M-Agination Films: Original, student-made productions

Virginia Lozano/Daily

By Adam Theisen, Senior Arts Editor
Published January 14, 2015

M-Agination Films President Anna Baumgarten is not a film buff.

“This is the most embarrassing thing about my film major background because I don’t watch a ton of movies," she said. I have more, since I’ve been at school, but I don’t have a lot of influences that I could pinpoint (as a filmmaker).”

That may seem odd, considering Baumgarten oversees the annual production of more than a dozen student films, but rather than reaching her current position because of an obsession with films and directors, the Screen Arts & Cultures senior was motivated by a love of writing and performance.

“I always wanted to be a writer,” she said. “When I was in second grade, I wanted to be an author … And also performance. I acted throughout middle school and high school, and (film) was the combining of those two passions.”

Interested in screenwriting from the time she arrived at the University, and curious about directing, Baumgarten submitted a script to M-Agination, and the club accepted it — an unusual but extremely exciting opportunity for a freshman. She would direct that project and continue with filmmaking from there.

“I was more writing initially, but I fell in love with production along the way,” she said.

Baumgarten is now in her second year as president of M-Agination. The club has 16 board members and is in its first year of a restructured hierarchy. Instead of two co-presidents and no other leadership positions, like in years past, the club now has a president, vice president, secretary and treasurer, as well as marketing and business sections. As leader of the club, Baumgarten — who is also on the sales career course track at the Ross School of Business — gets to oversee and manage both the business and creative aspects of the club.

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An Autumn Burial from Jonathan Sherman on Vimeo.

“An Autumn Burial,” Baumgarten’s first produced film.

Formed in 2000, M-Agination Films is a student-run production organization that accepts scripts written by students and helps those students find actors, equipment and funding to film those screenplays. Each semester, around 30 to 40 eager screenwriters submit their scripts to the club. Everyone on the Board of Producers reads the scripts, and then the club meets to decide which projects it wants to produce (usually resulting in around eight per semester).

When describing what they look for in the scripts, both Baumgarten and LSA senior Anthony Kalil, M-Agination’s vice president and a SAC major, point to quality first.

“We’re looking for a good story, strong voice, characters that are likable and people want to watch,” Baumgarten said, who also noted that the club aims to produce films in a variety of genres each semester.

But M-Agination also has to look at which productions are the most ideal for filming in a college town with a very small budget, and so both Kalil and Baumgarten mention feasibility immediately after quality. It can be challenging to cast roles that aren’t meant to be played by college students, or find locations if the script calls for a scene set somewhere that can’t be found in the Ann Arbor area.

“Does it take place on the Moon? If it does, it’s probably not the best material for M-Agination,” Kalil said.

Working under Baumgarten and Kalil is a group of producers who oversee the day-to-day operations required to make sure the films are made. LSA freshman Max Doyle originally tried to submit a script to M-Agination last semester. While the club didn’t have the resources to produce it, they liked his writing and told him about an open associate producer job, which he took. Doyle is working on a five-minute drama called “Looking Back,” now in the final stages of post-production.

“Most of my stuff, being an associate producer, actually happens before we even get on set,” he said. “We only really had one full day of being on set, but I took up my jobs a couple months before that, like getting the location down and finding all our crew and making sure our directors like our actors and everyone can meet at the same time.”

“I’ve talked to a few real producers in the industry, namely Christine Vachon,” Doyle continued. “And she says that being a producer is kind of like being an executive babysitter. You just got to make sure everyone has what they need and is at the right place at the right time.”

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“Ann Arborland: Hipsters,” another Baumgarten/M-Agination production.

The culmination of M-Agination’s year is its annual film festival. Held at the Michigan Theater, this upcoming April will be the 14th time M-Agination producers and filmmakers gather to see what they’ve accomplished in the past two semesters. While many of these filmmakers (the ones in SAC, especially) may have presented their class films in University buildings at the annual Lightworks Student Film Festival, seeing their work projected onto the screen at a landmark institution like the Michigan Theater is an entirely unique experience.

