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June 8, 2016

SCA Family Stories: Alan Starbuck

Alan Starbuck. Photo by Vince Gonzales

Alan Starbuck, facility manger for the Robert Zemeckis Center for the Digital Arts, was an early adopter of the digital technology that now permeates every aspect of life at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. After graduating from the Division of Film & Television Production, Starbuck joined the staff of SCA and led the Zemeckis Center through its many roles and phases as the go-to building for film, television, animation, and video game production at the School. This summer, Starbuck is retiring and SCA Family Stories caught up with him to talk about his memories of the history of the School, why the transition to digital was a fight worth having, and the people that helped him in his amazing career.

When did you get started at the Zemeckis Center? I started here back in January of ’89 as a graduate student—MFA in film production. In August of ’89, I started working in this building as a student worker, and it was shortly after graduating that I started here full-time as the assistant manger. We are almost like a full production facility. When the Zemeckis Center first opened up, which was 2001 as the Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts, the idea was to focus on all this new digital technology. We have space here where we are doing some of the higher-end technical stuff: we have the IMAX theater, motion capture, world building, as well as our television station, Trojan Vision, a student run station. We are a mini cinema school complex in itself in that we have five sound stages, we have editing ability over here, we have theaters and everything.

When it was opened, was the intention of the Zemeckis Center to be a high-technology building or a “workhorse” building? Both. One of the first places we opened was stage E, which has the large green cyc. That was really the first place within the film school where students could start easily doing green screen work. Along with that, we have a visual effects lab. The focus of that was composting, so that was  new emphasis here.

The envelope pushing is still going on, right? Between the mo-cap, world building, IMAX—we are trying to push the envelope. Especially world building and what they’re doing with virtual reality. And with IMAX, it’s been used a lot for your traditional theater screening, but it really is set up to handle more experimental stuff. It’s designed that we can bring in additional screens and projectors. The seating can actually be completely removed so it’s an open area and you can do motion capture in there, the idea that you can track the audience movement and affect what’s on the screen.

How has Zemeckis changed in your time here? When I came in, this really was a film school. It was called film and television, but capital F film and lower T television. Back then, we weren’t the Zemeckis Center, we were called the Annex. We had the little TV stage, a little video edit bay and all that stuff. We were kind of the backwater of the film school. The annex place. Back then, a student could go through the whole program and never set foot over here. Not the case now.

I really came into my own over here. I was an early convert to digital because a lot of my experience before coming to the School was in video production. I was always a believer that there was more that could be done with video. When it started changing, I was involved with some of the first HD projects that were being done at USC. So I was really excited about that change, but I am really still surprised how quickly digital video overtook film. I think a lot of people argued that was going to happen, but the speed of it was surprising. Most people thought more than five years. Most of them were wrong.

What’s the lesson you found yourself giving over and over? As far as the lessons, the one thing you quickly learn in the digital field is that it’s really not about how you can work with this piece of equipment or that piece of equipment because it changes all the time. When you get a new camera, it’s the same as getting a new cell phone: as soon as you have it, it’s obsolete.

Something new is always coming out, so don’t get married to it. It’s all tools.

Who are some of the people that really influenced you in your time here?  A couple of my first supervisors—one was Dick Martin. When I came on, he oversaw all the facilities of the School. There was a period when I was still the assistant manger and we were in between mangers, and so I was kind of running this place myself. He really gave me a lot of support and confidence in doing that.

Also there was Doug Wellmen. Doug actually started here as the manger of the Zemeckis Center before he replaced Dick Martin, Director of the Facilities at the time. When I first started they had more experience as far as managing things. Doug came from a television background. He was the director and production supervisor, so he had a lot of experience working with crews.

Dick came from NBC. He was running stuff there. Like I said, going through the film program, although you may learn some manger stuff as producer, you really don’t learn how to be a manger of a facility. They helped me focus on the ideal of what we can do to help the students get their project done without them getting killed.

Congrats on your amazing career. What’s next? One of the reasons I’m leaving here is that, between working this job and having an eight-year-old son, I don’t have a lot of time to work on my own personal projects. When I came to the School many years ago that was my goal, and I’m really excited to get back into that.

My first year off is going to be playing around a little bit with different projects, see where my interests lie. I’m going to bring out my own cameras and start playing with them again. I definitely hope I will be able to get some creative projects out there and get working on that.

Of course there is a lot of yard work to do, too.