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FilmTown, Florida

By Steve MacQueen

For a new generation of filmmakers, Florida is increasingly becoming the place to be. And Tallahassee the place to start.

Tallahassee hibernates every summer and this sticky July afternoon is no exception— empty restaurants, deserted streets, sidewalks clear except for the occasional pedestrian looking to escape the heat.

The normally boisterous university is even more tranquil near summer's end than the city that surrounds it, and with students, legislators and lawyers in hiding, the whole place feels abandoned. The birds aren't even chirping.

But then Raymond Fielding, founding dean of Florida State's film school—now in it's 13th year—unlocks a side door to the University Center. Inside, the hallways are a hive of activity, as film students make frantic changes to this year's batch of thesis films, due for a public screening soon. The sound rooms, editing suites and repair shop are all open and doing a booming business.

"This is the only unit on campus that requires students to attend 12 months a year," he says, smiling. "No summer vacation, no running off for 10 days during spring break." Unfailingly polite and ever-smiling, Fielding has been dean of the school since it opened in 1990, but that era is about to end. Having announced his retirement, he began 2003 awaiting the results of a search committee to find his replacement. His plans are to step aside at the end of the spring semester and quietly exit a national stage he's been on for more than four decades.

Fielding surveys the activity with quiet delight and a palpable sense of pride, pointing out the movie posters that advertise film school projects past and present and various citations and awards. When he first arrived in Tallahassee from Houston 13 years ago, Fielding said, "We would like nothing less, in five to 10 years, than to see FSU's film program rank as the top film conservatory in the country."

No independent rankings of film programs exist any more, but by most accounts FSU is among the nation's top film programs, a short list that would include the University of Southern California, the University of California at Los Angeles and New York University. And at one time or another in his colorful career, Fielding has been a part of most of these.

Roll 'Em

Presiding over a film school is nothing new for Fielding. He served as director or senior professor for film schools at the University of Iowa, Temple University and the University of Houston, was a tenured faculty member of UCLA's film program, and earned his doctorate from the nation's oldest film program at the University of Southern California.

Still, the rise of FSU's own film program is precipitous by any standard. How does a school that didn't even exist 15 years ago catch up and even surpass film programs that have been established for 30, 40, even 50 years?

Ray Fielding, founding dean of FSU's Film Scholl, goes nose-to-antennae with a lead character in Ants, a masters thesis film produced in 2002.

Simple: money and equipment.

At other film schools, students must raise the money to fund their own thesis films, a degree requirement that can cost students $50,000 or more. Naturally, raising that kind of jack can be a chore for a young student. Planners of the new school solved that problem in a novel way—they decided that the school would pay for everything. As a candidate to head the program, that got Fielding's attention.

"Every other place I've taught—and I've taught at most of the major film schools—we never could lick the problem of how to pay for the thesis film," Fielding says. "Students would come to me and say, 'What do I do?' I'd have to say, 'I don't know. Knock over a gas station, maybe.'

"So now we are the only major film school in the country that pays for everything—we put in about $25,000 apiece for the five graduate thesis films, filmed in 35mm. The students here now make more than 200 complete sound films a year, at no cost to them. You won't find that anywhere else. "

Walking through hallways, Fielding chats with students and faculty while pointing out top-drawer equipment available to those lucky 54 students accepted each year in the graduate and undergraduate programs.

"We have 10 to 12 Avid non-linear editing suites," he says, pointing at a dull-looking video monitor in an otherwise empty room. "They don't look like much, but they cost about $50,000 apiece, and they're what everyone is using now."

In between, there's trivia (he has committed to memory nearly every prize won by each film) and exclamations of near-fatherly pride ("One of our students just got a deal to direct a $3 million feature film, while another one just got a three-picture deal with Miramax—unheard of!").

The school dubs itself "the best-equipped education facility dedicated solely to film production," and it's easy to believe as Fielding glides through rooms full of Avid and Waveframe editing equipment, sound-dubbing facilities, a foley room, a plush Mix Theater that boasts a 24-track board for sound, two complete soundstages, two 35mm cameras and racks of equipment, including a Steadicam. This doesn't include the 12-acre back lot, soundstage and recording center the school owns in nearby Gadsden County, home of the former Pegasus Studios, designed by Allman Brothers veteran Butch Trucks.

None of this stuff sits on the shelves. It's in constant use, as the school churns out more than 200 films a year, never stopping production. Not even for December holidays. It's the smallest of the major film programs, too, accepting just 15 transfers, 15 freshman and 24 graduates each year with peak capacity that never exceeds 168 students. That's a far cry from the 1,000-plus who attend USC and NYU.

Competition for the 54 seats available each year isn't fierce—it's insane. In 2002, the school fielded 7,000 requests for applications and actually received 700 completed ones. From that stack, not quite eight percent got the call.

