Film School Professor Discusses the Value of a Film Education;
A Conversation With Dr. Patti McCarthy

Patti McCarthy, MFA, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the Film Department at the College of the Pacific, University of the Pacific (UOP). In the following conversation she discusses why and how her students are honing their artistic instincts and craftsmanship by learning with Super 8 film:

Pacific Student Showcase & Awards 2010 (pictured from left: Emily Heller, Sawyer James, Andy Crete, Patti McCarthy, Melanie Hash, Caroline Taylor, Michael Mugar).
QUESTION: Will you tell us about the University of the Pacific?
McCARTHY: It's a private, liberal arts university in Stockton, which is in Central California. The school has a very low student-to-teacher ratio. The school was chartered in 1851. It's the oldest chartered university in California. Our students come from all over the world. We have excellent students who get a very strong liberal arts education.

QUESTION: Can you tell us about the film program?
McCARTHY: The film studies program has been very strong for about 20 years. Around the time I came onboard about five years ago, they decided to create a major combining film studies with film production. Students who are studying film theory and history can choose to emphasize in film production. That gives them a very strong foundation. It's still a relatively new and very exciting initiative that fulfills the greater mission and vision of UOP. We have very talented students who have produced amazing, award-winning documentaries and narrative films. Some of our students have moved on to the graduate film program at USC. I believe we are preparing them at Pacific for the future in a very competitive industry and field of artistic endeavors.

QUESTION: Will you tell us about your background?
McCARTHY: I attended the University of Southern California where I earned MFA and Ph.D. degrees in film production and film studies. I started working in the film industry at Ray Stark's company, Rastar Productions, while I was still a student. After time, I became the head of development for Rastar. When things started winding down, I joined the faculty at the University of California at Northridge. I was a senior director of Entertainment, Arts and Humanities. That's when I got to know Danielle Dibie. We organized a number of programs for students who were interested in editing and cinematography taught by working professionals in the industry. I met her husband George Spiro Dibie (ASC) and other fantastic cinematographers who made a deep impression on my thinking about filmmaking.

QUESTION: Looking back further into your past, were there mentors at USC who influenced and pointed you in the direction you took?
McCARTHY: Elliot Silverstein, who taught directing, was inspirational. Larry Auerbach, industry relations, was extremely influential and has remained a long-term mentor and friend. Paul Wolansky taught me the finer points of screenwriting and Michael Renov, Dana Polan and Marsha Kinder, in critical studies, influenced my theoretical work. But Woody Omens (ASC) is the person who inspired me to make filmmaking my life's work. Woody introduced a lot of us students to members of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). He organized afternoon workshops where we would get to talk with wonderful cinematographers who were legends to us. Conrad Hall (ASC) especially made an impact on me. That one-on-one type of personalized teaching inspired and sparked our creative imaginations.

QUESTION: Please share some insights about how you and the faculty approach making that kind of connection with film students at the College of the Pacific.
McCARTHY: We emphasize student-centered learning with a low student/teacher ratio that gives each student personalized attention. We encourage our students to learn the history and aesthetics of filmmaking, including the evolution of the art and craft of visual storytelling. We also stress the importance of conveying the emotional content of stories they are telling by drawing on their own visions as artists as well as the importance of research. If they are creating a documentary or narrative film about AIDS and HIV, they should talk with people who are experiencing the disease and get to know and understand them. I think both narrative films and documentaries can be a powerful medium for understanding people and cultures. Right now, some of our students are in Guatemala working on a film about child trafficking.

QUESTION: Are they doing research or filming behind the scenes?
McCARTHY: They are doing both. We try to put a camera in everybody's hands, so they learn how to use images to tell stories. The excitement of the creative process is infectious. When they shoot, students are also learning to depend upon each other and collaborate. After a while they become an extended family. They are like brothers and sisters. I believe our students are going to have life-long friendships, because they have shared very personal and intimate combined visions that they put on film while they were students.

QUESTION: When and why did your students begin using Super 8 film?
McCARTHY: They began using Super 8 to tell their stories from the time I arrived. I believe as future filmmakers it is important for them to learn to tell stories on film. I was taught to see the world in different ways through the lens of an 8 mm camera when I was a student at USC.

QUESTION: Why did you choose Super 8 film rather than another medium?
McCARTHY: I did it for three specific reasons. It's an affordable way to instill a sense of discipline in our students while they are honing their experience in the craft of filmmaking. Working on film also most closely approximates best industry practices. The third reason is that film offers more aesthetic options.

QUESTION: Where did the Super 8 camera equipment come from?
McCARTHY: I brought some cameras with me, and a few others came from Pro8MM, a full-service company in Burbank, which provides refurbished cameras and the best professional motion picture films in Super 8 format, along with postproduction services. The company is run by a husband and wife, Phil and Rhonda Vigeant.

QUESTION: Do they do all of the lab work for your students?
McCARTHY: We have also used Spectra, another Los Angeles lab run by Doug Thomas. We can send him film from Stockton on a Monday, and he turns it around for us by Friday. Students can then edit right away.

QUESTION: Are your students editing film or transferring it to digital format?
McCARTHY: They are doing both. In the beginning they are cutting actual film. I feel that giving them opportunities to shoot and edit film is an important experience. I think it helps inform the aesthetic. Later, we have the film transferred to digital format for editing to give them the experience of working in Final Cut or Avid. I think both experiences best approximate current industry practices.

