Campus Observer: Slice of Frosh Life

Action: Mike Silver, left, cues actors Chelsea Echenique and Andrew Miller

 Action: Mike Silver, left, cues actors Chelsea Echenique and Andrew Miller Photo: Jon Gardiner


There's trouble brewing in Krzyzewskiville. Freshmen Josh DeBottis and Mark Whitfield stand in front of a tent, their voices rising in frustration.

"You were supposed to be here at 10:40," DeBottis says in a harsh voice, moving in close. "It's now 10:45."

"The bus was late," Whitfield begins, but DeBottis interrupts him. "We missed another tent check because of you. We were tent thirteen. Now we got bumped back to tent ninety-four. Do you remember the last guy who missed a tent check?"


"Let me show you why." DeBottis grabs Whitfield by the front of his T-shirt, and begins to drag him toward the sidewalk.

"All right, wait," Mike Silver says, looking up from the LCD screen of a camcorder as the two exit. He stops recording and moves from the sidewalk to a patch of grass between two tents. "Now let me get a close-up from here of you saying, 'No.' "

The three, all residents of Gilbert-Addoms dorm, are busy filming what will become Only the Beginning, their dorm's submission to Duke's fourth annual Froshlife iMovie project. The project is a competition among East Campus residence halls to produce the best movie about first-year life. In the past, prizes like iPods and video cameras have been handed out. But this year's awards were set to include, among other things, a grant to make another film, in an effort to further the education process.

The students have two weeks to plan, write, shoot, and edit their film. This is the last weekend of the project, and the finished film is due in only four days. But despite busy schedules that include classes, social events, and tent duty, the three filmmakers are confident that they will get it done.

The tight deadline is intentional, says Ryan Lombardi, assistant dean of students. It keeps participants focused and interested. The timing is also purposeful. Inspired by a similar competition at Emory University, the project is about getting students to reflect on their freshman-year experience at a time when many of them, busy filling out housing forms for next year or completing fraternity and sorority rush, are typically looking forward.

"Life is such a blur when you're going through your first year of college," Lombardi says. "The first-year experience is so strong here at Duke, we just wanted them to think about it."

The Froshlife film project officially kicks off with an event in a classroom in the East Campus union building, upstairs from the Marketplace. Consultants from the Office of Information Technology (OIT), which sponsors the project with the student-affairs office and Apple Computer, are there to pass out equipment--including digital video cameras and Apple laptop computers with iMovie software--as well as hints on story-writing, filming, and editing. DeBottis and Silver lead a group of their dormmates from Gilbert Addoms across the East Campus quad and pile in early, while the staff is still setting up.

Fred Westbrook, a video consultant with OIT's digital media solutions (DMS) group, is there to talk about story writing. On a laptop, he plays the entry from last year's winner, Jarvis Dormitory, for G-A residents Ryan Miller and Amanda Norris. "This is one of four or five of these videos over the years [that] have really blown us away," he says.

"The most important thing," he continues, "is to come together over a concept, allow the people who have the vision to carry it out." Across the room, Tim Poe, senior manager of DMS, is teaching a group of students how to use the camera and the editing software.

The G-A team gathers in the middle of the room. DeBottis explains that many of those in the group have been excited about participating in Froshlife since they first learned about it last summer from Duke's admitted-students webpage, which provided a link to some of last year's submissions. Watching the videos "gave cool insights into college life," he says. "What people do, what they're like. That people take their doors off and use them for other purposes--the random stuff."

"Getting ideas," Norris chimes in.

Silver was the obvious choice to lead G-A's effort. "He photoshops for fun," DeBottis says. After picking up their equipment and a few pointers, the group makes its way, in twos and threes, down to a round table in the Marketplace's dining room to brainstorm. DeBottis grabs a couple of scoops of ice cream, Silver a plate of lo mein noodles, and some of the others have salads. They also bring to the table an equally odd assortment of ideas, images, and observations.

"Dude, they stole my song," DeBottis says as they sit down, "the one that won last year."

"Yeah, I love that song," says J.P Walsh. "It's not called 'Teenage Wasteland.' It's something else."

Suddenly everyone starts throwing ideas into the pot. "The audio's really important, if we're having a conversation," observes Silver. "Some of last year's were really crappy. You can't hear anything."

