Cinema school gets grand overhaul

High tech facilities built with help from Lucas

USC old-timers fondly remember “the stables,” a nickname for the rickety old structures that housed the university’s film department through the ’80s, so called because they looked like horse stalls. Those former students would never have imagined a day when the School of Cinematic Arts might dwarf other institutions on campus.

Now, the opening of the first two structures in an emerging six-building complex — named for George Lucas (the project’s principal donor) and Steven Spielberg — signifies a new set of priorities. Though the early California architecture recalls the school’s 1920s origins, the interior has been designed with a plethora of state-of-the-art production equipment and a blueprint that should make transitioning to as-yet-unknown technologies almost effortless.

The new complex, which broke ground in October 2006, stands at the heart of USC’s main campus and is expected to be completed by summer 2010. The first two buildings look like a single structure, rising four stories above subterranean post-production facilities and surrounding a central courtyard. Still to come are an animation and digital arts building and three production buildings largely consisting of soundstages.

Lucas, who has both undergrad and graduate degrees from the film school, says his support was motivated by concern that only half-measures were being undertaken as the program outgrew its space. “Most educational institutions don’t think of cinema as having a great deal of importance,” he says. “It’s not necessarily given the same respect as, say, law and medicine. But film is important to me, and I wanted the presence on campus to reflect its value.”

Lucas also didn’t care much for the design of the old building, going well beyond where most philanthropists venture and working in tandem with Urban Design Group on the new complex, down to the movie posters that adorn its walls.

“I’m a hobbyist architect,” Lucas says. “I’ve designed most of my corporate buildings, so I have some experience with practical, functional designs. I felt that this was a chance to create a design for the school that would serve its intended purpose while reflecting the campus’s historical roots. I hoped that having a landmark building on campus would help give the university — and the program — a higher profile.”

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