In the back of a darkened room, a light burns hotly into a small corner. Crouched near a desk is a man, his face flustered, with a look of searing fear and anticipation fixed in his eyes. He takes a deep breath, but before he can make a move, a sharp voice pierces the room.
The voice belongs to Rory Weber, who on this day served as director for a group film project. Weber possessed the measured intensity of a nuclear scientist pacing out the final calculations of a missile test as he checked each shot against his pre-planned storyboards. In the 1970s, he would have been right at home at USC dissecting Akira Kurosawa films with Steven Spielberg. In 2017, he’s a student at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria.
It was a typical day for students in Hancock’s Film and Video Production program. This particular class, Directing for the Camera, includes a collection of students vying for lucrative futures in the production industry. Student filmmakers on the Central Coast, many of them young millennials seeking to pursue lifelong passions, enroll in the community college’s film program, eager to cut a path to careers in the production industry. And the program offers students a chance to explore their inner Martin Scorseses.
According to Hancock’s website, the program educates and trains students to help them find careers as camera operators, sound recording technicians, and editors. To achieve the associate of science degree in film and video, Hancock students must complete a total of 23 core units, including courses like Film and Television Writing 1, Computer Video Editing, and Motion Graphics for Multimedia and Film. There are 13 elective units required as well, which can be met by the Film Festival Production class, Introduction to Sound Recording and Mixing, and Directing for the Camera.
The image of film school graduates, lugging around large expensive film cameras that require years of extensive training to operate successfully, has been largely supplanted by a tech savvy generation who can quickly shoot, edit, and upload projects, sometimes with little more than a cellphone. Gone are the days of expensive development costs or film-to-video cameras, phased out largely in favor of digital editing equipment and online platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo. Today’s student filmmaker is a hybrid of old-school, time-honored foundations and cutting-edge digital technology.
Weber, 20, attended Arroyo Grande High School, where he said the film bug bit him in his senior year.
“I didn’t know that I wanted to be a filmmaker until my last year there,” Weber said. “I was intermittently interested in stop-motion. I worked on a student film for a senior project in my Spanish class and that’s when I really connected with it.”
Weber said the process fascinated him, and from there he was hooked.
“I really got into editing from that point, making the footage into my own version,” he said. “It was a real eye opener into what you could do with existing film and the power that medium gave you to alter it after the fact.”
Budding filmmakers like Weber are being introduced to the subject at an increasingly younger age, as technology becomes more accessible and classroom friendly.
Born in Santa Maria but raised mostly in Colorado, Kelli Reed, 20, said her passion for film started in a high school class. She credited a teacher, Michael Pollard, for introducing her to the craft.
“The film class was only offered when I was a student there, so I got extremely lucky,” she said. “[Pollard] really got me into it. He introduced me to editing.
“If I hadn’t had someone like that, I wouldn’t have loved film as much as I do,” she added.
Reed said the meticulous process helped her through difficult times in high school.
“It was hard. There were days I just didn’t want to talk,” she said. “So I sat in front of a computer. For hours.”
Knowing that she wanted to pursue filmmaking as a career, Reed headed back to California and Hancock’s film program. After two years, Reed has nearly completed her associate degree and has seen success in the school’s student film festival (which is entering its 44th year) with a documentary she produced and directed on the Santa Maria Inn.
Behind the camera on another classroom shoot, Kendall Kranz is firm and measured in her accuracy, a stickler for detail behind the camera. This shot is too tight, this shot needs more depth, the lighting needs to change—she doesn’t miss a beat.
Born and raised in Lompoc, Kranz, 20, began making videos when she was in elementary school, co-opting her parents’ camcorder to make short films with her school friends.
“In middle school, I saved my money for my own video camera,” she said. “I taught myself how to edit on a laptop and posted videos on YouTube.”
After high school, Kranz tried her hand at acting in Los Angeles, picking up gigs as an extra, until she realized she was more at home behind the camera than in front of it. Her first student project at Hancock, a documentary short she directed titled Pray4Trax about a child with Cystic Fibrosis, won five awards in 2015 at the school’s annual student film festival.
For Jon Bell, 28, the memory of shooting films at an early age still permeates his mind. When he was in elementary school he filmed a school ballet production.
“I remember that visual, trying to zoom in on their feet,” he said. “I was fascinated by it.”
Bell also found inspiration through his mother’s camcorder. He said a childhood friend taught him the basics of stop-motion animation using toys, and ever since then he was hooked.