QUESTION: Is it all color, or do they also shoot with black-and-white film?
McCARTHY: We give them opportunities to experience shooting in Super 8 with KODAK TRI-X Reversal Film 7266, which is a 200 speed, black-and-white filmstock. That experience helps them learn about painting with light, because they can see the grey scale and how that works in black and white. I think it clicks in their heads that you can't just shoot digital and fix everything to get the looks you want in post. It all begins with what you capture on film. I believe it also helps them understand and appreciate the value of collaboration and the need to plan a production from beginning to end. I want them to be strong all-around filmmakers … to make it in the industry they need to be good producers, directors and cinematographers and understand what it takes to make a film. You don't have a lot of latitude for waste of any kind when you have to tell a story visually with only 50 feet of film.

QUESTION: Are they shooting scripted films or documentary footage?
McCARTHY: The first films are shot in black and white and have no dialog or synch sound. Students write little scripts and create storyboards and shot lists that tell two to three minute stories visually. It's part of learning basic production principals. They also rehearse their actors, run the set, and learn how to communicate and collaborate. They become more confident about what they are doing, rather then running around and haphazardly grabbing shots. Later, when students add sound and dialogue, they continue to aesthetically frame each shoot and tell the story visually. They don't get lazy and just shoot talking heads.

QUESTION: Are they generally collaborating with other students or outsiders?
McCARTHY: They are generally collaborating with classmates. The actors usually come from the theater department. Not only do students need to collaborate, but also university departments. Classmates in the film department help crew up, but they can also recruit friends and relatives. Part of the experience is learning how to stay on schedule, communicating, and collaborating.

QUESTION: What happens to the films after they are completed?
McCARTHY: They are transferred to DVDs, and we are archiving the original Super 8 films. Film is a proven archival format - 20, 30, or 40 years from now, when some of our students are famous filmmakers, people will be able to see how they started.

QUESTION: What are some of the other lessons the students are learning?
McCARTHY: They are learning about the imaging characteristics of different types of film stocks, including exposure indexes. They are also learning about telecine transfer technology. We also have students visit sets where films and television series are being produced in Los Angeles, including seeing (cinematographer) Nelson Cragg shooting CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. He was amazed by what they know about film stocks. It would be a disservice to not give them that foundation in filmmaking.

QUESTION: How many students do you have in a class?
McCARTHY: Typically, we have around 20 students per class.

QUESTION: Do your students start out knowing they want to be producers, writers, directors and cinematographers, or is that a process of discovery?
McCARTHY: We encourage all of our students to explore and experience all the different roles in the collaborative process, and also not to lock themselves into any particular genre of filmmaking. I think that's part of the beauty of film school. You can get experience in a variety of roles and work collaboratively with your classmates. We also encourage our students to learn about themselves by experimenting.

QUESTION: We presume that your students also shoot color film?
McCARTHY: You wouldn't give an artist one brush or one color of paint! Our students are shooting films with the latest KODAK VISION3 color negatives as well as black-and-white films. We encourage them to use the biggest possible palette, and to explore the possibilities of telling stories with black-and-white and color film.

QUESTION: What do students say when they share their dreams for the future?
McCARTHY: They have passions for different aspects of filmmaking. Some of them want to be cinematographers, and others want to be writers or directors. We have a student whose dream is to become a production designer and a few others want to produce films. But, they all share a love and passion of film and filmmaking. Some of our current students will move on to advanced film studies programs, and others want to find jobs in the industry and add their voices to those that are already out there now.

QUESTION: Do your students have role models whose names you hear?
McCARTHY: I hear a lot of names. I'm not sure that I can remember all of them off the top of my head. Our student directors want to be tomorrow's Martin Scorsese, Sam Raimi, Steven Spielberg, David Fincher, George Lucas, Clint Eastwood and Michel Gondry. Our cinematography students have seen Nelson Cragg at work, and admire him. A flood of other names are coming to mind, (Alfred) Hitchcock and (John) Ford are among them. They all want to learn from the "masters" and be taken under the wings of talented mentors, but just as important, share on screen their own unique voices and styles.

QUESTION: What are you working on besides mentoring the next generation?
McCARTHY: I'm co-producing a documentary about Dave Brubeck, a true American master, with Bruce Ricker, who is directing the film. He's an award-winning filmmaker, who has produced documentaries about Johnny Mercer, Tony Bennett and Clint Eastwood. Mr. Eastwood is executive producer of the documentary. I'm privileged to be part of that team and to be able to help tell the story of not only one of the greatest musical artists of all time, but also a champion of freedom in all forms of expression, civil rights, social justice, creative imagination and inspiration. His music, especially jazz, has helped to change and transform the world. Wherever and whenever you experience freedom, you experience Mr. Brubeck's work.

QUESTION: How would you describe the content?
McCARTHY: It's a combination of new interviews and archival material.

QUESTION: Where are you finding archival film?
McCARTHY: Dave Brubeck was a student here. We have a tremendous amount of footage documenting his career in the University of the Pacific archives. The Brubeck archives are one of the largest and most comprehensive in the world. Mr. Brubeck believes that "music has the power to transform lives as well as to enlighten and entertain." His work and music begs us to see and experience things in ways we had never before considered. He has been an important catalyst for change in our time and is part of the American zeitgeist. Part of his legacy has been to open doors-not only the doors of opportunity, but those of the mind. Because of Dave Brubeck we see the world differently I hope my filmmakers can in some way, through their work in film, do the same thing.