"We definitely need a K'ville shot," DeBottis says. "Everyone is out there anyway. We should just bring the camera."

"How about something with the tent checks, something Blair Witch style?" Andrew Miller asks. A couple of people roll their eyes and groan.

"Hey, Mike," Ryan Miller asks, "can we have Ninjas in it?"

Silver tries to drag them back on track. "We're getting all these good ideas," he says, "but we need a theme. Like, do we want to do a day-in-the-life, or something that is completely off track but involves a freshman's life?" After a half hour, they remain enthusiastic, but are more confused than when they started. They agree to jot down their ideas and get them to Silver, who says he'll oversee writing the script.

A week later, on a Tuesday night, the group reconvenes in the G-A Down Under. Silver has a script that he and a few others drafted in the early morning hours after staying up late to watch the Carolina Panthers lose to the Seattle Seahawks in the third round of the NFL playoffs. He goes through it, scene by scene, giving the group a basic description of what will happen. The script gives a general plot, but no finished dialogue--that will be improvised.

The video will begin, he says, with five strangers running into one another at dinner, then backtrack to explain how each got there. He tells them which actors need to be present for the filming of which shots--among them, scenes in K'ville, several classrooms, a club, and a shot involving Ninjas and a chase.

"So Mark runs behind the tents," Silver is saying, "and passes a girl with a cell phone. That's where 'Amanda's Day' begins." Amanda's day doesn't begin well, he says. "Her boyfriend just dumped her."

"Awww, just now?" Andrew Miller says, in mock sympathy.

"Well, a couple days ago," Silver replies.

Many of the scenes, Silver tells them, are based on real-life experiences. Those who haven't heard the true story before laugh when he relates a scene in which Norris flirts with a guy in a club. At one point they get hot and remove their sweatshirts, revealing a Duke T-shirt and a UNC T-shirt, respectively. Both recoil in horror.

"That's how it really happened," Norris says, lowering her head in embarrassment.

They finish reviewing the script and head off to film a few scenes in East Campus classrooms. DeBottis turns to Silver. "If we do all this stuff," he says in an excited voice, "it's going to be ridiculous."

By Saturday they've accomplished a lot. They film a Ninja fight scene in the morning, then move on to K'ville, where fans have already started to show up for that evening's game against Virginia.

"I don't know what you're doing, but we have to take a picture of it," says a passerby, taking one look at Whitfield, who is now propped on an upside-down garbage can and lashed with belts to a lamp post. A sign reading, "Go UNC," hangs from his neck. The man takes out his cell phone and places a call. "Guess where I am? Standing outside Cameron. The fans are crazy here!"

As Whitfield waits for a group of extras to coat themselves with Duke-blue face paint, he turns the sign face-down on his chest, seemingly self-conscious amid the mass of Duke fans now streaming past. A young kid in a #4 J.J. Redick jersey approaches, dribbling a basketball. His dad tries to move him along, but he comes in for a closer look. "What are they doing?" he asks, shaking his head and grinning.

Silver is striving to get the extras painted and in their places for the next take. Whitfield, from his perch on the garbage can, calls out, "Somebody take their shoe off and throw it at me." That reminds DeBottis of something. "Hey, where are the clementines?"

Dan Piech, a G-A resident who wasn't aware the group was filming but happens to be here manning a tent, seems excited that they will be throwing produce. "Are we actually going to throw it at him?" he asks.

"It's not going to explode," he points out. "A tomato would be more effective."

The extras form a mob around Whitfield. They wave their fists and chant "D-U-K-E. D-U-K-E." Then, "Go to Hell, Carolina."

"Wait!" someone shouts. They stop. "Can we say that?"

If it flies in Cameron, it should be okay here, they decide, and resume. "Go to Hell, Carolina! Go to Hell!" Holding the camera low, Silver moves through the crowd toward Whitfield, then slowly angles the camera upward, taking in the three belts that hold him to the post, and finally the look of fear on his face.

From the expression on Silver's face, it's clear that he is carefully assessing how this scene will play in the final edit, whether it should be sped up or slowed down, whether it should have background music.

"Go to Hell, Carolina," they chant. "Okay," says Silver, pressing the stop button. "We're good."

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