The Daily Arts Film Beat offers insightful analysis of films of all genres. Nevertheless, there has been a lack of attention given to the many talented and passionate filmmakers who surround us here at the University of Michigan. I started this series to highlight their work, their unique visions of film and the obstacles they face as student filmmakers.
It began with music. Gianni Marchetti’s 1978 instrumental album Solstitium, to be specific. LSA senior Jacob Shin heard it for the first time in the still-dark hours of a morning in his junior year at the University. As he listened, the music inspired scenes he imagined would accompany it. Sometimes it conjured a breakup scene, other times an image of students “lollygagging around campus.” In a Zoom interview with The Michigan Daily, Shin described this experience, which he believes many filmmakers have when writing to music, as similar to synesthesia. Instead of seeing colors or shapes when he listened, he saw the scenes for what would later become the basis for a short film. The film, now in the midst of production and titled “Wonderful,” is one of two films he feels he needs to make in his life; the other is a feature inspired by his childhood as a second-generation Korean American.
Shin’s vision for “Wonderful” is particular. He will not settle for anything less and frequently called himself out for his own pickiness, especially in casting. Rather than reach out to the School of Music, Theatre & Dance or the Film, Television and Media department’s adviser to find actors, everyone he cast was someone he already knew, whom he was comfortable with and knew could portray themselves on camera as the “multi-dimensional” people they are. He wanted “real” people in his film, he said. The films that inspire him are those that cast people in roles where they can be themselves — The Weeknd as himself in “Uncut Gems,” real skateboarders in “Mid 90s.” He added that he knows everyone is real. A better word might be unique: people who stood out to him and who he felt know who they are. He cast a friend from New York who “has that New York fire to her” and “another friend from Pontiac, who grew up with a little bit of struggle.”
The reality these people carry with them, Shin hopes, will translate to their scenes in his film. Their portrayals of themselves in real life match his approach to filmmaking, which largely centers around an authenticity and vulnerability he feels many films lack. The people he casts should be willing to smoke a cigarette or pretend they just had sex on screen to reveal their humanity in his film. “They should be willing to cry on screen too,” he said. When he attended Lightworks, the University’s student film festival, he wondered, “Why have I not seen a single scene where someone cries? Nobody wants to cry, which is the most cliché thing. But why does nobody want to show crying? I feel like it might be the boundaries.” He wants to make something different.
Shin described “Wonderful” as “a narrative, but not really a narrative.” It’s not completely experimental either but leans more in that direction. The scenes follow the order of a typical relationship, from the first meeting and spark between two people to after their breakup, but each scene has its own set of characters. He is still reaching out to people to complete the large cast the film requires. The skeleton crew consists of Shin as director, writer, editor, cinematographer and camera operator — “I’ll be the one always behind the camera,” he said — and one other friend, Jelani Embree, a fellow U-M film student and wrestler who volunteered to help. Shin describes him as a “wingman in terms of producing,” a “coach” and generally the one responsible for keeping Shin on track with his vision for the film, as well as sending emails, finding shooting locations and jumping in at any given moment to operate a microphone or move the dolly.
The cast and crew have come together, but Shin still faces the hurdles thrown at any student filmmaker. As any film student likely knows from the reminders of their professors, practically no filmmaking equipment is cheap. While Shin was able to borrow the boom pole, microphone and dolly from the University, other rentable equipment didn’t meet his standards. When he “put on (his) cinematographer/camera operator hat” and looked into the details of what he could borrow, there was nothing that would allow him to shoot the film as he envisioned it, whether a lens didn’t allow a shallow enough depth of field or a camera didn’t have enough memory. He applied for a budget from the University, which he spent on an SSD storage drive, but still ended up spending $4,000 of his own money on a camera and lens. He says if you had asked him to do this as a sophomore, he would have adamantly refused, but for this film, he will do what it takes to get the result he pictures.
Besides the issue of money, Shin described the frustration of trying to create something as a student. “If you don’t have a name for yourself, if you don’t have a title that people respect — ‘Oscar-nominated’ or ‘official selection of Cannes Film Festival’ — then nobody wants to hear you,” Shin said. Even the “small handful of people” who do take the time to look at what he’s doing he fears are merely networking, saying they will be part of his project just to get their name in something.
He doesn’t mean to be cynical. The people he has met who are genuinely interested, supportive and equally passionate about filmmaking have earned his respect. At the same time, he wants to distance himself from a culture of false passion and interest for the sake of resume building. The resonance he imagines “Wonderful” having lies, in part, in the circumstances of its creation. He wants to prove that a student film can be more than that: It can be something he was passionate about, had the skills to make and took every opportunity to make exactly how he wanted it. “Wonderful,” he hopes, will be seen as a “film first, student film second.” Viewers of the film and perhaps more specifically film students, he said, should understand that “you need to send your vision to the world in a way where it’s not just because you want to pass a class.”
