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Student Academy Awards: Meet the Winners

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences celebrated the winners of the 42nd Student Academy Awards on Sept. 17 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. After a week full of industry activities, Variety caught up with each of the winners to discuss the inspiration behind their films, the directors they look up to and the lessons they’ve learned from their time in Hollywood.

Alternative winners ChiHyun Lee and Daniel Drummond, second and fourth from left, with “Big Hero 6’s” Chris Williams, Don Hall and Roy Conli.

Daniel Drummond, “Chiaroscuro,” Chapman Univ. (Gold, Alternative)

How did you develop the concept for “Chiaroscuro”? I was watching a robotics competition…and I was amazed at how people could get emotionally involved in something completely inanimate. So I took upon myself the challenge of making a visually abstract film where characters were shape shifting clouds or flames, but didn’t resemble humans and had no dialogue, and tried to elicit an emotional response and tell a story with these two characters.

What inspires you as a filmmaker? I’m often inspired by the stories that tackle the darker side of humanity. Not movies that necessarily have villains or people doing evil things, but movies in which you can at least see a glimpse of why people become this way.

Favorite directors: Michael Mann, Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Favorite movie this year: “Sicario” and “Mad Max: Fury Road”

What was the most important lesson you learned this week? We got to meet alumni – past Student Academy Award winners – and that was the most enlightening thing. Each one of them, after they won their award, followed completely different paths to success in their careers… It was a relief that there’s some flexibility and it is an industry in which you can create your own path. That’s very inspiring.

ChiHyun Lee, “Zoe,” The School of Visual Arts, New York (Silver, Alternative)

How did you come up with the visuals for this film? I really wanted to create a film that every generation could sympathize with. My inspiration is going backward in film to (see) what kind of story everyone can understand. I chose to make a microcosm of the life of time. I spent a lot of time figuring out what kind of symbols represent the different ages of the character, so I tried to create different shapes and colors to show their different ages.

Favorite director: Christopher Nolan

Favorite movie this year: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

What was the most important lesson you learned this week? How to be a professional. We have met a lot of professionals in the industry and they gave us great advice about how to be a director and leader. It was very touching and their ideas are so original, like being nice to other people and don’t blame people if you’re a leader.

Animation winners Seth Boyden, Alyce Tzue, Elizabeth Ku-Herrero and Nicholas Manfredi

Alyce Tzue, “Soar,” Academy of Art University, San Francisco (Gold, Animation)

What was the inspiration behind your film? I feel like the idea for this particular animation came from the fascination that I’ve always had with the fact that as we grow older we, in a way, stop asking these incessant questions about the world around us, like why is the sky blue? What are clouds? Of course, naturally we learn that cloud are gaseous bodies of water vapor in the sky instead of cotton balls that someone stuck up there. So I made the film as a twist on an explanation for natural phenomena that we as adults sort of take for granted.

Favorite director: Hayao Miyazaki

Favorite movie this year: Boyhood

What was the most important lesson you learned this week?  As much as they’ve showered us with attention and praise, which we’re very flattered by, it has also made us realize that we are truly at the very beginning of our careers and that we have a long way to go. There is a lot of hard work, a lot of people to meet, a lot of networking to be done, to really make your career take off. Hard work is my biggest takeaway. You need to be so dedicated to this industry in order to succeed.

Seth Boyden, “An Object at Rest,” California Institute of the Arts (Silver, Animation)

How did you develop the story behind your film? The inspiration came when I was taking a walk with my dad back where I grew up in the Midwest. We were walking down a gravel road that was made of crushed limestone – these big limestone boulders that had been there for millions of years but in the course of maybe a couple weeks were pounded down by people and spread across this road… The premise of the film was brought about by that particular walk. The character was actually based on a fossil my dad and I found when I was very young.

Favorite director: Joel and Ethan Coen

Favorite movie this year: “Whiplash”

What was the most important lesson you learned this week? We’re all telling the same kind of narrative – a narrative shown by the illusion of creating an image on a screen. But because of the fact that we come from so many different backgrounds and cultures, everyone has a different story to tell. It’s really inspiring to hear what they have experienced.

Nicholas Manfredi and Elizabeth Ku-Herrero, “Taking the Plunge,” The School of Visual Arts (Bronze, Animation)

What made you choose to base the film on a proposal gone awry? Ku-Herrero: For me, I needed the kind of environment that would be challenging to me and would be enough of a time lapse. We were specifically looking for something that would complement all of our skills. We started looking at environments and where we would want to focus and since we were going to work on this for about a year in one room with no windows, we thought (the film) was going to be a little more cheery. We were very attracted to kind of a coastal town and we thought we wanted to go into the ocean somehow, so we were all brainstorming and I kind of thought of the idea of “what if there was this guy proposing to his girlfriend, he drops the ring, and dives in after it?” That was the initial idea that sparked the whole thing.

