Photos by JCH Studios
Issue: Winter 2004
Reeling in the Years 1929-2004
The USC School of Cinema-Television celebrates 75 years in sound and image
By John Zollinger
Special Anniversary Celebration
Persistence of Vision. When
the first “Introduction to Photoplay” class met on February 6, 1929, it
was such a big deal that USC President Rufus B. von KleinSmid himself
addressed the capacity crowd in Bovard Auditorium. “This is an unusual
step for an institute of learning of this character to take,” von
KleinSmid told the students. The movies were popular entertainment,
after all. In offering such a course, was the university somehow merely
pandering to the masses?
No, von KleinSmid declared
forcefully: “Some institutions of learning prefer to enter that field
wherein they will meet the most men and women whom it is possible for
them to help,” he stated. “Among those institutions I am pleased to say
we find the University of Southern California, who conceives of its
mission to be the serving of the best things that must have better
||Prospectus for “Introduction to Photoplay,” USC’s first film course.
The passage of time has borne out von KleinSmid’s wisdom. In the course
of a few short years, “Introduction to Photoplay” – or Course No. 50,
as it originally appeared in the USC catalogue – blossomed into a full
line of offerings in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. As
the influence of movies and television on society grew exponentially,
the USC film program turned into a department within the now-defunct
School of Performing Arts; it became a fully independent school within
the university in 1983, conferring degrees from the bachelor’s to the
diversified across six divisions – animation and digital arts, critical
studies, writing for screen and television, Peter Stark producing,
interactive media, and film and television production – the school
still adheres to a unifying philosophy that mandates its graduates be
well-grounded in all facets of the discipline. Regardless of their
focus, USC cinema students receive a complete education in filmmaking,
from the nuts and bolts of digital editing, to the financial analysis
of entertainment markets, to the aesthetic force and social
implications of the moving image.
clapper board from the original miniseries, “Roots,” part of the
permanent collection of industry-related artifacts in USC’s David L.
Wolper Center for the Study of Documentary.
school’s alumni, students and faculty make their mark on every aspect
of film, television, interactive media and academia. Budding directors,
producers and writers premiere their work at festivals from Sundance to
Cannes; their talent drives pace-setting corporations such as Disney,
Sony and Electronic Arts; and they form the brain-trust of major
universities, filling the scholarly ranks here and abroad, honing the
critical skills of the next generation of filmmakers.
USC President von KleinSmid perhaps could not have imagined the
specifics of today’s digitally linked world, his vision of the impact
that sound and image would have on society seems as profound in 2004 as
it did three-quarters of a century ago.
evening, as he laid the foundation for what would become the nation’s
top-ranked film school, von KleinSmid urged those early film students
“to take our ideals … and mold them up in a new, attractive light. To
take our ambitions and make them ring and sing in the light of fine,
big opportunity. To take our joys and our sorrows and make and
interpret [them] into a philosophy of life. To take all that we are and
all that we hope to be – and I do not put that beyond motion pictures
of the finest sort – and open up for ourselves avenues of service.”
Over the course of the 20th century, USC film students have indeed
molded their ideas in a new light; that light continues to shine
bright, and the avenues of service run long and broad. As it presses
into the 21st century, the USC School of Cinema-Television honors that
past as an inspiration and guide in creating the future.
Zemeckis Center photo by JCH Studios
The Not-So-Odd Couple.
members of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, Rufus B. von KleinSmid and
Douglas Fairbanks Sr. shared a passion for fencing. As presidents of
USC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, respectively,
they also shared a passion for the power of the moving image. In 1929,
the swashbuckling actor and the university president brought together
their institutions to kick off a film program: the goal was to supply
trained talent for the fast-growing industry. This fall the Academy and
school celebrated that partnership, with more than 2,200 alumni and
friends packing Bovard Auditorium and satellite venues around campus
for the 75th anniversary gala, hosted by comedian Will Ferrell ’90.
Along with the glitz and fanfare, the Academy presented USC with a
specially commissioned award commemorating the school’s unparalleled
record of leadership, excellence and innovation in entertainment
So You Wanna Be in Pictures?
Despite the market crash of 1929, which ushered in the worst economic
downturn in modern history, applications to the cinema program remained
strong. Some 200 students vied for the 80 seats available in the first
semester of “Introduction to Photoplay.”
Three-quarters of a century later, applications remain robust. Of 2,623
undergraduates aspiring to enter the film school ranks this fall, only
231 were accepted. Of 977 graduate students, 161 made the grade.
