Underdog Productions

Hard at work.
Hard at work. // Bulldog Productions

“Our goal is to create excellent works of cinema that will be respected by our peers,” shouts Ingrid Leigh (played by Crystal Liu ’16) to her team-mates in an episode of B-Roll’s second season. Her fellow film-makers are unimpressed — Joanne (played by Luz Lopez ’16) checks her phone, Elliot (Andrew Williams ’16) bites his nails, Samantha smiles vacantly (Maxine Dillon ’17). This goal is a little lofty for the motley crew. After all, Joanne (played by Lopez) cares more about the group’s uniform. She thinks they should wear pink blazers.

B-Roll is a Bulldog Productions Yale student-produced web-series about college students making movies. In it, artistic vision encounters the mundane and the two spiral out of control. In season 1, Chris (played by John Griswold ’14) put together a disastrous duct tape commercial. (“Just when you thought it was only good for fixing those pesky rips and tears. [sic] But with Premium Duct Tape you can turn a home repair item into an Alien Biological weapon,” says the leading lady with a wide grin.) In season 2, Ingrid plots her revenge on Chris, who’s blamed her for the duct tape fiasco and ruined her reputation.

While B-Roll is the perfect meta-series — the well-executed tale of less well-executed tales — producer Travis Gonzalez ’16 adds that it’s the most “high-profile” and “commercial” of Bulldog Production’s (BP) projects. In the coming months, the organization’s officers hope to recruit new members and produce new content, making a name for the production house and encouraging even more student involvement in Yale’s film community.

They’ve done their best to foster that community through B-Roll’s production. The team’s plan, after all, is to open the curtains and let light into the shadowy production house, a once mysterious and effete student group.

* * *

Founded in 2003, BP is the only undergraduate-run filmmaking society at Yale. And yet, in its 10 years, BP has gained and sought very little exposure, operating instead as an exclusive, underground group, sometimes inaccessible to outsiders.

Gonzalez described the early BP as a “lot more of a closed-off organization,” more interested in professional filmmaking — submitting pieces to prestigious film festivals — than in building a community of student filmmakers.

That sentiment has not gone unnoticed. In 2011, the then-BP member Julia Myers ’12 called the group “difficult to access as an outsider” in a YDN op-ed piece. Students couldn’t simply join the organization — instead, they underwent a sort of complicated application process.

“What the heck is Bulldog Productions (BP)? A pretentious, exclusive possé that makes only “good” films (bad movies on nice equipment),” Myers wrote.

BP began to disintegrate. At the end of last year, according to Gonzalez, the group had about five members, most of whom were graduating seniors, and almost no student following. Gonzalez admitted that the organization was fading.

When he was elected Executive Director as a rising sophomore last spring, he decided to revamp and revitalize the dying production house.

“We’re working on making it more open to people and making it a learning environment as well as a creative space,” Gonzalez said. BP now has an open-door policy — any and all undergraduates can join, from aspiring writers to experienced directors. Catherine Shaw ’16, B-Roll’s producer, for one, had absolutely no experience in film before she joined the crew.

Gonzalez compares the new and improved BP to Pixar — both prize a sort of “creative synergy” that allows for inspiration and artistic dialogue.

Shaw, Liu and Gonzalez agreed that their BP shouldn’t look inwards but outwards: They’ve encouraged all their friends to join and planned an elaborate Bulldog Days event to recruit interested admits.

“I think it should be open for people to express what they want to express,” Gonzalez said in reference to his plans for the organization.

* * *

B-Roll’s sensibility aligns with the organization’s new philosophy. Not only is the show quirky and accessible, but it tells the story of student film-makers who aren’t afraid to fuck up, who learn from their mistakes. Like the BP officers, the characters in B-Roll want to grow. They know the process is more important than the final product.

Originally called “The Filmmakers,” B-Roll premiered online last April, and it was the brainchild of BP’s member, Ginny Maceda ’15. Writers modeled B-Roll after “The Office.” In season 1, the crew’s cinematographer James (played by Jerry Hsu ’16) addresses the camera, channeling Jim’s awkward charm. The asinine director Chris (played by Griswold) is the show’s Michael Scott, stubborn and oblivious.

Gonzalez admitted that he wasn’t always invested in the project. Despite being season 1’s writer and producer, he saw the piece as more of a lark.

“It was just kind of supposed to be a funny thing,” he recalls.

But eventually, Gonzalez realized that he and the B-Roll characters were undergoing similar tumultuous experiences — they were all learning to make movies by trial and error.

After spotting these similarities, he immersed himself in the work, mining the challenges he knew well for new material.

Gonzalez isn’t alone in seeing these parallels. Other crew members also find their funhouse-mirror selves in B-Roll’s heroes.

