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So You Want to Make a Movie: Award-winning filmmakers are foundation of innovative, nationally recognized film production program

Winning a Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival has its privileges.

A filmmaker walking away with that singular validation of artistic prowess has options. He could follow the dream of making a highly personal documentary, pen a feature-length screenplay, start an internationally renowned film workshop, or teach at an upper-echelon film school. Mitko Panov, winner of a Palm D’Or in 1991 and a Special Jury Award at the Claremont-Ferand Short Film Festival in 2000, has done all of those things.

Mitko Panov on location in the former Yugoslavia

Mitko Panov shot his award-winning film “Comrades” in the former Yugoslavia. The documentary follows his search for friends and colleagues who served with him in the recent Yugoslav war.

Photo courtesy Mitko Panov

He’s made documentaries that have aired on public broadcasting stations all over the world, founded the New York Film Academy workshop and is finishing up a narrative screenplay. And, when the world of film schools was his oyster, he, along with numerous other similarly lauded filmmakers, chose to teach in The University of Texas at Austin’s prestigious Department of Radio-Television-Film (RTF).

In the past 10 years or so, thanks to an influx of stellar filmmakers who can also teach, and the accumulation of an astounding array of physical resources, UT’s film production program is now ranked one of the top 10 in the nation.

“There’s L.A. and New York City and then there’s Austin and UT as far as film schools,” says Chris Garcia, film critic for the Austin American-Statesman. “If I were a student interested in learning how to make films right now, I’d be here at UT. It’s peerless. The faculty are real filmmakers who happen to be teaching, and that’s great for the students. There’s a kind of one-on-one intimate interaction in that film program that sets it apart.”

And the rise of the film production area from fledgling to envied has been astounding in its swiftness.

With the conviction that if they built it students would come, Paul Stekler, an Emmy Award winning filmmaker and newly arrived head of the production area, and Dr. Thomas Schatz, former chairman of the RTF department, sat down in 1997 to create a five-year plan for a film production program. Using information from an external review completed by film luminaries such as director Rick Linklater and Jeremy Kagan, director of the Sundance Institute’s Directing Workshop, they laid out in explicit detail the direction in which they wanted the ambitious program to head. Although the department had always enjoyed high marks for its offerings in film theory and criticism, classes in the technical skills of filmmaking were somewhat sparse.

Cauleen Smith

Avant garde filmmaker Cauleen Smith teaches a class in experimental film.

Thanks to College of Communication Dean Ellen Wartella’s faith in the five-year plan and the magnetic draw of Austin’s burgeoning, white-hot film scene, the risk-taking quickly began to pay off.

“As a department, we decided that our film production program needed redirection, and, with the strong support of our dean, we started to recruit young filmmakers who were out in the trenches working on exciting projects,” says Stekler. “These people really, really wanted to be here rather than in L.A. or New York City. They’re why we’ve had a nationally ranked film production program for several years.”

New recruits to the RTF department included sound design maestro Andrew Garrison, L.A. editor and script analyst Richard Lewis, PBS documentary video guru Ellen Spiro—the list goes on, and the awards and honors held by the multi-talented group would fill a chunky tome. All came to the academic world from professional film work and all were particularly strong and active in documentary filmmaking.

In one of the youngest and newest recruits—experimental, avant-garde L.A. filmmaker Cauleen Smith—one discovers a perfect example of why the film program is attractive to highly discriminating, talented students as well as working filmmakers who are looking for a base from which to teach and practice their craft.

When Smith accepted the teaching post at UT she was in Los Angeles “hustling and trying to direct in the industry,” as she puts it, her mind teeming with ideas for future projects and the kudos for her previous work piling up. She had just finished her debut feature film, a movie entitled “Drylongso,” which was presented at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival and won awards at SXSW, the East Hampton Film Festival and the Urbanworld Film Festival. She was ready to make a move that would enhance her artistic life.

“My move to UT has clarified for me the kinds of projects I want to do and the sorts of producers I want to work with,” says Smith. “And I can’t even begin to articulate everything that’s great about this program. We have this incredible bunch of instructors with wonderful balance when it comes to their skills and talents—everyone here has something specific and unique to offer. The faculty members are so highly respected and passionate about film, and that carries over into their teaching. It’s just the best place in the world for a filmmaker and artist to be right now.”