The film’s other intended effect is, Shin hopes, to connect with people in a way it can as a film “very cliché” in its subject matter but specific rather than generic. He believes that the more specific a film’s story is, the more deeply people can relate to it. Shin said “Marriage Story,” a film about a couple navigating a divorce, was a film with emotions that resonated especially with him. In his mind, specificity leads to understanding and relatability. Even if someone hasn’t experienced what they see onscreen, they can empathize with characters either by knowing someone who has experienced it or because of the reality it brings to the character themselves. This is what “Wonderful” aims to encompass — familiar moments that strike a chord rather than feeling empty.
That is, these are the impacts the film could have if it ever reaches the eyes of anyone besides Shin. He cannot make the film without using Marchetti’s album that inspired it, and the album is owned by Sony, which he called a “titan in copyright rules … You’re not going to get past them unless you want them to suck the soul out of you.” He would love to submit the finished film to festivals, including Lightworks, but said this is something he will address when the time comes. For now, he is focused on making the film, by far the more important part for him. Because the album is decades old, he hopes to at least get it past YouTube copyright claims and post it there (not an unlikely possibility, as the album in full is already available on the platform). He would like the film to touch as many people as possible, but if it can’t, the reception doesn’t matter to him. “At the end of the day,” he said, “it was just something that I wanted to do.” A passion project.
A part of that passion lies in making something that pushes the boundaries of filmmaking. In the required film history and theory classes for his major, whose relevance Shin admits he was skeptical of, he fell in love with French New Wave films. At a time when corporate companies owned both production studios and theaters, this was the counter-movement, and the attitude of the artists who pioneered this filmmaking revolution is reflected in Shin’s own approach to his work: “They said, ‘Screw the studios, we’re going to make it ourselves, and we’re going to do it in a different way, and we don’t care if it’s the traditional route.’” He believes that we are now in the midst of an American New Wave in film, where lower-budget, “scrappy” films from smaller studios are the ones that are not only leaving an impact but being nominated for awards. These smaller, indie films like “The Wrestler,” “Blue Bayou” and “The Florida Project” are the ones that resonate with him and the ones that make him cry.
Before he was studying film and forming his own filmic philosophies, Shin was a kid who made videos every chance he got. He thought he wanted to be a YouTuber, filmed with his dad’s point and shoot camera or iPhone 3G and learned to edit in iMovie and Windows Movie Maker, later advancing to more professional software. In high school, he was the person who made extra credit music videos for government class and video tutorials as chemistry assignments. “That was my cup of tea,” he said.
Once in college, he knew he had to pursue a film degree despite his life-long existential crisis that he would end up a “starving artist.” Film was it for him. His first paid film assignment was for the Korean Student Association, making a parody of a Korean drama for their annual culture showcase. He was excited to work with other filmmakers who weren’t necessarily film majors, amazed by their talent. In his classes, he has made several shorter film projects. His experimental short film “Stiletto,” which won the Best Cinematography award at Lightworks in fall 2020, sets footage of people and places in downtown Ann Arbor to classical music. The life that emanates from each shot imbues the film with an unusual sense of closeness and reality, like the viewer is present in the city. Among his other work is a 40-minute film, shot entirely by himself, detailing his first trip to visit his relatives in Korea in the summer of 2021.
Shin felt little connection to his heritage until he was in college, where he met other Korean American students. Although he did not learn Korean until a year ago, this part of his identity has become important to him. His parents came to the United States from Korea, and he finds himself in a middle ground where many people either don’t accept him as American or don’t accept him as Korean. When visiting Korea, he told his relatives, “In America, my face is different, but in Korea, my voice is different.” This diaspora he is a part of has become important, too, to his dreams as a filmmaker. The film he is determined to make after “Wonderful” will be a coming-of-age film based on his own experience as a child of Korean immigrant parents in the midwest. Shin himself is from Rochester Hills, Mich. and in this future film, he wants to share the experience of himself and others who grew up this way, showing what he learned from the adversity he faced. This is a project he hopes will make his parents — and himself — proud.
Despite his disappointment with talented filmmakers pursuing non-film degrees, Shin himself is minoring in computer science and signed a two-year contract as a software engineer for JPMorgan Chase. This will be his hiatus, he said, during which he will make money to give back to his parents, establish a comfortable life for himself and avoid the starving artist fear that has haunted him. However, Shin has no intention of abandoning film. He recently talked to U-M alum Danielle Kim about her own hiatus after college, during which she worked for her family business. She now works for Amazon Studios and Legendary Pictures. This diminished some of Shin’s concern that he was making a mistake by not following his peers directly into the film industry. The intermission in his film career is something he has to do, he said, and part of his path to becoming a filmmaker.
For now, Shin will work with the people who share his passion and fit into the vision for his film, despite how difficult it can be to find them or get them to take the time to work with him, which he understands. “We’re all college students that are suffering under financial aid and loans and need to work and study and find careers out of this,” he said. “But we’re trying to work, make it, we’re trying to throw shit on the wall until it sticks, you know. Trying to make it happen.”
Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at email@example.com.