“A lot of the struggles the characters are going through, we are going through simultaneously,” Shaw said.

With season 2, B-Roll’s new crew of freshman and sophomore filmmakers has given up the mockumentary style, replacing it with more traditional, narrative techniques. Each episode of is a small-scale exploration of certain genre. One is a telenovella, another a musical. (The musical episode has been the most complex to date, Shaw explained. It required three weeks of production).

While exploring new cinematographic styles, the B-Roll officers have made their project collaborative and welcoming to the Yale community at large. The directors and producers hold open auditions, a rare occurrence among undergraduate filmmakers, and both cast and crew have a palpable enthusiasm.

“B-Roll is my favorite thing in the world,” Lopez declared with a grin. Her co-star Griswold agreed. B-Roll is one of the most carefree, relaxed projects he has ever worked on. He loves that the cast and crew are open to improvisation, a technique which has altered the course of many episodes.

Improvisation is perhaps a fitting method. After all, the show is about mistakes and miscommunication — it’s about the effort and not the result.

“We’re not perfect and there’s value in that,” Shaw said.

* * *

No matter the crew’s good intentions and sunny dispositions, B-Roll is still the product of a small, underground operation. Though over 1,300 viewers watched Season 1’s first episode, only 550 saw the second and third episodes. And a mere 300 viewers have watched the finale.

In part, this points to struggles with numbers in the film community at large. At Yale, film competes with a thriving theater scene. The Dramat is a powerful umbrella organization for student thespians, with over 100 undergraduate members and notable alumni, including Jodie Foster, Edward Norton and Cole Porter. But it does not provide for student-produced films.

“Yale theater is like a behemoth and so everything else just kind of falls into its shadow,” Liu said.

And the University simply doesn’t have a reputation for strong film production, especially not among undergraduates. According to Shaw, the Yale approach to Film Studies is far more theoretical than practical, which explains BP’s lingering reputation for intellectualism.

“You’re not going to get production experience you want here,” Shaw said, who cited USC and UCLA as the major filmmaking schools.

This sense of inferiority extends to film appreciation as well as production. Becca Edelman ’14 found the Yale Film Society on the decline three years ago, when she joined as a freshman. Now YFS President, she remembered attending her first Film Society event.

“Only one other kid in my college and I showed up,” Edelman said. She added that YFS has become more popular of late — last year’s screening of “Days of Heaven” played to a packed room.

Since Bulldog Productions has no significant support system, no storied history to push it along, the production house must build its own momentum, with shows like B-Roll and a few a cappella music videos.

But Liu admitted that while interest may grow, filmmaking might remain an unappealing creative outlet for many incoming students. A typical movie just doesn’t build the same community that a play usually fosters. Droves of editors spend hours at their computers, building feature-lengths films from the snippets actors have left behind. This creates an inevitable divide.

“Traditionally film is so much about the technical aspect that sometimes the actors get kind of lost in the background,” Liu said. For students hoping to meet new people and make new friends, she added, a play might seem more welcoming and rewarding than a movie or a web-series.

And yet, Gonzalez and his fellow BP officers refuse to fall by the wayside. They’re pushing against any negative associations. With B-Roll, they’ve encouraged cast and crew to bond. They’ve started release parties and group rehearsals, all of which make the team closer.

“We’ve tried to get people together so that they know at least the face of everyone they’re working with,” Shaw said. She has worked at a professional production house, and admitted it can be “lonely out there” in film industry.

Once it has a community, a show needs an audience. To that end, BP is riding the wave of modernity to safer shores — digital media and technological innovations allow the organization to produce much more content than they once did. And, more importantly, that content is readily available on YouTube and Vimeo. Though the BP website is a bit outdated, both the production house and B-Roll have active Facebook pages, which the members update regularly.

“The internet is saving us,” Liu declared.

* * *

The process of rebuilding BP has just begun. And while Gonzalez, Liu and Shaw have work ahead of them, they hope to leave a stable community of film lovers and makers in their wake.

Above all, the officers want fresh blood. They’re looking for new writers, directors, actors. Liu stressed the value of additional narrative content. And Gonzalez dreams of a perfect BP, a BP which might tackle three projects at once: one in pre-production, one in production, and one in post-production.

To get there, B-Roll and BP emphasize the human aspect of filmmaking. The actors radiate a delighted camaraderie, and the production crew has a similar enthusiasm. Griswold emphasized that the BP of today seems like a real family, “a group of filmmakers growing up together.”

Though Lopez is currently an actress on the show, she hopes to join the BP production crew. She’s inexperienced but unafraid: to her, Bulldog Productions is anything but inaccessible.

“At BP, someone will be there to teach you and that’s not something you always find at Yale.”

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