By Martha Bennett
Jacob Wishnek paused briefly in front of his computer to take a swig from his cappuccino. Readjusting his chair to get closer to the screen, he studied a scene from his latest short film, “College Kid,” in one of Swain Hall’s editing labs at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“There!” he blurted out, pointing to the screen. “Do you see that? Oh man, I love that.”
In this scene, the main character, Alex, walks through a parking lot while he listens to “Birds Don’t Sing” by the hypnotic-pop band, TV Girl. Syncopated to each cut, the beat of the song dictates every edit, going from shots of Alex’s feet to close-ups of his face.
Snapping his fingers and bobbing his beanie-wearing head, Wishnek smiled.
“This might be one of the things I’m most excited about,” he said. “I just wanna be sure I can get it right.”
He knows, though, as much as his friends do, that he won’t feel like he got it right.
“He’s always on the move, on the go, pushing forward,” cinematographer and friend Michael Sparks said. “He discounts nearly everything he does, which means he doesn’t always take pride or gain confidence from his achievements.”
A dedicated planner and perfectionist, Wishnek’s work ethic has been shaped by crowded sets where he couldn’t hear himself speak, 48-hour deadlines that made him vomit from getting no sleep and pages of rough drafts that would never make it to a read through.
“Perfection is not possible,” actor and friend Calliope George said. “But it is exciting to work alongside someone who shoots for the moon.”
Wishnek’s had a lot of practice shooting for the moon.
At just 22, Wishnek has been involved in over 60 film projects. From sci-fi fantasies to comedies, he’s developed a desire for telling stories and finding different ways to tell them.
But his passion didn’t begin with a typical movie experience. He has Alex Kim, and what might be the worst song of all time, to thank.
The ‘film guy’
Wishnek was 13-years-old when he opened his front door in Charlotte, N.C. to see Kim, his neighbor, knocking.
“Hey, have you seen Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’?” Kim asked.
A high school student wanting some help, Kim proposed a parody project to Wishnek as an opportunity to get some laughs around school.
“We called it ‘Pi Day’ because March 14, or 3.14159 day,” Wishnek said. “And it kind of became viral.”
Using their parents’ camcorders, Wishnek helped Kim film an off-color music video that generated over 15,000 views on YouTube. The recognition was flattering, but Wishnek noticed something: The video sucked.
Wobbly frames, harsh lighting and odd angles all made Wishnek curious.
“That became my pastime,” he said. “Just researching how to make films. Whether that was with finding new equipment or just learning how to actually shoot things properly to up the production quality.”
There were other learning moments, too. A summer spent at the UNC School of the Arts gave him one of his most important ones.
“Moonrise Kingdom,” a 2012 film by Wes Anderson, was on a laundry list of movies to study for the summer. Known for his stylized form of filmmaking, “Moonrise” checks all the boxes for a typical Anderson film. A consistent color scheme, quirky humor and spanning landscapes paint a charming picture for anyone who sees it.
“I watched it and I was like, ‘Oh, film is art; that’s what this is,’” Wishnek said. “Everything just began to click.”
It wasn’t about cracking jokes — at least most of the time.
It was about finding beauty.
Whether visually on camera or emotionally through script, that’s what made a film engaging. That’s what made them worth making.
So Wishnek began to chase that beauty.
He became the “film guy” at school. Working from project to project, Wishnek always wanted to be busy, whether he was writing, directing or producing. Voted “Most Likely to Win an Oscar” his senior year and accepted into New York University’s prestigious dual business-film degree program, he felt he had paved a road to success.
But New York never happened. It could never happen.
With an annual tuition of over $75,000 and little financial aid, NYU was thrown out of the picture for the son of a network engineer and a business banker. He had to dream smaller, so he looked to the only in-state school he applied to.
“At first I was just trying to put this happy face on about UNC,” Wishnek said. “But deep down I just told myself I knew I would transfer.”
‘It’s okay to need a little more time and exploration, and we should normalize that’
Wishnek had found people with similar interests —even co-founded a student organization for filmmakers — but there was a disconnect. He lacked a community, and Ellie Teller was the person to see he needed one.
A year older and an acquaintance from high school, Teller found Wishnek in one of her classes her sophomore year. She saw a nice kid who always had a nervous smirk on his face, but he seemed lost. He reminded Teller of who she was a year ago.
“When I first came to UNC I had an older brother that was a senior, and spending time with him helped me engage with different communities at UNC,” Teller said. “I wanted to provide similar spaces for him to get out of his comfort zone and start enjoying UNC for all it had to offer.”
She took him to parties, introduced him to the media production major and even gave him his first beer. He may not have been in a big city, or enrolled in a flashy film school, but he began to realize he could belong somewhere. He could belong here.
“Our perceptions of college are that when you get there, everything will fall into place, but I don’t think that’s immediately true for many people,” Teller said. “It’s okay to need a little more time and exploration, and we should normalize that.”
This is what makes “College Kid” so personal for Wishnek to make — it’s about him.
A project four years in the making, the semi-autobiographical film traces Wishnek’s personal growth each year of college. Using musical and color motifs, the film mirrors what UNC-CH and filmmaking have taught him.
“In order to find happiness and fulfillment in your college experience, (in) life in general, you need to find and take part in your community,” Wishnek said.
“And that means putting in the work — doing something — to get there. The film industry is collaborative, not competitive. It’s the community of it all that makes a film thrive, and I think in life you have to find the same thing.”
As he scrolled through the last scene of “College Kid” on his screen, Wishnek spotted an error.
A scene between Alex and his friend Nathan, they’re sitting on a roof, looking at the night sky.
“See there?” Wishnek said, pointing to the screen. “You can see the boom pole’s shadow against the house.”
Embarrassed, he gritted his teeth as he watched the rest of the scene unfold.
“I just feel, in this moment, this sense of meaning,” Alex said to Nathan. “Nothing in particular. No one idea more significant than the other. Just…significance. And it’s a lot.”
Wishnek’s smile began to reappear.
Edited by: Madeleine Fraley