July 31, 2018

A Unique Summer Education for Chinese Directors in Partnership with Shanghai Tech

By Phenia Hovsepyan

For the last three years, the USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) has offered a 9-week summer master class in directing to working Chinese professionals. The program is in partnership with Shanghai Tech, and is taught by SCA Production Division professor Sheldon Larry. “Shanghai Tech had come to the university looking for a way to work with directors, not film students,” says Larry. “They wanted to create a program that would teach how we made film in the U.S., particularly how we constructed a narrative.”

This master class was a complete blank slate for Larry: Collaborating with other SCA faculty as well as industry professionals, the course has become a combination of lectures, guided workshops, out-of-session writing, shooting, editing, and in-session presentations of projects with peer and professional feedback and critique. “Our goal is to get each director to increase his or her awareness, sharpen their sense of seeing and hearing and feeling, clarify what they want from both camera and actor, and learn ways to adapt and improve their technique,” states Larry in his course syllabus. 

One of the most over-arching elements of the course is practicing working with actors, with students learning how to guide actors into “realizing their roles with spontaneous, organic behavior so as to effectively mount the scene in order to best tell the story.” In the fourth week of the course, students direct a one-location dialogue scene for a rehearsal workshop on one of SCA’s sound stages. These scenes are cast with outside actors, giving the directors a sense of effective casting and rehearsal techniques in order to capture truthful performances. “The students love working with American actors. We talk to them a lot about casting, how you cast, and how you illicit performances from them. I always try to emphasize how they should be working with actors, the vocabulary of how to talk to actors, and how to judge the quality of performances,” says Larry. 

Each year, approximately 75-100 working, mid-career professionals apply for this competitive program, with 12 directors chosen to participate this year. The first four weeks of the course are spent in Los Angeles perfecting the directing, writing, and cinematography skillsets of the participants as they learn in the classrooms, editing rooms, and production stages at SCA. For many of the Chinese directors, their time at USC is also their first time in Los Angeles. Being exposed to the American film industry right in the heart of Hollywood is an added bonus of the master class experience. After the intense work and collaborative workshopping in Los Angeles, Larry and his students fly to Shanghai for a month to prep, shoot, edit, and post their perspective films. “Some of these films have gone on to international film festivals and won for best short,” Professor Larry says. “I am not trying to get them to make American films. I am trying to teach them to shape their own films, heighten their awareness, and build their directing muscles. The goal is to make the best film possible, and it is amazing how unique and different all of the final projects turn out to be!” 

For Sheldon Larry, there are many things that know no cultural boundaries about the art of filmmaking that he hopes to convey in this master class. “You are directing the audience, you are trying to create a response in your audience. It is when your audience engages with you, that moment when the hairs stand up on the back of their neck, that is universal,” he says. 

When asked what the most valuable thing they have taken away from the USC portion of the course, director Bo Wei said that, “I am learning how to tell a good story, and how to communicate with actors.” Director Stephen Lee (seen in USC gear workshopping a scene with Professor Larry and translator Yan) remarks that, “This is a totally new experience. We have a very professional, Hollywood, industrial way of filmmaking that we are being exposed to here, which is different from what we have exposure to in China.” Lee went on to say that, “The professors are very specific and give very detailed notes on how to make a film, which is incredibly helpful for the future.”

Professor Larry credits much of the success of the Shanghai Tech collaboration to his program manager for the course, Lesley Yipeng Qin. “Lesley has such a passion for independent film and filmmaking. The work she does is amazing,” Larry says. “There are 12 scripts that get edited and revised every week. That is 60 scripts that have to get translated into Chinese! The way Lesley keeps up with everything is incredible! The scripts get sent to China to be edited, which works with the time difference,” Larry adds. 

Indeed, the most challenging thing about teaching this course is that there is no English language requirement for participants. “It takes time to translate what I say, and I have to remember to allow time for that pause. One of the great things about it is that it makes me even more conscious of what I am saying, and it makes me become even more specific with the things I say,” Professor Larry says. 

Mozun Yan (seen translating between Professor Larry and director Gin Yuxi Wu), an MFA student in film production and one of the translators helping during the week four sound stage workshops, says that, “Sometimes the translating is very chaotic. It makes your mind spin fast, but it is also a lot of fun. As a director, you are always thinking about many things at the same time, and this is great practice for that! Also, it is interesting to work with many different directors, see different directing styles, and be able to learn from them.” 

The program has wrapped up the Los Angeles portion of the course for 2018, and Larry is currently in Shanghai along with his program director, students, and translators. “Shanghai is like a Chinese Manhattan. There are a lot of resources and a lot of stories, it is a very interesting town,” Larry says. 

When thinking about the experiences both he and his students have had in Shanghai over the years, Professor Larry is reminded that, “When you go to make a film in a new community, you are exposed to the culture in such a deeper way than if you are just going there as a tourist. You work with local crews, you go to local restaurants, and you truly form a unique bond. It is extraordinary, not only for me, but for the directors. They are from all over China, and they now have a larger community of filmmakers and colleagues after we wrap up.” 

Having worked on films all over the world, Professor Larry has gained an even deeper perspective on the large, interconnected, and yet very personal experience of being a filmmaker but being a teacher in this class has expanded that perspective even further. “What I have found is that filmmakers are the same all over the world. They all have the same heart, and they all feel compelled to tell stories,” he says. In thinking about the Chinese directors who have done the Shanghai Tech program specifically, Larry adds that, “I get a lot of gratification from teaching, and it is particularly gratifying that they are here trying to open their sensibilities and consciousness.” Professor Larry jokes that he has a whole cabinet in his kitchen full of the unique spices, teas, gifts, and cookware he has collected on his summer travels to China over the years. With the success of the partnership between SCA and Shanghai Tech thus far, this summer master class is set to continue for years to come, and Larry may soon need a second cabinet! 

Below: Director Bo Wei workshopping a scene and giving direction to his actors, Eric Baugh and Kriss Dozal, in SCA Sound Stage 1.