Lights, Camera, Action …
When it comes to mastering a craft, there’s simply no substitute for
hands-on experience with the tools of the trade. In the early days,
that included hand-crank cameras and reels of fragile celluloid. A lot
has changed since then.
Images that were once nearly impossible or extremely difficult to stage
can now be generated easily with the use of computer-generated
backdrops. First the actors are shot against a day-glo green screen;
later, in the editing room, background and foreground images are
digitally “composited” – that is, united.
New tools don’t necessarily mean filmmakers can get by with less
effort. In stop-motion animation, for example, a five-minute short
still takes about 1,000 hours to design, construct, shoot and edit.
That adds up to a lot of work when you consider USC film students
generate more than 250 hours of film and television programming a year.
Much of it subsequently appears in national and international film
festivals, as well as the school’s own semi-annual “First Look”
showcase. In addition to launching scores of careers, such experience
has earned young USC filmmakers critical acclaim, including 23 Student
Academy Awards since the program’s 1973 inception.
… Digitize, Render, Output.
When the Motion Picture Academy partnered with USC in 1929, its prime
motive was to ensure a steady stream of journeymen who knew where a
grip was supposed to grip, what a best boy did best, and how a gaffer
could avoid making gaffes. The need for skilled professionals is even
more pressing today, as the rush of hardware and software developments
amps up the pace of innovation.
The advent of digital equipment has dramatically reshaped the editing
process. Instead of the old-fashioned method of cutting and splicing
film from beginning to end, students now edit in a non-linear,
random-access mode. Digital editing is just as painstaking as its
analogue predecessor, but it affords far greater flexibility, creative
freedom and efficiency.
The film school has kept up with the times and sometimes seems almost
to be skipping into the future. Its facilities match and often exceed
those found in the commercial sector.
The school’s Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts houses 60
state-of-the-art Avid Express digital video editing stations and a
Vicon 3-D motion-capture system. It furnishes 5,000 square feet of
studio space, including a massive green screen. The center’s Ron Howard
Screening Room is equipped for THX 10.2 surround sound. Research and
development labs for the Interactive Media Division provide a
270-degree LCD projection space, high-end graphics computers and
testing areas equipped with digital cameras to record how users relate
to gaming and virtual-reality technologies.
Meanwhile the George Lucas complex is a mini-studio unto itself.
Inside, the Steven Spielberg Sound Scoring stage features a Euphonix
System 5 digital console that can handle everything from a single
musician to a 50-piece orchestra.
In the Marcia Lucas Post Production building, a warren of all-digital
sound studios gives student filmmakers access to 17 Digidesign ProTools
editing stations, four 5.1-enabled dubbing stations, Foley and
Automated Dialogue Replacement suites that capture effects and
dialogue, and dubbing rooms that seat up to 60 people. The
post-production facility also houses an Avid Media Composer, an Avid
Express DV editor, 16mm and 35mm flatbed editing machines and a mix of
digital and traditional technologies used to breathe life into models,
drawings and computer animations.
Motion capture photo by JCH Studios
The digital revolution has altered more than just the tools of the
trade; it has changed the balance of how we entertain and inform
ourselves. The rise of video games and interactive entertainment –
whose estimated $24 billion in sales last year rivaled the combined
income of commercial film and television production – transforms the
passive viewer into an active participant. It lifts the entertainment
experience out of the staid family room and darkened movie theater and
into the world at large.
In September, the cinema school teamed with interactive entertainment
software giant Electronic Arts to create the EA Game Innovation Lab.
Based at the Robert Zemeckis Center, the EA Game Innovation Lab is a
state-of-the-art research space and think tank where new concepts in
game design, play and usability are developed, prototyped and
The lab will push games beyond the currently defined genres, markets
and play patterns, creating a body of knowledge about players, games
and game-playing that is informing the next generation of software and
Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat.
Never ones to rest on their laurels, USC cinema students, faculty and
alumni have – to mix arboreal metaphors – earned a phenomenal number of
palms over the years. The road to glory started when student Richard
Bare ’36, who earlier had made a two-reel Western in high school with
George Lucas Sr., produced The Oval Portrait,
USC’s first 35mm synch-sound student film and winner of the 1934 Paul
Muni Award. With a budget of $400, the film would never have gotten
past script form were it not for Bare’s artful wrangling at the height
of the Great Depression. He talked Kodak into donating 10,000 feet of
film and got MGM to give him the use of its soundstages. Bare finessed
other freebies from RKO opticals and Pacific Title credits; he cadged
period clothing from Western Costume.
