Out with the Old
New UK cineasts try to drag university into the film … or digital age
by Linda J. Dimon
When it comes to age, there’s no middle ground-you’re either young or you’re old. And walking into a meeting for an upstart film group on the UK campus, the inevitable first thought is, “God, please let this be the wrong room: these people are impossibly, achingly young.” Too young to be the members of the Creative Film Society-the brains behind an independent film festival and the would-be instigators of revolution in the UK curriculum?
The Creative Film Society came together last January, after UK computer science major Tony Smith ran an ad in the Kernel looking for people interested in making-and talking about-films.
“I don’t claim to be any great artist,” said Smith, the group’s president. “I don’t have artistic skills; I have management and business skills. But I meet so many people on campus who want to do film, and I see truly talented people who have visions of something they want to carry out, but not the skills I have. So I decided to see what I could do.”
Wanting CFS to survive his graduation, Smith filled out the paperwork to make CFS an official UK organization. With official status came web space, a list serve, office and meeting space, free advertising on campus, an account that will let the group seek outside donations, and, not least, the eligibility to pursue more grants and scholarships.
By the group’s sixth meeting on February 29, about 18 active members showed, and those 18 remain dead serious about their mission: bringing UK into the film age.
“Why,” wonders Smith, “do Woodford County and Dunbar high schools have cinematography classes and we don’t?”
The Degree Program
One of CFS’s main goals is to establish a film program on campus. The two telecommunications majors who comprise CFS’s “University Relations” committee, Maria Jimena Bertschi and Amber Schroeder, say students wanting to major in film at UK face several obstacles-the most formidable being UK’s lack of respect for the medium.
“Why,” wonders Smith, “do Woodford County and Dunbar high schools have cinematography classes and we don’t? Film is still unexplored as a medium, just like music. It’s less than 100 years old, and just like music, hasn’t yet developed to its full potential. We’ve got this ‘Next Great University’ campaign everywhere, but if the university really wants to be great, they need to respect film as an area of serious fine arts study, just like photography or theater or music.”
“I feel like I’m living in 1919 here sometimes,” says Bertschi, “because if you want to make films, it’s all like starting from scratch, when if you get out of the state everything is provided for you… It’s like ‘Okay, we want to make films: let’s start with our own power recorders.’”
“Yeah,” adds Schroeder, “we’ve all got our handheld cameras: ‘Hey guys, look! I’m doing a documentary!’”
“We’re trying to put pressure on the University, basically,” she continues. “I’m even trying to contact high schools that offer film classes to get them to call UK to say, ‘Look, I have students interested in film but I can’t recommend UK to them because you’ve got no program.’”
Schroeder and Bertschi are working up a master plan to present to the university utilizing most of the courses UK already has in place. Schroeder says UK offers about 80 percent of the same courses NYU does towards a cinematography degree, but film classes are scattered throughout several departments. Film criticism and history are in the English department; theater direction and script writing are in Theater; and audio and video production are in Telecommunications. “Sometimes you might miss a film class just because you didn’t look in Women’s Studies,” said Bertschi.
Even if the student perseveres in seeking out film courses in a 100-page course catalog, Bertschi said, the classes themselves are usually hard to get into.
The problem is compounded by a dwindling number of film classes.
English professor Greg Waller used to teach a section of Film History each semester, along with the popular Japanese film courses, but says since he’s become chair of the English department, “administrative duties” don’t allow him as much time to teach. These courses, he says, will still be offered, “just not so much.”
While Waller sympathizes with students pushing for a separate film degree and has guided several through an independent study film degree that stops just short of including actual film production, he said would-be film majors can’t overcome the lack of funding. “There’s always been interest among students for a film degree,” said Waller, “and there’s always been interest among faculty to expand the course offerings, but the problem has always been that it costs a fortune to establish a production department. The maintenance of equipment, the kind of tech skills involved…for it to be feasible it would have to be offered on a really huge scale.”
Telecommunications professor John Clark concurs: “Film production is a fantastically expensive, time consuming process… the cameras, the editing process, the …audio track. There are very few film schools in the country and that’s the major reason.”
While Clark teaches telecommunications courses that incorporate film style, storyboarding and scripting, “The only film camera on campus is in the archives in King North, because that’s the only place there’s any film on campus.”
Contrary to the perceptions of members of the Creative Film Society, Clark also said that the department had tried to expand course offerings in the past, but “we have fewer and fewer students interested in traditional audio and video production.” Part of that lack of interest he attributes to the Internet (where anyone with the technology can upload or download video “films”)-the rest to a lack of community resources.
“Students want to make money when they’re finished,” Clark said, “and Lexington has no community infrastructure in place; there are very few jobs in video production and what jobs there are don’t pay anything because there’s such a large pool of potential employees. I mean, what cameramen at the [local] TV stations get paid is ridiculously low.”
