the same goals as you.”

The film will be available on demand through Backlight's website this summer and will have a special presentation at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association Conference in November. Hollyfield is also editing it along with existing footage into a longer documentary production that follows Backlight and its actors through their work.

Founded in 1851, Carson Newman is a Christian Liberal arts-based university affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention. The University is located in Jefferson City, Tennessee, among the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains and celebrated a record2,900 studentsin the fall. Carson Newman offers 50 undergraduate majors, as well as associate, bachelor's, master's, doctoral degrees.

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