The school received its first Oscar in 1955 when The Face of Lincoln,
produced in conjunction with Cavalcade Pictures, won the Best Two-Reel
Short category. It was also nominated for Best Documentary.
Academy glory returned 15 years later when The Resurrection of Bronco Billy, a USC/Universal co-production, received the nod as Best Live-Action Short in 1970.
In total, USC students, faculty and alumni have landed 78 Oscars.
Walter Murch, who attended in the 1960s, took home dual Oscars for his
work on The English Patient (1996). Credited with coining the term “sound designer,” Murch and Ben Burtt MA ’75 raised film sound to the level of art.
Other Oscar winners include sound designer and mixer Gary Rydstrom ’81, who holds seven Academy awards, among them ones for Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Titanic
(1997). Richard Edlund ’60 also has seven Oscars, among them five
scientific and technical engineering awards for films such as Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Henry Bumstead ’37 received statuettes for art direction on The Sting (1973) and To Kill A Mockingbird (1962).
Cinema alumni have made their mark in television as well, garnering 81 Emmy Awards since 1961.
Josh Schwartz photo by J. Emilio Flores/New York Times / Soundstage photo by JCH Studios
Membership Has Its Privileges.
With literally thousands of its former students in executive,
production, writing, academic and other top slots throughout the region
and around the world, the cinema school alumni network has been
nicknamed “the USC mafia.” But unlike the Sopranos, these Trojans are
shooting for box-office and academic records, not criminal records. For
instance, at age 27 Josh Schwartz ’99 – the mastermind behind the hit
series, The O.C. – is the youngest person in Hollywood history to create a network TV drama. Some other eye-opening tallies:
• Every year since 1973, at least one USC graduate has been nominated for an Academy Award.
• Every year since 1975, at least one USC graduate has been nominated for an Emmy Award.
• Cinema alumni have held key creative positions in the top 10 highest grossing movies of all time.
Though membership in the USC mafia can establish common ground and help
open doors, it is no guarantee of success. Talent is still the ultimate
test of the “made” man or woman.
Once successful, many alumni feel the need to give back. Some make
donations; others make guest appearances in classrooms. Still others,
like John Wells MFA ’82 (ER; The West Wing), David L. Wolper ’49 (Roots; Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, 1971) and Laura Ziskin ’73 (Spider Man, 2002; Pretty Woman, 1990), help shape the school’s direction as members of the Board of Councilors or the Television Advisory Council.
The End of “Reality Ends Here.”
Keeping up with ever more complex technology while expanding to meet
the rising number of students has been a constant challenge for the
film school. Initially situated in the Old College building, the
program was forced to take up residence in the architecture facility
after the crumbling Old College structure was razed. The next stop was
a set of ramshackle buildings fashioned from surplus World War I wood.
These “temporary” quarters housed the program for more than 40 years,
and served as the learning space and laboratory for the likes of
director James Ivory MA ’57 (A Room with a View, 1985; The Remains of the Day, 1993), writer/director John Milius ’67 (Conan the Barbarian, 1982; The Wind and the Lion, 1975), cinematographer Conrad Hall ’50 (American Beauty, 1999; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,
1969) and Rick Redeman ’78, who is credited with adding “Reality Ends
Here” to the graffiti-scrawled walls. The slogan lives on as the
school’s informal motto, now cast in the stone entranceway of the
Zemeckis Center and the concrete walkway spanning the Lucas complex
In the early 1980s, Star Wars
mastermind George Lucas ’66 spearheaded the drive to completely
modernize the film school campus, culminating in 1984 with the
inauguration of a mini-studio comprised of soundstages, editing suites,
animation facilities, music scoring facilities, classrooms and
administrative offices. A far cry from its wooden predecessor, some 16
million pounds of concrete, 200,000 square feet of acoustical
insulation and 79,000 pounds of steel went into fabricating the
Later, director Robert Zemeckis ’73, of Back to the Future (1985) and Forrest Gump
(1994) fame, primed the well with a $5 million gift seeding the
creation of the 35,000-square-foot Center for Digital Arts that bears
his name. The school is also home to Frank Sinatra Hall, housed within
the Norris Theater Complex, and the David L. Wolper Center for the
Study of the Documentary, nestled in the university’s Doheny Memorial
Digital editing photo by JCH Studios
Achieving Critical Mass.
In addition to grooming the talent that goes on to make great movies,
television and interactive media, the film school has a long history of
training the minds that go on to observe, contemplate and shape the
critical understanding of those media on society.
