Lights, camera, Davis

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(originally written for Steve Magagnini’s Journalism class, UC Davis, November 2011)

Late one night last winter, anyone studying in the basement of Shields Library would have borne witness to an unusual sight: A tall, lanky guy running around the stacks holding a video camera.

That was senior Technocultural Studies major Kyle Dickerson making his second-ever movie – an eight-minute-long thriller called Library.

“A lot of the people were like, what the fuck is he doing?” Dickerson said. “One of the reasons I think the film was so effective and the acting was so effective was I was so incredibly pissed off that day. I was so frustrated with everything else I had to do on top of this project, I just wanted to get it done and wanted to get it done right. I just did shot after shot after shot.”

Dickerson isn’t the only undergraduate that can be spotted running frantically around UC Davis with a video camera. For hundreds of students majoring in Film Studies and Technocultural Studies, the road to Hollywood begins here, in a university that, though about as far removed from the marquees of Tinseltown as it gets, they are confident will prepare them to join the ranks of the top filmmakers in the world.

Though many students who choose to major in Film or Technocultural Studies (TCS) study the mediums on a theoretical level, never actually getting behind a camera themselves, students who wish to learn production skills have access to a small but intense group of classes in the TCS and Art Studio departments, including Experimental Digital Cinema 1 and 2, Animation, Beginning, Intermediate and Advanced Video, and Experimental Documentary. Students may use top-of-the-line Mac computers in computer labs located in the Art and TCS Buildings – outfitted with editing software including the industry-standard Final Cut Pro – and borrow a variety of standard- and high-definition cameras, lighting and sound equipment.

The equipment is available free of charge, allowing most students to produce their films at little to no cost.

Julie Wyman, TCS advisor and professor who teaches Experimental Digital Cinema 1 and 2, said she aims to teach students the foundations of camera and editing techniques, artistic and conceptual principles, and filmmaking conventions in her classes. Unlike the traditional film school or technical school model, in which students take on one specific role in each production such as director or cinematographer, TCS classes allow students to experience every role in the production as they work alone or in pairs to create original films.

The major is also designed to help students navigate the ever-changing media landscape, preparing them to interact with a variety of digital and web-based platforms.

“I teach with an eye to encourage students to innovate and break the rules,” Wyman said. “They are shaping the web and are affected by activity on the web, so they should familiarize themselves with web videos, Vimeo, YouTube, and be more interactive.”

Art Studio and affiliated TCS faculty member Darrin Martin said he’s noticed many students enter his video production classes with their own high-definition cameras and previous experience using them, and that interest in film production at UC Davis is growing.

The Film Studies and TCS majors were recently merged into a new, unified department called Cinema and Technocultural Studies, which faculty hope will pave the way for more film faulty to be hired and provide expanded course offerings for both majors.

But current students aren’t wasting any time getting started on their first productions.

Students learn the ins and outs of filmmaking

Dickerson said he’s always been interested in film, especially horror, and made his first short film, Gustel, for a class project in his German literature class. Working with two partners and using locations in the Quad and Social Sciences and Humanities “Death Star” building, Dickerson shot and edited the film (about a German lieutenant’s psychological battle inside his head) on the camcorder his mother gave him for Christmas.

They got an A on the project, and Dickerson said he learned the importance of lighting and sound. While editing, he also realized he’d ended each take too abruptly, making it difficult to string the scenes together smoothly. And there was one other problem – one he’s encountered on multiple projects since then.

“Trying to film in public can get difficult because people will walk by the camera and wave or something,” he said. “It’s always at last minute, I’ll be going through the shots and go, oh is this guy waving? Yes, he’s waving, damn. Let’s do it again.”

Dickerson made his next film, Library, about a student haunted by a phantom in the library one night, in Wyman’s Experimental Digital Cinema 1 class. He said he was inspired by experimental filmmaker Maya Deren and his own memories of being in the library late at night, exhausted.

“A year ago I started thinking about this. I wrote, “I can hear the voices of a thousand authors screaming at me.” That stuck with me for a while,” he said.

Though Dickerson eventually won Best Director and Best Score for the film at the 2011 UC Davis Film Festival (UCDFF), shooting and editing the film proved to be a tedious and stressful process. He enlisted his roommate, senior English major David Towle, to play the Phantom and shoot the scenes that required Dickerson to be onscreen with the camera moving. Using only available light, Dickerson set up each shot and only kept the best four or five out of up to 12 takes.

The eight-minute film took about four to five hours to shoot and another 16 to edit using Final Cut Pro. Since the equipment was borrowed from the TCS department and Dickerson only used props he already owned and music he downloaded for free, there was no budget.

Evan Davis, senior TCS major, won Best Documentary at the 2011 UCDFF for his eight-minute film Standing Compassion. Davis worked with fellow TCS major Anna Hossnieh to tell the story of David Breaux, a Stanford alumnus who stands on the corner of C and Third streets in downtown Davis every day asking passers-by to write down their definition of the word “compassion.” The film took four weeks to complete and, like Library, was made with no budget using the TCS department equipment.

Davis said he had mapped out the film before he started shooting, but once he and Hossnieh began interviewing Breaux, he realized it was important to be flexible.

