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Playing Prof at Film Boot Camp

By Gail Schmoller

After the pilot season ends and the Cannes Film Festival kicks in, many directors of photography find themselves scrambling for employment in the month of May, a historically slow time in Hollywood. Jack Anderson, whose resume includes camerawork on features like Hook and Pretty Woman and TV series such as Mad About You and Third Rock From the Sun, was thinking of this down period when he perused the ASC website for job listings last winter. One ad from a university calling for an experienced cinematographer to serve as DP for a movie made with an all-student crew leapt out at him.

Three decades earlier, as a newly minted Cornell University graduate with an MA in film, Anderson had assisted indie filmmaker Ed Emshwiller (later the dean of Cal Arts) in the making of a full-length movie with undergraduates as the crew. Anderson had trained and supervised the students and, even after he moved to the West Coast in 1975, never forgot that early experience of working with a professional director. The resulting feature, Branches, premiered at the New York Film Festival. "I remembered how great it was, how valuable to work with a professional and how much I enjoyed teaching," says the 56-year-old Anderson, a friendly man with a bald pate, full beard and twinkling blue eyes hidden under an expressive brow. "I was surprised that this Midwestern university was putting that kind of money into a film made with students. I didn't know of any other program involving professionals and students at the college level, and it intrigued me." Two months later, Anderson found himself on a plane heading east, away from the warm winds of LA towards the unpredictable spring weather of West Michigan, home of Grand Valley State University. One of 30 cinematographers from around the world who had responded to the School of Communications' ad for its Summer Film Project, Anderson had been offered the job in fairly short order. "Some of the applicants had shot commercials or independent features in New York or even Paris, but no one had as much Hollywood experience as Jack," says John Harper Philbin, assistant professor of film and producer/director of the decidedly low-budget Summer Film Project. "And that was important, because that's what many of our students want to learn about--how to make it in Hollywood."

Established in 1995, GVSU's Summer Film Project is unique in the country in that it offers junior- and senior-level students the chance to earn credit working on a 30-minute film under the direction of professionals. Completed in 12 weeks over the summer, the first six are devoted to the shoot (four pre-production and two weeks of filming with 12-hour days). After the film is transferred to digital betacam (at Laser Pacific in Hollywood), students spend the summer editing it with the university's Media 100 software under Philbin's guidance. The film premieres at a local theater in the fall and then is entered in festivals. "This is a serious filmmaking program," Anderson observes. "It's not just students making films. It's like boot camp for them."

To date, the Summer Film Project has produced eight works including this year's film, The Freezer Jesus, all of which feature local actors and are based on screenplays chosen through a national competition that annually attracts 50-100 entries. Two of the films, My Life Among the Gopis and With You Always, took first and third place respectively at the East Lansing Film Festival in the past two years. Philbin, an independent filmmaker and former LA editor with an MFA in film from Southern Illinois University, joined GVSU's faculty in 1997 and has directed the last four pictures with colleague Scott Vanderberg as cinematographer and a student crew. (Prior to his arrival, the university hired local professionals for the roles of director and DP for each film.)

As Philbin perfects the summer film process each year, his ultimate goal is to lure SAG actors from beyond West Michigan for the lead roles and recruit guest directors as well as professional DPs, all in an effort to raise the profile of this rare film program and create a rich learning experience for all involved. In 2002, the Summer Film Project made important strides in that direction when Anderson signed on. In addition, the winning screenplay, The Freezer Jesus, was written by a prominent author, John Dufresne, who based it on a piece from his 1991 short story collection, The Way That Water Enters Stone. His screenplay tells the tale of a farmer's spiritual struggle when his estranged son returns home to die. In early May, after settling into surprisingly comfortable digs in a townhome for visiting faculty and guests on GVSU's bucolic Allendale campus, Anderson went over The Freezer Jesus with Philbin shot by shot, discussing the look and feel they wanted to achieve and doing tests of various Kodak Vision stocks to determine which to use (they chose 500T and 200T). Anderson had arrived just ahead of the Panaflex Super 16 camera he had arranged for Panavision Hollywood to loan the school, which would offer more flexibility of aspect ratio than the university's Arriflex SR camera. Lighting rented from local houses would supplement GVSU's equipment and sound would be recorded on the university's DAT.

