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Variety’s Mentor of the Year, Bradley Battersby, Takes Experimental Approach to Teaching Film

When Bradley Battersby was hired to head the undergraduate film department at Ringling College of Art and Design in 2009, the program was so small fellow professors on campus didn’t even know that it existed.

“We were pretty nimble, we had a new curriculum and it was a little bland,” says Battersby, who is being honored by Variety as Mentor of the Year, of those nascent days at the Sarasota school. “We had just gone through accreditation, and we had to change everything. I had to get the word out about it, the college didn’t even know we had a film program. They had tried before to get momentum, they had gone through two other department heads, but it was tough.

“Ringling was out in front in terms of making art with computers — in particular, its animation program grew up literally alongside Pixar — so they had tasted success and thought they might have success with a film program, but they didn’t.

“So it was up to me to define what we could do here at Ringling to make ourselves unique, and make ourselves special and stand out.”

To start, the program didn’t yet have the necessary filmmaking equipment — there was no soundstage, no grips. So Battersby, who studied theater at Stanford and earned a graduate degree in film from American Film Institute, took on the challenge of building that stash from the bottom up, including buying a decommissioned grip truck that he bought for “pennies on the dollar” in Miami.

“It wasn’t pretty and the grip stuff in it was super old, but it still worked,” he says. “And when we drove it around Ringling I had gaggles of people stopping and asking us, ‘Is this for a big movie being filmed here? Is this for a television show?’ And we told them, ‘Not it’s for Ringling.’ So that helped us get out in front of things.”

When designing Ringling’s film program curriculum, Battersby, who’s sold projects to HBO and Universal, implemented an experimental hands-on approach, something he endorsed at the other film schools at which he’s taught, including AFI, Chapman U. and the Maine Workshops, where in 2001 he created a pre-professional film program for high school students at the Idyllwild Arts Academy.
“I am never very far from my 18-year-old self and what I wanted in film school way back when,” says Battersby. “And I really wanted Sydney Pollack, for example, to get up with a room of actors and actually stage a scene. I wanted to see Peter Weir put his music to his movies. I wanted to get everyone in the move and in the groove.”

To this end, with the support of Ringling’s president, Larry Thompson, Battersby and David Shapiro of Semkhor Productions launched the Ringling College Studio Lab program, in which entertainment professionals would visit campus and engage in conversation and filmmaking exercises with students. First guest: Werner Herzog.

“I said [to Werner], ‘What do you want to do?’ Let’s think beyond the four-room classroom,’” says Battersby. “And he was totally into it. He’s a natural, so he loved the discussion. He ended up coming back twice. It was his idea to bring Joe Bini, his longtime editor, and he set up one of the classrooms as a big, huge editing room. He invited 15 of our students and our faculty to watch as he edited over the course of, like, 10 days, all day long, with Joe. And he would ask the students, ‘Hey, what do you think of that?’ It was the best fly-on-the-wall experience we could ever have had. And it was entirely from Werner, it was entirely his idea.”

Since its inception, the Lab has proven a big hit among students, with guest artists including Aubrey Plaza of “Parks and Recreation” and “The Magnificent Seven” helmer Antoine Fuqua. Ringling students have earned professional credits in three in-house Studio Lab projects, including two web series created and directed by Justin Long and Dylan McDermott, and the Sundance indie feature “Dark Night,” directed by Tim Sutton.

“I daydreamed when I was in film school, ‘wow, what if I could have gotten a job on a movie?’ and it never happened for me, and most other students at film schools, but I never lost that urge,” says Battersby. “So as our Studio Lab program started to mature, a number of the guest artists would bond with the students in our program, and they were starting to hire some of the students, and some of them started to think, ‘hey, these students are really good.’”

A Design in Film grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has also made it possible for Battersby to bring costume designer Ann Roth (“Midnight Cowboy,” “The Reader”) and cinematographer Wally Pfister (“Inception”) to campus. And this fall, Battersby will have a brand new, state-of-the-art complex in which to head his department, complete with five soundstages, dressing rooms, a Foley stage and editing suites.

In an industry in which many aspiring filmmakers go the self-taught route, Battersby remains one of the biggest proponents of a structured film school education.

“In a film school environment, we get to experiment, we get to learn,” he says. “I allow and encourage my students not to take the safe route. If they have a revolutionary idea, one that I’m not sure we’re going to be able to pull off, I want to see them do it. We celebrate the pure art and the working with cinema as a way to express ourselves here in film school, and that’s rare in the real world.”

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