Features and Columns · Movies

Blood, Sweat and Latex: Bluffing My Way into Film School

By  · Published on June 6th, 2011

by Shannon Shea

Special effects master Shannon Shea continues his trip down memory lane in an attempt to find relevance in the 21st century world of movie-making…

There was something I had known since I had seen Star Wars: I was going to leave the state of Louisiana to go to college. My older brother, who was a fellow film-nerd/fan/geek/whatever, had graduated in 1977 and gone to the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and was pretty much just miserable.

True, there was a lot of drinking to do, but aside from his joining a band (he was much more into music than I was), he didn’t share his taste for genre pop culture with many of the other students. And, as a historical note, the drinking age in Louisiana at this time was 18 so being drunk on a college campus in Louisiana was as required as “Introduction to English Literature,” and the grades were easier. Needless to say that by the time I was a High School Senior, he had dropped out and worked for a salvage company.

We both attended an all-male, Catholic High School in Marrero, Louisiana: Archbishop Shaw High School. It boasted being a “college prep” school, however, unless you were training to be an engineer, or a geologist, or some vocation that would keep you in a local oil field, Shaw had little to offer in those days. It did have football, which was a major focus for both the faculty and students. Not being from what would be described as a “sports family,” I had little interest in that or any sport. I knew I’d have to get the hell out of Louisiana.

The trouble was….where to go?

I could write 20 columns on the influence of the movie Star Wars on society and still not be able to scratch the surface, and it was this influence that brought USC Film School to national attention. I had read articles describing director George Lucas’s days at USC and the other filmmakers he was able to collaborate with in his early days because of the university and that sounded very attractive to me. I wanted to make movies and it seemed the logical choice.

UCLA was the other college in Los Angeles that boasted a film school. Although not as prestigious at the time, it certainly boasted alumni like Francis Ford Coppola and Jim Morrison of The Doors. It was confusing for a kid from Louisiana who had never been further west than Dallas, Texas to understand the California State University system and what could possibly make USC Film School better or worse than UCLA.

S.A.T. time was looming on the horizon and part of the process was that each student would be able to send their scores to four colleges of their choice. USC was on the top of the list followed by UCLA. I’d put UNO (the University of New Orleans) at the bottom of the list, just in case. At least UNO offered a degree in “communications” and perhaps I wouldn’t be completely miserable. However, I figured if I ended up going to school at UNO, it would mean that something would have gone horribly wrong and I’d deal with that eventuality, when and if it happened.

About this time, my father was scheduled to interview Eric Larson, who was a surviving, classic Disney animator. He was making the rounds visiting cities on a publicity tour for the theatrical re-release of the movie Sleeping Beauty (again, remember that cable TV was in its infancy, few people had betamax players, fewer VHS players – so studios still used to re-release features periodically). My father did something uncharacteristic and ultimately ironic…he asked me if I wanted to come along.

The interview was on a “school day” and by this time, my mother had kicked my father out of the house and they were in the process of divorcing. However, he had spoken to my school and had arranged for me to take the day off.

Wearing a brown turtleneck shirt and my best fake leather jacket, I joined my father and we met Mr. Larson at a fancy restaurant in the French Quarter (it has been so many years that I can’t remember if it was Brennan’s or The Court of Two Sisters…?). I had, at my father’s insistence, brought my sketchbook to show Mr. Larson. At the conclusion of the interview, my father insisted that I show my drawings to Mr. Larson, who, after paging through drawings of monsters and creatures, asked, “Have you considered attending The California Institute of the Arts?”

I hadn’t heard of it. Certainly, the priest who was the acting Guidance Counselor at Shaw never mentioned it. I had been given brochures for USC and UCLA because they were not just Film Schools…they were FOOTBALL schools (I’m not bashing football, it’s just the way things worked at my school then).

Larson went on to explain that CalArts (as it was commonly referred to) was “the school that Disney built” and existed to train the best of the best artists that the world had to offer in five different disciplines: Fine Art, Music, Dance, Acting, and Film. He also went on to explain that certainly the best animators in the world would train there in the hope of being recruited by the studio. Wow! I thought. Studio recruitment?! It sounded too good to be true (more on THAT, later). I thanked Mr. Larson and after a final exchange between he and my father, he left.

