Lights, Camera, Action

By staff January 18, 2010

Big news in digital film at Ringling College of Art and Design.

By Charlie Huisking

The computer animation department at the Ringling College of Art and Design is justifiably famous. Its graduates have gone on to work for Disney, Pixar and other animation powerhouses, on projects ranging from Shrek and Up to The Princess and the Frog.

Until last week, however, fewer people were aware that Ringling also has a digital filmmaking department, which trains students who want to make movies with living, breathing human beings in them. 

But on Thursday, that program took a metaphorical walk down the red carpet, as director Werner Herzog helped Ringling inaugurate its digital filmmaking studio lab with plenty of fanfare.

An internationally respected film icon whose credits include the drama Fitzcarraldo and the haunting documentary Grizzly Man, Herzog was the first of many directors, screenwriters, producers and actors who will be sharing their insights with Ringling students in the lab environment.

“Our students will have the opportunity to work with the best and the brightest in the industry,” Ringling president Larry Thompson told a gathering of journalists and college supporters.

 Several industry guests will be on campus each semester for varying time periods. Eventually, Ringling hopes to construct sound stages that would be used for student productions and that would be available to professional filmmakers shooting on location in Sarasota.

“The potential benefits of these ongoing creative relationships for our Ringling College students and the greater Sarasota area are vast,” Thompson said.

In an earlier interview, Thompson said the three-year-old digital filmmaking major is still in its “gestation period,” with only 28 students taking such courses as directing, screenwriting and editing. “But we want to make it a pre-eminent program, just as computer animation and graphic design and illustration are,” Thompson said. “The creation of the lab is a major step in that direction.”

 Department head Bradley Battersby said he expects enrollment in digital filmmaking to triple in the next three years.  He said the program will emphasize the storytelling aspect of filmmaking, and that it will “push the boundaries of cinema.”

“We don’t want to just do things the same old Hollywood way, “ Battersby added. And referring to two of America’s top film schools, he said Ringling “doesn’t intend to be a second-rate New York University or a second-rate University of Southern California. We want to be a first-rate Ringling College, and to be a program that is unique.”

Herzog, an independent spirit known for his uncompromising vision, was the perfect filmmaker to help inaugurate such a program. “I can talk to students about how to work outside the system, how to survive in the wilderness and be self-reliant,” he said. “Because when you graduate, 20th Century Fox is not going to be at your doorstep, ready to offer you the next romantic comedy. You have to learn how to take your fate into your own hands, how to make a film for a minimal budget.”

Herzog spent two days on campus with the students. Thompson said that after one three-hour session, “The students didn’t want to leave. They swarmed around him like bees to honey. They couldn’t get enough information from him. That’s exactly the kind of environment we want to create here.”

Noting that he made three films and wrote a book last year, Herzog said his plate is too full for him to be a regular presence at Ringling. “But I would like to come back, and to be of assistance in any way I can,” he said.

“If I can contribute some sort of wild spirit to this program, that would be great.”

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