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Alumni Blog: Robert McMahon

Robert McMahon sits with earbuds in looking down.

Robert Samuel McMahon on the creation of his thesis film Personal Pizza and post-graduation achievements and hurdles.


still image from robert's film showing two actors about to enter a house at night.

To say that I was nervous as I approached my final year at the School of Visual Arts is an incredible understatement.

As a student concentrating in sound design and engineering for film, I was given the option to either contribute to a handful of talented colleagues to fulfill my graduation requirement or create a film of my own. I chose to write, direct, and compose my own final film at SVA, while still working on a number of other students’ films that senior year.

Personal Pizza tells the story of Rylee and Jesse, a former couple whose relationship was mysteriously ended and forced to be addressed as the two embark on a journey to obtain stolen personal possessions. The films that I had directed in the past shared an underlying tone and flow that I did not want to diverge from for Personal Pizza. Taking inspiration from Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams, I knew that I wanted my film to be fun, adventurous, light-hearted, and truthful.

I recruited the help of classmates Erin Robles and Grace Pomilla to produce my film and guide me through the logistics of production. Despite sticking to my roots and personal preferences with the content of the script, I knew I wanted to approach pre-production in a professional manner. It was my first time creating casting calls, scouting locations, and even having a separate editor for the film. I was out of my comfort zone but I was confident in the story I wanted to tell and my crew was determined to help me tell it.

Robert McMahon and his film crew taking a group photo outside on the grass in front of a house.

Principal photography took place in late August in my hometown of Providence and Newport, Rhode Island.

Having my two worlds of the city I grew up in and NYC was a surreal experience. I cannot be grateful enough for my New York and Providence crew who flipped their schedule to shoot for five consecutive overnights at a Girl Scouts camp in the forest. Cinematographer Hayden Klein, production designer Lindsey de Leon, and I employed some very ambitious and challenging techniques to create the distinct look of the film. Old, dirty anamorphics, driving simulation using front projection in a makeshift garage studio, and using a single-story summer camp to create an immersive, mysterious, abandoned location was no easy task, but we did it. However, no one was more committed to the story than my actors Juan Teisaire and Emily Ardsley. The two incredibly talented actors knew exactly what they were in for: long nights, distant locations, yet the two continuously remained positive and passionate, often contributing many additional details and moments to the characters.

Post-production began soon after with Thomas Clinton at the helm. We saw eye to eye, and our natural chemistry allowed us to brainstorm new ideas while understanding the essential edits for the film. With his sharp eye for pacing and emotional beats, the two of us crafted a film that was beyond any of my expectations when writing the script months prior. I implemented my post-production sound skills to assist re-recording mixer Kevin Fann with the dialogue editing as he mastered the film in immersive 5.1 channel surround sound in SVA’s Finishing Suite.

Robert McMahon and Editor sitting down in front of a computer screen editing their film.

My creative challenges were not over as I knew that I would be taking on another beast almost as strong as the production itself: the score.

Taking after musical inspirations such as SVA alum Michael Giacchino, Hans Zimmer, and Ludwig Göransson, I began implementing the knowledge learned while working with Nana Simopoulous to create a score that was emotional, yet precise. Heart-pounding bass, arpeggiated synths, and a somber, nostalgic motif comprised of two alternating chords created a score that was both subconscious and present.

As we neared the final months of post-production, our efforts were already being recognized. We were awarded one of SVA’s post-production grants, and were asked to screen at the Museum of Moving Image’s First Look Festival Work In Progress event on behalf of the school. In April of 2023, Personal Pizza debuted at the SVA Theater on the final night of the screenings. I felt an immense gratitude for my cast and crew as the film played for hundreds in the theater. The experience was emotional and humbling. Personal Pizza was featured on Beyond the Short, Shorted Films, was a semi-finalist for selection at the Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival, and actress Emily Ardsley was awarded best actress at the Alternative Film Festival.

Behind the scenes photo of Roberts film showing a crew member with a clapboard and an actor laying on the ground ready to shoot their scene.

The creation and purpose of Personal Pizza transcends far beyond a graduation requirement.

To learn that it was possible to move out of my comfort zone and bring a 23-page short to life was inspiring and reassuring. Our crew set out to make a movie and the film we created blew my expectations out of the water. None of the film would’ve been possible without my cast and crew: Erin Robles, Grace Pomilla, Juan Teisaire, Emily Ardsley, Kevin Dooley, Hayden Klein, Thomas Clinton, Lindsey de Leon, Kevin Fann, Lianne Richards, Emily Casey, David Darlington, Kerri Wheelock, Patricia Marrero Perez, Jozef Zekanoski, Gabriella Ribeiro, Tyler Vo, Anthony Sennett, my advisor Stacy Hope Herman, my parents, all who contributed to the film’s GoFundMe, and the wonderful faculty at the School of Visual Arts.

As I entered the post-graduation life in film production in New York City, I was confident and assured . The extensive, real-world training at the School of Visual Arts has allowed me to work since graduation as a production sound mixer, boom operator, and post-production sound designer. I have worked on many projects ranging from narrative, commercial, editorial, short-form web series, and documentary. My work as a filmmaker has only just begun and I am honored to have the ability to enter this industry with optimism and support.

behind the scenes photo from roberts shoot showing a sound person holding a boom pole with the mic and the camera person filming two actors.

Filed Under: Alumni Blog