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 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
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.
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
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
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
In one of the youngest and newest recruits—experimental,
avant-garde L.A. filmmaker Cauleen Smith—one discovers a perfect
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.
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, 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.
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.
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
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
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
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.”
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
“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.”
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. 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
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
advanced undergraduates will gain specialized training on feature
films that will be released through commercial channels such
home video and DVD, basic and pay cable TV, overseas markets
and theater chains focusing on art and specialty films.
will be learning how to make real movies while they make real
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.”
The documentary is about Texas politics and will air nationally
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.
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
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.”