The Live-Action Film Workshop at California Institute of the Arts
Malkiewicz, Kris, American Cinematographer
Beginning cinema students "go ape" at prestigious California Institute of the Arts, while monkeying around to learn their basic film techniques
Nowhere is the old truth of "learning by doing" more evident than in film. With this in mind, and faced with an average of 15 beginning film students each year at the California Institute of the Arts, we introduced the so-called Live Action Production Workshop. This is a basic prerequisite and thought of as comparable to obtaining your first driving license. In our case, it is the license to check-out equipment, originate independent projects and take other more advanced seminars.
The basic objective of this Live Action Workshop is to make sure that our new students learn how to use our equipment and facilities our way. And that they will actually complete film production all the way to and including the 1st Answer Print.
Let me tell you now how I went about it during this past academic year and what sort of conclusions I drew for the future. Here they were: Fifteen students from many states, wanting to be film-makers. My deadline was to have the workshop film shot by Christmas and the 1st Answer Print ready at the beginning of March.
For a 15-minute film this would seem to offer adequate time, but only two days a week were scheduled for this workshop in our course catalog.
The first few weeks went by very fast, being devoted to introducing all the equipment and discussing the story to be chosen for this production. All sync-sound shooting is done at Cal-Arts with Eclair NPR cameras and Nagra IV tape recorders. MOS scenes are shot with Arriflex S cameras.
I suggested to the group a short story involving several locations and several characters, some of them in gorilla suits. I realized that without properly contracted actors we would have to depend on the workshop members and their friends. And as one man looks like the next one, once you dress him in a gorilla suit, this device was very handy when a character could not make it to location on a given day.
Both at the initial stage of accepting the story and when forming it into a script we followed a very democratic procedure and many, sometimes minute decisions were arrived at by a vote of hands. Lively discussions were, of course, inevitable. I was greatly helped at this stage by my assistant, Scott Garren, whose talent as a discussion leader helped to smooth some roughedup egos.
Once the basic story was agreed upon, we divided it into seven scenes or short sequences, each to be directed by a different student, shot by another and sound recorded by yet another. It sounds like asking for trouble, and it was-but our aim was to teach a group of people the basics of film-making, so the uniformity of style had to take second place.
The script was also written by several students, with the best parts of each combined into the final version. This version served as a basis for the shooting scripts of particular scenes written by the respective directors.
All of the crew functions were changed in rotation. For some locations production assistants had quite a job on their hands-as, for instance, when shooting on Hollywood Boulevard in front of the Chinese Theater or in the Los Angeles Zoo. Costumes and props were partially provided by Disney Studios, our never, drying-out source of help, following the original conception of CAL-ARTS as the idea of Walt Disney realized by the Disney Foundation.
The pre-production weeks were backed up by a series of lectures given once a week by other members of the film faculty. This was a way of introducing these people to new students and also to provide all the needed theoretical background at this stage. For example Alexander Mackendrick, the dean of CAL-ARTS film school and renowned British film director, lectured on story structure and the basics of film grammar. This lecture was supported by some practical exercises in blocking out the action for a television camera and analyzing it on the monitor. …