The moment of truth came when classes started May 6. Did Anderson still have it? Could he teach what he knew about moviemaking to a younger generation? After 25 years in Hollywood working on everything from high-budget films and low-budget indies to TV series and commercials with the best crews in the business, did he even remember what he knew?

"It was a better experience than I could have imagined," he admits. "I believe we made a professional-looking and crafted film, and I wondered if that was possible to do before I got here. It's an incredibly tiring experience day in, day out because, as the DP of a student crew, you really have to supervise everyone on the set. There's really no one to do things for you as on a professional set, but that's a good thing, because it makes you dredge back in your head to remember what it is you learned in school and what it is you actually know."

As for the Hollywood-hungry students, it taught them what they didn't know. Although they had heard about the long hours on movie sets, most students had never experienced what that actually means and how often a crew has to "hurry up and wait," according to Anderson. "One student wrote in his course evaluation that the experience of the long days on the set was hell and he didn't know how he was going to make it through each day, which always elicits peals of laughter from my friends, who long ago got used to 12-hour days, 60-hour weeks, for up to ten months at a time with no break."

In spite of the unexpected hardships, the students rose to the challenge, like Tom O'Rourke, a junior from Detroit who served as the film's assistant director. "With Jack on the set, it stepped up everyone's game to the next level, made us want to show this guy from Hollywood what we could do," he says. "It wasn't just the people who worked with him but just knowing he was there, everyone from PAs up to first ADs stepped up. This was our chance to get a feel for what a real set is like."

The students learned a great deal about professionalism from Anderson, like the time the generator powering several HMIs died, and he had to quickly relight the scene with smaller incandescent bulbs. "He just dealt with it," says Philbin. "He knew the scene wouldn't look exactly the same, but he was able to recreate the lighting design by improvising. The students learned how to respond in a situation where something goes wrong."

Anderson was impressed by how quickly students picked up tricks of the trade, such as packing up unnecessary equipment early so it doesn't take as long to wrap at the end of the day, an important survival skill in cash-conscious Hollywood. They also received many a lesson in humility, to which propmaster Jenny Hill attested in her evaluation comments at the end of the course: "Everyone is in the way at least once. And everyone will get yelled at at least once... Be mindful when someone is setting up lights and give them plenty of room, and most importantly DON'T STEP IN FRONT OF A LIGHT....You have to develop a thick skin to work in this business. "Some of Anderson's most memorable moments on the set were when he witnessed the blossoming of student creativity and ingenuity. "One student invented a lighting trick for one of the scenes that I might not have done or thought of," he recalls. "That's what you expect from a professional colleague--to be always thinking of how to do the job better. It was great to see a student coming up with an idea of their own. We ended up using it in the film." Another day, Anderson was lighting a room in a nursing home scene that had fluorescents overhead, and he decided he needed more practicals to get the job done. "In Hollywood, you'd just ask the props department and you'd get what you need, but on this shoot, Jenny didn't have any more lights, but she offered to go back to her apartment and bring all of her own lamps, which she did. She brought back four lamps and saved the scene." Philbin adds: "This is the first time these students have the chance to work with someone who is employed in the industry, and when that professional listens to or calls upon them, they are invariably thrilled." In addition to showing students the ropes of lighting and shooting a film, Anderson took time to sit and answer their questions about breaking into the business. "He didn't sugar-coat the fact that you have to work your way up," says O'Rourke, who tipped a few with Anderson at the film's wrap party held at a local bowling alley on the shoot's final day. "You have to work hard, and some students got more than they bargained for in this class, but I think it's great to have the chance, before you go to LA, to do this. It's the closest we'll get to filming a feature before we move out there. And that's one thing I know for sure after this experience--I'm moving out there!" In the end, everyone learned something on the set of The Freezer Jesus, even an old pro like Anderson. "It made me even more appreciative of what every crew member in Hollywood offers me when I work on a show," he says. "They're an enormous gift and resource -- 20 or 30 minds and 100 years of experience going into something. And that's what makes Hollywood work...," adding with a twinkle and a smile, "when it works."


Jack Anderson on location for "Freezer Jesus"