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Cinematic Craft
Author: Heather Quinn-Bork
Posted: February 4, 2013

These still frames are from the video, I Go To Sleep, created by film students Darcy Sharpe and Kat Audick.

The University's film program is attracting the next generation of cinematographers.

BACK IN THE DAY when movies were made from film instead of pixels, many entry-level cinematographers could only afford to hone their craft in film school. The apparatus for making motion pictures—complicated film cameras, editing equipment, and untold reels of film to buy and process—was expensive. Today's digital filmmaking equipment is affordable enough that children are shooting, editing, and publishing their own movies while in grade school. But even with these new tools, there's much about filmmaking that can be learned in a university setting.

Dustin Morrow, PSU film faculty, says that students often enroll with years of experience in DIY digital film production, but the essential characteristics of successful filmmaking still need to be taught.

"The point is learning how to use those tools to effectively tell stories, to understand how to use sound and image together, how to edit in such a way to provoke thought or create feeling," says Morrow. "Those are the things that they're learning, and those are the things they don't really know."

Morrow teaches digital film production in Portland State's recently rebooted film program. Back in the 1970s, the Center for the Moving Image at Portland State was one of the most prestigious film programs in the country. Unfortunately, it was eliminated in 1981 because of budget cuts. It wasn't until 2007 that the film program started up once again, merging with the Theater Arts Department to become the Department of Theatre and Film. For the first few years, the film program focused mainly on film studies, but last year, with the hiring of Morrow, the department was expanded to provide a sequence of courses in production.

Student demand was a major factor in establishing the new program, but so was the need to support and take advantage of an active, local film industry. In the past few years, the Portland area has become a hub for film and television production. Shows such as Portlandia, Leverage, and Grimm, as well as feature films such as the first Twilight movie and this summer's ParaNorman (see story here) have been either shot or produced in and around Portland, and many students in the film program have been able to work on these productions.

"There are a lot of movie and television opportunities for students. In fact, some of them are always missing class because they are PAs on Grimm or other shows, which is a double-edged sword. It's great that they're getting experience, but come on, come to class," Morrow jokes.

FILM SENIOR Clarke Leland is one of those students who have taken advantage of local filming. He's been a PA, production assistant, for Grimm, does freelance video work, and he works with local company Flying Rhino Productions.

Leland has also worked on several productions with other film students, and he runs the department's new production suite, which includes digital editing rooms, space for group collaboration, and a growing collection of video equipment that students can check out. Since the film program is still new and growing, Leland says it is up to students as well as faculty to lay the foundation for the future.

"I have the opportunity to be instrumental here, and I'm trying to be that," Leland says. "We can make this a holistic film program, and it's even more advantageous because we're based out of Portland where productions are happening, and where the hub of Oregon filmmaking is. We have a program that could cradle that, that could hold it all together."

The film program is designed as a holistic one that readies students for careers in production, but also keeps a focus on film studies. Students have embraced that dual emphasis as an opportunity to gain hands-on experience while also focusing on fundamentals.

"I prefer having film studies as a basis, and then the production stuff adds value to that, rather than being all I'm focused on," says film student Tiffany Creed. "They're both challenging to me for different reasons."

Creed, who moved from Alaska to attend Portland State, chose to study film using her Western Undergraduate Exchange Scholarship, which allows students to attend colleges out of state at reduced tuition. Film students are also benefitting from the Evelyn I. Crowell Endowed Scholarship funded by a retired PSU librarian.

Professor Morrow sees the newness of the program as an opportunity to build a center of study that caters to what students are interested in now while continuing to develop the core fundamental skills of teamwork and storytelling.

"I didn't want to walk in and say, 'here's how I want to do it,' and impose my own ideas of the perfect film program without listening to the students," says Morrow. "That's why we're growing fast, but not so fast as to not be listening."

Backstory

Portland State's relatively new film program had a first act. In 1969, the Center for the Moving Image (CMI) was established at Portland State University and quickly gained an international reputation for the groundbreaking work of its students and the quality of its faculty. It grew to become the most complete filmmaking and film studies program in the Pacific Northwest, and helped launch the successful careers of numerous students.


Andres Deinum directed the PSU Center for the Moving Image in the 1970s. Photographs from the 1969 Viking yearbook. 

The program was started by Andries Deinum and Tom Taylor and approached film studies and production with a focus on community engagement. Deinum was originally from Southern California, where he worked in Hollywood for Warner Bros. and Universal Studios and as an assistant to the German director Fritz Lang. He also taught film at University of Southern California (USC), but he was fired and blacklisted in 1955 after refusing to cooperate with the Congressional House Un-American Activities Committee. Deinum moved to Portland in 1957, and worked with the Multnomah County Library and the Portland Extension Center, which was an evening program separate from Portland State. He taught a weekly film series and film classes through the center, through which he gained a loyal following in the community.

Taylor was a successful documentary filmmaker of international renown when he moved to Portland in 1965 to help his friend and former USC professor Deinum start the CMI, which began as the Institutional Television Department. Taylor ran the production side of the film program and worked with students to create documentaries that focused on craftsmanship and on using the medium of film to promote social justice and democracy. He and his students produced the film The Seventh Day, which chronicled student protests on the PSU campus in May 1970 in response to the killings at Kent State—protests that led to violent confrontations between protestors and police.

The CMI ran on a shoestring budget during its final years, and funding was eventually cut off entirely in 1981 by then Portland State President Joseph Blumel, who was faced with budget shortfalls. Deinum passed away in 1995, and Taylor passed away in 2009.

Heather Quinn-Bork, a graduate assistant in the Office of University Communications, wrote the article "Asking the Right Questions" in the fall 2012 Portland State Magazine.