Thursday, March 11, 2010

SIP and UAT's arts degrees

"These kids are ALL your students?" Danny Trejo asked me. It was May 2008 and we were on the set of my short film "Cowboy Dreams." Or more accurately, on location - a distant patch of dirt in WAY north Scottsdale - and we were entering our 15th hour of production on a day beset by 30 degrees' worth of temperature changes, bugs the size of softballs, and a couple of supposedly "harmless" snakes. As one would expect, action-movie icon Danny Trejo was a real trouper and handled the work - and the weirdness of the day - with cool professionalism. "I can't believe they're all just college students," he continued. "They all really know what they're doing, man. I wouldn't have known that they weren't professionals." And he laughed with that signature laugh of his that might be the last thing you hear before he kills you with his bare hands if he wasn't the nicest guy in the world.

This is not the first time I have heard this sort of sentiment about my students. Nor was it the last. I have heard it time and time and time again, from producers, directors, actors, writers, cinematographers, editors, film festival programmers, Emmy selection committees, and more. So when Danny Trejo said it, I felt a familiar sense of pride and smiled a familiar smile. He was saying exactly what I expected him to say, just as his co-star Bill Engvall had earlier in the day.

Now I hear my students leading the charge against the Senior Innovation Project and to be honest, I am as proud of them about that as I was that day on the set of "Cowboy Dreams." Because that ability to think critically, ask the hard questions, and challenge the status quo is what sets UAT students - ALL of you - apart from those that would be considered "just" college students. And that is the soul of "innovation."

I know a lot of you in the arts degrees feel like the Senior Innovation Project is the UAT administration's way of somehow penalizing you for choosing the arts instead of the sciences. For a while I felt that way too, even though I was asked to "get behind SIP" and help make it more palatable to my students. "But my students need to be honing their skills, producing work, and building their portfolios - not writing proposals and filing patents!" I thought. But that's because - like many of you - I think that "innovation" word intimidated me. In my mind "innovation" in digital video was only happening in the labs of the camera manufacturers like Sony and Canon, in the code-pits of software companies like Avid and Adobe, in studios like Pixar or Industrial Light and Magic with visionaries like John Lasseter or George Lucas at the helm, or on productions like Avatar with a seemingly limitless budget and a decade or more of research and development. "How the hell am I supposed to teach my students THAT?"

But wait a second... film grammar hasn't changed IN A CENTURY. All of us who work in this medium - from Lucas and Lasseter all the way down to you, me, and the 13-year-old kid in his backyard with a Flip camera - are using the same types of shots pioneered by D.W. Griffith and editing with the same principles established by Sergei Eisenstein in the silent era. So when James Cameron was making Avatar, sure, he was innovating - but he was also taking part in an established continuum of filmmaking aesthetics and technology that dates back to the end of the 19th century. So you could say that the statement that "there's no way to innovate shots and cuts" is a spurious argument against SIP because Cameron and these other innovators we all so admire are proving that argument wrong on a daily basis. They are using new tools to create new solutions to new problems that Griffith and Eisenstein couldn't even imagine much less solve in their day - but all these new tools and solutions are still in service of a storytelling style that hasn't significantly changed in spite of the fact that LITERALLY everything else has in the past century.

Let's look at this word "innovate." What does it mean? defines it as: "to introduce something new; make changes in anything established." By that definition I would argue that you are all ALREADY innovating. The fact that an established, seasoned professional such as Danny Trejo looked upon a group of UAT students as something more than "just college students" meets this definition. As a group, the students of the UAT Digital Video Program made a change in something established - they "innovated" the perception of what a college student could be. And I would argue that all of you do that on a daily basis.

The problem is, most of you don't know how to communicate it effectively. You don't give yourselves the credit you deserve as innovators, much less blow your own horn about it. I'd bet that nearly every student at UAT knows I am the resident filmmaker around here and knows me at least by name if not by sight. The DV Program gets a disproportionate share of attention from the marketing department, the provost, the deans, the president, vice president, etc. etc. EVERYONE asks me what I'm working on next, how is "Fallout" going, when are we having a screening, blah blah blah ad nauseum. Why is that? IT'S BECAUSE I NEVER SHUT UP about what I am doing, what my students are doing, and what cool project we have coming next, that's why!

So what does this mean for you as an arts student as you face your SIP requirement? Well, first really stop and think about what you're innovating. Not what you could innovate, would innovate, should innovate, yadda yadda yadda - what you ARE innovating. RIGHT. NOW. (And if you're NOT innovating, then you need to fix that today.) But I would guess that most of you are. I KNOW my students are, because I see them in the Editing Lab and the Greenscreen Studio everyday, thinking through solutions to apply off-the-shelf equipment and software to solve complex problems that are unique to the projects they are working on. No, we're not making Avatar - but we ARE doing groundbreaking stuff that other college students aren't even dreaming about - without the benefit of a bajillion dollars and a decade of research and a team of programmers and IV drips full of espresso. (If one of you could innovate that last one I would be really, really happy.)

Now look at SIP as your time to shine, your opportunity to blow your own horn and let all of UAT and beyond know what you are doing. And not just that it's "cool" or "fun." SIP is about expecting more than that. It's about expecting you to be able to communicate your passion, your thought process, and your ability to think outside the box in a way that engages and informs your audience. (Kinda like what you're doing when you make a movie, animation, or game.)

So your mission now is to take all your anger over SIP, all that vitriol you have spewed at the Student Government meetings and on these boards, all your fear, doubt, and worry, and put ALL that energy into taking the innovations YOU'RE ALREADY DOING and make them work as your SIP, rather than wasting another second on something you are ambivalent about at best. No, you may not be building the world of Pandora or building a camera to rival the RED - but you ARE doing so much more than the average college student. Believe me when I say this. And if you don't believe me, then you HAVE to believe Danny Trejo. Or he may kill you with his bare hands.

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