Fielding quietly stands in the back of the Mix Theatre, where Academy-Award-winning sound engineer and film faculty member Richard Portman is helping a student polish the sound for Ants, a thesis film about an insect take-over in a suburban yard. Portman, an 11-time Oscar nominee who won his Oscar for The Deer Hunter (and somehow missed out on awards for his work on such films as Nashville, The Candidate, The Godfather and Star Wars) is the highest-profile example of FSU's 'professional faculty,' Fielding said.

"You must have a professional faculty at a major film school—you just must," Fielding insisted. "You just can't teach film if you don't have professionals. We want a flow of professional filmmakers coming in—not too fast because you want some continuity.

"And we kind of expect everyone to continue working. Who wants to study with someone who hasn't worked on a film in 10 years? We all work. I just finished four different films myself."

Each undergraduate student gets to write and direct his or her own film, which rarely exceeds nine minutes in running time. This means that each student leaves after four years with four complete films with proper sound, titles, and so forth.

On the graduate level, only five films are made each year and students must jockey for position if they want to produce or direct, as most do. Still, each student is guaranteed an above-the-line position (producer, director, writer, director of photography, editor, sound director, art director) on each of the five thesis films generated each year.

Fielding explains how it works:

"The students pitch their ideas to us, just like they would in the business," he said. "Students pair up and look at the pile of scripts (which students also write). They agree on who's going to direct, who's going to produce. There may be as many as 20 pairs of them—and they pitch their ideas to the faculty.

"They deliver a script and a budget, then the faculty picks the five that we'll invest in. Meanwhile, they hustle trying to get the best cinematographer, the best sound engineer, all that. And in 13 years, no one has ever failed to deliver a thesis film."

Mixing and matching sound to pictures is classwork guided by film school Prof. Richard Portman.

These films are the pride of the school, and they are routinely entered into various national and international competitions.

With all these facilities, a cynic might suggest that the school is breeding disappointment, since the real world will not contain such treasures as pre-paid films and easy access to top-notch equipment.

The point isn't lost on Fielding.

"I don't think the students understand what they have here," he said. "Often they don't realize that the our equipment is better than what you find in many studios. Frankly, it annoys me sometimes."

One measure of the school's success, though, is its growing reputation inside the industry itself. If those graduates are spoiled, they're making the most of it.

"Everyone in the business knows us and the students have a wonderful reputation in the industry," Fielding said, smiling broadly. "They know how to make films, they have good attitudes, they're well-disciplined—in fact, sometimes they're better equipped than the people they're working for."

Steve Davidson, director of the Miami-based Florida Moving Image Archive, which sponsors an annual film/video recognition award to honor films made in Florida, agrees.

"Over the years, the entries for the FSU film school have been remarkably diverse and have garnered recognition almost every year, either as honorable mention or winner," Davidson said. "From the minute they began entering the competition, the judges have remarked on the overall quality of entries from FSU. And it's worth noting that entries are received around the state, around the country and abroad—there's not a student category. These students are competing at a professional level."

Set of Movie Magic, shot on location in Tallahassee.

Paul Meena, vice-president and GM of Universal Studio's Florida Production Group, noted that FSU students are immediately ready to go to work, thanks largely to the equipment on which they've been trained.

"They're on top of all the new technology, which changes so fast in this business," Meena commented. "What you learned five years ago might be obsolete already. But FSU keeps up with these changes so the students are ready to go to work on up-to-date equipment as soon as they graduate. They're prepared from day one."

Another measure, more easily quantified, is the prizes garnered at festivals around the world. The program boasts more than 600 awards, prizes, honors, cash prizes and screenings at the major film festivals. In the past year, FSU films won a Student Academy Award (for the second time in three years) and three $5,000 Coca-Cola film grants (for the second year in a row) to go along with prizes earned at film festivals in California, Florida, Colorado, Texas, Connecticut, Alabama, Indiana, New York, Illinois, Georgia, New Mexico and Pennsylvania, not to mention those in Mexico, Austria and China. Just last year, 30 FSU films were screened at 90 festivals worldwide, where they captured 57 top prizes.

Greg Marcks' Lector, the story of a Cuban lector (a man who would read aloud in cigar-rolling factories) displaced by radio, has done especially well, earning nine First Prizes and a Student Academy Award. Eduardo Rodriguez, who graduated in 2001, signed a three-picture deal with Miramax last year. (Rodriguez's deeply creepy short film called Daughter , the thesis film he directed, was honored at Cannes Film Festival.) And though the coveted Oscar nomination still lurks in the future, Fielding feels it getting closer and closer.

"We came awfully close to an Academy Award this time with Lector," said Fielding, a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "It was a contender, as they say, because it beat out the professional competition at two recognized festivals. I have moles on the short-film committee who reported to me what was happening, and it made all the way to the final 10. We'll try it again this year."

