Thursday, September 24, 2009

“Film School Follies: Part 1 – Seminole and Void”

Today we start a series written by loyal Commentarama reader ScottDS about his adventures in film school.

By ScottDS
Let us flashback to the mid-90s. The Discovery Channel used to air a weekly documentary series titled Movie Magic in which we were given the opportunity to witness the various exploits of cinema's visual effects wizards. (The DVD format, replete with its requisite “making-of featurettes” was still a few years away.)

Each episode would cover one specific topic: bluescreen photography, matte painting, models, make-up effects, etc. They would usually analyze the effects for one or two current films, and then explain the history of those effects using footage from older films. In one episode, they showcased a group of student filmmakers crashing an airplane model into a miniature desert landscape, à la Flight of the Phoenix. Those students were film majors at… Florida State University! (sorry, Gators)

My reaction was something along the lines of, “Florida?! I live in Florida!”

Sometime in the sixth grade, I realized I wanted to work in the film business. I sort of segued from production design, to visual effects (I even received a letter from George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic with a list of recommended schools), to directing. Why directing? At the time I figured that, as director, the success or failure of a film would fall on my shoulders. As a set designer or visual effects artisan, I would have no control over the story content of the film itself but, as director, I would. In retrospect, I don't know what the hell I was thinking! Unlike Spielberg, I didn't come out of the womb wielding a Panaflex. I never had a lot of friends, let alone friends that would help me make movies, and I was shy to a debilitating degree.

But I was always interested. I read various film publications, watched all the documentaries I could, but I never shot anything of my own. When it came time to choose a college, I chose FSU. They had this film program and, due to financial considerations, I was forced to stay in the state. Now let me talk to you about that process: at the time, FSU's film school was highly selective; it’s probably worse now. They would take fifteen freshman and fifteen transfers. If I failed to gain admittance as a freshman, I could still go, take my core classes, and get in as a transfer student. I knew the odds were against me from minute one but I had to try, right? I mean, that's what all high school seniors do – they apply to college, and three months after high school ends, they're off and away. (I probably would’ve been better off backpacking through Europe or joining the Peace Corps instead!)

Just to show you how efficient the system was, I applied to FSU online and before I even knew what had happened, I was presented with the “Congratulations! Mail us a check for $25 and your application will be processed!” screen. I did it? There's an entire subgenre of instructional literature based on getting into college and I just did it? (Of course, all I had done was apply; getting in was another story.) In December of 2000, I received my acceptance letter… and I might still have it somewhere! I did not get into the film school but I was officially a Seminole. My family was proud of me and I suppose that's all I ever wanted from them.

Here's the deal: to better your chances of getting into the film school, you had to “make yourself known” meaning take film classes, work on student films, network, the usual. I worked as a production assistant (PA) on a short film titled Homerun, which appeared to be an old-fashioned “ragtag bunch of baseball players win one for home” story. I posted my info on the film school bulletin board (not online, but a real bulletin board!) and someone – probably the producer, I don't remember – called me a day or two later and asked if I'd be interested in working on their little opus. After staying up entirely too late the night before (watching Dr. Strangelove – the ending somewhat paralleling my year at FSU), I got up at the crack of dawn and trudged from my Dante's Inferno of a dorm down to the film building. No one home, of course. Eventually someone saw me and we were off to a local park. I helped where I could: setting up craft services (catering), distributing walkie-talkies, handling paperwork, etc. When you're a PA it is absolutely important that you have something to do. Even if you don't. I once read somewhere that, if you have zero to do, get a rag and start cleaning up a table. At least you're doing something!

My job for the day: human roadblock. That’s right, I was given a walkie and an orange vest and was told to block traffic whenever they were shooting… which was often. (The sound of the passing cars interfered with the audio.) The assistant director would chime in with “Lock it down!” and I'd have to stand in the middle of the street (only two lanes, thank God) and hold up my stop sign. On “Cut!”, I'd retreat back to land. What a miserable day! I've since learned to keep things in perspective. I was not in the Middle East dismantling IEDs. I was not a firefighter putting out a ten-story blaze. I was just a PA, formerly referred to as a “gopher” and by John Landis as a “schlepper.” (As a teenager, Landis worked as a PA behind the Iron Curtain before going on to direct such classic films as Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and Trading Places.)

