Maine workshop a smart stop for tyro filmmakers

One of the film industry’s better-kept secrets is the Maine Film & Video Workshops, a series of classes and hands-on training seminars covering several facets of the filmmaking process. Located in the town of Rockport, Maine, the workshops were founded in 1973 by David Lyman, a journalist and photographer, to offer experienced photographers a place to work with master photographers. In 1975, Lyman expanded the program to include cinematography, and the programs continued to grow each year, with the addition last year of a large-scale digital technology facility.

Lyman says he started the workshops because he couldn’t find a place that fit his needs as a photographer in the early ’70s. The Aspen-based Center for the Eye, another workshop-style photography program, was going out of business, and the remaining three of four significant programs had themes or strictures that did not appeal to Lyman.

“That first year, I called up all the people that I had any inclination of working with,” Lyman says. “There were four or five guys from National Geographic, a few from Life and top fashion photographers from New York. Nobody turned me down.”

That first summer attracted 150 students, and Lyman lost $10,000. The second summer hosted 300 students, and Lyman lost the same amount. “I thought that wasn’t too bad,” he laughs. “The next summer we had 600 students, and that year I made money.” By 1976, the program was year-round and Lyman had made significant investments in real estate, as well as a commitment to make the workshops work on a long-term basis.

The first cinematography classes in the mid-’70s were based on the same formula that drove the photography workshops, namely an emphasis on the process of creating images rather than an emphasis on product. The first cinematography class was taught by Conrad Hall, and more than 80 people signed up. “They all wanted someone like Conrad to look at their cinematography and help them understand their mistakes,” Lyman explains.

The second year’s class was taught by Vilmos Zsigmond. Because processing footage was too time-consuming, Zsigmond decided to spend the first half of a weeklong seminar talking about images and the second half setting up and lighting scenes that would be shot with still cameras. The film could be processed overnight and viewed as slides the next day.

“We set up on the porch,” Lyman recalls, “and did three or four setups. The next day, the magic was incredible. Zsigmond talked all day about those slides and we realized we could teach lighting this way. The critique was important because people needed to hear a master talk, even with his heavy Hungarian accent, about imagery, about framing, and so on. And then setting up scenes was important because people needed to learn how to get past the toys and technology.”

Lyman tells an anecdote about the seductiveness of technology and Zsigmond’s ability to get students to overcome it: “One of the filmmakers had set up his lights on a small street in Rockport for his scenario when it began to rain and everything had to be unplugged. Then Zsigmond showed up and asked what the scene was. Then he asked how many cars were available. They ended up lighting the scene with moving cars. And that’s what we’re teaching here. Sure, you’ll learn about technology, but what we really stress is how to be resourceful and innovative.”

The workshops eventually added writing, editing, producing and even Steadicam classes, and Lyman says the film program now is larger than the photography program. “Half of the people who come are being sent by corporations, studios, and governmental agencies,” Lyman says. “Twenty percent of the enrollment comes from outside the U.S., and one-third of the students have been here before and have chosen to return. People can walk out of here and immediately demand more money.”

Classes are taught by an impressive array of cinematographers, editors, writers, directors and producers. Both L.A.- and New York-based filmmakers relish the opportunity to get to Maine for a week or two to teach in the summer, and their enthusiasm shows in the intensity of the weeklong seminars.

Last year, Lyman was able to expand the workshops into a college; he now offers a program that leads to a Master of Fine Arts Degree or an Associate of Arts Degree.

And he’s still going. “I’m still on the path to build this place,” Lyman says. “And I’m still driving the business to the edge financially every year. We’re loaned out at the bank, and I’m leveraging everything I can to get more cash to build more stuff to do more things. Eventually, I’m going to run out of energy, and then it will stop growing. But it’s not time yet; I can still see in my head where we can be.”

For a catalog, write to the Film & Video Workshops, 2 Central St., P.O. Box 200, Rockport, ME 04856; or call (207) 236-8581; or e-mail http://www.MEWorkshops.com

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