How the CSULB film department encourages student creativity

Story by Emily Ayers Staff Writer, Photos by Jordan Daniels Contributor

Two weeks ago, the “Union Weekly” showcased the talent of California State University, Long Beach student Andrew McGivern and his short film Love Lessons, chosen by the late legendary director Wes Craven to participate in the September Catalina Film Festival. 

This sparked further interest in exploring how the Department of Film and Electronic Arts at CSULB fosters student success. The faculty and staff are a group of passionate professionals who support students on their journey into the film world. 

Over the course of a week, we got a chance to sit down with students who helped make Love Lessons and FEA faculty to learn more about what values guide the film department in the educating of its students.

UW: As film students, what are your goals and aspirations? 

JASMINE SORENSEN: My personal goal is to be actively working in Hollywood, as well as on my own independent projects. 

CHRISTIAN O’KEEFE: I hope to go on and just continue making movies in any capacity possible. I’d love to work as a cinematographer, editor, director, or even music composer. 

UW : What role did you play in Love Lessons and how was it working on the film?

MIKE PRIESTLEY: I was the first assistant camera on the film and the most challenging process, I think, was probably casting and finding a location. We ended up having great actors and a tremendous location. 

SORENSEN: On the film, I was a production assistant. I also assisted the actress and helped her feel comfortable, considering the controversial content. I was the only other female on set. 

There were difficulties with Love Lessons because of some of the offensive nature of the material and the use of prop weapons, but Andrew’s perseverance made the film possible. 

BRANDON HOJO: In Love Lessons, I served on set as the boom operator. I was in control of the microphone while recording. It’s harder than it sounds, and we were in a very tight space.

UW: As the Film Department Chair, what role did you play in helping Andrew McGivern and the other students with the film, Love Lessons?

DR. JERRY MOSHER, FEA Department Chair: The department provides equipment, constructive criticism, and a supportive environment.  Andrew’s film pushed the envelope in terms of violating good taste and objectifying women. The script raised some concerns among faculty and students, but we support the artistic freedom of our filmmakers.  

UW: What was some of the advice that you gave to McGivern on creating his film Love Lessons?

PHILIP SCHWARTZ, Cinematography Instructor: We knew that this was a film with a dramatic room in a great setting. A large part of the room is in shadows. Sometimes you would only see a silhouette of a person, yet you would hear them. We introduced a harsh overhead light that you didn’t necessarily see but was implied.

The film had the classic crime film aspect about it. I can see why Wes Craven chose it. 

UW: McGivern’s film Love Lessons was born out of the FEA 336 course. What are some of the things you aim to teach students in the class? 

KENT HAYWARD, Narrative Production Instructor: The FEA 336 course is built to be a boot camp for filmmaking. Students collaborate with one another to write, direct, and produce films during the semester. 

It is designed so that students have to do everything as they would for a professional shoot. They have to obtain permits from the Long Beach permit office, show proof of insurance, and get CSULB approval. 

For all of my students I want to help them get the film conceptualized, but I never want to take over the creative aspect. I like to give them the tools and then let them make something great out of it.

UW: How was your experience with FEA 336 and other classes in the department?

ANDREW MCGIVERN, Creator of Love Lessons: FEA 336 was an exercise in endurance and mental acuity and has been hailed as the most challenging of the FEA courses. 

I think we all felt lucky to have had Professor Hayward as our instructor and mentor in that class. He worked tirelessly in and out of the classroom to ensure we had everything we needed to succeed in our productions. 

HOJO:   FEA 336 gets you working with people and collaborating on great ideas. It makes you talk to others to get the best possible solution.

PRIESTLEY: FEA 336 is certainly the first step towards legitimacy for a lot of the students here, I think. The following class FEA 340 takes it up another notch, but FEA 336 paves the way for what every filmmaker needs to be doing all the time, and that is working.

UW: What is it like working with other classmates on films throughout the semester?

SORENSEN: You learn how to deal with different personalities in different situations. 

For Love Lessons, I was not in the same class with the director and crew. I was in a different section, and my professor asked for a female volunteer to be on set. 

There were some creative differences at times, but we pulled through and the end product looks great.

HOJO:  We’re required to take all of the same classes together and so we see each other very often. During student productions, we are always the crew for everyone else’s shoot, so getting along is close to inevitable.  

UW : How do you manage having so many films to work on each semester? 

HOJO:   Time management. Knowing my limits and trying not to overcommit. Last semester I worked on five sets, and this semester I’m working on three or four. I still want to have a social life. I think it’s exciting to work on film sets. You’re always doing something.

