24th Summer Film Project, “Down by the River”

Students and professional directors work alongside railroads and trains located in west Michigan to tell the story of a young boy growing up in the Great Depression.   Courtesy / Sally Hoerr

Students and professional directors work alongside railroads and trains located in west Michigan to tell the story of a young boy growing up in the Great Depression. Courtesy / Sally Hoerr

Nick Moran

On July 22, Grand Valley State University wrapped up production on their 24th Summer Film Project, titled “Down by the River.”

This year, the film is about a young boy growing up during the Great Depression. As he combats bullying, he’s left with a choice: either run away or stay and defend his family when it matters the most. 

Since 1994, GVSU has implemented this program into their curriculum. Not only are students able to see what it’s like to work on a professional film set, but they are able to work alongside professionals from all over the country. This year, the crew included a handful of Grand Valley students and faculty members as well as actors and directors from Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Lansing and west Michigan.  

During the first six weeks of the winter semester, faculty and staff typically hold auditions for their next film or web-series. In the next six weeks, the crew will hold class sessions. They meet three times a week as a class, so they can learn the roles and departments of the film. The last 14 to 15 days is when the film is actually shot.

Senior Affiliate Professor Joseph McCargar was the supervisor for the sound recording team, with this being the ninth film he has successfully worked on. Since McCargar arrived at GVSU in 1980, the overlying goal of the program is to teach students how to work in and create a well-organized and collaborative work setting. 

“I think that anybody that has worked on a professional film set, which is what we try to emulate, they learn that there are a huge number of movie parts in a production phase of a film,” McCarger said. “There are lots of different individual goals and agendas and that’s a huge thing. They learn to collaborate even though their agendas may be at odds with others. You learn to collaborate effectively. If you can act as one, that is the learning key. That’s the most important lesson.”

Furthermore, this was the second year Margaret Shaw worked in the program, a recent graduate of GVSU with a degree in photography and home and video, who served as the camera operator for the film. 

“A lot of what it comes down to is that there are a lot of ‘c-words’: Communication, commitment, collaboration,” Shaw said. “You need people who can work together. I wasn’t confident when I first came in, but working on a set that requires communication prepared me for my returning year on the set.

“I’ve been saying for two years now that the Summer Film Project is the most important educational experience at GV. You won’t learn until your on set. Our classrooms and lectures, as well as small projects we are assigned aren’t at the same caliber. For me personally, it’s a great step for moving on after college. Networking is huge in this industry—it can be super daunting, but at the same time I’ve met super awesome people, that still contact me to help assist them on projects.”

During the fall semester, students take hours of footage and cut it down to approximately 30 minutes to tell the story just the right way. Following the winter semester, students in the sound design class will create the soundtrack and mix the picture and sound together. The process ends in April, so the overall making of the film typically takes one year.

In April 2019, there will be a red-carpet premiere located at Celebration! Cinema North & IMax in Grand Rapids, Michigan where the crew will be recognized with an award ceremony, followed by a big soiree.