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Ethan Nahlinder explores visual effects, youth culture through filmmaking

Second-year mechanical engineering student Ethan Nahlinder poses at the Marina del Rey Film Festival. Nahlinder said he was inspired to begin filmmaking after watching “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.” (Courtesy of Ethan Nahlinder)

By Chloe Colligan

Sept. 16, 2022 6:06 p.m.

When it comes to visual effects, Ethan Nahlinder is inventing his own.

The second-year mechanical engineering student said the visual effects in the ending of Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” were his first filmmaking inspiration. Upon watching the movie, Nahlinder said he was fascinated by the idea of taking relatively impossible concepts like faces melting and depicting them on a screen using practical physical models. Nahlinder said he experimented with his own visual effects in his first short film Void,” which is about an astronaut on an expedition through the universe by himself in high school. He said he first thought of the story after inventing a DIY simulation of space in his bedroom.

“I watched a slow-motion video of this guy injecting ink into a fish tank of water, and I was like, ‘Hey, that looks like space,’ so I did that,” Nahlinder said. I got a fish tank, I filled it with water. I had this black, pearlescent ink with little sparkles in it, so I inserted that in, and those sparkles looked like stars.”

(Courtesy of Ethan Nahlinder)
Will Coons (left) and Ethan Nahlinder (right) stand on a roof. Nahlinder said his first project "Void" was filmed using a fish tank to replicate space. (Courtesy of Ethan Nahlinder)

[Related: UCLA student turns emotions into motion pictures with help of film crew friends]

Eventually, Nahlinder said he met other people who were also passionate about filmmaking, and he now prefers collaborating with them because he loves the process of bringing ideas, whether they be his own or someone else’s, to life on screen. In high school, Travers Tobis became one of Nahlinder’s main collaborators, and together, they have written, shot and produced four different projects, Tobis said. The focal point of their short films varies, but one general theme throughout is the idea of portraying youth culture and the mistakes of youth realistically.

For their biggest project thus far, Tobis said they tried to portray the perils of young love in an 18 1/2-minute short film titledSoul Dive.” Nahlinder served as both the director of photography and editor, while Tobis said he starred in the short as the main character. The film is about a man revisiting his past memories with his recent ex-girlfriend to work through the aftermath of their breakup, he said.

Nahlinder said they filmedSoul Dive” with the help of only two other people, including Daisy Friedman, a former film student at UCLA who is now a sophomore at Barnard College. Having met Nahlinder through the film fraternity Delta Kappa Alpha, Friedman said she worked primarily as a voice actor on the film, portraying the ex-girlfriend. She found the filmmaking process enriching, recalling a specific memory where Nahlinder’s directing helped her character through an ad-lib scene that they filmed in the sculpture garden.

“Ethan is not a film major, but he is one of the most dedicated students that I have ever seen,” Friedman said. “He is the epitome of ‘You don’t have to go to film school to be successful.'”

While shooting “Soul Dive,” Nahlinder said both he and Tobis relied mostly on improvisation and instinct. As a result, the film is one that both of them feel personally connected to and is filled with spontaneous moments that enriched the movie, he said. For Nahlinder, an example of this was when they were shooting a scene at Hermosa Beach where Tobis was supposed to emotionally break down. Coincidentally, the minute they started rolling, the sprinklers accidentally turned on, which ended up accompanying the shot perfectly, as it emphasized the melancholic mood of the character.

“One of the sprinklers actually starts, and it sprays him (Tobis) right in the face,” Nahlinder said. “But he did not get out of character. … It was perfect for the scene. This character is in a low place and to compound that, he just got drenched by the sprinkler. I just kept rolling and literally by the end of the take, I was in a little bit of tears.”

Given that Tobis and Nahlinder were friends prior to collaborating on films, Nahlinder said there is a duality of both professionalism and play when working on set. They hope to continue their filmmaking journey together and are preparing to shoot another short film with the working title “A Reaction” in the upcoming weeks, Nahlinder said.

(Courtesy of Ethan Nahlinder)
(From left to right) Michael Zuker, Ethan Nahlinder and Joycelyn Liu stand in an illuminated room. As the vice president of Delta Kappa Alpha, Nahlinder hopes to continue to collaborate on films to help shift people's perception of the world. (Courtesy of Ethan Nahlinder)

[Related: Graduate student premieres personal short film ‘The Blessing’]

As the vice president of DKA, Nahlinder said he plans to work on several film projects with other fraternity members throughout the year, completing at least one per quarter. Nahlinder said one of his future ideas is to create a film about railroading in the 1800s throughout America. Ultimately, Nahlinder said he pursues filmmaking because of the potential that films have to make a difference and shift people’s perspectives on the world.

“I realized with this medium, instead of making the impossible real, you can actually affect the way people think … and have these thoughts that stick with you way after the film is over,” Nahlinder said.

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Chloe Colligan
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