What Clark does see is a demand for more video instruction-and the telecommunications department has responded, he said, by buying more and better video equipment.
The push to get a film program started at UK is not new. Architecture professor Jerzy Rosenberg said that since he came to UK in 1973 to direct the then new “Media Center,” three groups have tried to get a film program started on campus. “We submitted reports to the Vice-President the first time, then the Chancellor, then the Chancellor again, but [each time] not much happened.”
Twenty years ago, Rosenberg said, UK had two full-time cinematography instructors in the Architecture department “as part of a broad visual education,” but the funding for these positions was “slowly reduced until it disappeared entirely.” The Media Center on the UK campus today, he said, concerns itself with publications and designs the poster for the department’s film series, and videotapes department events.
CFS president Smith remains undeterred. “The University responds to pressure from outside,” he said. “They’re offering new engineering degrees and new business degrees because the business world is telling them that their students are lacking. Well, film doesn’t have any pressure from outside here. We’re not exactly surrounded by a Hollywood-type environment. But I think we can generate some excitement and interest outside UK in what we’re doing.”
Film or Video?
Most of the members of CFS say “film,” but mean “video,” and many seem ambivalent, if not confused, by the distinction. They desire a cinematography program, but at meetings talk excitedly about new software editing programs for video and wonder about the availability of VHS format films. And the “films” they will produce for their first film festival April 15 will be shot on video tape, not 16 mm or Super 8. Clearly, video is their medium-one they picked up by fooling around with the suddenly affordable home video cameras that became available when they were growing up.
Tony Seelbach is the owner of Schuhmann’s Click Clinic, a local store that’s functioned as a sort of camera-part clearing house and “country store” for film buffs for years. About half filmmaker, half film fanatic, Seelbach says that despite the video cameras and new editing equipment flooding today’s market, film will always prevail over video to him.
“Video has no permanence, no personality,” he said. “If you’re shooting Junior’s first birthday and he doesn’t blow out the candles the first time, with video you can just rewind and start again. With film, you’re stuck. It’s definitely unforgiving. But I like to think you’re at least being honest to the future.”
The cost of film and the availability of film equipment is another matter, though.
“Kids fool around with video because it’s cheap,” Seelbach said. “A 3-1/2 minute film in Super 8 would cost about $30, but you can buy a 2-1/2 hour video tape for what, $2? And film equipment is now so scarce that the prices have gone through the roof. I just sold a Super-8 camera for four times more than I paid for it because you can’t get it anymore.”
The film or video question is becoming moot anyway. While architecture professor Rosenberg said “he would miss seeing the crispness of film on screen,” the changes in technology and the rapid ascent of digital may do more than even video to make film obsolete. “The funny thing is we may finally get our film program,” he said, “but it will be a digital one.”
The very young and wildly optimistic CFS members, though, remain undeterred It’s full steam ahead for the upcoming festival-and it looks like it will be a video one.
Smith is producing a dramatic short called “Stairway”; member Kellie Etheridge is producing two comedy/dramas titled “Hell” and “Bitch Session”; and member Matt Brechner is working on a fake documentary called “Nation Earth” and a short titled “Last Request.”
Photography major Ray Adams heads the Events committee that’s organizing the festival. Adams says the festival is more important to the group than just getting a chance to show some cool videos. “Once we start accomplishing things and showing we’re serious, that’s when we’ll get more support” (i.e., money for film and equipment). If we get a lot of attendance and interest in the festival, they’ll see ‘These guys are for real.’”
Adams is correct in surmising that some in the community are taking a “wait and see,” attitude, mainly because they’ve seen film groups come and go before. But both Fred Mills at the Kentucky and Seelbach at Schuhmann’s-two members of the business community Adams has contacted for help-say that if the group does look like it can pull off a festival, both will see what they can do.
So far, the festival is open to submissions from anyone at UK or in the community and will be juried by UK professors Greg Waller, Armando Prats and Jerzy Rosenberg. (Adams also plans to add a female jury member “for balance.”) At press, only one submission for the festival had come from outside the group, but all are definitely welcome.
“Admission is free,” Adams says, “because this is our major intro to the public and we don’t want anybody to have any reason [to stay away], like, ‘Oh, they’re charging three dollars.’ We want everybody to come.” Adds Smith: “We’re gonna make some really awesome movies and we’re going to show them that with or without money, we can do great things.”
The deadline to submit film is April 5 2000 (“Prizes, Adams says, “are being sought.”) The festival will be Saturday, April 15, from 5-10 p.m. in the Center Theater in the Student Center.
Visit the group’s website at http://www.uky.edu/StudentOrgs.CFS.