Arts & Entertainment

Student Filmmakers Create PSAs for San Francisco Fire Department

MPT’s Production Hub class gave students experience of what it’s like to work on a real-world film project

By Kyle Roe

As a rule of thumb, never yell “fire” on a crowded film set. If you happen to be filming a group of San Francisco firefighters and need to alert them of an actual emergency, it’s better to yell the codeword “Fox” and move well out of their way.

Academy of Art University students enrolled in School of Motion Pictures & Television (MPT) familiarized themselves with this, and many other facets of a firefighters’ day-to-day, while filming a series of PSAs in collaboration with the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) for MPT 498.

“In the last shooting day, we were shooting in a fire station in [the] Sunset. In the middle of an interview, the station got a fire call,” recalled MPT directing student Timon Yang. “All firefighters got their equipment, jumped in the truck and left in a blink of an eye. The shooting had to stop, but we were so amazed by their professionalism.”

This past spring’s Production Hub class was divided between student producers and directors. The teaching was split along those lines as well, with Paula Lima focusing on the former and Janice Engels on the latter. The class’ tone was intentionally professional and was meant to simulate an industry film project.

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(Front row, L–R) Captain Julie Mao, Janice Engel, Alicia Farrow, and Timon Yang. (Back row, L–R) Adam Bao, Ryan Reeser, Vincent Bao, JP Bermudez, Michael Jones, Unique Cooper, and Lisa Zan.
Photo courtesy of the School of Motion Pictures & Television.

“I liked to say Paula and I were the executive producers for our production company of students,” Engels expressed. “In a sense, we’re their bosses, but we’re their teachers. It gave them a guidance of how it works in the business.”

Engels teaches multiple documentary courses for the Academy. In her view, Production Hub has the added benefit of introducing students to branded content, a lucrative commercial avenue for adept documentary filmmakers.

“Somebody can make a narrative short film or documentary, but it’s usually sponsored by a brand,” she explained. “You film a real-life documentary, in alignment with the brand.”

“They wanted to push you in the right direction without controlling you,” recalled Unique Jones, a student in the course studying film production. “So they gave you a lot of space for free thought and free creativity with a budget.” To Jones, attending Production Hub after taking the previous course at the Academy was like “reading the book first, and then being able to actually use everything that they gave you.”

Han Xiang also felt that the class bolstered his previous academic achievements in the Academy. “My major was media,” he elaborated. “During this project, I think my directing skills got better, and I know what I really want. … After graduating, I hope that I can get a job as a director. Also, I really want to be a teacher in a university, teaching what I learned [here] in China.”

Lieutenant Jonathan Baxter of SFFD helped with logistics planning and review for the project, and described the experience of filming as “very informative for us, as I am sure it was for the students. We learned how much time and effort is put into these, and the students learned a lot about our roles and responsibilities to the public.”

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Photo courtesy of the School of Motion Pictures & Television.

The PSAs covered four separate topics: surf rescue, women firefighters, canine units, and an all-encompassing “three-minute piece, which talks about being a firefighter and what a firefighter does,” according to Lima. She called it “the big promo, and it was a project that is more of a documentary.” The students shot the firefighters performing everyday activities, from cooking meals in the firehouse to receiving calls.

The action-packed surf rescue PSA was filmed in San Francisco’s Aquatic Park. “Basically, the project was someone was drowning that the Fire Department came to rescue,” said Lima. “Someone saw it and called 911, and here came the Fire Department.”

Like all the PSAs, it stars real San Francisco firefighters instead of actors. According to Lima, “They gave us all the personnel, so all the actors, which were actually firefighters. All of the uniformed fire engines, fire trucks, it all came with it. So we’ve got amazing footage for their reels. And an amazing opportunity.”

The female firefighters PSA sought to extinguish harmful gender stereotypes surrounding the profession, which has traditionally excluded people who do not identify as male. According to Lima, it’s “more of the type of PSA that talks about the fact that women can do this. It’s not only a male job.”

When the time came to film SFFD’s canine unit, Lima was enamored by the hard work and dedication of Vita, the dog who acted in the PSA. “That dog was just something else,” Lima reminisced. “Like, she would be so eager to work, and I’ve worked with a lot of movie dogs. The fire department dogs are way better.”

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