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Jon McNeillJon McNeill

Film project focuses career

Jon McNeill just wanted to make a little movie. He had no idea he'd be giving focus to his own career.

Former Tacoma resident and Bellarmine Preparatory School honor graduate, Jon McNeil and his roommate, Steve Duman, decided it would be fun to make a couple of movies over the summer. McNeill, a senior in anthropology at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., and, Duman, a junior in rhetoric and media studies, applied for and won two $2,500 Carson Undergraduate Research Grants to fund their movies. The stipend is designed to help students to explore original ideas they couldn't study in a traditional classroom setting. McNeill and Duman proposed to individually write screenplays and then collaborate on filming them. It is the first time the Carson Grant program has funded a project that incorporates both individual and collaborative student efforts. The two films recently debuted before an enthusiastic crowd at Willamette's Hallie Ford Museum of Art.

McNeill's "No Shadows," is a seven-minute, black and white film that explores what happens to a young girl when she wakes to find she has no shadow. "I'm interested in making everything in the film realistic except one thing," explains McNeill. "For "No Shadows," it was taking away this woman's shadow and seeing how someone who needs to be in control would react."

The film follows the girl as she becomes increasingly anxious and obsessed about finding her shadow. The audience hears the girl's voiceover thoughts. Despondent and hopeless, the young woman finally decides to end it all by hanging herself in the park. Ironically, as the rope tightens around her neck, the girl sees her shadow. In the final frames of the film, the camera zooms in on the girl's shadow hanging from a tree branch, kicking and struggling against the ever-tightening rope, but it's too late.

It's not a comfortable film to watch, which was filmmaker McNeill's goal. "I wanted to make a movie that people had to think about," he says. "Too many movies invite the audience to shut off and just get absorbed into the film. I want people to think about the film, to discuss it afterward. It's people's interpretations afterward that makes film an art form."

While both McNeill and Duman took screenwriting and film criticism classes at Willamette, neither student was expert in the technical aspects of filmmaking. To learn the basics about lighting, filming and editing, they took classes at Capitol Community Television (CCTV), Salem's public access television station. They were also allowed to borrow the station's lights, digital video camera and editing equipment.

The biggest technical challenge in "No Shadows" was lighting. Eliminating shadows in regular light is difficult, says McNeill. Add three super-bright film lights and the process becomes almost impossible. "It took us hours and hours to get the lighting right," recalls McNeill. "The first day of filming, we worked for five hours trying to eliminate the shadows and still didn't get it. The next morning, we started again and worked until we got it right."

McNeill estimates that it took about 50 hours to write and do pre-production on "No Shadows," including storyboarding and casting, another 50 hours to film it and 100 hours to edit it. The result is a crisp, tightly focused essay that McNeill is currently shopping around at film festivals.

For McNeill, "No Shadows" is more than a seven-minute film. Filmmaking, he says, brings together all the disciplines he enjoys, including English, drama, psychology, physics and anthropology. Although "No Shadows" is his first film, McNeill is so enamored with the process he's decided to become a filmmaker. "If you had asked me four years ago, what I'd be doing, it wouldn't have been filmmaking," he says. "But everything I've done, including this project, has moved me toward film. Being a director making films I like to watch would be a dream career for me."

The next step in his journey is to get into a graduate film school. He's applying to Columbia and New York University. What do McNeill's parents, Tacoma residents Dennis and Gail McNeill, think about their son wanting to become the next Spielberg? "Great," says McNeill, smiling broadly. "My dad actually had more trouble with my being an anthropology major than my being a director. They're really supportive because they know that film is the place I'm meant to be."