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Student-Made Horror Film Helps Inaugurate New Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium

Posted: October 19, 2021

Buffalo State College’s new Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium will assume a spooky feel just in time for Halloween, when the student-made film Portrait premieres this Friday. 

Four students in the television and film arts (TFA) program collaborated to create the 30-minute, 360-degree horror film under the guidance of Aaron Daniel Annas, associate professor and director of TFA. It opens Friday, October 22, at 6:30 p.m. in the planetarium, located within the newly renovated Science and Mathematics Complex.

Subsequent screenings will be held October 23 and October 29–30, also at 6:30 p.m. An encore presentation will take place at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, November 5. The film marks one of the first events the planetarium is offering to the public. While admission is free, tickets are required because of limited seating.

Portrait tells the story of art thieves who get their comeuppance when a stolen painting comes to life. The neo-noir-style film features four professional actors and the talents of many Buffalo State students who served as crew members and extras in the unique production that will fill the dome in the 48-seat planetarium.

“I know of no other film students making a film for this kind of space,” Annas said. “It’s an experiment, and I’m excited for the campus and community to be a part of it.”

The idea stemmed from a conversation Annas had last year with Kevin Williams, associate professor of earth sciences and science education and director of the planetarium. Williams was seeking innovative ways to involve other campus disciplines in the newly imagined planetarium, which officially opened to the public October 2 as the final phase of renovations to the Science and Mathematics Complex.

“We wanted to host a collaborative project in honor of the college’s 150th anniversary and the new School of Arts and Sciences,” Annas said. “We combined the technology of earth sciences with the methodology of TFA to end up with an innovative project.”

The signature 150th anniversary event is a private screening on Saturday, October 23, at 6:30 p.m., which includes invitations to alumni, a discussion with the film’s creators, and a reception in the atrium.

“While some planetariums have Halloween-related shows, they usually feature scary music or how Halloween is related to astronomy,” Williams said. “I thought the planetarium would be the perfect environment for a horror film, and I knew it’s a genre Aaron Daniel loves.”

Last spring, Annas asked students in his TFA 420: Producing Short Films II class if they’d like to make this type of horror film for their senior capstone project the following semester. At first, he had no takers.

“I think it was a bit of a shock and too big of a change, as we were still remote at the time,” he said, adding. “Many students, understandably, want to work on traditional films for their capstone projects.”

Four ambitious senior TFA majors agreed to work with Annas on the film as an independent project: Sydney Baker-Hendryx, director of photography; Camden Gradwell, writer, audio mixer, and composer; Matthew Markayze, co-director; and Emmaus Nakagawa, producer and co-director.

“Initially, I was nervous and did not participate, as the task seemed insurmountable,” Baker-Hendryx said. “The group reached out to me after a cinematographer project, and I had a change of heart. I’m so happy I did. It has helped me tremendously in terms of stepping into future projects.”

She admitted there are challenges when the camera goes from 180 to 360 degrees.

Nakagawa agreed.

“I wanted to do it, though,” Nakagawa said. “I thought it’d be a great experience and a great addition to my résumé.”

Annas said this cutting-edge work differentiates the students who will enter the job market in December and next May.

The students, who started brainstorming on the film last May, began production in June, which included renting a local house for much of the filming. They put the final touches on the film last week.

“What makes a 360-degree film challenging is you can’t stand behind the camera without getting in the shot,” Nakagawa said. “Matt and I had to get creative. In one scene, we taped the camera to a doorknob.”

Williams noted that this format should be fun and extra scary because the action doesn’t just take place in front of the audience.

“There are things happening to the sides, and people in the film who appear to be right next to you,” he said. “It makes for a more immersive experience.”

Overall, Nakagawa and Baker-Hendryx said, making the film was a positive learning experience.

“Learning how to accept a challenge and work around a lack of esoteric knowledge is how one becomes a professional,” Baker-Hendryx said. “I learned the value of stepping up to a challenge.”

Annas and Williams hope to make the film project an annual event for the planetarium, as well as a model to share with other planetariums.

“For a first-year experiment,” Annas said, “it turned into a pretty amazing project.”

Annas said the film is most appropriate for ages 13 and older (PG-13), for violence and language.

To secure a ticket to Portrait, please visit the planetarium’s ticketing site.

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Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium

1300 Elmwood Ave  •  Science and Mathematics Complex •  Buffalo, NY 14222
   planetarium@buffalostate.edu