Juan Mejia, a graduate student in Latin American Studies

Juan Mejia, a graduate student in Latin American Studies, works in the Digital Media Lab on his documentary about displacement among Afro-Columbians.

For auteurs like Smith, being in Austin meant being in the home of the SXSW multi-media festival, which attracts film professionals from around the world and is very friendly to the student and faculty talent at UT. It meant being affiliated with a university that had teamed up with other city sponsors to launch the Texas Documentary Tour, a nationally recognized series of sell-out monthly screenings of documentary films, with the filmmakers (often RTF faculty such as Don Howard or Ellen Spiro) present to discuss their productions.

It meant working with colleagues who, while teaching, were still going out and shooting films for National Geographic and pieces for HBO and filling their shelves with awards for outstanding work. It meant being part of a program that created the Cinematexas International Short Film Festival, an event that is run almost entirely by RTF students and that has international as well as UT competition programs and retrospectives of some of the best filmmakers in the world.

Not only wooed by the outstanding faculty and film-loving city, Smith also was impressed with the physical resources that the department had amassed and that set it apart from most other film schools. In addition to addressing faculty recruitment, the five-year plan that transformed the production program had also called for an equipment usage fee that students would be charged each semester. Deciding to charge the fee and use the proceeds to update equipment and create a first-rate, state-of-the art production environment was a rather scary gamble that paid off beautifully, benefiting teachers and students alike.

Andrew Garrison holding a camera

Filmmaker and instructor Andrew Garrison is currently working on a piece for PBS about Houston area Project Row Houses and the use of art to revitalize a community.

“This program is 100 percent Texas style quantity,” says Smith. “Everything’s big. We have well over twenty student workstations for digital editing, which is just unheard of, and a Super 16 camera package and we’re already getting involved in high definition, which is totally the next wave in digital technology. I’ve never seen a place where the students and faculty are so well provided for in the area of equipment. We don’t just have what we need—we have exactly what we need and technical problems get solved right away. The process is flawless.”

According to Vince Hostak, the man in charge of making the magic happen, procuring the equipment and anticipating the next big thing in the way of technology, the department can look forward to having high definition editing and surround sound mixing as soon as the spring of 2004.

“We have post-production suites where students can come in and do high-end uncompressed online editing, and the American Film Institute doesn’t even have that,” says Hostak, another member of the staff who moved to academia from the film industry. “We have Avid DV Xpress and Apple’s Final Cut. We have a total of fifty editing seats where students can edit packaged TV and movie film or work on editing their own productions. For audio post-production, we have Pro Tools for the students to use. We have just about everything. And we’re getting more, always getting more and trying to stay ahead of the curve.”

Smith’s happiness with her job and the program’s bounty is shared by her colleagues, who feel a little bit like they purchased Dell stock at $1 a share. They entered a program that is still happening, growing and ascending.

With the film production area now acknowledged as tops in the nation for anyone interested in learning how to make documentaries, it has entered phase two of its quest for excellence—the fleshing out of a course of study for students who want to make feature films.

“UT is an absolute mecca for documentary production,” says Louis Black, editor of the Austin Chronicle. “And that’s enriched the whole film scene, in Austin and beyond. The faculty members in RTF have such varied experience and have been involved in everything from narrative to indie films, so the further development of a rich feature filmmaking area is the next logical concentration.”

In the same spirit of experimentation and chance-taking that infused the program with life six years ago, the College of Communication launched The University of Texas Film Institute. The Film Institute is a research unit within the College of Communication that will give students highly specialized filmmaking experience on commercial feature films and more effectively prepare them for film careers. This is the first program of its kind in the nation.

Ellen Spiro documents a mother in the Gatesville Hilltop Prison

Ellen Spiro documents a mother in the Gatesville Hilltop Prison. Spiro’s PBS documentary “Troop 1500—Girl Scouts Beyond Bars” tells the story of a girl scout troop whose mothers are incarcerated.