I was about a hundred feet from where they were shooting so I couldn't hear much in terms of dialogue. I was able to stop a few cars but a couple managed to get through the “formidable blockade” I presented. No harm done. At the end of the day, people thanked me for my help (student and indie filmmakers are truly grateful for all the [free] help they can get) and I was driven back to school where I went back to my dorm and collapsed. I finally saw the film months later… on a three inch black and white monitor with no sound in a dubbing room deep within the bowels of the film building. It looked okay from where I was sitting!

But that's not all. I took two film classes. The first class (the name escapes me and I trashed all my FSU paperwork a couple years ago) was a pure exercise in boredom. The textbook consisted of microscopic print from cover to cover with no visual aids and I can’t even recall if it had an index or a glossary. It was quite user-unfriendly and full of ten-dollar words. I’m not saying the book should’ve been dumbed down; it was simply poorly designed. It was in this class that I realized something: “Are we reading too much into things?” When the teacher would talk about the beauty of a particular shot, I would always ask myself, “What if that was the only place they could put the camera?” Don’t get me wrong – I want to appreciate this sort of thing but my brain seems to value practical considerations over the aesthetic.

The other class was titled “President's Seminar on Film” and it was taught by one of the higher-ups in the film school. It was a weekly roundtable discussion. Each student was assigned a film to present; we'd view the film, and then talk about it – simple as that. I really should’ve asked out the cute girl who, after a screening of Do the Right Thing blurted out, “I think Spike Lee is a racist, egotistical asshole!” Naturally my presentation fell on September 11th and since classes were cancelled, I had to present something else later. (The film I was to introduce happened to be a personal favorite of mine, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I ended up introducing a couple of Wallace & Gromit shorts on the last day of class instead.)

We were also assigned a report: ten pages on a film of our choosing. Ninety pages later, I had my paper on Kevin Smith's Clerks. Truth be told, most of the material came from Smith’s interview in Stephen Lowenstein's book, My First Movie. One girl eyed the report sticking out of my bag as if it were the chestburster from Alien. The teacher, on the other hand, was impressed. Not enough to get me into the film school. Sometime in early 2002, I received my official rejection letter (which I plan on showing at any future awards ceremony I'm invited to).

At the end of the day, there are no wasted experiences, only disappointments. FSU was a big disappointment. The highlights were the free movies in the Student Life Theater and the Krispy Kreme case in the convenience store. I managed to make a couple friends that I try to keep in touch with (one joined the Peace Corps, the other joined the Navy) but other than that, it's a distant memory. I left FSU in the spring of 2002 and I haven't been back since. On one hand, “Good riddance!” On the other hand, I've always wondered what would've happened if I had stayed there and majored in something else.

Another thing I noticed and I'm sure this applies to other professions as well. Whenever I would spend time in the film building, everyone just seemed so insular. It was as if they didn't want anyone trespassing on their turf. I would overhear the geekiest conversations but who was I to barge in and offer my own two cents? And I've always walked that line between full tilt geeky and the need for a more “normal” life (which is quite paradoxical since no one would accuse me of being a well-rounded guy!). Some of these people lived, ate, drank, and slept film and when they weren't shooting, they were writing or editing. I couldn't do that. I still can't. A friend of a friend got into the film school and went on to win a Student Academy Award. I look at photos of him and his cute (film geek) girlfriend and I think to myself, “That's me in a parallel universe where I'm less lazy and more courageous.”

In my next article, I'll introduce you to Full Sail University where laziness and courage seemed to go hand in hand.

Recommended Reading:

(I’ll be including books and periodicals about various aspects of the film industry.)