Though Lightworks is more casual, Baumgarten and Kalil shoot to make the M-Agination Film Festival a special occasion. The festivalgoers dress up for the event with a formal dinner this year at Sava’s beforehand. In addition, Baumgarten and Kalil hope to include intermission performances by ComCo, the Michigan Pops Orchestra and other student groups that share a residence in the University Activities Center.

One of this year’s filmmakers is LSA senior Jameson Duggan, also a SAC major. Duggan’s M-Agination project in the Fall 2014 semester was “Babysitter,” a short comedy sketch about a couple’s over-the-top interview process in their search for someone to care for their child.

“Last semester I was doing television production, which is mainly in the studio, but I didn’t have a production class that really allowed me to create a film,” Duggan said of his decision to produce the film through M-Agination. “I had always heard about M-Agination but I had never tried it, and it seemed like a cool way to make a movie without having the class restrictions on content and time.”

During the production of “Babysitter,” Duggan worked with two M-Agination producers, who set up and recorded auditions and provided equipment. The club also hosted a writers’ workshop to help the directors rework their scripts to accomodate their relatively limited resources.

“In the original script, it called for a live dog,” Duggan said, “And I was like, ‘I don’t actually want to work with a live animal,’ so I talked with them about how we could still incorporate that aspect of it without having a live dog.”

While Duggan said that his own production went fairly smoothly, he mentioned one possible pitfall that out-of-class filmmakers can face.

“Since it’s not for class, since it’s for a club, people don’t really need to commit,” Duggan said. “On one hand it’s great because they’re just passionate about the project and they want to learn, because it’s not all film students, but then, on the other side, there’s nothing really deterring people from, on the day of, being like, ‘Oh, just kidding. I’m really busy.’ ”

Duggan said he was luckily able to sidestep this problem because of his easy-to-shoot script and his interested and committed core volunteers.

Doyle, on the other hand, had his shoot pushed back a month when one of the project’s main actors dropped out.

“That’s what being a producer is,” he said, “Finding sudden hurdles and having to get over them.”

However, working outside of class can also be a change of pace for SAC majors that can give them diverse viewpoints and take off some pressure.

“Having that extra mile outside the course work is really what lets us work outside of the pressure of working for a grade and also allows us to work with a lot of people who aren’t SAC majors, so we get a wider range of people to collaborate with within M-Agination,” Kalil said.

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“The Pitch,” a short film/class project by Jameson Duggan

The SAC major officially began in 2005, when LSA’s Film and Video Program was transformed into a new department. While M-Agination isn’t just a club made up of SAC majors, many of its core members and participants wish to work in the industry in some way after graduation.

Baumgarten is currently working on her Honors Production Thesis, a 30-minute sitcom called “Co-Education.” She would like to go into producing, and she’s planning to move to Los Angeles after graduation.

Doyle is undeclared, but is currently taking SAC classes. He would like to move up in M-Agination and said he “definitely” wants to work in the film industry.

Meanwhile, Kalil said that entering the film industry is “kind of a crapshoot,” but he’s looking to build his portfolio and take his skills into the advertising industry.

Duggan also hopes to enter the industry. With the fast approaching Jan. 25 deadline for submissions for M-Aginations winter productions, he'll likely offer assistance with camera work or other jobs, rather than directing a production.

When describing what kind of film he would like to make, Duggan said, “I want to make a movie that people enjoy. There are plenty of movies that I would say, ‘That was a great movie. I really appreciate it, but I don’t really have any interest in watching it again.’ So, I’d much rather make a movie that was less critically acclaimed, but that people like to watch over and over again, and people like to quote.”

He named “Mean Girls,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “She’s the Man” as examples of these kinds of movies.

Even if they don’t want to go on to work in the industry, the passion that these students bring to the film projects is invaluable. “With M-Agination, there’s a lot of differently skilled people coming together to collaborate,” Kalil said. “A lot of people who aren’t studying film, but have a lot of experience in arts or in camera. There’s a lot more perspective collaborating on something through M-Agination than there is just doing it by myself.”