My father forbade me to go to school in California. He said it was too expensive and besides, I’d never last in “Show Business.” He knew. He’d been interviewing movie stars and filmmakers for years. In his mind, “Hollywood” would chew me up, spit me out, and leave me a blubbering emotional mess.

The next day, ignoring my father’s insight, I asked the Guidance Counselor priest to please get me the information for CalArts. Perplexed at such a request, he, nonetheless, produced a book the size of a Manhattan Phone Directory and began to page through it until he found the school listing. Armed with an address, I sent a request for a catalog that day.

A couple of weeks later, I received the CalArts catalog. It was beautifully designed (of course!) and to my surprise boasted alumni that had worked on Star Wars (including Adam Beckett (whose claim to fame was rotoscoping the electrical arcs on R2D2 after being shot by the Jawas!). A letter was included that stated that a CalArts representative would be in New Orleans during a college recruitment seminar in a few weeks and I could take that opportunity to show my portfolio.

A portfolio? I didn’t have a portfolio.

With information from my art teacher, Marlene Harris, I knew that I’d have to assemble a collection of my artwork that would not just demonstrate technical ability, but also what I hoped to accomplish at the school. Hmmmmm. I knew I would have to submit something impressive in order to compete. Then the answer came to me: Beowulf.

Since my freshman year, I loved the Viking tale of Beowulf, and why not? There was violence, monsters, incredible feats of superhuman strength and a dragon. So…when accepted at CalArts, I would finish the Beowulf project I had started!

Not really. I hadn’t started a Beowulf project. It was bullshit. I just thought it sounded cool and ambitious. On one hand it was “literate” on the other it had the potential to be visual and artistic. I began to draw. I designed characters, drew pre-production “scenes” and even did a crude animation pencil test of the beast, Grendel on three-hole paper.

When I showed my portfolio to the CalArts representative, he asked me about my Beowulf project and I described a confusing combination of live-action, animation, and practical special effects that would tell the story of human ambition and violence. What was I saying? The rep said that I was a prime candidate for the Film Graphics program and he concluded the interview by giving me a new catalog, and a contact to send my portfolio in for review by committee.

Six weeks or so later, I was holding an acceptance letter from the school. I regarded my acceptance letter from USC Film School as well. Tuition-wise, they were comparable, however, CalArts promised hands-on equipment training from the first day of classes; USC didn’t offer real film classes until junior year. CalArts it would be. I would be one of only 150 new students that had been accepted into the school. CalArts was small in those days with a complete student population of fewer than 800.

Just before we, the class of 1980, graduated, our Honors English teacher was asking us where we would be going to continue our education after High School. When she asked me, I told her that I’d be going to CalArts. Without hesitation, she said, “You’re going to a FAG school!” There was some nervous laughter in the class at her inappropriate response. It didn’t matter. I was getting the hell out of Louisiana.

NEXT WEEK: “The Good, The Bad, and The Avant-garde”

…And last time on Blood, Sweat and Latex: Never Lay a Beard on a Drunk

Shannon Shea, a native New Orleanian educated at The California Institute of the Arts, has enjoyed a 27-year tenure designing, constructing, and performing animatronic creatures and characters for Motion Pictures and Television. He has had the pleasure of contributing to such diverse films as Predator, Dances With Wolves, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Spy Kids, The Chronicles of Narnia, Drag Me To Hell and 2012’s Men In Black 3.

Not limited to the confines of Motion Pictures, he paints (having been shown in New York, North Carolina, and Los Angeles), sculpts, writes and authors a new blog about his motion picture experiences called Monster History 101. Recently, he was tapped by the Stan Winston School of Character Design to be one of their instructors for a lecture series entitled Garage Monsters. When not participating on Hollywood projects, he enjoys producing, writing, and directing his own short films including Hotel Superman, Blind Passion, and his current Internet project Phantom Harbor. Shannon lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Tracy, an Operatic Soprano and their daughter, Molly, who attends the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Related Topics:

This designation is reserved for our special friends and neighbors who pop in to contribute to the wondrous world of FSR.