- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2003

Welma Redd is a storyteller. Although there are many mediums through which she could communicate a narrative, her favorite is film.

Mrs. Redd, 47, of Gaithersburg, is working with Hong Cai, 22, of Northwest, on a graduate-level thesis project that completes their film studies at American University in Northwest. They are creating a documentary titled, “Spirituality: Beyond Religion,” in which five persons of varying backgrounds are followed throughout their daily lives.

“We’re trying to see if there is a golden thread that runs through all religions, or if they are separate, independent things,” Mrs. Redd says. “Viewers can look in the eyes of the person and see if the person is telling the truth.”

With the increasing availability of technology, anyone can make a film. Learning to make it with excellence, however, takes training and diligence. Usually, the nuances of the craft are learned over a lifetime.

Film students can either earn a graduate or bachelor’s degree in the field. Depending on the courses they choose, they will most likely be exposed to all aspects of filmmaking, including writing, directing, sound production, editing, film theory and history. Eventually, they will probably focus on developing their skills in one area. In addition to classroom experience, students rely on hands-on learning in professional settings.

Russell Williams, an artist-in-residence at American University, is teaching his students about what he has experienced in Hollywood. Since he won Academy Awards for best sound for “Glory” and “Dances With Wolves,” Mr. Williams shares insight on what it takes to be a legitimate filmmaker.

For instance, he says great cinematographers study painting to see how the light falls in a room. They also are aware of every sound in the area in which they are shooting.

“By the end of the semester, students hear when the refrigerator turns on and when the dryer turns on,” he says. “They’re paying attention to the traffic outside the window or the air conditioner.”

Since most of Mr. Williams’ pupils are new to the field when they take one of his classes, he makes sure to start with the basics.

“The subject on your film should be in focus,” he says, “unless there’s a specific reason you don’t want it to be in focus. It also should be properly exposed with light that doesn’t look harsh or flat. And the image should be steady.”

Along with mastering the technical aspects of making a film, students need to display originality, says Jake Mahaffy, assistant professor of film at Hollins University in Roanoke, Va. He stresses this with every project his students complete. He also teaches the fundamentals of art, as opposed to film as a business or commercial project.

“My main goal is to get them to think independently, coming up with their own ideas,” he says. “It allows them to be more creative. People want new ideas, generally. It’s much more fulfilling. I want them to make films only they could make.”

For one of Mr. Mahaffy’s classes in film production, Nicole Johnston, 20, of Arlington, a junior in film and photography at Hollins University, illustrated the notion of miscommunication. She used different characters to express difficulties in communicating through sight, sound and speech.

“I like the creative aspect of it,” she says. “I’m a visual person, so I enjoy making films. I’m not a painter, but I feel like I can express myself in film.”

The most frustrating part of developing a movie is dealing with unexpected problems, says Sadie Tillary, 20, of Raleigh, N.C. She is a junior in film and photography at Hollins University. For instance, during the production of a group project being filmed outdoors, a snowstorm disrupted the task at hand.

“It’s difficult to work with your creative ideas, while accepting the realities of the world, and struggling around aspects that you can’t control,” she says.

Students also need a good understanding of the history and theory of the field, says Barry Moore, chairman of the department of electronic media and film at Towson University near Baltimore.

In addition to being well-rounded, the best filmmakers exhibit large quantities of perseverance. As artists, they need the ability to network and get their films seen, either through a festival or an agent. They also usually have to live in a major film center, such as Los Angeles, New York City or Orlando, Fla.

“It takes a lot of persistence and discipline in order to make it as a filmmaker,” he says. “No one generally gets a job right out of film school. It takes more than a few years of apprenticeship to get into the industry. It’s not like going to engineering school or nursing school when you have 25 job offers when you graduate.”

Understanding the reality of the movie industry is important before embarking on a career, says Drew Painter, 23, of Bowie, a senior in electronic media and film at Towson University. To illustrate the world of Hollywood, he will begin filming a project in October about the rise and fall of a fictional celebrity.

“It can build you up and break you down just as quickly,” he says. “I’m making a film about someone in the 1980s who was a big star and on the rise and everything plateaued and went downhill.”

When aspiring directors and producers interact with professionals in the industry, the better chance they have at becoming recognized, says Tad Doyle, deputy director of programming of the Georgetown Independent Film Festival (www.georgetownfilmfest.com).

The organization holds several events throughout the year, most recently hosting a festival in which it gave awards for the best submissions.

“If you’re a filmmaker and you come to a film festival, you get to see what other filmmakers are doing,” he says. “Festivals are the way filmmakers build their reputation and get larger business deals or distribution.”

Although earning a degree in film from a university is a great accomplishment, it’s only a launching pad to professional opportunities, which are found through networking, Mr. Doyle says.

“Having a degree is almost meaningless unless you achieve something,” he says. “Filming something in film school and achieving it in the real world are two different things… Generally it takes experience over a long period of time to make really good films.”

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