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When Your Homework is a Feature-Length Film

RTF students in Steve Mim’s feature film workshop course received film and academic credit for serving as crew on “Arlo and Julie,” a quirky romantic comedy that has charmed critics.

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UT student creativity

“Arlo and Julie” stars Ashley Spillers and Alex Dobrenko and was directed by UT lecturer Steve Mims, who recruited students to fill out his crew. 

This story is part of our yearlong series “The Creative Campus,” which showcases student creativityversion of this story originally appeared on the Moody College of Communication website.

Arlo and Julie movie still

“Arlo and Julie” stars Ashley Spillers and Alex Dobrenko and was directed by UT lecturer Steve Mims, who recruited students to fill out his crew. 

“‘Arlo and Julie’ is wonderfully charming and a fine example of our creative community at work.”

That was the closing line of the Austin American-Statesman review of the entirely UT-staffed feature film, “Arlo and Julie,” which won over critics at its world premiere during the 2014 South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival in March. The comedy centers on the quirky relationship between Arlo and Julie, who are anonymously mailed pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. As the meaning behind the puzzle grows more perplexing, the couple’s relationship is jeopardized as they become obsessed with the mystery.

(Related: Variety calls “Arlo and Julie” a “low-key, low budget charmer.”)

Steve Mims, veteran lecturer in the Department of Radio-Television-Film in the Moody College of Communication, wrote and directed the film. To fill out his crew, Mims turned to the 15 undergraduate and two graduate students from his “feature film workshop” course in spring 2013, meaning the students earned both film and academic credit. The only hired crew members were art director Kakii Keenan (B.A. Studio Art, ’83), and sound recordist and line producer Joe Bailey, Jr. (B.A. Plan II/History ’05, J.D. ’08).

To fund the film, Mims launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised $33,000 in nearly one month. The modest budget by feature-length standards allowed for the filmmakers to pay actors, reach an agreement with the Screen Actors Guild, and cover the cost of the two professionals, plus marketing and legal fees.

“We always knew with the budget we couldn’t support a full crew,” said Mims. “But the work ethic of the students I recruited to make this film is excellent and if you enjoy working with them, it makes it easy to trust them and believe in their dedication.

“It’s a great way for them to get experience,” added Mims. “The bigger part of it is students are able to get an idea of the commitment involved and live out what is learned from all their production classes.”

The course required students to work a minimum of six hours one day a week. The film was shot on digital in locations around Austin including the sixth floor studios in the CMB on campus and in the border town of Terlingua, Texas. The production wrapped just short of 18 days.

Students built sets, managed the production schedule, set lights and grip equipment, acted as camera and boom mic operators and often interchanged roles on set. After shooting wrapped in early March, students helped Mims critique raw footage and performances and evaluate edits. By early May, a rough cut of the 76-minute film was in the can.

Senior RTF major Jorge Corona was first assistant camera operator and says it was a boost to his education and career.

“I just know that the experience makes me a more attractive asset to any production,” said Corona, who got hooked on film after he first saw the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. “And the experience working hands on for a feature-length project is pretty big to me, knowing all it takes to do something of that magnitude.”

Don Howard, production area head of the RTF department and director of UT3D, said a course in which students receive credit to help shoot a faculty member’s film is not typical, as the timing and fit of projects often don’t align with that of the course schedule.

“I wish we could to do this more in a lot of ways, it’s better than an internship experience where students may be seen as a low-level employee,” said Howard. “We can’t necessarily plan on doing it every semester, but we’re open to it when the stars align.”

Howard said hands-on, feature filmmaking classes such as Mims’ are only successful if talented and experienced filmmakers lead them.

“I trusted Steve could shoot it in one semester, and he knew the only way it would work is if it was a good experience for the students,” said Howard. “The most amazing thing to me is that we have filmmakers who are so successful but choose to stay here because they love to teach.”

“Arlo and Julie” was one of only eight films chosen to premiere at SXSW, out of more than 1,200 submissions. It continues the festival circuit, with upcoming showings at the Waterfront Film Festival in Michigan and the Nantucket Film Festival in Massachusetts.