Favorite director: Elizabeth Ku-Herrero: Louis C.K.; Nicholas Manfredi: Pete Docter

Favorite movie you saw this year: Elizabeth Ku-Herrero: “Amelie”; Nicholas Manfredi: “Inside Out”

What was the most important lesson you learned this week? 

Elizabeth Ku-Herrero: I think I’ve been kind of re-inspired in the filmmaking aspect simply by my fellow winners. After seeing their screenings Monday night, the narrative was so strong. I was so blown away. In animation we’re focusing on the visuals, and to see where they are alongside us is incredibly inspiring.

Nicholas Manfredi: I was really inspired by the filmmakers we got to meet throughout the week. These are people who are legends to us who have been doing this for so long but still love it so much. They are at that level and they still care so much about their films and their characters. It really inspires me to have that much passion.

Documentary winners Meg Smaker, Alexandre Peralta, Emily Kassie

Alexandre Peralta, “Looking at the Stars,” Univ. of Southern California (Gold, Documentary)

How did you discover this ballet academy for the blind? I’m from Sao Paulo, so when I first heard about it I had curiosity and I thought, how does it work? And when I saw it I thought, I have to tell this story. It’s just so beautiful and the posture and how proud they are of who they are in spite of all the challenges they have to face every day. So from curiosity I started really caring about those people and I just wanted to know them more and know about their lives…They put so much emotion into the dance and I wanted to know everything behind it.

Favorite movie this year: “The Second Mother”

What was the most important lesson you learned this week? We met so many (filmmakers) and they were so nice and so humble and so approachable. I think the biggest lesson is always be nice and always work hard.

Emily Kassie, “I Married My Family’s Killer,” Brown Univ. (Silver, Documentary)

What inspired you to tell this story? I’ve been going to east Africa since I was about 14, so I spent a lot of time in Kenya and I started going to Rwanda when I got to Brown. I spent the summer traveling the country and collecting testimony around Rwanda. I fell in love with the country and this idea of reconciliation. I couldn’t understand how you could go through such an atrocity and still come out of it with some sort of compassion and the ability to go on… I knew that there were these communities where people were living next to the people that killed their families and I thought, “how far do those relationships go?”

Favorite director: Joshua Oppenheimer

Favorite movie this year: “Tomorrow We Disappear”

What was the most important lesson you learned this week? First of all, that my peers are exceptionally talented. I feel like a novice in comparison because they’re extraordinary. There were two big pieces that resonate with me. One of them was from Billy Ray. He said, “Never take the credit. Always take the blame and be kind to everyone.” That’s something that I hope to live by. The other great piece of advice was…do good work and make sure you’re doing what you’re passionate about. That’s something I really hope to continue to do.

Meg Smaker, “Boxeadora,” Stanford Univ. (Bronze, Documentary)

How did you learn the story of this female boxer in Cuba? I’m actually a competitive boxer, and I had a fight in the summer and I wanted to go away and get back in shape and train for the fight. So I decided to go to Cuba for two months and train as a fighter because Cuba has the best boxers in the world. I bought a ticket to Havana and the day after I landed I discovered that female boxing was banned in Cuba. I went around trying to find a fight club and finally found one that would take me in and that’s where I met Namibia and we trained together for two months. By the end of it I was so inspired by her story that I thought I would go back and do my thesis film on it.

Favorite movie this year: “Cartel Land” and “Meet the Patels”

What was the most important lesson you learned this week? It was in a private conversation I had with one of the filmmakers that came to give this talk and we were talking about when you’re the director and you’re in charge of the crew. I think it’s our natural human instinct to want everyone to like us and like what we’re doing and agree with us. What they told me was, “Find your love at home.” Have that person you have at home and have them be your rock and have them support you and that’s going to be your sounding board. That will help you make the hard decisions on location.

Narrative winners Bennett Lasseter, Henry Hughes and Jeremy Cloe

Henry Hughes, “Day One,” American Film Institute, California (Gold, Narrative)

What was the inspiration behind your film? It’s based on a real story. I was in Afghanistan and did two tours and on my second tour I had a female interpreter. Basically, I spent a year in combat with her and I thought she’s pretty much the coolest person I’ve ever met. It takes a really strong person to withstand that much pressure in a male-dominated culture, both locally and in the military. So that in itself, I think, is worthy of telling.

