Film students use class projects to connect with silent era

In its third spring semester at St. Thomas, the students in James Snapko’s “Silent Era Cinema” class are trying to find a connection between the history of cinema and their own lives.

“Part of this class is about discovering all these cool, little movies you wouldn’t have heard of otherwise, and it is fun,” Snapko said. “I’m hoping the students walk out of my class knowing they have a connection to the history of cinema. All they have to do is find it.”

Snapko wants his students to find the connection through hands-on experience, so he assigned the Lumiere Film Project. The assignment is based on the early black and white films produced by the Lumiere brothers. Their earliest work focused on the natural setting of humans and was only about a minute long with no audio or editing.

“Early filmmakers, like the Lumiere brothers, needed to be really good because they could only use visual expression,” Snapko said. “I want the students to experience the creative process under the confines I’ve placed on them so it gets them thinking about what they like and further engages them.”

The students are supposed to complete the project in their small groups with an original idea, a camera and time outside of class. These confines encourage creativity, but also pose difficulties for the students.

For senior Kathryn Rowe, the difficult and nerve-wracking part of the process is showing the finished project to the entire class because they aren’t just judging the film, but also the creator.

Other students in the class, such as junior Nick Lankford, find the struggle of the project in the early stages: choosing the topic.

“We are given a limited amount of time and resources to do this project, and it is hard to construct an idea that everyone agrees on,” Lankford said. “That’s what we are struggling with, but we’ll get it done with the deadline approaching fast.”

Although the students have more than a week before the project is due, some of them are already making the connection Snapko hoped they would make.

“This project makes me think outside the box, use my imagination and creativity and use my knowledge to take a big idea and consolidate it in a small amount of time,” senior John Krull said. “Experiencing how film was back in the day makes you appreciate the longer, higher-quality films today.”

Ashley Stewart can be reached at