By Mike Hornick
In advance of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, an online film journal called IndieWIRE.com took note of the “considerable buzz” being generated by film schools at Cal State Monterey Bay and other places somewhat “off the beaten path.”
“Forget about USC or UCLA,” the article said.
CSUMB’s answer to traditional film schools – known as the Department of Teledramatic Arts and Technology, or “TAT” – continues to create buzz, win acclaim and produce graduates who find success in the varied and competitive world of film and video.
TAT integrates a sense of community into each aspect of student experience, from collaborative filmmaking and festivals to service projects in neighboring cities. A strong alumni network spreads that sense of community to places like Los Angeles, supporting new grads as they seek employment.
Students get involved quickly – getting their hands on cameras and editing gear early.
“You can start making films in your freshman year, where you wouldn’t touch a camera in most schools ’til you’re a junior,” said Janaye Brown, a 2010 graduate. She now pursues a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Texas, Austin, where she earned a David J. Bruton Fellowship.
TAT resources more than suffice for the 163 students now in the program, said J.J. Melancon, a senior who aspires to start a production company on the Monterey Peninsula. “There are four different buildings you’re able to edit at – and great production facilities,” he said.
Faculty and staff resources are equally varied.
“A lot of teachers are or were professionals in the field, so they have connections,” said Adam Younkin, a senior.
For example, a TAT project, the Monterey Bay Film Society, employs Mike Plante, the associate programmer for the Sundance Film Festival as creative director. “He brings an unending stream of internationally renowned filmmakers to visit,” said Enid Baxter Blader, TAT department chair.
“He’s also visited our Capstone classes,” Blader said, referring to senior students’ thesis project. “Each senior got to pitch film ideas and get feedback from him one-on-one.”
The traffic heads Sundance’s way, too. Two films by Cal State Monterey Bay alumni – Doug Mueller and the team of Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck – have screened at the prestigious festival in the past two years.
The senior-year projects culminate in the semi-annual, on-campus Capstone Festival, next set for May 20. Last year about 1,100 filmgoers filled the university’s World Theater to view narrative, documentary and experimental films.
“It’s absolutely electric,” Blader said. “It’s not only family and friends; it’s really the community coming out for this. That’s unusual for an undergraduate institution.”
Other events nearby provide opportunities for TAT students to screen their films or gain curating experience year-round. Student films have shown at two Carmel festivals, in June and October; at Sand City’s West End Festival; and at the Blue Ocean and First Night events in Monterey.
TAT started the annual Monterey Bay Film Festival, held this year on April 9. Launched in 2008, it now draws about 300 entries for the teen program. Besides California, they come from such places as El Salvador and Armenia. Plante brings a collection of programs, some straight from Sundance.
The festival’s budget was held together at first by duct tape and paper clips, but it has recently benefited greatly from grants and private donations.
“Students get to see what it’s like to curate and produce a film festival,” Blader said. “They form relationships with visiting filmmakers who become mentors to them.”
Rachel Asendorf, a senior, was a producer’s assistant for last year’s Monterey Bay Teen Young Filmmakers’ program, part of the MBFF.
“I watched all the footage and helped categorize things,” she said. “We pick which teen films will be in the festival. I wrangled people for interviews and made sure everyone checked in. This semester I hope to be stage manager.”
Students’ interaction with teens – and sometimes children – becomes even more direct in the department’s projects in service learning, which integrates the experience of public service into the academic major.
“I love making films, but I found what I really wanted to do was impact youths’ lives in any way I could – by telling stories or just being a friend or role model,” said Juan Ramirez, a 2009 graduate. His service learning project, “Concrete Paradigm,” documented the struggles and hopes of detainees in Monterey County Juvenile Hall.
“Concrete Paradigm” won awards for Ramirez and co-director Stephen Sprague at several film festivals. The sequel, “Letters from Within,” was just tapped for a March 19 screening at the International Family Film Festival in Hollywood. Ramirez, who has since become TAT’s community outreach coordinator, is making a third film, “Trojans Under the Helmet,” that looks at social pressures in Salinas through the eyes of athletes.
“We didn’t just film,” Ramirez said of the Juvenile Hall projects. “We taught workshops there for a whole year. We got to know them and were mentors.”
Added Blader, “The workshops teach teens to value their own stories. They create interconnectedness and hope for kids who feels alone. Juvenile Hall has about a 95 percent recidivism rate; anecdotally we know the incidence is lower for teens we’ve served.
“Some have ended up in adult programs for filmmaking. They decided, ‘This is what I want to do.’ That’s powerful.”
For her service project, Brown led a filmmaking class for teens at the Salinas Public Library and overcame nervousness about taking the role of teacher.
Not every TAT student wants to work in the conventional film industry. Melinda DeRouen, a 2005 graduate, still shoots video but focuses on stage-acting and radio work. And the film work of Brown and Ojeda-Beck – who’s now in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley – is geared as much to galleries as to theaters.
“(TAT) exposed me to experimental media,” Brown said. “A lot of that exists in the art world. Had I not gone to CSUMB, I might have worked in a traditional film program.”
TAT doesn’t just look at filmmaking, Blader said.
“There’s a confluence between film and multiple histories of storytelling,” she said. “We’re looking at the histories of theater, performance, art and avant-garde image-making. This approach gives our students a visual fluency that sets them above the average. This is why they are recognized at international film festivals.”
GRADS REACH BACK
Graduates working in such commercial film centers as Hollywood or San Francisco say the breadth of experience gained at Cal State Monterey Bay helped get their careers off the ground.
“I thought I just wanted to write and direct, but TAT opened my eye to everything that was out there,” said Justin Bloch, a 2004 grad who now edits for the Discovery Channel in Hollywood.
Like many TAT graduates, Bloch has experience in reality TV. He spent a few seasons at the Fox hit “Hell’s Kitchen.” More recently he edited a new show, “Enough Already,” for the Oprah Winfrey network.
TAT grads are a tight-knit bunch. An alumni reunion is slated this spring for a Sunset Boulevard venue.
“I’ve gotten and given job leads for TAT students,” Bloch said. “In L.A., we help each other. I’ve become used to hearing (managers) say they’ll hire someone from the same school. They say I’m useful.”
Said Blader, “It’s more than references. They hire each other and help each other make their projects, too.”
Shawn Hovis is help-desk coordinator for Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville. It’s an information technology job, but Pixar offers him occasional filmmaking opportunities. His live-action short “Play by Play” won the Children’s Choice Award at the Bay Area International Children’s Film Festival and has been accepted to the Cleveland International Film Festival.
“Whether you make it or not, much of it is luck,” Hovis said. “But you have to generate things from yourself. TAT gets you going, but they expect a lot out of you.”
As 2010 ended, 2001 Oscar-winning grad David Kashevaroff began a four-month, on-location stint in Vancouver, B.C., as first assistant editor for the moon-landing thriller “Apollo 18,” due out in April.
“It’s a unique movie in that they’re shooting and editing in a short period,” Kashevaroff said.
Other TAT graduates have worked on such recent commercial films as “Coraline” and the latest installments of “Toy Story,” “Terminator” and “Star Trek.”
Bloch said TAT taught him that how to collaborate with others on a project.
“Everyone has a small part that makes up the larger production,” he said. “Working in L.A., I see people who lose sight of that and fall flat on their face.
“A lot of people here only know post-production, so they don’t even talk to people in production. TAT students are able to bridge that gap.”