HENRIETTA, N.Y. (WROC) — “Say Cheese,” a film directed by second-year RIT student Anna McClanahan and produced SOFA student Gabriel Ponte-Fleary, won the top prize in the Coca-Cola Refreshing Films contest during CinemaCon in Las Vegas late last Thursday.

The story itself — which needs some portrayal of Coca-Cola — portrays a hearing student, Chris, trying to ask out Jessie, a Deaf classmate (who is also portrayed by a Deaf actor). In doing so, he tries to sign “movie,” but instead signs the word “cheese” in American Sign Language. Even though Chris asks Jessie “if (she) wants to go to a ‘cheese’ with him,” she accepts and the two enjoy a movie together. You can watch the 60-second film here.

McClanahan, who started the project, said that she wanted to portray an everyday interaction that someone might see at RIT.

“I’m no stranger to like having to overcome like language and cultural barriers,” McClanahan said. “I thought that it would be not only nice to represent the mixed hearing and Deaf community… But it also just be a great way to promote the Deaf filmmakers and actors that we have at our school as well.”

As for the main punchline in the story, Ponte-Fleary can take some credit. After McClanahan got the project rolling, he came on to produce, and saw that the film could use a joke.

“Hearing people when they’re learning sign language, and when they’re learning ASL, they often make mistakes,” he said on a Zoom call. “So, both signs for cheese and movie, they’re both very similar.”

The process to get the top was a long one. For the competition, 500 scripts were submitted from 42 different colleges. They made it down to the first shortlist of 15, then a polished script — along with story board and crew list — was needed. The project that would become “Say Cheese” made it to the final four.

Each team in the final four received $18,000 in cash to create the final product. Ponte-Fleary says that shooting took place over two days, with shooting overnight. McClanahan said she vividly recalls some of the student crew — a part of the whole team of over 50 people — sleeping on RIT’s soundstages to make sure they could get the project done.

Fast forward to last week when the team took first place; with only a couple of weeks notice, Ponte-Fleary and McClanahan made the trek to Las Vegas, where they learned they won first.

“That was just really the tip of the iceberg to have everybody (who) worked along with us to see that all play out and all of the teamwork… Without them, none of this would have been possible or would have happened,” Ponte-Fleary said.

Besides a well-earned award, bragging rights, and prime networking opportunities, the two walked away with some important lessons about managing a big crew, with a big budget, and working under pressure.

“(When) it came time to film, if there was some type of error or something didn’t work out that, it’d fall on my shoulders,” Ponte-Fleary said. “It required a lot of time a lot of phone calls, a lot of reaching out to people waiting for replies… I was just so blessed to have support (and outstanding support from the production team (Snow, Caitlyn and Kaitlyn).”

But within “Say Cheese,” there’s another message.

“Love is the universal language, and both of them being able to figure out how to communicate and understand each other… Deaf people, they can do everything that everybody else can do except for hear,” Ponte-Fleary said.

McClanahan happily added that the this message even extended to the real lives of the actors who portrayed Chris and Jessie.

“I would see her teaching our hearing actor ASL just in their off time, and he was very interested in it,” she said. “It was very beautiful to see that. I hope people get that from this film as well; that kind of passion and interest in learning new things.”