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Originally published in The California Aggie

After spending a year living in the UC Davis residence halls, Stephen Leung thought the experience would be the perfect material for a sitcom.

Fast forward a year. Three episodes of “Freshman Fifteen,” the only known sitcom filmed in Davis by UC Davis students, are now on YouTube.

“Everyone was really close to each other [in the dorms] so I got this idea of making a film that expresses our friendship,” said Leung, now a sophomore biochemistry major.

Armed with a single camera and basic editing software, Leung directed his friends in three six-minute episodes chronicling common college student problems like paying attention in class and going on a date.

Leung said he was inspired by the sitcoms “Home Improvement,” “Friends” and “Listen Up!” while penning the script, which he tries to make familiar to all viewers.

“I like having really broad ideas, instead of really specific ideas that not everyone can relate to – for example, going to a restaurant and embarrassing yourself by accident,” Leung said.

After asking a few of his friends to be in the sitcom, Leung let them take a look at the script and provide feedback. Sophomore undeclared major Alma Jimenez, who plays Alice in the show, said she had to help Leung write the female characters.

“For some of the lines he thinks girls would say, I’d say, ‘A girl would actually not say this in that situation,’” Jimenez said. “I’ll tell him and he’ll say, ‘Ok, I’ll fix it up and make it more realistic.’”

After working with the cast, Leung adapted the characters to fit the strengths of the actors portraying them.

Sophomore math major Steven Turner often improvised his own part, adding extra lines for his character, Jerome.

“A lot of the things [in the sitcom] aren’t that far of a stretch from what actually happened in the dorms,” Turner said. “We don’t actually fit a lot of the stereotypes [portrayed] so it’s like we’re acting out of character.”

Most of the scenes were shot at the Allegre apartment complex where the cast lives. Each scene takes about an hour to shoot, with the camera person being whichever cast member who is not in the scene. Leung edits the footage into finished episodes.

Linh Tran, who plays Ana in eEpisode 2: the second episode, “Richard’s Date,” said the biggest challenge of filming was trying not to laugh.

“Every couple of lines we had to do multiple takes because we were laughing,” said Tran, a sophomore nutrition science major. “Or, we’re not supposed to stare directly at the camera so once we were done with our line [Leung] told us to just stay in that position for a couple of seconds, but sometimes we’d take too long and look back at the camera.”

Lighting also became an issue, since they didn’t want the scenes to look too staged or too dark, Turner said. Maintaining consistent hair length was also a challenge since often weeks would pass between shoots.

Still, the improvisational nature of the shoots was the most enjoyable part of filming for Turner, especially because the actors often didn’t know exactly what other characters would do next.

“The most fun thing is the random surprises that come along with filming. We don’t go in knowing the entire script a lot of the time because we’re just given it by segments,” Turner said. “We may not know if another character is going to pop out of nowhere or if someone is going to have a line that we’re not expecting to hear.”

Leung intends the show to remain firmly grounded in Davis. The people, professors, and places you see should be easily recognizable and familiar to UC Davis students, he said.

In fact, the show has already featured plant pathology professor Tom Gordon and English teaching assistant Nick Valvo as guest stars. Leung also worked with a local Starbucks for product placement and plans to feature other businesses in future episodes.

For now, “Freshman Fifteen” is a hit with the casts’ friends and families, though they’d like for more college students to see the show. The team was recently featured in a segment about “Freshman Fifteen” on the CBS 13 news.

Though Jimenez said she was embarrassed to watch herself onscreen, the fun of filming the show with her friends keeps her involved.

“It’s nice to take a break from doing schoolwork. It’s always fun filming and there’s a lot of laughs,” Jimenez said. “It’s my first time trying to act. Even if I’m not that good at it, I’m still having fun doing it.”

Watch “Freshman Fifteen” at http://www.youtube.com/user/UCDFreshmenFifteen.

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