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 learning.”

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 doctoral level.

Now 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.

A 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.

The 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.

Though 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.

That February 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.

As 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 education.

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

Got Game.

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 play-tested.

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 hardware.

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 courtyard.

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 sprawling complex.

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 Library.

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 respected critics.

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 student population.

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. Fellowship.

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 Rabbit.

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 followed.

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 endowment.