Favorite director: Alfonso Cuarón

Favorite movie this year:Mad Max: Fury Road”

Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Making dinner with my family in the countryside.

What was the most important lesson you learned this week? I learned that there is amazing history in this town, and to get to be a part of that was awesome.

Jeremy Cloe, “This Way Up,” American Film Institute (Silver, Narrative)

Why was this story important to you? I grew up in Las Vegas and I used to see these storm drains and I hadn’t really gone deep inside until I was a little bit older. When I did, I just remember this feeling of being able to disappear down there and something about that was always interesting to me because there are so many tunnels that go all throughout the city. A few years later I had a friend that I was close with and he became homeless for six months and he lived in these tunnels and I didn’t find that out until after. That stuck with me because I had no idea he was in there and all of my friends would have helped him out if we knew that. But it’s something about not being able to reach out and ask for help, I think.

Favorite director: David O. Russell

Favorite movie this year:Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”

Where do you see yourself in 10 years? I would love to be working with the same people I’m working with now and hopefully many more as well and working in television and features. Hopefully I’ll have a couple features under my belt and I would have a TV show set up that’s a couple seasons in or something like that.

What was the best part of your experience this week? I can already feel the ways that this has changed my life for the better and I’m really excited about that relationship that we’ve built and the introduction we’ve had. I’m looking forward to making the most of those opportunities.

Bennett Lasseter, “Stealth,” American Film Institute (Bronze, Narrative)

What inspired you to create this film about a transgender girl? It was kind of inspired by an article we read about two twins born at birth identically and one of them by the age of eight started to transition. That made the producers think about what it means to be transgender. We did a lot of research talking to families with trans kids around the country, talking to people who are transgender and have grown up, and it ended up leading us to Kristina, who was our lead actress, who is also transgender and transitioned to living as a girl full-time eight months prior to production. With all that in mind, it kind of fueled the story to be what it was. We wanted to keep it honest the whole way through.

Favorite director: George Roy Hill and Hayao Miyazaki

Favorite movie this year:Ant-Man”

Where do you see yourself in 10 years? I hope that I’m able to have at least a feature or two or three under my belt. I very much want to try to move into that realm. I want to have surrounded myself with creative, like-minded people that challenge me and push me and I can do the same for them.

What was the most important lesson you learned this week? The theme that we talked about with a lot of panels and industry professionals was maintain your voice. We’re at this early stage in our careers and even though we’ll go through hell and back for films and stories, we need to make sure that we maintain the independent voice that we have now – that thing that makes our stories unique – because it’s very easy to lose sight of that.

Foreign winners Ilker Catak, Patrick Vollrath, Dustin Loose

Ilker Catak, “Fidelity,” Hamburg Media School, Germany (Gold, Foreign)

How did you connect with this story? For me, it was a very emotional thing because it was 2013 and I am originally from Istanbul and I’ve got lots of family there and there was an uprising and it came to the brink of revolution… I wanted to make a film about it.

Favorite director: Paul Thomas Anderson, Alfonso Cuaron

Favorite movie this year: “Victoria”

What was the most important lesson you learned this week? We’ve been lucky enough to visit the holy halls of the Academy. We saw the archives and we saw how much devotion people have for this and it’s really something special to be part of this.

Dustin Loose, “The Last Will,” Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany (Silver, Foreign)

How did you develop this story? The short film is based on a short story by a Swedish writer. It’s a five-page short story and I read it and was immediately infected by it because of the intensity and because of the conflict that’s set up…It’s a short story where two men are sitting at a table and talking about something that happened 30 years ago. Everyone told me, “You’re totally crazy. It can’t be a good film in the end.” I said, “Yeah it is,” and I took the challenge and now we’re here tonight.

Favorite director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Favorite movie this year: “Victoria”

What was the most important lesson you learned this week? You get the most strength when you stick together.

Patrick Vollrath, “Everything Will Be Okay…,” Filmakademie Wien, Austria (Bronze, Foreign)

How did you come up with the idea for this film? My film is about a father who kidnaps his own daughter. I got the idea from a newspaper article. I wanted to get deeper into why someone who should love his own child was doing something that maybe hurts her so much. It was the thing I wanted to discover.

Favorite director: Steven Spielberg and James Cameron

Favorite movie you saw this year: “United 93”

What was the most important lesson you learned this week? It’s something that I got confirmed – work hard, keep on doing what you want to do, and maybe in the end it works out.

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