Under Refurbishment, a Biola University student film shot and completed in 2022, is the recipient of serious attention on the festival circuit. Over the summer, the 25-minute short had its world premiere at the Dances with Films festival in Hollywood, where it played to a full house. Earlier this month, it was hailed as a finalist in the 24th season of the KCET Festival of Films, a platform for emerging student filmmakers in Southern California. On September 22, it will air on KCET on a one-hour block with other Fine Cut finalists.
The director of Under Refurbishment is alumnus Griffin Douglass (’22), who graduated last year from the Snyder School of Cinema & Media Arts. The story revolves around an animatronic cowboy, Sarsaparilla Sam (Vinny Balbo), at a Western themed family entertainment center who struggles with his human manager (Matthew Rhodes) to maintain his creative freedom. An unlikely but satisfying cross between Toy Story and an episode of Black Mirror, the film features some of the best behind-the-scenes work from Biola’s cinema and media arts student community.
“I had an army behind the film,” said Douglass. “I look at the film and realize that someone was painting that saloon door. Someone went and got that bandana that Sarsaparilla Sam is wearing.”
For his senior thesis film, Douglass raised $15,000 through crowdfunding efforts and brought on cinema and media arts alumna Holly Chang (’22) to produce.
“Under Refurbishment has been such a redeeming project to work on,” said Chang. “We worked hard to create a safe environment for all creatives that came on board. We encouraged them to dream limitlessly and get creative to make those dreams happen, and we really invited all types of creators to collaborate with us along the way. Griffin and I feel honored that so many talented and seasoned artists believed in our vision enough to give it 100 percent.”
Under Refurbishment involved extensive use of Studio A, the production space in the Snyder School of Cinema & Media Arts where the main set was built. Douglass teamed up with Cinema and Media Arts alumni including Katelyn Moger (’22) who handled the production design and Grace Hahs (’23) who served as art director for the film. Seth Brown (’22) and Kyler Robinson (’22) served as set builders.
Graham Skinner (’22) handled the cinematography, shooting on the ARRI Alexa Mini, an industry grade camera.
“I didn’t realize how important having a great director of photography would be,” said Douglass. “Working with Graham has been the most fruitful relationship I’ve had coming out of Biola. If I don’t know how to film something, he steps in and gives me gold. I became a better director because of Graham.”
There were challenges along the way. On the very first day of the shoot, one of the leads came back with a positive COVID test. The shoot was delayed by a day — the case turned out to be a false positive. Despite having to catch up by shooting longer days from then on, the crew managed to finish on schedule. Douglass credits a class he took at Biola called “Navigating the Creative Project,” taught by former Disney Imagineer Bob Zalk, as a key inspiration.
“That class showed me how storytelling is different from filmmaking, and how I can use my love for themed entertainment to inform my filmmaking,” said Douglass.
Looking back at the production, Douglass appreciated the facilities and access that the Snyder School of Cinema & Media Arts provided.
“We couldn’t have built that set anywhere else,” he said. “The #1 compliment I get is ‘it looks so professional.’”
Chang is optimistic about the film’s future.
“My main hope is that our film continues to be recognized in the festival circuit because it took an absolute army of contributors, leaders, artists, and so many more to craft Under Refurbishment,” she shared. “All the recognition truly goes to those that supported us.”
Under Refurbishment will air on September 22 at 10 p.m. on KCET and the PBS app.