D.W. Griffith and Irving Thalberg were in on its founding back in 1929, and today Steven Spielberg and George Lucas help provide it with sustenance. The School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles is renowned for being the first school in the country to offer a degree in film, and for producing generations of industry figures, including current high-profile directors such as James Ivory and Ron Howard. But given pride of place along with the Spielbergs and the Lucases on the school's alumni roster are the likes of Conrad L. Hall, Caleb Deschanel, and William A. Fraker: in other words, names that also show up on the membership rolls of the American Society of Cinematographers.
Most students don't enter the school with the intention of becoming directors of photography; they just want to be filmmakers. "We don't have a cinematography track like producing or writing or animation would be a track," says Judy Irola, ASC, head of cinematography at the school. "But with the amount of courses we have, and the advantages these students have to shoot, some of them walk out and you should see their reels--something that took me 20 years to do, they've already done."
Irola took over her job in September from Woody Omens, ASC, who still teaches at the school. Both are still active DPs, as are such other faculty members as Earl Rath, ASC, John Morrill, Bill Dill, Linda Brown, and Stephen Lighthill, ASC. "I have 17 camera faculty now, and I've just hired eight more for the fall," says Irola, whose DP credits include Northern Lights, Working Girls, and two upcoming projects in digital video. "There's a pretty high standard for the faculty as well as the students. We don't hire any cinematography teachers who aren't still working in the business, and that makes it very hard, because they keep getting jobs and I keep having to replace them."
Shooting is the emphasis of the program. "I really believe that cinematography is hands-on," says Irola, who has been teaching in the program for eight years. "That's the way I learned--I never went to film school. We're down to a minimum of lecture, which is one reason I'm hiring so many cinematographers. Beginning undergrad used to just be a big lecture class, and now we're putting the cinematography faculty in the classroom. People have to understand certain principles, but otherwise we shoot."
The School of Cinema-Television, with a current enrollment of about 500 undergraduate and graduate students, comprises five divisions. Cinematography comes under the banner of Cinema and Television Production, chaired by Barbara Corday. Besides schooling students in directing, the production track also provides training in sound and editing. "Most classes are team-taught," Irola explains. "For example, I'm one of five professors in the documentary class. The very first class, Techniques in Motion Picture Production, is taught by a cinematographer and a director, who also knows how to edit. Then they have three hours in a separate sound class. In the second-semester production class, which I teach, camera is separate. I have them for three hours, sound has them for three, and the directing teacher has them for five or six. But we watch dailies together in class.
"The great thing about the program is, your first semester you walk in and make four films, on digital camcorder," she continues. "Your second semester, you and a partner make two films in black-and-white 16mm. Between these two, the students get a good dose of lighting seminars with each section. In the beginning, there's probably only one student a year that has cinematography in mind. But after the first two semesters, many of them decide to go into cinematography. Maybe they've figured out that they're not the best writer-directors in the world, or maybe they fall in love with the equipment, they like looking through the camera, and they've figured out a way to express themselves visually. Third semester, you can go into the intermediate classes, where you move into color 16, and you can crew on other students' advanced projects. If they're good--and our students keep winning awards--they can pick and choose whatever project they want to shoot. Fourth semester, you can pitch a film yourself, either narrative or documentary."
In general, graduate and undergrad students follow the same track, though in separate classes. "The only difference is, undergrads don't do an advanced project on their own," Irola says. "We've now revamped the end of school for the graduates. There are nine faculty mentors, and the students get involved with one of these people to do an advanced project on their own. It used to be students could leave the school without a film if their projects weren't chosen for a team-taught class."
Intermediate Cinematography, divided into undergraduate and graduate sections, and Advanced Cinematography, in which a combined group of grads and undergrads are taught by Earl Rath, are the only two classes that are not team-taught, that are pure camera and lighting. Visiting Woody Omens' intermediate undergraduate class in March 2000, I got a sense of the approach USC takes to its students. Omens, a three-time Emmy-winning DP whose credits include Coming to America and the TV movie An Early Frost, defines it as a "holistic" philosophy of filmmaking. "We teach the communication of ideas as the first step, and then we discuss how lighting, lenses, film stock, and camera choices are an extension of storytelling," he says. "Any instruction in lighting is coupled with a purpose the student has; we don't teach lighting as lighting, because if it doesn't have a point it hasn't got a context."
Indeed, in class Omens hammers on this point. The session attended was held a week before the Academy Awards, and he used nominated achievements for Best Cinematography to illustrate his thesis about the role of camera and lighting in communicating emotional content. He says, for example, that "Bob Richardson creates a whole subtext to Snow Falling on Cedars; it has nothing to do with what the actors are talking about, it has to do with what's behind their conversations. He and Conrad Hall in American Beauty are dealing on the feeling level, what's behind the words." Holding up a Variety ad for Dante Spinotti's nominated work in The Insider, Omens analyzes the still, which depicts star Russell Crowe. The foreground image shows Crowe in glaring, overexposed light, much like the beleaguered character he plays in the movie. Behind the actor is a glass that reflects his image back, this time in perfect exposure because of light loss in the transparent surface.
Much of the class, held at about mid-semester point on the school's traditional film stage, consists of similar analysis of the students' work. The assignment was to shoot a series of exterior daytime and nighttime portraits on 50ASA- and 500ASA-rated Kodak motion picture film, printed to slides. In earlier sessions, the students had practiced on the stage with candlelight. Now they were venturing outside, mainly to the streets of downtown LA, and photographing under available light conditions. Besides lessons in film stocks, f-stops, and printer lights, the exercise was partly an education in the color rendering index. Each daylight portrait was to include two complementary desaturated colors, preferably in the subject's clothing, while nighttime images were to juxtapose two complementary saturated colors.
