Handling the Media
In the Communication Building’s cavernous Design Lab, amid the myriad workstations, the light tables and drafting tables, the animation stations and computers, Evergreen seniors Julian Birchman and Serena Lim are keenly engaged in their final projects for Mediaworks.
With colored pencils, Birchman refines a scene that will appear in his short animation—tentatively titled Off Key—about a small boy named Henri who has been born into a world where everyone—except him—has their own ongoing soundtrack. Lim, who is shuffling through her storyboards, drafted on 2 ¼-inch by 3 ½-inch panels, is playing around with the order of the scenes, which depict a dreamlike sequence of life, loss, and transformation, where a sailboat plies through pastoral scenery, children grow up on a beach, people change into birds, and a cemetery evolves into a sea of stars.
Birchman’s film, set in a city, is modeled after the UPA style, which he researched extensively earlier in the course. This approach, named after the influential American animation studio, United Productions of America (UPA), is distinguished by flattened perspective, abstract backgrounds and strong primary colors—an artistic breakaway from the strict realism that had been developed by Walt Disney. (Two of UPA’s most famous creations were the irascible, nearsighted character Mr. Magoo and the 1950 Academy Award-winning animated short, Gerald McBoing-Boing, about a little boy who uses sound effects instead of spoken words to communicate.)
—Faculty member Sally Cloninger
Birchman chose the UPA standard for his own short because of its expressive, more emotionally complex qualities. “It wears its heart on its sleeve,” he says. His brainchild, Henri, is hypersensitive to the soundtracks of those who surround him, including the increasingly discordant ones forming between his parents, denoted by broken musical notes, which he tries to fix.
Lim’s graphics are highly stylized. To some extent, her production is autobiographical—though not literally so. It is dedicated to her father, who died in 2005 and is represented by the sailboat wending its way through the sequence. A dancer and piano player, Lim was frustrated by the more traditional two-dimensional art classes she took in high school. But she is inspired by animation, which combines her love of visual art, movement, and music. “You use 2-D in animation, but your characters come to life. It’s a ton of work, but it’s so upbeat. I was struggling for a way to be more expressive and I’ve found it.”
Among the most comprehensive of all the arts, animation embraces not only the visual and performing arts, but also the humanities and sciences. With Evergreen’s emphasis on interdisciplinary teaching and learning, its Media Arts students have been able to produce unique animated works that are often experimental in content and form. In the full-time curriculum, animation is taught in conjunction with many other subjects: performance and visual art, music, dance, religious and ritual studies, math, physics, literature, social studies, history and natural history. In the summer, it is taught in an independent course, Experimental Animation Techniques. And depending on faculty placement, it is also periodically taught in the Mediaworks class in which Birchman and Lim are enrolled. (In other years, Mediaworks may be more focused on documentaries or experimental films.)
When completed, Birchman’s and Lim’s films will be the grand finales of all that they’ve learned in Mediaworks. This intensive, year-long Media Arts foundation program, currently taught by Ruth Hayes—an animator—and Beatriz Flores Gutiérrez, a visiting faculty member, is an intensive film and video boot camp in which upper-division students gain wide-ranging skills in media history, theory, critical analysis and hands-on production.
—Faculty member Ruth Hayes
During the winter quarter, the class was given the assignment of finding an autobiographical or biographical object invested with meaning and creating a story around the object. Hayes recounted several of the different storylines that arose from the assignment: one about the stuff in pockets called Pocketography, another about an apron worn by a student during a summer job, yet another about an inherited music box. “They were all different,” said Hayes. “Part of what we want students to do in this class is to figure out their own voice. In a class of 45 students, you get 45 very different approaches to the same assignment.”
In a recent spring-quarter Mediaworks class, three alumni returned to the campus to address the currently enrolled students. Working in three very different genres, these graduates present an overview of the range of possibilities open to Media Arts undergraduates once they leave school. They talked about their struggles, experiences and windfalls since graduating, discussed how Evergreen helped them get where they are professionally, gave career advice, and answered questions about topics ranging from how to break into the industry and get into the union to how they were impacted by the Writers Guild of America strike that ended this past February.
The previous day, one of the three panelists, Dylan Quirt ’01, also led an editing workshop for the class. Quirt, who headed for Hollywood after graduation, has since racked up numerous motion picture credits: post-production assistant for four movies, including Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl; apprentice editor for The Weather Man and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest; and assistant editor for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour, a state-of-the-art digital 3-D film of the pop singer’s recent concert tour that grossed $29 million in box office receipts during its opening weekend. He’s also an assistant editor for the upcoming comedy, Bedtime Stories, starring Adam Sandler, which is slated for a December 2008 release. Early in his career, he worked as an apprentice music editor on Black Hawk Down and on the crews of a couple of TV sitcoms.
In the panel discussion, Quirt urged students to take advantage of the wealth of resources made available to them by the college. “If you want to do something, you can do it at Evergreen. If you want to write, if you want to produce, if you want to direct, do it.”
