August 15, 2016

SCA Family Stories: Cameron Burnett

Cameron Burnett on set

The Summer Program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts takes students from all walks of life. From industry professionals sharpening their skills to high school students picking up a camera for the first time, the student body is diverse, dedicated, and there to learn how to tell stories with the moving image. Cameron Burnett attended the Summer Program in high school and later transitioned into the Film & Television Production Division as a degree program student. He recently sat down with SCA Family Stories to talk about his experience in the Summer Program, his transition to the degree program side of SCA, and the importance of being harsh in the editing room.

SCA: How did you get involved with the Summer Program at SCA? CB: The year before I applied up for the SCA Summer Program, I attended the New York Film Academy summer program. I learned the very basics of filmmaking, and in doing so I discovered that filmmaking was all I wanted to do, so I looked for the best program available.

I did my research and I found the Hollywood Reporter rankings and others saying that USC was the best film school in the world. That was it. I knew I had to go, and I made a plan to apply to enroll at the Summer program as a way of proving I had what it takes. 

I attended a speech at the combined schools of SCA and Marshall. There I met David Maquiling, who ended up being my teacher for the USC summer program. I was fortunate enough to get accepted for the Summer and enrolled in the USC Warner Brothers summer program class that [David] was teaching and it was an amazing experience. It was probably one of the most fun summers I’ve ever had.  It was six weeks where I lived on campus and it was great because it was a full emersion in filmmaking. You just basically live, eat, sleep, breath film. It’s a beginner class, but it's like taking a 310 [an intermediate course at SCA] and squeezing it down to six weeks.

You're making three films—one every two weeks. You're going to Warner Bros., learning from the professionals there. You’re writing scripts, workshopping them, casting, shooting. The faculty is there for you -- as much as you need them -- and there are great mentors but they push you into it and you have to figure it out for yourself to a degree. It was great because you make some mistakes you learn from those but whenever you needed the help, they were there. They gave great advice, they show you all the tools you have in front of you and you go out and just make them. You learn so much from doing and the faculty gets that. It was there that I also met David Weitzner, the head of the Summer Program.  He is an amazingly passionate teacher. He encouraged me to apply for Undergrad based upon my work in the Summer program.  I cannot imagine being at another school or doing anything else.  

Did you have filmmaking experience before coming to the Summer Program? Only the New York film academy the year before and I also made a couple of films in high school, but I was really going into it as a beginner. 

You mentioned the Warner Bros. course. Tell me about that. What’s great about that class was you make three films. The first film is introductory, no dialogue, under three minutes and from that you then pitch yourself for the second project for the main WB project. 

Depending on how good your first film was, depends on what job you get for the big group project, (which is the second project). I didn’t know that at the time, but it turns out that, if you make a really bad first film, you're not going to get a good job on the second film, which is totally appropriate because it’s exactly what you deal with in the real world as you're always judged by your previous film. The students that made really great films ended up getting producer, director -- the jobs that everyone wanted. The filmmakers that weren’t quite as successful, didn’t get the "cherry" jobs they got sound, P.A et., its a meritocracy.   My first film in the SCA summer program was called ‘The Janitor’ which I filmed in the lobby of the film school.

The Janitor was a really lighthearted film. So many film students were making super dark, drugs, sex like dark films that are so common, like horror or zombie things. So I decided to do something really unexpected make a lighthearted positive film about a janitor who is tormented by a group of students. One day the leader of the student pranksters leaves his iPhone behind. The Janitor finds it, and puts it in his pocket.  I shot the film in a way that makes you feel that he will steal the phone in revenge.  But instead there is a twist, in that he returns it, and the surprised student gets the other kids to be kinder to the janitor. The good deed by the janitor paid off.  Anyway, I guess it turned out pretty good because I got picked as director for the second project out of 25 kids, I was 16 years old.

Do you have any advice for anyone going into the Summer program? The best advice, which I wish I would have followed with, is that I would definitely go into the Summer Program with some built-in ideas because you're going in and you get caught up in the learning. You get a film assignment on a Friday and have to turn in your script on Monday and it’s hard to turn around a script that quickly. So going in with at least some concepts, probably ten ideas and of that you develop three and make them. So that is one piece of advice -- come with ideas.

The next thing is put everything into your project. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes because you learn more from those mistakes then you do from successes. So just put all that you have into it, put all the effort you’re only there for six weeks so you might as well make the most of it, takes big risks.

Meet all the people that are in the class because so much of making films is the collaboration. Having those connections of like minded people is so important.  Those are the three biggest things, go with ideas in mind, don’t be afraid to fail and try to meet as many people as you can. David Weitzner, who oversees the entire Summer Program is someone who literally changed my life. He saw in me passion and latent talent and encouraged me so much. He is an amazing mentor. 

What made you transition into the Production Division? Going into the summer program I’d already learned that USC was the best film school in the world. I knew it was very hard to get accepted, but because I had some success in the summer program, and loved it, I decided USC was 100% the place I wanted to go.  I believed if it took the risk, that I could handle the opportunity if given to me. I made it my mission to get accepted. 

From that point on I made the decision, that I was going to get into USC. No matter what it took. Leaving the summer program, I had a clear purpose of what I wanted to do, and knew that I had to make kick ass film for my application.  That became my focus.

What advice do you have for people that make the transition from the Summer Program to the Degree Program?  In terms of making a successful transition, basically try your hardest in the summer program. They recognize hard work and they need to actually see that you're very serious about it. I feel that in any type of an arts school or film school, it's hard to find people who are really serious. Having a relationship with the faculty in the film school based upon the quality of your work in the summer program makes an enormous difference.

Outside of the summer program and prepping for my application film, I put all the rest of my free time into reading books, watching films, learning from films and I wrote the story for and directed a film called The Bench to get into USC, The Bench has now been selected for 25 film festivals (including Oscar boosters).  And won two Festival awards.  So that was probably my biggest success to date.  Its a film about an old blind man who meets a very cool young guy. The blind man asks the young man to describe the day to him.  The outcome is illuminating.  It has a big double twist at the end. 

I decided that is what I wanted to do, I took everything I learned from the Summer Program, plus what I taught myself, and I went in to make the best film possible because in the end of the day, you can have very good grades (which I did have), a great interview (which I hope I had), but if you can’t make films its the wrong school for you.  The Bench made the difference for me.

Obviously they will teach you the film business over four hard years, but at the application stage the are looking for smart, motivated quality storytellers at the application stage.  But now the Summer Program is really the place to try it out. Find out if you are willing to put yourself on the line, and find out if you have what it takes. 

What’s a lesson you’ve learned already at SCA that you’re going to take with you for the rest of your career? The main thing I learned or the biggest lesson at school up to this date was in the summer program, like David [Maquiling] says, in any short films, most student film come in three sizes, long, too long, and way too long.

Cut it tight, cut it tighter. Then cut it tighter again. I ended up with really tight, well paced short films. So I think that’s what really helped me and I really kept trimming off the fat of the films. And I started to see that in feature films as well. An example is Whiplash which was cut very tight. Obviously different films allow for different types of stories, like some films need to be slower but the type of films that I’m making, the best advice that he gave me was to cut it as tight as possible. My films had solid clear stories, I tried to shoot them well, and they were probably the shortest and tightest in the class. That was probably the best thing I learned and David he was such an amazing teacher that I decided to take him again in 290 this next semester, in the fall.  I cannot wit to show him my new film. Its called Alibi.  And its about someone who has an alibi, but doesn’t want to use it because the Alibi brings a whole new set of consequences. 

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