Adventures at USC Film School
Graduate Production |  Spring 2002


Update #2

A Chronicle of the 581A Semester

Topics discussed:

Lights, camera, action! .. at USC Graduate Film School

  • First Day of Shooting
  • Photos of Cast & Crew
  • Advanced Editing TA-ship
  • Helaine's Tenure Presentation
  • Special Effects with the SCFX Group
  • Photos from Today's Shoot

First Day of Shooting

Fade up & zoom in...

Today is the first day of shooting .. for Wendy's thesis project film, titled Breakwater.

The 'log-line' for her film goes like this: The divorce of her parents tempts Elena to give up on love, and sends her reeling into a fanta-sea world, where mythical sea-creatures challenge her to face her pain and embrace love again.

A caravan of cast & crew drove down from LA yesterday in preparation for today's 6:30AM 'call time'. They are shooting the fantasy beach scenes today.

As they arrived, the living room slowly filled with three truckloads of camera equipment. My shoulders are sore today from unloading & carrying so many boxes and sandbags.

There is enough food stacked in the kitchen to feed a small army for a week. Many local businesses donated food. For example, the local bagel shop donated enough bagels to fill a 55-gallon drum. It is impossible to open the door to the fridge without something falling out on the floor.

Alex & Despina, who will be running the camera, commandeered the kitchen last night, where they reviewed the details of today's planned 150+ shots. Different groups scattered to different parts of the house to do their thing.

Wendy retreated to the back bedroom with her lead actress, Jessica, where they discussed the emotion behind today's scenes. I can tell by the way they interacted that they genuinely like each other and enjoy each other's company. They treat each other like old friends.

Lani drove down from Santa Cruz (8-hour trip) and showed up with a mermaid outfit that she designed and made herself. The house is full of sparkly dust as the outfit left a glittery trail everywhere she shuffled.

The last thing that Wendy said before falling asleep was, "It's really happening. Can you believe it?" When we woke this morning, there were not many patches of floor space consumed by either camera equipment or sleeping bodies.

Jessica, the lead actress, said that she wasn't nervous, and was looking forward to the shoot, especially after all the rehearsals. Wendy said that there was no scene during rehearsals for which she didn't get the desired effect that she was after. She is impressed with the talent of her cast.

I reviewed the tapes of the rehearsals with Wendy, and it's obvious that Jessica is talented. Most notable is her range: she is able to play both happy & sad parts equally well. Everyone who watched the audition tapes of all the potential choices commented with almost the same words: "There's something about her that makes you want to watch her." I heard Wendy tell Jessica, "J-Lo better look out." =)

The last few days has seen Wendy walking around with a cel phone glued to her ear, as she struggled to resolve a million minor problems that crept up. The pressure of yesterday's last-minute details had her oscillating between ecstasy and terror, but today she seems focused. She has a great crew. Speaking of crew...

Photos of Cast & Crew

At the heart of Wendy's crew, making things happen, is Nancy Wang, her producer. Nancy simply kicks much ass. I can't tell you how many times I've heard Wendy mention how impressed she's been with her. Smart, hardworking girl who knows what needs to be done and gets the job done on her own. She'd call every night and update Wendy on the project's status. After hanging up, Wendy would turn and say, "Now that's a producer!"

Nancy was with the project from day-one. In fact, Wendy ran into Nancy only minutes after walking out of Brenda's office (Wendy's mentor), where she discovered that she'd been 'green-lit' to make her thesis film. You cannot imagine how much work is involved producing a movie. There are so many details that require attention. More photos of Nancy are posted here.

Wendy's DP (Director of Photography) is named Despina. She is from Greece and speaks with an accent. Despina is a foreign student, which means she's not eligible for student aid, which makes it harder on her than other students. She was one of the last members to join the crew, and has been working overtime to prepare for the shoot. It's obvious that she takes the job seriously. She doesn't mind working long and hard to ensure each shot is perfect.

Despina is the assistant to the head of USC's Cinematography dept .. just as Wendy is the assistant to the head of USC's Editing dept. Before Wendy, Nancy was the assistant to the head of USC's Editing dept .. so the crew is populated with many TA's. And you know that dept heads hand-pick only the best students to be their assistants. Both Nancy & Despina are ahead of Wendy in the program.

Alex from Singapore is the Asst Cinematographer. She began grad school the same time as Wendy (Spring '00), and was in Wendy's 507 class, so Wendy knows her better than some of the other crew members. Carolyn Miller (middle) is the 2nd Asst Director. I haven't met her yet.

The Big Woo (Eric) is going to edit the project. He is one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. Of all Wendy's classmates, I dialogue with Brad the most. He's a graduate of Michigan with a degree in Computer Engineering, and will be doing the compositing. Bryan McMillen is the Casting Director. His job is now done.

Wendy feels fortunate to have Brian Wolf as her Asst Director. She's heard nothing but good things about him. Whereas many students are still searching to find the aspect of filmmaking they want to focus on, Brian knows what he wants to do: be an Asst Director. He has already (as a student) taken the 5-hour AD exam at the Director's Guild in Hollywood (but didn't pass). He's a pre-med undergrad from Ohio. Wendy heard that AD's make good money. AD's are like the cops on set: they keep things moving, and keep track of shots.