Guiding them all through the intricacies of technique and technology is Christopher Hite, 45, associate professor in Hancock’s Film and Video Department since 2006. Hite, who has a BA in film from Penn State and an MFA in screenwriting from Hollins University, spent 10 years working in the production business on the East Coast in post-production, editing, sound recording, and other fields. One of Hite’s students, Thomas Howell (enrolled in Directing for the Camera), is currently working on a project for the Santa Barbara Film Festival 10-10-10 competition.
Hite said the first step in a student’s evolution into filmmaker is to change the way they watch and absorb their favorite films and television shows.
“They start to notice things in a different way,” he said. “They start to notice technique, composition. Before, that was such a seamless endeavor. But now they really notice. Students break down film into small bites, notice how it all goes together.”
Hite said that, as an instructor, one of his goals is to teach students about “pulling back the curtain.”
“There’s an idea of this wizardry that makes pictures come alive,” he said. “When they pull back they should see themselves back there. The television shows they love are all about the drive of the person behind there.”
Focused on success
Even in the classroom setting, students like Kranz don’t just see a final grade—they see a lifetime of career prospects.
“I’ve always wanted to be in this industry,” she said. “My dream job is to be a director for movies or music videos.”
Kranz, who is close to completing her film certification at Hancock, said she plans to dive immediately into the workforce. She’s aiming for a job as an editor or camera operator for a local production company, she said.
Weber said he wants to be a film editor. “That’s what really got me into film in the first place. That’s my favorite phase of production.”
Weber said he is debating whether to transfer to a four-year college like Cal State Long Beach.
“That’s where the business is at,” he said. “You can branch out, starting with smaller projects, and try to be an editor’s assistant.”
Reed said she also plans to transfer to a four-year film program at the University of California Los Angeles or CSULB, like Weber.
Reed wants to pursue editing as a career.
“Long term, I see myself as an editor on a television show,” she said. “I hope to start doing commercials and music videos.”
Jerry Mosher, chair of the Department of Film and Video at CSULB, said transfer students like Weber or Reed can expect a rigorous education in the foundations of motion picture storytelling while building on the basic production skills they already have.
Mosher said transfer and freshman students alike come to CSULB’s film program with varying levels of production and technical expertise, thanks to a revolution in digital video.
“You used to have to go to film school just to get your hands on film equipment,” he said. “But these days students can shoot and edit on their phones and post to places like YouTube.”
All that self-taught expertise can have its downside.
“Sometimes we have to get them to unlearn a lot of bad habits,” he said. “You can make something that looks pretty good in terms of color or composition. But good lighting or learning how to block an actor in a scene is something else.”
Mosher said transfer students move into specializing in areas such as editing, cinematography, screenwriting, or broadcast production fairly quick. But regardless of the specific job, everything comes down to good storytelling. Mosher said that since technology changes rapidly, programs like CSULB’s work to emphasize the importance of knowing how to tell a solid story through moving images.
“Essentially, what we try to do is teach them professional storytelling skills with moving images,” he said. “That separates amateurs from professional filmmakers.”
Another important aspect is teaching young students to learn from their mistakes and explore all aspects of the industry. Students who see themselves as the next Steven Spielberg might suddenly realize they aren’t comfortable directing large groups of people, Mosher said.
“Maybe they just want to edit or do production design,” he said. “We try to give them enough opportunities to figure that out for themselves.”
Out in the ‘real world’
Beyond students’ hopes and dreams is a landscape of uncertainties and erratic prospects. Millennials face a finicky job market that, depending on who you listen to, is either a barren wasteland or a bountiful field. According to statistics from Generation Opportunity, a project of Americans for Prosperity, in 2016 the unemployment rate for millennials was hovering around 12.8 percent, much higher than the 4.9 percent national unemployment rate for that same year.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job market for film/video editors and camera operators are projected to grow 18 percent over the next eight years, a significantly faster growth rate than average. The agency points to the rise in demand for online and mobile content as the reason for accelerated growth rate, and a shift in the ever-changing television and film market is reflected in the habits of many students. In lieu of a bulky film reel or VHS tape of clips, many students are opting to host their projects on sites such as YouTube or Vimeo.
However, the bureau also cautions job seekers to prepare for an extremely competitive job market, as the tools of the trade become more accessible to a growing number of people. For example, television news editors, once highly prized for their specialized skills, have started to lose ground in the job force as more reporters learn to multi-task and become one-stop-shops for hiring managers.
But that’s not something that budding filmmakers like Kranz and Reed worry about. For them, and many of the young students in Hancock’s film program, the point isn’t so much about job security as it is about creating a meaningful career.
“My whole life my dad has been telling me, ‘You need a plan B,’” Kranz said. “But I’m the type of person who doesn’t want a plan B because I believe in plan A. I’m going to stick to plan A because that’s the only thing I’m going to settle for.