SORENSEN: Generally, I work on two to three films a semester, but it depends. I try to assist as much as I can, as well as work on my own projects. It's good to get experience in a lot of different capacities. Plus, I enjoy it. It's stimulating and creative. 

O’KEEFE: I love being able to work on so many films each semester. It's one thing to sit in a classroom and learn about how to make movies, but it's another thing entirely to actually go out and make them. That's how you really learn. I almost feel incomplete when I'm not working on a project. 

PRIESTLEY: Each semester changes. Last semester I think I worked on nine; writing and directing one, producing another, and being the director of photography on two. This semester I'm working on four, including writing and directing one, but on a greater scale in terms of production and length.

Managing the work can be difficult at times. 

UW: What are some goals that the Film Department has for its students and their overall development as they transition from education to the actual industry?

MOSHER: Because technology is constantly changing, we try to teach foundational skills that enable our students to adapt to changing production environments.  Most of our instructors have worked in the film and television industry, so we teach professional practices, conduct, and teamwork—our students’ professionalism and work ethic distinguish them from amateurs making movies with their phones.  

UW :Why is social media such a critical tool for filmmakers?

HAYWARD: The way our world communicates now is through social media. If you want your film to get recognition, it needs to have a webpage and a Facebook page. You want a place where people can go to find more about it. 

This is why I also make sure that social media is part of the curriculum. Students are great about bringing up stuff that I don’t even know about. 

UW: As film students, what is your take on social media’s role for aspiring filmmakers?

SORENSEN: Social media is very helpful in terms of promotion.We have used Facebook and other mediums to assist in crowdfunding by linking directly to sites such as Indiegogo or Kickstarter. 

Also, social media is great for networking. FamBam is a group on Facebook that allows CSULB alumni to help each other out with job opportunities. It’s a great tool.

HOJO: Social media is a great way to get people to see your work. Looking for jobs online is also becoming an actual way to get hired. It’s all about the connections that you make with people, and sometimes it’s through Facebook or Twitter. 

UW: How have the faculty and staff of the CSULB Film Department helped you as a student filmmaker? 

HOJO: The faculty is very open to answering questions and they won’t turn you down. They have helped me as a student to develop my skills with the camera, and definitely working with other people. They all know what they’re doing and the film department here has so much knowledge. 

SORENSEN: Throughout my experience at CSULB the faculty has been a major help. They have been involved, supportive, and given me a lot of opportunities. 

We learn to work with limited resources, and under high pressure circumstances. Also, all of the students are kind and supportive, and won’t hesitate to help with each other’s projects. It’s really like a family. I’m proud to be part of it.

PRIESTLEY: I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now mentally or from a productive stand point and I’ll always be thankful for that. 

We don’t have as much as some of the private schools but it makes us work harder for everything that we do and in the end I think that’s what filmmaking is all about. 

UW: What makes the film department at CSULB stand out?

HAYWARD: I think that our greatest asset is our students. We have a lot of creative students. In comparison to the more expensive and prestigious film schools that have way more resources and equipment, we make better films with fewer resources. 

We have fewer cameras and less money, but our students are good at being scrappy and finding clever ways to get things done using their minds. 

SCHWARTZ: The film department still teaches on analog film, which means they are still teaching how to look at lighting on film. This forces students to concentrate on what they are learning and having to trust their ability to understand cinematography.

For a while, there was this mystique about cinematographers, because no one knew what the finished product would look like. 

But now that everything has gone digital, some of that skill set is gone. 

So the fact that CSULB still teaches using analog film is a very valuable experience for students. 

UW: Why is cinematography so invaluable to the success of films? 

SCHWARTZ: Cinematography serves as the visual subtext of the entire film, and there is very little emotional connection for the audience if all of the different variables in cinematography aren’t working together. 

You should be able to turn the sound off during a film and still understand emotionally what is going on.

UW: What are a few of the other values and core beliefs that the film department uses as a guide when teaching students?

MOSHER: For us, it all comes down to storytelling. Production design, acting, directing, cinematography, sound, and editing should not be avenues to show off; they are not ends in themselves.  All aspects of a production should be in service of the story.

When everything is finally wrapped up, the many successes from the CSULB film department sprout from classrooms, tucked away and often unseen, behind the Liberal Arts buildings. 

At the root of the entire program is an intimate web of faculty and staff who work together to stimulate a creative zeal within students to produce award-winning works, proving that making great film is simple when you pair passionate students with an eagerness to learn.


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