"We’re the only university in the
world that has that magnitude…we remain at the ready."
By Carol Badaracco Padgett
Where in the world can a film student execute a running gurney shot into an ER?
Prior to September 2023, the answer would’ve been “nowhere.” But that was before Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) opened its latest project: a powerhouse backlot on its Savannah, Georgia campus that rivals anything in Hollywood.
Some may ask, what’s a backlot? It’s an area behind or next to a film studio that contains permanent exterior buildings for outdoor scenes in television or film production, as well as space for productions to build temporary sets as needed.
In this case, SCAD’s new backlot adjoins the university’s 22,000 square foot Savannah Film Studios which houses three soundstages and includes lighting grids, post-production suites, a multi-purpose recording booth for automated dialogue replacement (ADR) and Foley recordings, a green room, and screening rooms.
In 2021, a mammoth-sized, mixed reality LED volume stage with a 40’ x 20’ x 17’ LED screen display for virtual production was added to the studio. And now… the backlot has shot onto the scene, which SCAD Dean Andra Reeve-Rabb describes as the biggest, most extensive backlot at any university in the world.
Especially notable, the backlot concept planning was done in association with Florida-based Paul Wonsek and Associates with final building designs and project implementation by SCAD Design Group. Wonsek was the production designer of Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta.
“The genesis was, let’s create something that serves our students and our industry. Something that’s fully functioning to any production that comes to town and needs to use a backlot,” Reeve-Rabb says.
SCAD does have an important caveat for visiting productions who use the backlot: “A team of students gets to work alongside them,” she states.
This professional-production/student-team scenario has worked out beautifully when SCAD employed the practice at its adjacent LED volume studio.
An Apple TV show, Clean Slate, used the LED volume and called upon SCAD students as collaborators, the dean divulges.
Real-world lift off
One student who has benefited from the professional-production/student-filmmaker work arrangement is Brenden Mascherino, a SCAD senior in film and television production from Downingtown, Pennsylvania.
At Savannah Film Studios, Mascherino worked on the feature film May December starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, which gave him the opportunity to collaborate alongside director Todd Haynes – an experience the film student described as “magical.”
“They handle film intentionally and are not afraid to take time and make one shot look great,” Mascherino said of the film’s professional crew. “We got to see the puzzle pieces come together.”
May December was then screened at the 2023 SCAD Savannah Film Festival with director Todd Haynes in attendance.
Mascherino is excited about what the backlot can offer him in the future, once he graduates and steps into the real world where he hopes to work as a director of photography on narrative feature films.
“I’m looking forward to coming back to Savannah … and to the backlot and making films,” he muses. “I like the direction SCAD is going in, pushing the envelope and immersing young adults in the study of film.”
Tellingly, SCAD’s backlot combines precisely the two things Mascherino may be looking for once he graduates: Savannah and everything-everywhere in terms of scene backdrops.
The backlot houses an authentic-looking historic Savannah streetscape with a hardware store, a bakery/café, and a barber shop. Urban environments include alleyways and gas stations, while suburban environments include homes and a town hall. Each setting was carefully thought out and designed, from a retail store to beautiful brownstones, a bank, Wall Street, and an ER for that running gurney shot.
But why does Savannah, Georgia need a backlot with a streetscape of Savannah?
“The backlot has its very own Savannah street because with all the production shooting here in Savannah, it has become more and more challenging for our students to get permits to shoot on location. So we put historic streets on our backlots,” Reeve-Rabb shares.
In the dean’s view, one of the most compelling components of the backlot is that each of these stores, shops, homes, and businesses feature fully built-out interiors.
“It’s not just flat with no depth. You can actually enter these spaces and shoot within, and they’re climate-controlled,” she describes.
"By shooting at Savannah Film Studios, we remove all the barriers for [students]. They can focus on craft, storytelling, and narrative in an environment that looks just like the real thing."
The backlot from multiple angles
One of the best things about adding the new backlot into the mix of production superpowers at SCAD is that it increases the volume of student collaboration on professional film projects.
Paul Stonick, Vice President of SCADpro, a collaborative creative design studio that prepares students to interface with business leaders, says this: “Students from high-ranked SCAD degree programs, ranging from film and television, acting, and production design to visual effects, animation, and immersive reality are collaborating and crossing the aisle to use the backlot, soundstages, and LED volume to create industry-ready projects.”
The LED volume stage component alone has provided a wonderland of collaboration for students and has primed their interest in more.
As Stonick describes, “Students working alongside industry leaders such as Deloitte, MGM Resorts, and WWE have used our LED volume stage for cutting edge visual presentations.”
In addition, luxury jeweler David Yurman has engaged SCADpro to bring students from across disciplines to work on the brand’s holiday campaign, ‘Create Joy, Give David Yurman,’' which includes extensive filming on the volume stage.
“By shooting at Savannah Film Studios, we remove all the barriers for [students]. They can focus on craft, storytelling, and narrative in an environment that looks just like the real thing,” Stonick says.
Another reason their three superpowers – the film studio, LED volume stage, and new backlot – all work so well together for SCAD is simply this: Savannah is a chameleon with the power to pose as literally any place.
“[The backlots] first Phase of Savannah street scenes is based on the same reason the industry chooses Savannah as a location: it’s a versatile place that can be turned into anywhere it needs to be,” Stonick notes.
And he adds, “So our students who are studying production design are also able to work as art directors and redress these buildings in real time.”
Essentially, there’s no end to what the new backlot superpower will help SCAD students learn, no matter which creative discipline speaks to them best.
Photos Courtesy of SCAD University
We need another hero
What new and powerful opportunities will SCAD land next? Reeve-Rabb’s eyes sparkle when she says the word -- “casting.”
The story of her own film arts journey includes an internship in casting on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, which ignited her love for the art.
“Back then, SCAD would’ve been the perfect place for me,” the dean nods.
She later went to work as an independent casting director in LA and New York and was a casting executive with CBS.
“We’ve opened two casting offices at SCAD,” Reeve-Rabb shares – one in Savannah and, most recently, a second at the university’s Midtown campus in Atlanta.
Already superheroes, the casting offices have drawn the attention of studios and streaming platforms like Disney and Netflix.
On the subject of casting – and probably everything else SCAD offers -- Reeve-Rabb closes, “We’re the only university in the world that has that magnitude … we remain at the ready.”