A man facing the camera smiles with a book open in front of him. A woman stands slighlty behind him with a video camera. They are facing a man in the foreground who has his back to the camera.
Unlike conventional documentaries about filmmaking, which typically focus on subject matter, process and the “why,” Jacob Simmons’ project is a rare exploration into the emotions of the creators themselves. Here, he interviews a fellow filmmaker for his research documentary. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Through the eye of a young filmmaker, a journey into the heart

VCU cinema major Jacob Simmons uses undergraduate research grant to explore how emotion affects not just movie audiences but the creators themselves.

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About Every Ram’s a Researcher: As part of Research Weeks 2024, this series highlights the ways that undergrads at VCU, no matter their major, get involved with meaningful research that enriches their college experience. 

When Jacob Simmons’ parents took him to the movies as a youngster, he would pretend he had an imaginary remote to record beautiful scenes in his head. The utter joy of capturing them in his mind planted a love of visual media in his heart.

Now a junior majoring in cinema at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts, Simmons wants to connect audiences to that experience.

“I knew I wanted to become a filmmaker when I saw how deeply people can be affected by films,” he said. “They can change the way we view social issues, people, nature and even life itself. I believe filmmaking is at its best when we push ourselves to share stories that need to be told, which is what I want to do.”

Simmons, though, is going behind the lens in two ways – not just in making a film, but in focusing on other directors and how their emotions affect their art. Supported by a grant from VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, he is exploring how human emotion influences the media we consume.

“The only thing I knew I wanted to research was the process of emotions in some capacity,” Simmons said. “Then it leaned into learning more about how our emotions can inspire/affect our own art. Finally, I decided to make this project specifically on filmmakers and their emotions. … The connection between visual media and genuine emotions is profound but uncharted.”

His documentary, “Phenomena of Emotions,” is a study on filmmakers and creatives alike — specifically those with a creative input in filmmaking — and which emotions they draw from when creating art. Simmons sets out to dissect those emotions and understand their importance when developing stories that shed light on not only marginalized people but their importance to filmmaking as a whole.

“Emotions are a driving factor in almost everything that we do, especially for filmmakers who construct stories that touch the hearts of audiences,” Simmons said. “We understand how films have emotional impacts on viewers, but how have filmmakers’ own emotions impacted the art they create?”

Unlike conventional documentaries about filmmaking, which typically focus on subject matter, process and the “why,” Simmons’ project is a rare exploration into the emotions of the creators themselves, said Shawn Brixey, Simmons’ mentor for the project, and

A man smiles and leans over a video camera, looking offscreen to the left.
Jacob Simmons works on his documentary in a studio at VCUarts' Depot Building. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

professor of cinema and kinetic imaging in VCUarts and affiliate professor of computer science in the College of Engineering.

“This ambitious endeavor involves extensive research, conceptual development, meticulous pre-production management, resource gathering, team building, location scouting and relentless refinement of interview protocols,” Brixey said. “Drawing inspiration from acclaimed filmmakers like Errol Morris, known for their deep dives into the epistemological dimensions of their subjects, Jacob innovatively employs various documentary techniques — such as participatory, reflexive and performative styles — to forge intimate connections between subjects and, ideally, the audience.

“Through this journey, Jacob not only grapples with the inherent challenges of filmmaking’s possibilities but also cultivates the resilience necessary to navigate its complex landscape for a lifetime.”

During this project, Simmons discovered a love of documentaries, which are notably different from the narrative films he is used to.

“It’s such an honest way of filmmaking that I think can be really refreshing,” he said. “I think the most important thing filmmakers my age can do is just make films, however and whenever. So it was important for me to gain experience so I can apply these skills in future productions.”

Simmons answered some quick additional questions about his experience as an undergraduate researcher.

What led you to this research?

Emotions are such a vital part of creating art, and I believe learning about their effects on the creative process of artists can produce interesting results.

Beyond the research itself, what skills or connections have you developed through this project?

I gained many different skills I wasn’t expecting. I put a big emphasis on organization when creating this project so I definitely improved in that aspect outside of “Phenomena” as well. I applied to career fairs with this project and that taught me pitching and resumé building skills. On top of that, I have more passion for filmmaking in general. In terms of connections, joining this year’s Research Cohort has given me new connections to faculty and students alike.

What did you enjoy most about this project?

Set days! I loved how everything came together on set to create something meaningful to me and the crew; but the best part of set days was being able to work with my friends. They gave me so much confidence during every step of this production. I also enjoyed learning from the mistakes I made as a director. As frustrating as it was, understanding the error and how to fix it is how I know I can create something even better in the future.

What advice do you have for other undergrads on how to get involved in research?

 Make the research project work for you. The most important part of any project that you begin is to believe in yourself and your ideas. Confidence is key! I would also encourage other undergraduates to remain present in their research; moments where you can develop your own projects should be cherished.