Long before Anastasia Liu arrived at UChicago, the fourth-year undergraduate student was interested in art, film, and production. “I’ve been doing art since I was 8 years old,” Liu says. “Because of my interests in art, I always really admired film and intended to get into film studies before college.” Initially, Liu thought she would major in illustration or animation at an arts school, but she ultimately chose to come to UChicago because she wanted to study something in addition to art. Liu avidly watched movies in high school, but it wasn’t until she took a CMS course in the spring of her first year that she understood how shots were composed or how crews contributed to films. Her interest in the CMS major solidified when she took “Introduction to Film” in a section taught by Tyler Schroeder (currently a Humanities Teaching Fellow). “I loved how thorough the class was in explaining film terms; that vocabulary foundation was totally crucial,” she explains. “Also, the class was rooted in the idea that films are experiential and artistic. The idea of pleasure was prevalent, both in the sense of visual pleasure as described by Laura Mulvey, and in the sense that the movies were watched were really enjoyable. The reason I’m still entranced with film in general is because of its experiential nature, which I learned in Intro to Film.”
As a dual major in DoVA (Department of Visual Arts) and CMS, Liu is completing the CMS Intensive Track Major, which allows her to pursue a Production Thesis. For Liu, the most impactful course in CMS was the Documentary Production sequence taught by Judy Hoffman, Professor of Practice in the Arts. Liu appreciated the work-intensive nature of the course, where documentaries are pitched, made, and discussed in all production phases. “Growing up as an illustration-oriented kid, I watched fantasy cartoons, the farthest thing from documentary. But this class showed how film is political medium: often, documentaries are overtly political, and they call into question the role of the filmmaker, in terms of how large their presence should be,” she says. Documentary Production students also learn how to work with a crew, and class crews often develop close relationships. The opportunity to film in Chicago also leads students to a greater appreciation of their surroundings. Many of the documentaries produced by Liu’s classmates focused on a unique part of the city. For that class, Liu worked with Tom Kristensen, Jinghong Miao, Xiaoyu Yin, and Teddy Debreu to produce Gu Dao: Chinatown, a film about Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood. “I pitched this project because I think a lot about the politics of Asian-American representation,” Liu recounts. “It helped me voice how dissatisfied I am with many films that showcase wealthy East Asians in an elite culture that appeals to a white audience. This not only ignores the massive amounts of people who are Asian and immigrants in the West, but also forces us back into the model minority trope. I felt that it was valuable to show these Chinese American and Chinese immigrant perspectives that were really lacking in film.”
Before taking Documentary Production in Fall 2019 and Winter 2020, Liu was involved with Fire Escape Films, the student filmmaking organization at UChicago. While she had some experience in production, she relished learning under the guiding eye of Judy Hoffman. “At the beginning of the course, Judy told us not to have any excuses for our work,” Liu says. “Often when people present artwork, they apologize for not having enough time, or they say that the weather was bad and that’s why the shot is too dim. But Judy she told us that with or without excuses, at the end of the day you don’t have a functioning shot and need to get it again.” Liu has applied the lesson of accepting critical feedback not only to her work in film, but also to presentations of her art in DoVA classes.
Liu’s art thesis for DoVA will focus on the painted body, which stems from her interest in the history of painting as well as her early interests in illustration and animation. She is painting fantasy personas or character tropes to see if they can be elevated to the level of fine arts. “I care a lot about subcultures and suburban imagery, because the suburbs are tied to fantasy in a really strong way. In the suburbs, people who are tired of their mundane lives often devote themselves to fantasy, and escapism is the food of fantasy.” Gender is important to both Liu’s art thesis and her CMS production thesis. “Most of my critical analyses of films do some kind of gender analysis,” she explains. “I’m nonbinary, and I’m continually interested in why literal objects come off as gendered in a certain way.” The film Liu is producing for her thesis is a murder mystery with a noir atmosphere. Noir appeals to her because it is a highly structured genre that constructs characters around tropes and archetypes. She is especially interested in the femme fatale character and depictions of Asian women in film.
Tentatively titled “Storm Drain,” Liu’s CMS thesis film focuses on relationships between Asian women and white men. The film’s logline reads: “After the disappearance of her estranged step-brother, a young woman meets his best friend and attempts to uncover his whereabouts while struggling through memories of her past.” As Liu explains, “I feel like noir always deals with traumatic themes but hasn’t depicted the experience of trauma as much as they should.” For her film, she will collaborate again with director of photography Tom Kristensen from her Documentary Production class. She has cast only three people because of Covid-19 guidelines. “I’m going to shoot a lot of my own apartment also for Covid safety reasons, and the shoots will be socially distanced as much as possible,” Liu explains. “I will play a lot of the extras, and I’m also making all of the props and makeup. I’ve made props a lot for movies, and I learned how to do gory prosthetic makeup for a short film I made over the summer of 2018. I like how film makes you pick up these random skills to try to elevate your film to the next level.” With the added challenges of the pandemic, Liu has incorporated safety guidelines directly into the script. Most of the scenes position the characters at a “tense distance” from each other. Liu says that it has been a long and difficult process to get the plot to this point. “I’ve wanted to make a murder mystery film set on a college campus for a long time, but so much has changed.”
Liu is most looking forward to editing her film. Editing was also her favorite part of the Documentary Production course, even though she couldn’t access her files for several months when the Logan Center shut down due to the pandemic. She was able to make final edits to Gu Dao: Chinatown in August, and in October, the Film Studies Center and CMS presented a virtual screening of the four documentaries made for the 2019-2020 Documentary Production course. For Liu, the editing process involves difficulty, exhaustion, but also joy: “The moments when you feel very focused and like you’re really doing it well is rare, but I chase that feeling a lot! There are also many hours of sitting in front of Adobe Premiere in tears and feeling a lack of motivation.”
Based on her experience editing film at UChicago, Liu’s ideal job would be as a TV editor. “I really like TV and recently have been watching more TV shows than movies lately,” she says. “I am disappointed with how editing can often be relegated to a role without creative control. That’s never made sense, because editing has so much creative control. I admire the famous relationships between Walter Murch and Francis Ford Coppola, or Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese. In these relationships, the editor has more power over the story and what kind of projects they want to edit.” While Liu looks forward to her editing career, she is currently watching Hannibal and Killing Eve. “I’m addicted to Killing Eve, because it has everything I like: female sexuality, gender, and noir themes. That would be my ideal project!”