Johnny Appleseed

One thing that most of the prominent American film schools have in common is Ray Fielding. At the very least, he's been a guest educator, as he was at NYU. Or else he's director or senior professor, like he was at Temple, Iowa and Houston. It's a strange course for someone who always wanted to work in the film industry, but had no predisposition towards academia.

"I grew up in the film industry in L.A. and apprenticed in a film lab when I was 15," he said. "I always thought lab work was a good beginning for anyone in the film industry because you learn what the lab can do for you and to you."

Fielding arrived at UCLA's film program in 1949, its second year of existence. He was working in the industry as an assistant cameraman, negative cutter and assistant editor. At 22, still in college, the enterprising Fielding and a partner took over the TV cue-card market for NBC TV.

On the set of Every Lil' Girl's Dream, (MFA 2002), at Wakulla Springs Lodge, near Tallahassee.

"We had a nice little business, stole almost all the contracts away from Teleprompter, which had a very clumsy system with perforated paper, which was no good for live comedy or variety," Fielding recalled. "You couldn't make changes fast enough and you always had to make changes—this was live television! We did cards for Bob Hope, Milton Berle, George Gobel, Donald O'Connor—every NBC comedy show."

After earning a master's degree at UCLA in 1956, Fielding promptly joined the faculty, teaching film production, which he did while simultaneously running his own company that made short educational travelogues for television.

"That was the beginning of my academic career, Fielding said. "I'd never thought of being an academic. But I stayed with them for eight years and became a tenured associate professor."

During his stay at UCLA, Fielding taught such future filmmakers as Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, et al) and Carol Ballard (The Black Stallion). An expert in the field of special effects, Fielding founded UCLA's trend-setting special-effects laboratory and wrote Techniques of Special Effects Cinematography, a touchstone for the pre-digital era, now in its ninth printing.

"It's been in print for 37 years," Fielding said (and a quick check of Amazon.com bears him out). "My publisher has been after me for some time to write a new volume, a new book on digital effects. The trouble with digital is that it changes every Tuesday."

While teaching at UCLA, Fielding was attending cross-town rival USC, earning his doctorate at the world's second-oldest film program (Moscow's is the oldest). He spent some time as the visiting head of the Cinema Studies Program at USC and preferred the USC approach to UCLA's.

"At UCLA, they went the auteur route, convincing every student that he or she was the next Orson Welles," Fielding explained. "But USC emphasized a more professional route, like we use at FSU."

His career then went from film mecca to farm belt. In 1965, became head of the University of Iowa's acclaimed academic film program, which emphasized theory and history, though it's also where Fielding taught Nicholas Meyer, who went on to be scriptwriter and director of Star Trek II.

"If I had been older then, I probably would have stayed in Iowa," Fielding said. "But I was in my mid-30s and I'd watch planes fly overhead and think how things were happening in Washington, LA and New York. And I wasn't there."

From there, Fielding's 'Johnny Appleseed work,' as he describes it, carried him to Philadelphia in 1969, where he worked on creating the film program at Temple University, emphasizing documentary film.

"At the time, direct cinema—or cinema veritè—as they used to call it—was very hot, so that's what we pioneered. We built an excellent program and turned out some very fine filmmakers, specialists in documentary and street films, that sort of thing."

While at Temple, Fielding wrote a book on newsreels, another of his specialties. The American Newsreel 1911-1967 was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. He followed it up with The March of Time 1935-51 in 1989.

The University of Houston, flush from its wealth in the booming oil market, created the next big film program and Fielding headed west to run it.

"That started out very promisingly," Fielding recalled. "But in the '80s, the bottom fell out of the oil market and that was the end of everything as far as expansion of programs."

In the middle of his tenure at Houston, Fielding got a call from his former student, Francis Ford Coppola, who was by now an Oscar-winning screenwriter (Patton, Godfather, Godfather II), director and producer (Godfather II), as well as one of the most famous filmmakers in the world. Coppola hired Fielding as a vice-president for the utopian (and short-lived) Zoetrope Studios. Despite its grand plans to be an artist-run studio, the company ran into money troubles almost immediately, floundered during its entire existence, and died just two years later. Fielding headed back to Houston.

By this point, Fielding had established himself as the man to call when a new film school was starting up, so it was no surprise when the "Johnny Appleseed" of film schools got a call from Tallahassee.

Cue'Florida Voice'

The FSU film school (full title: The School of Motion Picture, Television and the Recording Arts) got started in an odd place—the Florida Legislature.

"This is the only film school ever created because a state, led by government and business leaders, decided they wanted to create a 'film state'," says Peter Stowell, a founding faculty member who served as the school's first director of undergraduate studies. "I mean, why not? It's a nice clean industry.

"So the governor (the late Lawton Chiles) put out a call to state universities—propose an idea for a film school and we'll pick our favorite, the idea being that you'd train filmmakers that would stay in Florida and build the film industry here."

