December 2, 2014
SCA Alumni Stories: Sylvester “Marty” Shelton
Sylvester “Marty” Shelton’s cinema career began under unique circumstances. Now a retired naval intelligence officer, Marty had been called into active duty during the Korean War, where he was offered the chance to attend the Navy School of Photography in Pensacola, Florida. There, he and other marines learned the basics of filmmaking—a skill that, upon their arrival in Korea, enabled them to shoot movies of marines. Once Marty was released from duty, he came to USC on the G.I. Bill. After being interviewed by the beloved Mel Sloan, he began his schooling. Luckily, his experience behind camera allowed him to skip a number of classes, sending him straight into upper division courses.
The School of Cinematic Arts in 1952…
During that time, SCA was called the Department of Cinema. “It resembled an old horse barn,” he remembers, while noting the existences of both a motion picture processing lab and a distribution center where prints were sold. There was also a small sound stage and a theater, which the students used as a classroom.
As a master’s student, his focus was always on the communications axis of filmmaking, as he’s always been passionate about finding a way to communicate ideas in a more technical sense. Yet for Marty, that alternate perspective did not replace his passion for film. He calls Humphrey Bogart a “quintessential idol for a young lad,” deeming Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon two of the greatest films of all time.
Marty remembers entering the master’s program with seven other graduate students, but only he and one other student obtained their degrees. “In those days, we had to write a formal thesis with a thesis committee,” he recollects. Although many of his classes were lecture-based, there were select workshops. For instance, in Mel Sloan’s editing course, Sloan would hand his students a role of raw footage and had them cut it into a sequence that told a story. Fondly remembered as the best professor Marty’s ever had, Sloan also directed the first 480 film that he crewed on. “I think we were the first 480 class to ever make a print,” Marty says.
His first job required basic film grunt-work of his day; going to the lab everyday, picking up humungous roles of print, breaking them down individually, putting them on reels, then in labeled cans. A few years out of school, Marty began working in Houston with the Texas Industrial Film Company. He stayed with them for a year or so, then accepted an offer from the Boeing Company in Seattle, where he joined their in-house film group.
Throughout his career in the film business, Marty wrote articles for technical trade magazines and presented his papers at conferences. “I’d always had this idea in the back of my mind that I was going to write a book,” he confesses. Although it took many years, he created his popular textbook, Communicating Ideas with Film, Video, and Multimedia: A Practical Guide to Information Motion-Media. In it, he touches upon concepts such as the psychology of the film business and what filmic techniques do and don’t work.
Not only a fan of cinema, Marty has always been a lover of great literature. He notes the last book he read for pleasure that he truly enjoyed to be the collected works of Raymond Chandler. “It’s adventure-detective. Chandler had the great gift of description—of setting the scene better than anybody has ever done.” His love of books naturally translated into his becoming a published novelist. His most recent novel, St. Catherine’s Crown began as an idea he’d had as a little boy. It surrounded the story of a woman named Anastasia and how she may have escaped the clutches of the Bolsheviks, her apparent executors. He explains that he originally wrote a “short story about how Anastasia may have survived the regicide.”
Marty’s currently working on two novels, one of which is titled Ming Yellow, based on a story with the same title that Marty loved as a child. It takes place during the Ming Dynasty and follows adventurers who are on a journey to retrieve stolen rare porcelains called Ming Yellows. “I like the historical adventure stories,” he says, highlighting his different stories’ connection to historical events.
Nearing the end of our conversation with Marty, he had a moment of reflection. Speaking to his twenty-year-old self, he advised: “Be faithful to yourself and your comrades, be innovative, and never give up. Do your very best at all times. I grew up in an honorable family and these kinds of values were grilled into me.” On his industry career as a whole, Marty speaks to his time at USC, stating that attending SCA was “one of the best decisions I ever made. I really loved the business and had such a fulfilling career because I enjoyed going to work everyday. I lucked out like a bandit.”