Andrew Ishak made 52 short films in a single year. It wasn't always easy, but it was definitely worth it.
No one can accuse Andrew Ishak of having limited range as a filmmaker. There's his hilarious short film about sparsely attended academic office hours. And the one about the supreme confidence of harebrained conspiracy theorists. And the satirical look at support animals starring faculty members and their pets.
For the sake of space, we should probably stop here or this list will get very long because in 2018 Ishak decided to make 52 short films in a year. One every week. It was an opportunity to learn the craft, engage students in a new way, and steer his research in a creative direction. He pulled it off, despite tearing his ACL in the middle of the cinematic marathon. (Yes, he made a film that's about the injury, in a roundabout way.)
Ishak is a lecturer whose communication research focuses on teams, sports, and time. His film project was inspired by cartoonist Branson Reese, who vowed to post a new comic every day for a year. Like Reese, Ishak was not striving for perfection. In the end, even the videos he was less-than-thrilled with served a larger purpose.
"Trying to produce creative work is fulfilling no matter the quality," Ishak said. "I’m proud of some of the videos, and I’m not proud of others, but the point of this project was to produce. And it feels good to create."
The first task was simply coming up with ideas. A lot of them. Ishak kept lists of possibilities, ran them by friends and family, then decided which ones were possible given his schedule and expertise. He estimates that he winnowed down about 200 ideas into the finished films.
Then there were the technical challenges. He was usually a one-man crew. That meant learning and doing a little bit of everything — video, audio, lighting, coverage, directing, and acting. "I didn’t want to overextend the graciousness of my friends and family, so I didn’t rely on them for technical stuff too much," he said, though his wife filmed any time he was acting. He mastered new techniques, like filming outdoors in tricky lighting or perfecting smooth glider shots, as the year progressed. "I learned that I need to focus as much as possible on audio, pacing, and story," he said. "Everything else is secondary to those aspects."
It's tough to generalize about the eclectic collection of films. Many are laugh-out-loud funny. Others capture beautiful imagery without dialogue. Some are entertaining ways to teach students about esoteric topics. Along the way, there are heartfelt reflections on the emotions that define us as humans, like the capacity to be amazed.
Ishak considers "Remembering Hamilton: The Welcoming City" the culmination of everything he learned. The Canadian city is the first place his father lived outside of Egypt. It's where his parents settled as newlyweds and his brother was born. When his father was invited to deliver a commencement speech and receive an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, McMaster University, Andrew captured the return in a film that explores his parents' experiences in Hamilton as engineering students in the '70s and new immigrants to North America. It won the "Best Film" award in the 2019 National Communication Association Theatre, Film and New Multi-Media competition.
"I never regretted asking my parents about their lives," he said. "Every time they share something, I’m grateful to learn what they share, even if the memories aren’t pleasant, or the moral of the story isn’t clear."
Ishak’s filmmaking marathon has helped him in ways he never anticipated. Lately, he has created a series of instructional videos for students at Santa Clara University that illuminate communication concepts in clever, engaging ways. With the switch to online learning during the Covid pandemic, students have given these segments rave reviews.
A fictional film about a new priest in the Coptic Orthodox Church dealing with unexpected challenges while running a church is currently in the works. There's also an ongoing project in the “masterclass” style about helping your children build resilience to frustration with the working title “How to Annoy Your Kids."
“I strongly recommend having a creative hobby that isn’t a side hustle or a job,” Ishak said. “It’s nice to always have something to work on that is both productive and enjoyable, without the stress of it being ‘real’ work.”