Lowenstein, Stephen. My First Movie: Twenty Celebrated Directors Talk about Their First Film. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000.

Rickitt, Richard. Special Effects: The History and Technique. New York: Billboard Books, 2000.

Smith, Thomas G. Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988.

Vaz, Mark Cotta and Patricia Rose Duignan. Industrial Light & Magic: Into the Digital Realm. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.


Joel Farnham said...

Thanks Scott.

I loved being on a set. It was an amazing experience for me. Everyone was focused on one thing.

Making a MOVIE!!!!

ScottDS said...

Joel - Thanks! When you're on a set, there is a certain feeling of exhilaration.

When I lived in LA and got a few PA gigs from answering Craigslist ads, I usually didn't know anything about the films I was going to be working on. Unlike everyone else, I was coming in from the cold - I hadn't been with any project from its inception.

And the other thing was all of my teachers stressed how every job could lead to something bigger and better - we had "Don't screw up!!" drilled into our heads so much that I was usually a nervous wreck on film sets!

CrispyRice said...

I love hearing about things people do. It's like learning about an entire different universe.

It's funny, too, when I think about changing careers, I always end up thinking that I'm too old to start all over at "grunt worker" level, LOL. But that's where it begins, no matter what.

And for the record, I LOVE Wallace and Gromit. :D

Joel Farnham said...

I was on the last night shoot in the wilderness up around Grass Valley, CA. I knew nothing, but I did know enough to keep my mouth shut. I learned alot.

I lucked out in that it wasn't drilled into me to not screw-up. I was up 30 hours that day, and when I was finished, I was so jazzed, I stayed up about three hours more trying to relax.

It was a small indie film. I never knew what the whole movie was about, but it was fun!!!!

I would do it again.

ScottDS said...

Crispy - Thanks! I haven't really watched any W&G shorts since then but maybe I should.

Joel - "I knew nothing, but I did know enough to keep my mouth shut."

That would be rule number 1, which means I did the total opposite. When I worked as a PA, I would get a bit nervous (at least at first) and when I get nervous, I get... chatty, for lack of a better word, and I cringe when I think of my behavior on some sets.

One other thing (and this is for the room) - no one gives a rat's ass where you went to film school. So don't bring it up! (Like I did.)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Thanks for the article -- very entertaining. I didn't know FSU had a film program, but I guess that makes sense. I would assume a lot of movies get shot in Florida.

P.S. I agree with CrispyRice on Wallace and Grommit -- great stuff. Grommit is the most expressive dog I've seen on film.

Writer X said...

Scott, is it your plan to still pursue a film career, regardless of the degree? It seems like you really love it. Can't tell you how many people I know who got their MFAs, expecting to be writers, and can't string two original sentences together.

Remember those wise words from Jack Black:

"Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. And those who can't teach, teach gym."

Can't wait to read your next post!

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Yeah, FSU has a film program. There are actually several colleges and universities with film programs (not all are offered as majors or Bachelor's degrees) in Florida, including UCF, UM, Rollins College, the Ringling School, and Palm Beach Community College.

Some projects that have been shot in Florida include Marley & Me, Miami Vice, the Bad Boys films, Scarface, Porky's, Wild Things, USA's Burn Notice, and Edward Scissorhands.

ScottDS said...

Also Andrew - Florida is not the filmmaking mecca some people think it is but I suppose there's enough to keep some people employed. Some states no doubt have better tax incentives than we do but I haven't been paying much attention to the situation. (And we have a hurricane season, too!)

Writer X -

Thanks! Most likely not, at least not for the foreseeable future. I'll save the gory "Is this what I want to do with my life?" questions for future blog entries. RIght now, I'd like to pursue improv comedy, but it all overlaps. :-)

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks, Scott. That was a very informative post on your film school experience. I've always been fascinated with the actual process of making film. From producing, directing, gaffers, best boys, etc. . . the whole nine yards.