“I don’t think about if it goes wrong, I just know I can do it, so nothing’s going to stop me,” she added.
Reed said she once sat down and looked at the credits for 10 movies and had an epiphany watching hundreds of names scroll down.
“There were so many jobs, so many people,” she said. “That gave me a push. I can do it. They always need somebody.”
Hite also makes a point to prepare and inform his students on the nature of the film industry, which can be competitive, fast-paced, and diverse.
“It’s going to be a rocky road, but if you have that vision and the desire, you’re going to see it through,” Hite said. “Their first indoctrination is that everything is Hollywood. But they soon come to realize that’s a nebulous term. It’s not a company. It’s just a term for that industry. It can be Los Angeles or Santa Barbara or anywhere in the world.”
Like Reed, Hite said he believes there is plenty of room for new talent in the industry, largely owing to the seemingly endless options for content distribution.
“There’s been a populist uprising through technology,” he said. “When I was a kid there were three channels. Now are there are 300. Every one of them needs content.”
Students don’t have to look far to find concrete examples of success. Brothers Fernando and Vicente Cordero run Industrialism Films, a small production company in San Fernando Valley, shooting and editing music videos. But they too were once students in Hite’s class, dreaming of careers in the film industry.
Both brothers started out in film class at Ernest Righetti High School, under the tutelage of Robert Garcia. They said the introduction to the medium of film at such a young age changed their lives for the better.
Vicente Cordero said film offered him a tangible way to express his budding creativity.
“When I took that class, it was an instant, like a moment of clarity,” Vicente said. “I knew I wanted to do that the rest of my life.”
Fernando started Hancock’s film program in 2004, enrolling in as many classes as possible with Hite and fellow instructor Tim Webb.
Vicente said Hancock provided the technical skills foundation to build a career on.
Both brothers attended California State University at Northridge’s film program after graduating from Hancock. Fernando said transfer students can expect heavy competition at film school, where many students vie for key roles.
“Everybody wants to be a director or a cinematographer,” he said. “It’s highly competitive.”
One big benefit to film school is a strong networking base, Vicente said.
“It provides you with people you will work with the rest of your life,” he explained. “Fernando has been out of school for six years and he still works with the same people he went to school with.”
Fernando said the biggest challenge in the industry is surviving the lean years while building a clientele base.
“I look back and realize it was a struggle,” he said of his early post-graduate years. “I didn’t have a single contact or client. It was tough. There were no calls coming in, no projects on the calendar.”
Vicente said that while he and his brother can now rest on a strong referral business, it took a decade of building their company to get there.
“All our hard work did pay off,” he said. “We’ve gotten to where we are through learning experiences. It’s all validated at the end.”
Vicente said the industry is about paying dues, and that means a lot of hard work.
“You wonder, ‘When am I going to see a return?’” he said.
Mosher echoed that sentiment, explaining the toughest aspect for aspiring filmmakers is getting their foot in the door.
“A lot of people want to do this,” Mosher said. “It can take 10 years to get those [top level] positions. But if you work hard and persevere, you can do well.”
The brutal nature of the industry isn’t lost on students like Bell, who shared a pragmatic view when pressed about his future.
“This is a huge gamble,” Bell said. “But that’s what I’m doing. It’s not easy. I could probably take a welding class, go the normal route and get paid, simple as that. But this is what I’m passionate about.”
That persevering attitude flies in the face of contemporary portraits of today’s young millennial, often depicted as aimless or more interested in posting on social media than committing to the rigors of a demanding specialty program.
Reed said that while the stereotypes might be true for some individuals, it’s not an accurate picture of her peer group.
“We dream big but I don’t expect the world to give me anything,” she said. “You have to work hard. I don’t expect to walk into a studio and get a job. That takes years and years.”
And Hite has much the same view about his young students, he explained.
“I think they are consistently challenging what is being said about their generation,” Hite said. “They challenge stereotypes and continuously surprise me as an instructor. I’m optimistic for them.”
On the day of their class shoot, Bell and Weber squinted intensely into the camera’s viewfinder, shooting looks back and forth from the set to the framed shot, feverishly debating all of their options. Putting all the prognostications, job statistics, and hang-wringing generational scrutiny aside, for these young filmmakers the point is the here and now, manifested in the perfect shot captured at the perfect moment.
“I don’t know where I’ll be in 10 years. Maybe I’ll make it, maybe I won’t,” Bell later said. “But I’m staying optimistic.
“I have stuff I could fall back on,” he added. “I’ve been a house painter, I’ve made $20 an hour. I’m good with repairs around the house. I could do other things to make money. But I want to give this a shot while I still can.”
Contact Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose at [email protected].