July 1, 2008

Student Oscars

USC Films Take Home Top Accolades

By Mel Cowan

Rajeev Dassani, left, with Charles Uy celebrating at the Student Academy Awards gala.
Students from the USC School of the Cinematic Arts were rewarded for months of late nights and hard work at the 2008 Student Academy Awards, where four Trojan films took home prizes, including two Gold Medals.

The prizes included gold medals in the Alternative and Narrative categories respectively for Viola: The Traveling Rooms of a Little Giant and A Day’s Work; as well as bronze medals in the Documentary and Narrative categories for If A Body Meet A Body and Pitstop. (See box below)

“The experience of getting to be at the ceremony was like a dream come true,” said Rajeev Dassani, M.F.A. Production ’07, and writer/director/editor of A Day’s Work, as he described the June 7 gala at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. “The whole week of events, meeting dozens of Oscar winners who consistently amazed me, was fantastic, especially the way they spoke to me as a colleague.”

A Day’s Work expands from a simple event, a man losing his wallet, which causes an escalation of anger and misunderstanding, culminating in an open-ended climax, that both Dassani and co-producer Charles Uy, M.F.A. Production ’08, hope will spark dialogue about the characters’ situation.

“In the opening scene of A Day’s Work, you see all these day laborers. They were the real thing,” said Uy. “Co-producer Michael Tringe and I drove to the Home Depots in the area and hired them to work for us. Luckily, Michael is fluent in Spanish so he was able to communicate to them. Once you get to hear their stories, we felt we were doing the right thing telling our story. I think that when Americans see the laborers, we see them as objects. The lesson we need to learn is how to see people as people. I hope that’s the message the film gets across.”

“My parents were immigrants, born into tough situations,” said Dassani. “My dad arrived in America with nothing, and used to tell me about how being able to buy one can of Coke a week was a treat. I’m very aware of the idea of opportunity, the ones we receive, as well as the ones we lack because of the situation we are born into, so this story appealed to me because it allowed me to explore these issues.”

Shih-Ting Hung with her Gold Medal. Photo credit: A.M.P.A.S.
“Before I came to USC, I didn’t know what animation was,” said Shih-Ting Hung, M.F.A. Animation ’07, who created Viola: The Traveling Rooms of a Little Giant. “But I had this idea and these visuals in my head, and I asked for all the help I could, and made it happen.”

Hung’s film is a mesmerizing and languid blend of live-action and animation with an elliptical and dream-like narrative, fittingly inspired by a specific art movement.

“I’ve always loved Surrealism, and I really looked at the works of Magritte and Dali as a visual jumping-off point for the design,” said Hung. “My early films had a lot of jump cuts and were very fast-paced, but then I started watching films by Michelangelo Antonioni and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, like The Passenger and The City of Sadness, and became interested in making a slower kind of film. It became a real focus because it forces you to justify every decision you make, and is unforgiving if you make a mistake. I made the act of making a deliberately paced film part of my own learning process.”

Hung shot the live-action footage in Studio E of the Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts in front of a green-screen, then manipulated the images in the post-production process, seamlessly blending elements like flamingos and a staircase made from floating chairs to tell a story with a fairy-tale like quality.

A still from Viola: The Traveling Rooms of a Little Giant. Hung said the flamingos were a metaphor for isolation.
“Even though I had all these non-cohesive visual elements, it was important to me that there be some kind of narrative feel,” said Hung. “I also wanted it to have a balance to it. It’s a story about women, but I have a male voice narrating, almost as if it’s a bedtime story. I liked the idea that the audience wouldn’t necessarily know that I was a female filmmaker, or that I was a Taiwanese filmmaker, even though I’m proud of being both. I wanted them to bring their own interpretations to the viewing experience.”

Prior to the award ceremony, the filmmakers had a whirlwind week of entertainment industry meetings and events, where they got to spend time with filmmakers of every stripe. “I really loved getting to meet amazing filmmakers like Caleb Deschanel [director of photography for The Natural] and Owen Roizman [DP for The French Connection],” said Hung. “Everyone I spoke with was incredibly encouraging and generous with advice, compliments and suggestions about what I could do next time.”

Uy enjoyed the loose atmosphere of the ceremony, hosted by fellow USC alum and Academy Award nominee Jason Reitman, ’99 (Juno, Thank You For Smoking). “Reitman kept joking around with AMPAS president Sid Ganis, asking him why he hadn’t won an Oscar.”

A growing sense of confidence may be the greatest outcome of the event for the filmmakers. “The real award wasn’t the medal,” said Hung. “Hearing ‘I really liked your film’ from audiences like that is what’s important. It made me feel like I might be doing the right thing.”

2008 Student Academy Award Winners

GOLD Student Academy Award for ALTERNATIVE film:

Viola: The Traveling Rooms of a Little Giant
Director/Animator:                               Shih-Ting Hung
Producer:                                               Joe Tamas
Cinematographer:                                 John Harrison
Sound Design:                                       Chevy Chen
Composer:                                            Natasha Miven
                                                              Cynthia Simonian

BRONZE Student Academy Award in DOCUMENTARY film:

If a Body Meet a Body
Director:                                               Brian Davis
Producers:                                            Sue Palmer
                                                             Rain Rucker
Cinematographer:                               David Woo
Editors:                                                José Asunción
                                                             Christopher Yogi
Sound:                                                  Jing Chen
                                                             David Welch
Original Music:                                     Andrea Datzman

GOLD Student Academy Award for  NARRATIVE film:

A Day’s Work
Writer/Director/Editor:                          Rajeev Dassani
Producers:                                             Charles Uy
                                                               Michael Tringe
                                                               Julie Sifuentes
Cinematographer:                                 Nicola Marsh
Editor:                                                   Manuel Martinez
Sound:                                                   Chris Brenner
                                                               Paul Fonarev
                                                               David Lankton
                                                               James Barth
Production Design:                                Clem Darling
                                                              Paul Barnaby

BRONZE Student Academy Award in NARRATIVE film:

Writer/Director:                                    Melanie Mcgraw
Cinematographer:                                Nicola Marsh
Producers:                                            Dina Gachman
                                                              Mary Posatko
                                                              Caitlin Taylor
Editors:                                                 Julien Guerif
                                                             Chris Cloyd
                                                             Miguel Becerra
Sound:                                                  Bethany Sparks
                                                             Dave Ciszewski
                                                             Elizabeth Johnson
                                                             Raj Patil
                                                             Tom Sanchez