LIGHTS.CAMERA.CAREER. This year, Fire Escape Films is celebrating 21 years as a recognized student organization (RSO on UChicago’s campus. The student film group has produced several campus traditions since its formation in 1997 but is probably most well-known for its O-Week Screening series, held every year during new student orientation, and its annual 48 Hour Film Festival, which gives teams of student filmmakers just two days to write, shoot, and edit short films to screen at the festival. The rigor with which the members of Fire Escape Films approach the art of moving images often translates directly into careers in the film industry. While Cinema and Media Studies provides a strong theoretical foundation for students interested in the study of film, the student-led and student-operated Fire Escape Films serves as a resource for students of any major who are interested in the art of making movies. The RSO provides members with access to filmmaking equipment and screening opportunities, as well as workshops, seminars, master classes, and professional development. Grace MacLeod, Co-President of Fire Escape Films, notes that the RSO has seen a significant rise in membership in just the past few years, from about 45 students to a roster of 300 participating throughout the year. Members produce 6 to 8 student films per quarter, and run technical workshops and seminars on cinematography, sound design, directing, and screenwriting. MacLeod noted that Fire Escape Films was seeing an exponential growth in female membership, and the organization needed to develop programming that encouraged film diversity and participation. In 2016, Fire Escape Films won a $10,050 grant from The Women’s Board of UChicago to support the Women in Film Initiative (WIFI). The initiative supports programming for both the creative and professional development of filmmakers and provides funding for ambitious film projects. The WIFI application process is highly competitive, and eligible projects must “have non-male identifying students in all of the major crew positions.” Fire Escape Films wants to produce “a reliable group of contacts in the industry that can collaborate with students,” and WIFI is helping the organization to achieve this through diversifying its roster of filmmakers and the content produced by their members. Filmmaker and former Fire Escape Films member Mimi Wilcox, AB’ 2015, graduated before WIFI came into existence, but she is exactly the type of industry professional that MacLeod hopes the initiative will cultivate. Wilcox is the director of photography, co-producer, and editor of the documentary web series UNINSURABLE, which profiles individual stories about barriers to healthcare access in America. Through partnerships with Kindling Group and Upworthy, the series has reached over 600,000 viewers. We sat down with Wilcox to learn more about how her time with the RSO influenced her career path.
FIRE ESCAPE FILMS IS PRODUCING
TOMORROW’S FILMMAKERS HOW DID YOU COME TO JOIN FIRE ESCAPE FILMS WHILE YOU WERE AT UCHICAGO? WHAT WAS THAT EXPERIENCE LIKE?
I didn’t get seriously involved with Fire Escape until the end of my first year. I signed on right away. Fire Escape is really organized, and it was amazing to see how it evolved over the course of my time there.
WHAT WAS YOUR MAJOR? DID BEING A PART OF FIRE ESCAPE CHANGE YOUR FOCUS WHILE AT UCHICAGO?
My major wasn’t one bit film related — I double majored in Economics and Russian. Being a part of Fire Escape hugely changed my focus at UChicago. In my first year, I thought that maybe I wanted to go into nonprofit management or education policy, but by the end of my second year, Fire Escape had become such a signicant part of my life that I decided to start taking filmmaking more seriously. That said, my Econ and Russian studies at UChicago ultimately contributed to my film craft in subtle ways.
HOW DID BEING A FIRE ESCAPE MEMBER PREPARE YOU FOR A PROFESSIONAL CAREER IN FILMMAKING?
I thought that trying to break into filmmaking without any film classes or film school background would be a challenge, but Fire Escape filled that void in so many ways. From the start of my second year onward, I was always working on a film, whether I was directing, producing,
editing, running sound, or setting up lights. I felt so much room to flex creative muscles and learn what I loved to do.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY ABOUT YOUR CURRENT JOB AND WHAT ARE SOME PROJECTS YOU ARE WORKING ON?
I currently work as a freelance filmmaker, editing and shooting for documentary and commercial clients such as National Geographic, Nikon, and Sotheby’s. During my first year out of college, I worked as an in-house video editor and shooter for Shure Inc., creating advertisements and training videos. It was a scary move to jump from a salaried 9-to-5 position at Shure to being self-employed, and never having any idea what my next month of work would look like, but I haven’t regretted it once! The best part about being a freelancer is that I have the freedom to work on my own projects. For the past year I’ve been working with two other collaborators—one of whom I met at UChicago!—on UNINSURABLE. That kind of learn-as-you-go approach and ability to teach yourself what you need to know is absolutely something that I first experienced in Fire Escape Films, and I credit the passion I have now for creating my own projects entirely to the experiences I had as a member.
Find Fire Escape Films on Facebook facebook.com /FireEscapeFilms, learn more about Mimi Wilcox on her website mimiwilcox.com, and screen UNINSURABLE at uninsurabledoc.com.