Stowell, an FSU English professor at the time, worked with Donald Ungurait, a professor in the College of Communication, and the college's late dean, Theodore Clevenger, to create the winning proposal. Ungurait served as the original dean of the film school before returning to the College of Communication.

From the get-go, the school cast itself as a professional school, training narrative filmmakers to make commercial films and be viable employees upon graduation, as opposed to pursuing an 'auteur' or strictly academic program.

And, indeed, the environment at the school today differs from the classic stereotype of the '60s/'70s film school. Students don't heatedly discuss Eisenstein's montage, de Sica's neo-realism, Andre Bazin's criticism, Godard's editing or early German expressionist film. There is, in fact, very little academic study of film history, theory and genres, and very little emphasis on experimentation, says Fielding. Everything is geared towards production, specifically the production of narrative films.

"We felt that if you're going to train filmmakers, you should not train them to make academic films," Stowell said. "If you train them to become the best narrative filmmakers they can be, to tell stories with good production values, then they can go off and make anything they like."

The state's commitment, the generous funding and the professional curriculum intrigued Fielding, as did the state itself. With business flying out of Hollywood and ending up in Canada and elsewhere ("The joke is that, soon, the only thing they'll make in Hollywood is decisions," Fielding quipped.), Florida seems like a natural choice to attract filmmakers with weather, facilities and a willingness to help things along.

The Legislature certainly didn't want to train a bunch of people who would just take what they'd learned and move to California, he said. According to the Governor's Office of Film and Entertainment, film/TV production generates nearly $4 billion in Florida annually. The state would like to see that number grow, and they'd like to see some homegrown filmmakers make that happen.

"The mission they gave us, which we're delighted with, is first to prepare men and women for careers in the professional film and video industry," Fielding said. "And secondly, to support the growing film and television industry in Florida."

While the largest percentage of graduates still head for Hollywood, an increasing number are staying put. The latest data show that 33 percent of graduates are California-based; while 30 percent stay in Florida. Of the remainder, 7 percent each go to New York City or Atlanta, while the rest are in Europe and elsewhere around the globe.

Robert Allen, vice-president of production services for Disney in Florida, believes that, under Fielding's stewardship, the film school has created films and filmmakers that tell a compelling brand of Florida-based stories.

"Ray has this kind of clarity and 'jolly doggedness' about him that imbues the work of the school with two critical things: a distinctive mission and a distinctive voice," Allen said. "I not only think that there is an emerging 'Florida Voice' in filmmaking but also that there is an authenticity to the way Ray has pointed the process. FSU is a leader and Ray has both prudently captained (the program) and has taken risks to get there."

Richard Kahlenberg, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times who has watched and written about FSU-made movies, also believes in that voice.

"The stories are there and his students report them with an artist's eye," Kahlenberg explains. "The combination of their artistic ability and skill as observers has produced a Florida voice coming out of that film school."

Of course, graduates only get jobs if they're employable, and according to Fielding, that may be the school's greatest strength.

"Another way to judge a successful program is the extent to which one's graduates are employed, within a reasonable period time, reasonable meaning about five years," Fielding says. "I can say—and no one believes me, but it's been this way for several years—within six months of graduation, almost every graduate is employed, and that's both graduate and undergraduate. Some years it's 100 percent, otherwise it's at least 90 percent, or more."

It's a tight-knit group, too. Fielding claims that only 15 graduates have lost touch with the school since its inception. He credits that to the efforts of Meryl Warren, a film school administrator, whose e-mailed "Warren Report" goes out weekly to graduates around the world.

It's a Wrap

As one of his final changes before retirement, Fielding is helping the FSU program get involved in commercial feature-filmmaking in the state. Having been involved unofficially in the production of three features (Roses, Vampire Rock, Inventing Florida), the school wants more.

Theater graduate Randy Ser, a successful production designer, is hoping to make Family Portrait, a football story that the film school already has part of—shot with the help of head football coach Bobby Bowden—in the can. If Ser gets the funding, some $3 million, it would happen in spring 2003.

Fielding said the school would draw the line at sponsored films, such as commercials or industrials, because that would compete with the Florida Film Industry.

"What we want to do is bring back alumni who've been out for two or three years, give them the launching pad of a feature film, and have faculty work on it," he said. "Alumni and students make their own deal with the company. It would be an all-FSU project and we'd get royalties on the back end.

"The point is to give our alumni and faculty and students a chance to work on features, one a year maybe - and get the film out there throughout the world with our name on it and their name on it."

And getting a few more films out into the world would certainly be a fitting final act for Fielding, a wrap on that career as "Johnny Appleseed" to four generations of American filmmakers.

For more on FSU's School for Motion Picture, Television and the Recording Arts, See: http://filmschool.fsu.edu.

Catching a Falling