"What did you learn doing this one?" Omens repeatedly asks students as their slides flash by. One learned, for instance, that the green jacket he had chosen as a desaturated complement to his subject's muted red shirt was so sensitive to exposure changes that it generally registered as blue. "The dye is not sending out enough green for the film to see," Omens points out, adding that film can see both more than the human eye and less: "That's why you test." For the nighttime shots, the instructor explains that saturated colors hold up better in dark conditions; indeed, one student's portrait of a female subject in a bright orange shirt and electric blue wig could be probably be perceived at the bottom of a well.
Each photographer's portraits vary in quality, but Omens has continually encouraging comments for the students. Viewing one slide of a subject in a moody nighttime street scene, he said, "This could go right into a movie. I could write a two-page story or feeling description about what's on this woman's mind." Mistakes were treated as interesting educational experiences.
"If you stayed in the class, by now Woody would have moved into shooting on the stage, working with a dolly, lights, and color temperature," says Irola. At the beginning of the class attended, Omens had given a description of the demonstration to be conducted the following week. The shot was to involve a dolly move from an open door on the stage to a far corner. "We'll be going from a color temperature on the cool side to warm candlelight in the corner, using the f-stop and exposure changes to adjust," he explains. "The reason we're doing this is that a number of problems can come up in your mind at once. You light it a little bit at a time; if you think about the whole thing, you'll go crazy. Then we'll talk about whether there's an overall light for the whole set." After that, the students were to have a session on lenses.
All of the exercises in Omens' Intermediate Cinematography class point toward a final project, involving material shot both on the stage and outside, blended into the illusion of a continuous setting. Above all, he emphasizes, "We're not here to tell a whole story; we're here to communicate an attitude, a state of mind by using cinematography. Just be on the lookout every time you set up a shot. Say to yourself, 'Does it look like my idea, or does it feel like my idea?' If it looks like your idea, but you can't say it feels like it, you're in trouble."
Omens says he tends to push this kind of "right-brain" education because "the left brain is easy--they can go to the Mole-Richardson showroom and find that out." He discusses a planned museum trip with his students, so he could introduce them to such "honorary cinematographers" as Vermeer and Monet. But the left brain is not entirely left out of the equation. Toward the end of class, students graded quizzes they had taken about technical matters like electrical safety, the quality of light produced by a 1k fresnel, the proper way to stand on a ladder, and so on. Herb Hughes, a lighting veteran from the Walt Disney Studio who now runs the film stages at USC, was on hand to provide detailed answers to these questions.
Irola says the Cinema and Television Production program is a good mix of the practical and theoretical. "Even in the second semester, I put them in crew positions, have them set up the scene they're interested in, and let them stumble around for a while," she says. "They start learning what follow-focus means, and what a long lens does--they could write that down, but it's better that they actually do it." But production students are also required to take an aesthetics-oriented class called Visual Expression, and several critical studies courses. By the same token, students in the school's Critical Studies division are required to take production classes. This sets the USC program apart from that of its East Coast counterpart, New York University, where production and cinema studies are in different schools.
What helps keep USC's School of Cinema-Television at the top of the academic game is, among other things, the addition of a TV track, complete with stages equipped for video production. "You can now graduate having directed a three-camera shoot," says Irola. In the fall, the 30,000-sq.-ft. (2,700 sq. m) Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts, built with a $5 million gift from the facility's namesake, will open, providing state-of-the-art digital shooting, editing, sound, and effects capabilities. With these new resources, Donald A. Morgan, Emmy-winning DP of Home Improvement, will teach seminars in three-camera lighting starting in the fall.
"We've grown so much," says Irola. "It's a combination of things--everybody and their grandmother wants to go to film school, and now, with digital, they probably can. On the advanced projects, everybody used to want to shoot in 35, and Clairmont Camera gives them great packages. But now all of a sudden, they say, 'I'm thinking of shooting in digital.' So I've ordered some of the Sony 500 cameras, which are incredible."
Industry alliances are a major boon to the school, which is perfectly located to take advantage of them. In addition to Clairmont and Sony, direct production support has been provided by Arriflex, Chimera, Deluxe Laboratories, Eastman Kodak, J.L. Fisher, FotoKem, Kino Flo, Lee Filters, Panavision, Rosco, and Tiffen, among others. Internship opportunities in the film industry are rife, interdisciplinary courses offer schooling in entertainment business and marketing, and research projects are available to faculty and students through the Annenberg Center for Communication.
Then, of course, there are generous alumni and other industry supporters that keep the USC School of Cinema- Television heavily endowed, and whose identities are evident throughout the complex, from the George Lucas Instructional Building and Marcia Lucas Postproduction Facility to the Steven Spielberg Music Scoring Stage, and from the Harold Lloyd Motion Picture Sound Stage to the Johnny Carson Television Stage. Beyond the money, Irola says "the amount of caring and love lavished on the school" by the alumni is tremendous. "They mentor students' projects and they hire USC students all the time," she says. "Something like 75% of our students actually find work; they could be the PA on a movie, but it's work. I think that has to do with so many people in this town having come out of the school, and trusting the education that these graduates walk in there with."
For the future, Irola's major goal is to develop a masters class in cinematography. "One great thing about being in Los Angeles is that people like Connie Hall, Haskell Wexler, Laszlo Kovacs, Billy Fraker, John Bailey, and Caleb Deschanel are all nearby, and a lot of them are alumni," she says. "I would love to get each of them in to do three- or four-day seminars--a day to prep, and two or three days to shoot. With that, I think the program would be just about complete."