Fueled by a record-breaking donation from the Lucasfilm Foundation, USC is defining the role of sound and image in education and entertainment, establishing itself as the vanguard of cinematic arts.
By John Zollinger
|If the word “cinematic”
conjures up thoughts of dark movie theaters redolent of buttered
popcorn, you’d better brace for a shock. With last fall’s unveiling of
the USC School of Cinematic Arts, the concept has careened off the
silver screen into virtually every aspect of modern life – embedding
itself into the very idea of movement.
That’s precisely what George Lucas ’66 had in mind with the Lucasfilm Foundation’s unprecedented $175 million donation to rename, rebuild and help endow USC’s erstwhile School of Cinema-Television. The largest-ever gift in USC’s history isn’t about vanity – Lucas’ name is conspicuously absent from the school’s new moniker. Rather it’s about a paradigm shift – deep, substantive and forward-looking – already sending shock waves through entertainment and education alike.
“We have arrived at a historic juncture,” Elizabeth M. Daley, the school’s dean, told the crowd of 1,100 alumni, students, faculty and friends who had gathered for an October 4 ceremony marking the official name change. The event also marked a physical change: the groundbreaking for a 137,000-square-foot structure where the “cinematic” future will unfold. To understand how and why, one must step back a bit.
In the early days of mass entertainment, cinema meant just one thing: movies. For the first half of the 20th century, films dominated the audio and visual arts, and with its founding in 1929, USC’s cinema program helped define and develop the technologies driving them. In the late 1940s, another revolutionary technology – television – took center stage, dramatically altering the art form and industry once again. When it became a freestanding academic unit in 1983, the School of Cinema-Television’s name reflected this shift.
In the past decade, the rise of digital technologies has spurred newer modes of screen-based expression. Webcams, video games and other so-called “interactive media” are now central to the evolution of the moving picture – prompting not only speculation about another name change but soul-searching about what a cinema school properly should be and do.
As they had many times in recent years, Daley and Lucas put their heads together. Lucas, a longtime member of the school’s Board of Councilors, had been instrumental in the creation of its Institute for Multimedia Literacy (cinema.usc.edu/iml). Since its launch in 1997, the institute has been systematically expanding the notion of literacy to include the language of visual, aural, dynamic and interactive media: effectively adding a fourth R – let’s call it “reel literacy” – to the three R’s traditionally considered the foundation of a liberal education. Last fall, IML went from prototype to practice, when the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences partnered with the institute to have some 600 students use multimedia in their core General Education courses.
“If students aren’t taught the language of sound and images,” Lucas had famously asked Daley in a conversation later reported by the New York Times, “shouldn’t they be considered as illiterate as if they left college without being able to read or write?”
The dean was on the same wavelength. “We’ve come to a point in history where access to computers and digital technology isn’t the main factor in ‘the digital divide,’” she says. “Rather, the divide is between those who can effectively create meaning with this technology and those who can’t.”
Nearly a decade after founding IML, Lucas’ and Daley’s thinking on these subjects had moved beyond the formation of a mere institute to the point of wanting to extend the school’s mission. In addition to its core objective of training entertainment professionals, the school would convey the power of sound and image to education as a whole.
“It positions all who learn here as leaders not just for the moment, but for generations to come,” Lucas says.
This isn’t such a far-fetched idea. The school’s true foundation, Daley and Lucas agree, rests on a simple and enduring element of human communications: storytelling. Although stories vary widely in content, format and technique, they share a unifying element of movement. Movement in the temporal sense, in the emotional sense, and even in the physical sense (think of mobile-users accessing data through portable devices).
This concept of movement loomed large in the school’s moniker makeover. The ancient Greeks, who knew how to spin a yarn, used the word kino to denote movement. USC carries that legacy on, drawing on one of kino’s anglicized offspring, “cinematic,” to represent what the school does.
And so we arrive at the era of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, dedicated to using all media – past, present and those yet to be invented – to shape the stories that will soon be playing at a theater, cell phone or ocular implant near you.
For Lucas, who came
to Los Angeles in the early ’60s from the central California community
of Modesto, the building and endowment is a chance to pay homage to the
institution that set him on the road to becoming one of the world’s
most famous filmmakers, as well the head of a multi-billion-dollar firm
whose innovations in marketing techniques as well as production,
editing and distribution technologies fundamentally altered the
there is no improvement on the past,” noted USC President Steven B.
Sample at the groundbreaking. “Rebranding the school stands as a
testament to the achievements that came before, and also to what the
In 1877 British
photographer Eadweard Muybridge set out to answer a question that had
perplexed equestrians through millennia. When a horse runs, are all
four of its hooves ever off the ground at the same time?