Don’t call it a film school. USC’s School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) rejects the notion of an old-fashioned celluloid-centric program to encompass training in all of today’s rapidly evolving media, including digital video, mobile phone apps, immersive environments, online webisodes and videogames.
Guiding the university to the pole position in cinema studies is Dean Elizabeth Daley, who embraces new initiatives and a digital/multimedia and cross-disciplinary approach to studying the art of the moving image. Despite her own department’s 80-year track record, Daley is quick to point to one hurdle still facing all such programs: making people realize they are relevant in an academic setting.
“Film, TV, media and the confluence of things we study are so critical to our culture and economy that if any university would dream of not teaching it, I still find that amazing,” says Daley, now beginning her 18th year on campus. “It’s so ingrained in everything we do, in the way we express ourselves, in how we reflect our society. Like all art, it tells us who we are and what’s important to us.”
Daley’s enthusiasm is echoed by the SCA’s many distinguished alums. Producer Laura Ziskin points to her fellow Trojans as evidence of the department’s success: “We’ve seen from graduates, and how they’ve influenced the industry, that the school is a major resource for the entertainment business.” Some alums, such as motion-capture innovator Robert Zemeckis, have even brought their experience back as instructors. For Disney’s Dick Cook, Daley’s most impressive quality has been “her ability to bring together the practical and theoretical components of the craft of filmmaking, and to embrace both Hollywood’s cinematic legacy and the wide realm of future possibilities.”
Daley has been a leader in adapting to new media, incorporating such emerging fields of study as interactive, animation and digital arts into the curriculum. Adaptability was an important consideration in the SCA’s ambitious new six-building complex, which has been designed with the intention of accommodating as-yet-unimagined forms of cinematic technology. But while state-of-the-art classrooms, soundstages and equipment are vital, Daley stresses that technology is always changing: “You’re not teaching programs or equipment. You’re teaching the underlying concepts.”
She cites editing as an example of fundamentals remaining as the tools evolve. “The dialectical nature of editing, the fact that meaning is created in film by juxtaposition of images, did not change because of digital editing; rather, the new process facilitated editing,” says Daley, while noting that the school was the first to have Avid editing systems.
As the strategic partnership with Avid demonstrates, USC has long sought and maintained important relationships within the industry, not only with tech companies but also with alumni. Because of the Trojans’ powerful alumni network, graduates have a significant foot forward when it comes to finding jobs (“The OC’s” Josh Schwartz landed a deal as a student, for example, and helmer Bryan Singer often hires other grads).
Central to the school’s DNA: Students are trained as pros and are prepared for a real-world industry careers, even as the landscape quickly evolves. “We are going to see a rapid growth in interactivity. People want to control their experience,” Daley predicts. Naturally, that evolution will raise new questions. “Portability: Where is that going? How will people relate to media? What kind of media do people want on their cell phone? The generation that is in school is the generation that’s going to solve these problems.”