Krispy kremes, eh? Now there is a remembrance. There is nothing quite like a freshly baked original glazed krispy kreme.

ScottDS said...

TN Jed -

Thanks! I'll have more tech stuff as we go (that's what the text boxes will be for).

FSU had a convenience store in the student union (and a Chick-fil-a!). That was my first experience with Krispy Kreme and it's too bad they've gone through so much turmoil in recent years. I remember what a big deal it was when they came to South Florida. Too bad.

CrisD said...

that was fun!

my friend was a film major at...forget it...University ;^) and he said he wanted to make documentaries but he never did. We all went with him once while he filmed his rich grandmother's mega-estate. It was a hilarious day.

Do you think "movie moments"? I am a painter and kind of artistic and I have these tiny movie moments as I am going through certain life events. Is that the way filmakers are -- except the good ones--thinking a life like a movie all the time?

ScottDS said...

Cris -

Do you mean people who think, "Hey, this could be a movie?" or people who think, "Hey, this is just like in movie xyz..."?

There are times when I compare my life to a TV show... you have your main characters, your supporting characters, your recurring guest stars, your dramatic life-changing events (sweeps week?), etc.

I tried writing a script based on my senior year of high school but I haven't looked at it in years.

CrisD said...

kinda of like that.

But you just reminded me of the way I describe my mother-in-law. You could have a family sit-com and she would steal the show as the lunatic pretentious social climber---kinda the way Fonzie took over Happy Days.

My "movie" or "TV" or even book ideas are so small--I imagine that you have to be gifted and work hard at capturing a full piece of art. It seems hard to me.

Unknown said...

Scott: Way back when my kids were little, I worked with a gal whose boyfriend was a production assistant on TV specials. He was on an Alex Karras special about a little boy trying to learn to play football. She invited the kids and me to come and see. Up until then, I thought that a p.a. was a much bigger deal than it turned out to be. He brought us cokes during a break, along with the cokes he had gotten for the entire crew. I learned two things that day. P.a.'s are important, but not honchos (someone has to grease the wheels), and Alex Karras is a jerk, no matter how funny he was as Mongo in Blazing Saddles.

ScottDS said...

Cris -

Coming up with stories is incredibly difficult! A friend and I came up with a cool idea for a TV show (we thought so) and I would throw out ideas left and right: one-line plot ideas, characters, gags, etc.

But fleshing out those ideas into stories with act breaks and character arcs was something I found quite difficult to do.

LawHawk -

Sorry to hear about Alex Karras! PAs are the lowest on the totem pole - but they are important. I'll probably write more about this later but here's a quick example of something I was asked to do. I PAed on an indie movie in LA just for a couple days. I was told that the lead actress wanted to treat everyone to Starbucks.

I had to:

-a.) go around and write down orders for four dozen people (whose names I didn't always know)
-b.) find out where Starbucks was
-c.) use the actress' debit card to get money from an ATM (she gave me the PIN)
-d.) place an order for four dozen beverages (plus a soda for me since I don't drink coffee)
-e.) manage to get it all in my car without spilling anything
-f.) do it all ASAP!

USArtguy said...

Nice article, Scott.

My experience is mostly limited to a few college film classes, some TV production classes that included making commercials and a "documentary", which were fun but a lot of work when you don't know what you're doing, and couple of very small projects since.

Some of the things you wrote about were very familiar to me... "are we reading too much into this" and “what if that was the only place they could put the camera" were questions I remember having too.

"everyone just seemed so insular" was also something I distinctly recall. At the time though I was a "non-traditional" (translation: older) student already working in my chosen field, advertising. So I just thought it was an age-clique thing.

Anyway, it was a fun read and I look forward to learning more of your experiences.

ScottDS said...

USArtguy -

Thanks! I find that many people seem to share some of the same experiences when it comes to film school. It doesn't matter where you go. I vaguely remember listening to someone in LA describe a student film they worked on in school... it sounded almost exactly like my own experience working on one of our films at Full Sail.

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