Photo: Karen Bernstein

Through a cooperative relationship, Burnt Orange Productions, a private, for-profit production company in Austin, will contract with The University of Texas Film Institute to produce commercially viable, high-quality, low-budget independent feature films. Through this unique public-private collaboration, graduate students and advanced undergraduates will gain specialized training on feature films that will be released through commercial channels such as home video and DVD, basic and pay cable TV, overseas markets and theater chains focusing on art and specialty films.

They will be learning how to make real movies while they make real movies.

Through the Film Institute, students could find themselves attached to films with budgets as large as $3 million and could serve as understudies or even work at the highest levels, acting as production designer or director of photography.

As a result of an agreement with Advance Micro Devices (AMD), students also will be driving the Cadillacs of film equipment while they work on institute movies, from pre- to post-production. AMD plans to provide high-end AMD Opteron™ processor-based workstations and servers, which are used by top Hollywood filmmakers to create astounding digital effects.

Nancy Schiesari

Academy Award winning and Emmy Award nominated filmmaker Nancy Schiesari has been Director of Photography for over 30 documentaries and feature films and directed documentaries such as “Hansel Mieth—Vagabond Photographer.”

Schatz, author of film theory classics like “The Genius of the System,” “Hollywood Genres” and “Boom and Bust: The American Cinema in the 1940s,” serves as executive director for the Film Institute.

Burnt Orange Productions, which officially launched Oct. 1, is headed by seasoned film producer Carolyn Pfeiffer, who most recently served as vice chair, master filmmaker-in-residence and head of the producing discipline at the American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles.

Although the Film Institute means that future film students coming to UT will literally have an educational experience like no other and boost through the roof their chances of getting good jobs, many alumni of the film production program would argue that the program was already pretty great.

“When I got to Hollywood, I found out that UT has a really, really strong reputation here,” says Sean Smith, writer’s assistant for the WB drama series “Everwood.” “The faculty members have reputations out here as brilliant scholars. And the UT film program allowed me to find my own voice as well as gave me a strong critical background, which is key in the entertainment industry. The most important part of the business is being able to first have an opinion and second articulate it well.”

That UT film students get noticed outside the 40 Acres is apparent. In the past couple of years, MFA alumnae Helen Haeyoung Lee and Laura Dunn were given Student Academy Awards®, while other alumni have seen their films shown on PBS, picked up by Panavision, screened at the Sundance Film Festival and awarded Emmy’s. Student films have been shown at festivals ranging from Cannes to Rotterdam, Berlin, Slamdance and New York Underground.

Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards with Paul Stekler and the crew of 'Miles and Miles of Texas'

Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards with Paul Stekler and the crew of “Miles and Miles of Texas.” The documentary is about Texas politics and will air nationally in 2004.

Photo courtesy Paul Stekler

The department’s Hollywood connection and drive to help students succeed is evident in events such as the annual Hollywood Showcase, which is sponsored by the RTF department and takes place at the Directors Guild of America Theatre in Los Angeles.

At the gala, juried undergraduate and graduate student works are shown to Hollywood film and TV professionals as well as alumni. This event coincides with the Los Angeles Texas Exes Hollywood Seminar, a program that introduces students interested in careers in Los Angeles to alumni living and working in L.A.

“I now have former students working all over Hollywood—in both film and TV,” says Lewis, a screenwriting and producing instructor in the RTF department. “They’re in studios, production companies, post houses, agencies, management companies—pretty much everywhere, in all facets of the entertainment business. That’s not too bad.”

It is, in fact, rather hard to find much of anything negative to say about a program that trained talents like Robert Rodriguez, Matthew McConaughey, Mike Simpson and Robert H. Levi and that can keep a Sundance, Peabody and Emmy award-winner such as Stekler happily on the staff.

Standing in one of the many cavernous RTF studios late on a weekday afternoon, watching the fervor with which young, energetic minds go about the business of making art, it seems clear why the best, the most creative come here. And a quote from movie legend Lillian Gish springs to mind: “No sacrifice was too great to get the film right, to get it accurate, true, and perfect.”

Kay Randall

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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