Script for success earns film school a
spot in the national picture

Rajko Grlic (left) and David Thomas

Photos: Chris Hondros

By Emily Caldwell

It's the day before a film festival competition deadline and an Ohio University student filmmaker needs to prepare his entry, pronto, in the Peterson Sound Studio in Lindley Hall. Something about the transfer to a new format isn't working. There's fuzz on the monitor screen.

"What's wrong? What's wrong?" John Butler, production manager, engineer, instructor, and, by all accounts, king of the sound studio, is muttering as he studies the high-tech equipment. After a few minutes, the transfer is in progress.

"John Butler's the man," MFA candidate Igor Kovacevich says. "He's saved my life about 600 times since 1992. He helps students in his free time."

"There is no free time," Butler retorts.

It's true that with the School of Film faculty, time is at a premium in a program moving steadily to a higher professional plane and earning more national and international visibility as a result.

The program has been on the upswing for the past decade. "When I arrived in 1984, we were essentially a one-phone, two-camera, one-flatbed editing-bench operation," says school Director David O. Thomas. The donation of the sound studio, major grant support, and the Ohio Eminent Scholar of Film Award helped solidify the program's renown as a small but strong graduate film program with emphasis on independent films as well as an international focus. Entry into the film program is competitive: last year, 160 people applied for 16 slots.

"The quality and diversity of the faculty, and their willingness to go the extra mile, make the difference," Thomas says. The school publishes Wide Angle, edited by Associate Professor Ruth Bradley, an expert in experimental cinema; edits the Asian Cinema Journal with Professor George Semsel and Assistant Professor Jenny Lau, both well-known Asian cinema experts; hosts an annual film conference each November directed by Lau; and participates in the Athens International Film and Video Festival, directed by Bradley and the Athens Center for Film and Video on campus.

"Considering that the students in the school normally produce about 50 films a year, there's little danger of us dying of boredom around here," says Thomas, who has a background as a screenwriter, director and producer of dramatic work.

Production Manager John Butler helps a
student on a project in the Peterson Sound Studio.

The faculty also includes Butler, who has worked for years with National Geographic and WQED public television in Pittsburgh; lecturer Jack Wright, MA '92, a filmmaker with ties to Appalshop, a media arts organization in Kentucky; and Assistant Professor Ed Talavera, who has served as director of photography on three feature films, and is at work on a fourth.

The fall 1993 arrival of Ohio Eminent Scholar Rajko Grlic expanded the school's scope, and has been followed by a wave of developments, including a write-up as a top film school in the national publication The Independent and Ohio University's first invitation to screen films at the annual Independent Feature Film Market (IFFM), a national festival in New York.

At least five universities were courting Grlic, an award-winning Croatian director, producer and screenwriter, when the Ohio Eminent Scholar position offered his ideal: the chance to maintain a professional career as a filmmaker and teach at the same time. The School of Film received a $500,000 grant from the Ohio Board of Regents, and OU had to match the grant to create a $1 million endowment for the position.

Grlic is artistic director of the Institute for Motion Picture Development, established in 1994 to enhance film students' professional training. Among the institute's projects are scriptwriting workshops that draw top U.S. and European faculty, development of a low-budget feature project, and creation of an educational CD-ROM on directing the short film.

"My impression is that I was asked to be here to help this school move toward professional filmmaking," Grlic says. "It's tougher and tougher for students to become part of the American film industry. 'Film industry' doesn't mean Hollywood. It's for everyone who wants to survive and make a living being a part of the filmmaking process."

The quality of recent student films led to OU's inclusion as one of eight schools in the country to screen films at the IFFM in the fall. One of the entries earned a student filmmaking prize at the competition. The film, "Drawing Lots," was the product of the first master class Grlic taught here.

Rocco Hindman, BFA '94, was one of the four student writers and directors of "Drawing Lots." Though the film degree path at Ohio University is primarily for graduate students, Hindman was among the few Honors Tutorial College undergraduates accepted as film majors. He now is enrolled in the graduate film program at the University of Southern California.

Hindman says the invitation to the festival "does really show that OU is a place where good films are being made." His experience at USC is a testament to the difference between a film program in Los Angeles and one in Athens. "USC has such a large pool of professionals it can draw from - a lot more resident filmmakers," he says.

Such a large pool simply can't be sustained in Appalachian Ohio. It's one of the mixed blessings of the location - the proximity to theater, music and art students makes for a supportive, collaborative approach to filmmaking. But a sense of the heavy competition to come and exposure to working film professionals are harder to come by. Yet the cast of visiting film artists who have made the trip to the Athens campus in the past two years is impressive. Among them are Oscar-winning "Schindler's List" co producer Branko Lustig and New York-based feature film producers Lisa Bruce and Bob Nickson.

Providing professional opportunities is all part of giving students a taste of the industry.

"In my classes, I'm trying to behave less as a teacher and more as a coach and producer. I'm trying to give students, in a much softer way, the conditions of the real world," Grlic says.

School of Film students get another taste of real-life activities at the Athens Center for Film and Video, an arm of the College of Fine Arts where student workers earn film course credits. "There are teaching hospitals. This is a teaching media arts center," says Bradley, who runs the center. Art, telecommunications and film graduate and undergraduate students work at the center to put together the ever-expanding Athens International Film and Video Festival each spring. It's billed as the largest and oldest student-run festival of its kind.

Students also have access to AVID technology, a digital nonlinear editing system, and get their hands on a variety of equipment in the Peterson Sound Studio. The studio, donated in 1985 by former Motion Picture Sound Inc. Owner Tom Peterson of Cleveland, marked a major milestone for the university because of the rare opportunity for students to use such equipment.

"Most universities might have this kind of facility, but it would be staffed by union personnel," explains Butler, who has run the studio since 1987. Peterson most recently donated an AVID digital sound editing system.

Butler's contacts in the film and television industry have benefited a range of students over the years. He gave alumnus Tony Buba, MFA '76, his first roll of film. Buba ran with it, and has been earning awards and receiving prestigious arts grants since the release of his first film in 1972.

Regarded as one of America's best known independent filmmakers, Buba has screened his work - much of which revolves around issues in and near his hometown of Braddock in western Pennsylvania - at festivals and museums around the world. Known for his hybrid style of mixing documentary and fiction, Buba attributes his aesthetic development to the freedom he had in film school.

"There was no emphasis on any particular style when I got there. That gave me the time to figure out what I wanted to do," Buba says.

The focus now, Grlic says, is on the craft of filmmaking. All of the nearly 700 American film schools teach film as art, but only about 10 to 15 of the best also teach film as craft, he says. Grlic would like to see Ohio University among those programs, and says he thinks the school is moving in that direction.

Thomas adds that it takes certain qualities to find success in film, and he sees them in Ohio
University students.

"We have some very exceptional students in the program right now who are a pleasure to teach," he says. "They have the talent, the savvy and the drive to make it in this crazy business."

Emily Caldwell, BSJ '88, covers the College of Fine Arts for University News Services and Periodicals.

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