Alumnus Noah Dassel ’05, another of the panelists, has concentrated on nonfiction films, first in Olympia, where he worked as a peer tutor for Evergreen’s Writing Center—and shot a video short about the center—then further afield in Europe and North Africa, and lately in Seattle. He has produced health videos and documentaries, and assisted in editing a local public television series, called BIZKID$, dedicated to teaching children financial literacy. His work encompasses a variety of subjects, such as 1950s nuclear hysteria, Ibizan salvage sites, and old-time tree-falling methods. He covered the latter in One with the Work, a film about a Bainbridge Island woodworker and poet that was featured in the Ninth Annual Celluloid Bainbridge Film Festival. He has also shot profiles of local artists for Seattle Channel 21’s show, Verve, including one on Charlie Krafft, who creates “Disasterware,” blue and white Delft-like china pieces decorated with such catastrophes as the Hindenburg crash and the bombing of Dresden.
“You have a project-heavy environment here, “ Dassel told the audience. “While you’re here, tap it. You have so many resources: media loan, technical resources, the faculty.” Out of school, he said, “It’s harder to find people who are on the same page as you. If you’re trying to do a documentary and want good feedback, you’ve got it here.”
Katie Bruggeman ’01, the third panelist, has been in New York City for the past seven years. She has read scripts, interned with Spike Lee’s production company, volunteered at the Tribeca Film Festival, bartended, written for the parody newspaper, The Onion, worked as a post-production coordinator on Pokémon Heroes, shot promotional spots for Comedy Central’s Stella, and for the last few years, worked as an executive assistant for The Colbert Report, which won a prestigious George Foster Peabody Award in April. Bruggeman will soon shift her energies from media to law; she was recently accepted to the City University of New York’s Law School. Still, she considers “Evergreen a great place to learn film,” especially when compared to film schools, which deliver mostly theory and delay the moment when students actually get their hands on the tools to make movies. “You have all these invaluable resources at your disposal,” she told the students.
Evergreen has had a media component since it began educating students in 1971, but it wasn’t until 1978, when Sally Cloninger arrived, that a structured, accessible curriculum emerged. Cloninger, whose first program at the college was Recording and Structuring Light and Sound, is a veteran media artist and activist, as well as an independent producer. Her video and film work spans numerous genres including visual anthropology, experimental autobiography, performance media, video installation, experimental ethnography, and documentary. “One of the reasons I came here was that it was very unusual to find a liberal arts college with media services and media loan in place,” said Cloninger. “I was also attracted by the college’s mission. It was a wonderful laboratory for combining both practice and theory.”
For a while, Cloninger was the program’s lone faculty member, but she advocated bringing in more teachers with different backgrounds, which made sense given media’s interdisciplinary nature. Three decades later, the program boasts five faculty members (with another coming on board soon), each of whom brings demonstrated experience in teaching and media production with an approach that links media theory and practice in intensive, team-taught, interdisciplinary settings. There has always been a nonfiction narrative dimension to the curriculum, but new teachers and new technologies have moved the program in new directions: animation, experimental work, political documentary. Through it all, though, the faculty has shared a passion for telling stories with moving images, a social justice bent, the desire to offer media training in the context of a broader liberal arts education, and “a willingness to provide continuity in the kinds of study that are available,” says Cloninger. “We’ve made a big commit to a repeatable curriculum. Students expect that.”
Mediaworks is but one of the pathways to study Media Arts at Evergreen. Each year there are opportunities for freshman to combine cross-disciplinary study with some media arts theory or practice. For instance, in the fall and winter quarters this year, Julia Zay and Chico Herbison taught Hop on Pop: Investigating and Intervening in American Popular Culture, which was designed to provide first-year students with the skills to decode mainstream culture. Sophomores, juniors and seniors can explore a wide array of interdisciplinary programs that also feature some media practice, such as Image and Sequence, which combined intensive workshops in many different 2-D art forms—book arts, digital photography, drawing, printmaking, and more—with the study of how to critically read visual culture and effectively use it for expression.
More advanced media studies are also available, including Media Artists Studio (formerly called SOS: Media), which fosters the development of each student’s own personal style and creative approach and culminates in the production of a portfolio piece. Juniors and seniors also have the option of pursuing independent work in individual contracts.
One of Evergreen’s earlier alumni, Alex Stahl ’81, took advantage of several individual contracts, including one in arts management. A sound designer, media engineer and musician, Stahl has numerous film, CD, and multimedia performance credits. Among them are Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Secret Garden, which were produced by Francis Ford Coppola’s production company, American Zoetrope. Stahl also toured extensively with the Kronos Quartet as the string quartet’s sound engineer. “For me, the individual contracts were essential,” he says. “They were such a blessing—because there were no curricula in the fields I’m working in now.”
Today he is a media systems technical lead for Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif., where he is responsible for the movie studio’s sound infrastructure. Pixar’s computer-animated films have won 20 Academy Awards, and include Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, and Ratatouille—all of which he has worked on. Once the technical director of KAOS, Stahl said Evergreen taught him how to learn, gave him access to complex technology (“It wasn’t locked up in a lab.”), and exposed him to the collaborative approach, which is at the core of how Pixar works.
“I had a long-term interest in what is now the field of signal processing—taking sounds, and also pictures, and transforming them in new ways,” says Stahl. “Evergreen was probably the only school that would let me try and learn about that back then.”
“Evergreen has always been a place where undergrads could do quite substantial work,” said Cloninger. For students like Birchman and Lim—and all those who have gone through the college’s Media Arts programs—this makes a tremendous difference.