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Coming in Focus: Faculty, Student Film Awards Shine Light on Program
In the Film & Video program of the Department of Art and Art History, professors are focusing the lenses of budding filmmakers on how to make story-driven, quality films. They’re also mentoring award winners.
In the past year, dozen of accolades have come from festivals across the nation to honor student and faculty films. The University of Texas at Arlington students Julie Gould and Geoff McGee both had films screened at the South by Southwest Film Festival (also known as SXSW) in Austin this past spring, and Assistant Professor Ya’Ke Smith’s short film “Katrina’s Son” will qualify for next year’s Academy Awards. Student Aaron Carolina was a finalist in a TXU Energy film contest and Professor Emeritus Andy Anderson received an Indie Pioneer Award from the Kansas City FilmFest.
In other words, a small area of a large department at a state university is getting some big-time notice.
Ask what makes the film program at UT Arlington so successful and you’ll get different answers. Faculty will say it all starts with a solid story and a willingness to learn and explore; students will insist it’s the collaboration and mentorship they receive from their professors. Perhaps they are both right.
“If you have a good story and a couple of good actors, you can make something great,” Smith said. “That’s the thing I try to get my students to understand. Go back and find out the reason you’re making whatever movie you’re making. What is it about this subject or character that really makes you say, ‘I have to write about this person?’ It’s about the story… nothing else matters.”
Gould, whose short film, “8,” was an audience favorite at SXSW this year, said the guidance and support she received from her professors and fellow students made a significant difference in completing her dramatic look at life after the death of a loved one.
“[Our professors] know exactly what they’re doing,” Gould said. “[Associate Professor] Bart [Weiss] pushed me to make my film. Ya’Ke came out and helped us shoot. Some of the students who weren’t in class during our filming … they came out to help me.”
Collaboration is often the cornerstone to success, said Anderson, who served as the program’s Writer-in-Residence before retiring this year. When he came to campus in 1976, Anderson watched the new film program find success quickly: in 1979, UT Arlington students ranked first in three of four categories in the Academy Awards Regional Student Competition at The University of Texas at Austin. Thirty years later, the program continues to find success through hard work and effort.
“We push our students to make really good films,” said Anderson, who was honored with the 2010 Morgan Woodward Distinguished Professorship. “It’s not a coincidence that when they do, they get recognition for it. We’ve had student films in SXSW, Cannes, Berlin — all over the world. When anyone gets into a festival or gets an award or an exhibition somewhere, there are 100 different hands on that piece, not just that student’s. There are 20-30 students who might work on a film and they all get a bump from the recognition and awards.”
Reflections on the Silver Screen
The recognition has come from across the globe for Ya’Ke Smith. His short film “Katrina’s Son” centers on a young boy from New Orleans searching for his mother in San Antonio following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The poignant drama has garnered awards at the D.C. Shorts Film Festival, Urbanworld Film Festival and the Texas Black Film Festival, and has been screened in 40 various festivals including the Festival de Cannes in France.
“I love winning the awards… but I’m more concerned with the reaction from the audience, who is seeing the film and the impact it has on them. Those reactions mean more to me than the awards. I want to create a film that can open up dialogue and bring about change. If it can do that, I’m happy.”
Smith’s creative attention has already turned to a new project. He spent two weeks this summer on location in San Antonio shooting “Wolf,” a feature-length film about a pastoral predator. Balancing the load as a working artist and a full-time professor can be daunting, Smith said, but the hard work is worth it in the end.
“The more creative I am, the better professor I can be,” he said. “No matter how many times you make a film, you always learn something. Making the jump from short feature to full length, I’m learning so much I can bring into my advance classes for my students.”
Weiss, who spent part of his summer in New York City working on a documentary about the Grammy award-winning polka band, Brave Combo, has had numerous films screened in festivals across the country and is a festival director himself. (He is a co-founder and organizer of the annual Dallas Video Festival.) When he screens submissions for his festival, those with an engaging story – films with more substance than style – are the ones that catch his eye.
“When you look at our students and compare them to those from UNT, SMU and others in the region… it all comes down to story,” he said. “There’s a lot of interesting ways students are with working with the camera, but they look like student films. We want films made by students, not student films. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. We dig into our students: what is your story and why do you want to tell this story? It’s part of our educational process … and one of the strengths of our program. We want these films to work.”
One of the newest additions to the film program is a state-of-the-art, newly redesigned film editing and animation lab. While students can now create cutting edge visuals, Senior Lecturer Mark Clive said the success of any project – be it film or animation – comes down to a good story and a solid initial design. In fact, students in his intro classes don’t even get to use the powerful computers in front of them until they’ve grasped how important storytelling is.
“I get a lot of surprise and shock from my students when they begin the class,” Clive said. “They expect they are going to sit down at a computer and learn how to create animation using the software. But we don’t even touch the computer the first few weeks and they can’t understand that. I spend the first few weeks talking about nothing but drawing … and storytelling.”
It’s a similar situation Smith and Weiss face when new students instantly want to pick up a camera and start shooting. Storytelling is so important that all the program’s instructors cross-teach the subject in each other’s classes, a way to emphasize how crucial such a basic element is to any film, video or animation sequence. In most cases, students are tasked with coming up with an original idea, collaborating with classmates to get feedback and presenting a full outline of their project.
Only then, Clive said, do they jump on the computers or grab a camera and begin the visual creation.
“I can teach [anyone] how to use the software; that’s the not the issue,” he said. “The issue is ‘Are you a good storyteller? Does the art you create serve the story?’”
That message is ringing loud and clear with the latest crop of UT Arlington filmmakers. Gabriel Duran’s short film, “Helado,” was an official selection at the San Antonio Film Festival, and Nicholas Cormier III’s “The Runner” was aired on several television stations throughout the country in May. And the list of Mavericks alumni joining studios and production crews in Hollywood continues to grow.
Smith said a commitment to telling a good story is part of the reason for so much student success.
“At our core, we want to see people we can identify with, people that ring true to us, and in some way, inspire us when we go to the movies. I’ve seen a difference in the product from our students: there’s a deeper story there,” he said.
“I’ve noticed that at festivals our students create more socially conscious films than other schools might. We have a number of first-generation college students and they bring those experiences into their work. They’re not trying to re-make something they’ve seen in a movie theater. Their heart goes into their work.”
Despite how much they push, Smith said, the film program teachers know it’s up to the students to carry what they’ve learned into their projects – both here on campus and out in their careers.
“All we can do as professors is guide students,” he said. “We can’t force them to do anything. But when you get students who come in green, unsure of themselves, and they are making quality films by the end of the semester, that’s a success.”
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