“It was definitely a learning experience,” Davis said. “I interviewed [Breaux] and got to know him a little more, which changed my idea of how I wanted the film to look. We constructed the film around him telling his own story.”

For 2011 Film Studies graduate Jason Ronzani, four weeks working on his UCDFF-Audience Choice award-winning film The Trophy Collector would have produced only a few seconds of film. The almost 10-minute noir-style silent film is stop-motion animation, a notoriously tedious but artistic form of animation in which frames, composed of miniature, physical sets, are photographed individually and then strung together to create fluid motion.

Ronzani said it took him a year to make the film. It was his honors thesis, so he worked mostly independently and said he’s been teaching himself the craft of stop-motion animation since middle school.

“Stop-motion is the easiest animation to start with but the hardest to master,” Ronzani said. “You have to keep steady and know when the characters are going to move.”

Ronzani hooked up his HD video camera to his computer and used an animation program called Dragon Stop Motion, which delivered a live feed of what the camera was looking at as well as the previous frame to his computer. He built the sets, characters and costumes himself on a budget of $200, using cheap wood, plastic and real carpet for the sets, and Sculpee clay and fabric for the characters.

Premiering his film in front of an audience, and winning Audience Choice, made the process worth it, Ronzani said.

“I thought the audience wouldn’t get it, since it’s silent and that’s risky,” he said. “But it was really cool seeing my hard work pay off.”

UC Davis has unique advantages

While UC Davis is far removed from top-tier film schools like USC and UCLA, both geographically and in terms of notoriety, Aggie filmmakers say they are happy with the education they’ve received and the opportunities available to them.

Davis pointed out that the program’s smaller size allows for less competition among students for resources and more opportunities to produce their own work. In his Documentary class, where he made Standing Compassion, every student had the opportunity to produce their own film. At UCLA, he said, an entire class will work on one student’s idea – whichever one deemed “the best.”

Not being surrounded by filmmakers and artists also allows for a broader education in areas besides traditional filmmaking, he said.

“You go to San Francisco Art Institute or any art school, although some of the professors there are famous artists, I think one disadvantage is all of your peers are art majors,” Davis said. “I would rather go here and interact with students and professors from a diverse range of fields that help shape my films in a more positive way than if I was with just art students.”

The filmmakers also lauded the TCS and Art Studio faculty for their enthusiasm for film and devotion to helping students make their best work. Dickerson said professors like Jesse Drew, Sarah Pia Anderson, Bob Ostertag and Wyman all have extensive experience in their field and rival any professors in a major film school.

“They aren’t doing all the stuff they did back in the day, but they’re encouraging us to do it now and I think that’s very important,” Dickerson said. “They’re all enthusiastic about what they do, they all love it, and it’s really important to have teachers that are like that.”

Ronzani said even though he worked mainly independently on The Trophy Collector, his Art Studio and Film Studies professors helped him learn important principles of filmmaking.

“They’ll stand at your station and help you learn the programs,” he said. “They make you push what you already know and push your skills in new ways.”

Kelby Wood, who graduated from UC Davis in 2011 with a degree in Film Studies and is currently working towards his master’s in film production at USC, credits the UC Davis club Filmmakers’ Ambitions (which brings filmmakers together to collaborate on projects and discuss the craft), individual motivation and the willingness to work on projects outside of class with filmmakers’ success at UC Davis.

“[Film Studies] was a platform to meet a lot of like-minded people, but you learn a lot more by doing,” he said. “It’s more about what you do outside of school.”

A long road ahead

As they take the first steps in their filmmaking careers, both current students and recent graduates acknowledge they’re willing to start at the bottom to reach high ambitions.

Both Dickerson and Davis said they’d like to make their own films one day, but will look for internships and jobs in a wide range of media fields when they graduate.

Ronzani is currently living in Rocklin, Calif., and working the night shift at Target, though he plans to attend graduate school to study animation next year.

Wood said he hopes to have made a few short films and completed a feature-length screenplay to start fundraising for when he graduates from USC. Ultimately, he wants to write and direct his own films that he is passionate about.

According to Elizabeth Upton, who graduated from UC Davis in 2003 with a double major in Film Studies and Anthropology, they’re on the right track.

Upton started her own production company, Vision Quest Media, and has traveled around the world making documentaries about social and cultural issues. Her proudest achievement, she said, is a film she’s been working on for the last eight years, The Source Code, which was inspired by her trip to the Yucatan Peninsula and explores ancient wisdom and its applications in the modern world.

Upton, who helped found the Film Studies program at UC Davis before she graduated, said passion and self-motivation are crucial for success in the filmmaking industry, since times can get tough.

“There are times when I struggle to buy an avocado at the market,” Upton said. “If you think [filmmaking] maybe, sort of, might be fun, this is not for you.”

Upton said integrity and the ability to vouch for their own skills will help young filmmakers make connections that can help them get jobs. But the most important thing, she said, is to stay positive and continue following their path.

“It’s always going to take more time and be a little more expensive, but it’s so worth it,” she said. “When you listen to your heart, you excel.”

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