Established in 1958 as the nation’s first Ph.D. program in cinema, the
Critical Studies program boasts faculty whose expertise runs the gamut
from Triumph of the Will to Kill Bill
and is home to experts on everything from Spanish cinema to documentary
to hip-hop. Alumni of the program hold tenure-track posts at the
University of California, the University of Michigan, the College of
William and Mary, Dartmouth College and Georgetown University, among
others. Some are archivists at major film libraries across the country.
Many other graduates of the Critical Studies program pursue
non-academic careers in the entertainment industry and related fields.
Bill Mechanic MA ’79 became the head of a major studio; Bryan Singer
’89 and James Gray ’91 are noted directors; Larry Karaszewski ’85 is a
prominent writer; Peter Rainer MA ’79 and Holly Willis MA ’92 are
Diversity in the University.
A mere two years before the founding of the USC cinema program, Al Jolson broke the sound barrier when he sang in The Jazz Singer.
Unfortunately the white crooner’s black-face graphically underscored
just how far the industry was from breaking the race barrier. And
although the school owes much to the support and inspiration of
silver-screen queen Mary Pickford and super-scribe Clara Beranger, in
an industry dominated by men, gender equality would also wait in the
wings for many decades.
In more recent times, however, the
school has strived to ensure once-silenced voices a full hearing.
Today, women and non-whites each account for roughly 40 percent of the
The faculty, too, has expanded to reflect diverse backgrounds and a
rich range of intellectual pursuits. For example, Critical Studies
chair Tara McPherson was a founding organizer of the joint USC-MIT
“Race in Digital Space” symposium series on minority access to
technology. Both she and Marsha Kinder, a University Professor, write
extensively on gender issues. Though it’s often perceived as a
Hollywood school, the USC film program encourages a wide range of
filmmakers, genres and styles, including independent and documentary
productions. A powerful advocate for this work is professor Mark
Jonathan Harris, maker of the 2000 Oscar-winning documentary Into the Arms of Strangers.
Other faculty concentrate on popular culture: professors Todd Boyd and
Curtis Marez are both recognized authorities in the field.
Newer programming focuses on drawing women and non-whites into all
facets of the industry and academia. With comedian and actor Bill
Cosby, in 1998 the film school began the Summer Youth Institute for
Film and Television that gives inner-city youths hands-on experience in
the theory and practice of filmmaking, television and new media.
Many other initiatives are geared to enrich the gender and ethnic
composition of the student body, including the Bialis Family Finishing
Fund, the Columbia TriStar Television Group/Telemundo Network
Fellowship, the Creative Artists Agency Diversity Scholarship, the
Courtney and Steven J. Ross Fellowship, the Guy Alexander Hanks/Marvin
Miller Screenwriting Program, the NBC Fellowship, and the Warner Bros.
To appreciate the value of bringing new faces and ideas into the film
school, consider the work of alumni like producer Stacey Sher MFA ’85 (Pulp Fiction, 1994 and Erin Brockovich, 2000); writer-director John Singleton ’90 (Boyz N the Hood, 1991 and Shaft, 2000); and writers Javier Grillo-Marxuach MFA ’93 (“Jake 2.0” and “Boomtown,”) and Cathy Yuspa MFA ’97 (What Women Want, 2000 and “The King of Queens”).
(Almost) Cast Away.
For Robert Zemeckis ’73, the Academy Award-winning director of blockbusters such as Forrest Gump (1994) and Cast Away
(2000), the path from film school to film fame came precariously close
to a dead end. Zemeckis was nearly forced to drop out of USC for lack
of money. Were it not for a last-minute gift from an anonymous donor,
we might never have gone back to the future or learned who framed Roger
Three decades later, he returned the favor, using
$5 million of his own money to serve as a catalyst for the creation of
the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts.
With the leadership of such high-profile celebrities as Zemeckis,
George Lucas ’66 and Steven Spielberg, as well as Brian Grazer ’74, Ron
Howard ’73, Laura Ziskin ’73, Scott Stone ’79 and industry partners
like Avid Technologies, Entertainment Arts and Sony, the film school’s
endowment has gone from $6 million to $32 million over the last decade.
Likewise, the number of endowed chairs has grown dramatically since
1992 when the first funded position, the Steven J. Ross/Time Warner
Dean’s Chair, was created. In the ensuing 12 years, 10 others have
Impressive as this nest egg might seem, the voracious demands of
obtaining and maintaining state-of-the-art equipment and facilities and
top-notch teachers adds up to hefty bills for students. With future
Zemeckises in mind, the school has kicked off its “$75 Million for 75
Years” program, mining its diamond jubilee to more than double the