Nelson, who shot Tania's film, is the Gaffer. Everyone likes Nelson, and it was easier for Wendy to get crew once people knew that Nelson would be working on the project. He is from Virginia, and drives a truck with Virginia tags. I enjoy joking around with him. He is a hard-working dude who never complains and makes things go smoothly.

Lisa is also down to help with the shoot, but she drove down this morning & I haven't seen her yet. She has become a close friend over the last few semesters, and is almost like family. With a Film school undergrad degree, Lisa has lots of experience, so is always welcome. I think she will be helping with AD-like finctions. There are too many crew members to detail them all here, but they each take their job seriously. The full crew list is posted here.

Photos of the Cast are posted here and here. Michael will be playing Jessica's boyfriend. Wendy let Jessica choose who she wanted to play the part of the boyfriend from the many possible choices. She wanted someone opposite Jessica who Jessica would feel comfortable with. All the girl's love his blue eyes. Jessica is married and has an 18-month old baby girl named Sky. I met her husband. He is very nice, named Jay.

Jessica is excited about the part. Wendy heard that she was calling her agent every 30 minutes when she learned that she was at the top of the short list. Wendy wanted to sleep on the final decision, but Jessica had trouble sleeping.

Advanced Editing TA-ship

In addition to filling a position as Assistant to Jim Mitchell, who is the head of USC's Editing dept, Wendy is also TA'ing an Advanced Editing class that her boss is teaching. Wendy feels fortunate cuz this class allows her to glean insights into Jim's many years of editing experience. He is an Academy member, and votes each year for the films and people who recieve Oscars (".. and the Oscar goes to...").

Jim delegates many functions to Wendy, as most busy professionals do with their assistants. She was opening his mail from the Oscars, and had to remind him to vote by the appointed deadline. She was hoping that he might also delegate that job to her, but it wasn't to be. Nevertheless, she feels close to the action. (Wendy has a knack for predicting which films & stars will win the various 'Best' awards each year.)

Wendy wasn't sure that the class would fly, cuz Jim has a standing policy where he offers to provide editing input on any film brought to him by a student. But surprisingly, the class filled with 11 students. Eight is a comfortable number for that type of class where each student shows their cuts each week, and 10 is considered full. Since she's getting paid for this class, she feels doubly fortunate.

Helaine's Tenure Presentation

Wendy took time from her busy schedule to attend Helaine's tenure presentation. Helaine (red vest) was Wendy's prof for 508, which is the second semester of the 3-year program, where two students pair up to create two black-n-white 16mm films. Helaine is Wendy's favorite professor, who she has tons of respect for. Helaine is many student's favorite professor.

The ironic thing is that Helaine is tough. She takes no shit and doesn't hesitate to call 'bullshit' when she sees it, or 'layeth the smack down'. But she is always there for her students. For example, when her car broke down, she rented one so she could drive to school and be with her students on their final night of editing before 'picture-lock'.

Helaine stayed until 2AM, and was the only professor there, helping students make final editing decisions on their films. She didn't have to be there, and certainly not until the wee morning hours. She even offered editing advice to students who were assigned to other professors.

Wendy said that the room for Helaine's tenure presentation was packed with students, who were there to testify in favor of Helaine's appointment. Wendy didn't get a chance to say anything cuz there were so many student lined up to speak. Some students were getting choked and others came to tears, saying that Helaine is more than just a teacher, but someone who inspires them to be a better human being. It was both touching & moving.

When I asked Wendy if she thought Helaine would be selected, she shrugged her shoulders and said, "I know they'd be lucky to get her."

Special Effects with the SCFX Group

One of the most exciting things about Wendy's thesis project is that a group of students, calling themselves 'SCFX', has agreed to take her film as their pet project, and work on the special effects that it requires. This is a brand new group, dedicated to becoming proficient with both Animation and 3D-modeling software & hardware. She has had several meetings with them, and comes away each time with a sense of excitement.

They have counseled her on how to shoot various scenes so that they would be able to use the footage to generate the effects that she wants. This represents a whole 'nuther aspect to filmmaking that she was unaware of. It will require a lot of extra work but she feels it will be worth the effort. I've heard people refer to the script as the Wizard of Oz meets The Matrix at the beach.

They will be shooting many green-screen scenes at the Zemeckis Center (check out the list of Benefactors for the Zemeckis center). Green-screen backgrounds allow you to replace the green with another (fantasy) background.

Photos from Today's Shoot

Nine pages of photos, each with ~8 thumbnails per page, which link to larger photos of the thumbnailed image. See here.

Wendy uses software called Breeze Browser to generate these web pages (complete with both images & thumbnails) with the click of a single button. From the time you walk in the door, you can upload photos from the (digital) camera and have them posted on the web in less than 5 minutes. Pretty cool software. This could take all afternoon if she had to make each web page by hand.

Fade to black...