Features and Columns · Movies

Blood, Sweat and Latex: The Good, The Bad, and the Avant-garde

By  · Published on June 13th, 2011

by Shannon Shea

California Institute of the Arts or CalArts as it was known, informally, was set on a hill just off of the 5 freeway in Valencia, California (NOTE: It is still there, I toured it four years ago as a potential college choice for my daughter, but I’m telling a story here, right?). In 1980, when I arrived, CalArts was basically two buildings: The Main School building, and a set of dormitories. Inside the Main building, the schools were cordoned off like “Delos” in Westworld, but instead of “Westworld,” “Medievalworld,” and “Romanworld,” CalArts had the Music School, the Drama School, the Fine Arts School, the Dance School, and the Film School. The Film School, then, was subdivided into three departments: The Disney Animation School, The Live Action School, and The Film Graphics Department.

I was in the last of those three.

Keep in mind, that there was very little in the way of consumer computers in 1980 and there might have been some people messing with digital graphics at CalArts in 1980, but it was nowhere near what is being produced today.

The Disney School was the most structured of the three film schools from what I could tell. Every day, lines of students holding drawing boards and carrying plastic Art Boxes would go through the wooden double doors to attend classes in Life Drawing, Design, Animation, Color Theory, etc. And folks, that is where the structure at CalArts seemed to end.

I know very little about what went on in the Live Action school, but I do know that the “mentor” of the program was Alexander “Sandy” Mackendrick, who had directed the classics The Man in the White Suit, and The Ladykillers. All I can personally recall about the Live Action program was seeing Sandy drift down the hall (looking a bit like the character Alan Swann from My Favorite Year) being followed by a couple of skinny, hairy, film students in tow, asking questions. I had seen some of the Live Action Departments films screened at the school, but they raised more questions than provided answers.

Finally, there was the Film Graphics Program. No one was ever 100% sure what that meant. We were the students that didn’t fit into the other two programs. Some were animators, some were filmmakers, but all were personalities that I’ll never forget. Our mentor was Jules Engel, an animator from the now defunct UPA animation studios that were responsible for Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing. I believe the reason Jules was chosen (and this is in hindsight), was for the really surreal nature of those cartoons. Take a look sometime at the way they look and what happens in them. They are very removed from the traditional animation done by Disney, Hanna-Barberra, or even the Fleischer studio (the most surreal of the three).

When I enrolled in the school, there appeared to have been some “small writing” that I ignored, primarily because at the tender age of 17, I had no idea what it meant. But this turn of phrase affected my experience at CalArts (and the experiences of quite a few of my friends of whom I’m still in touch from those days). The turn of phrase was “Avant-garde.” CalArts was an Avant-garde School. Wikipedia defines Avant-garde thusly:

“Avant-garde represents a pushing of the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo, primarily in the cultural realm.”

In a nutshell, CalArts expected its students to do unusual, unique, different work – nothing conventional!

The truth is that the term Avant-garde was bandied about all over the school catalog, I just didn’t bother to figure out what it meant and I say that because my experiences at CalArts, good or bad, were the result of my own ignorance.

Across from the Main School building were the dorms, my second year at CalArts, they had decided to build more dorms in an effort to accept more students and house them (but that is for another day). The dorms were separated into two “towers” an East and West. I was in the East Tower (I say tower, I think there were three floors in the East and four in the West), and shared a room with Stephen Burg, a tall, shy, skinny kid from New Jersey who would become a prominent production illustrator working on films like The Abyss, Terminator 2, and Dances with Wolves.

gallery columns=”2" orderby=”title”

From Top Left to Bottom Left: My first Grendel mask, my first werewolf fangs, The Main building as I saw it for the first time, one of Steve Burg’s oil paintings done in our dorm room, my side of the dorm room (excuse the mess).

Steve, like me, had read about the Star Wars alumni and had decided to follow their footsteps to a career in Visual Effects. He wasn’t a creature guy, per se; he loved hardware: space ships, planets, alien cultures, etc. His big influences were Douglas Trumbull (of 2001, Close Encounters, and Star Trek: TMP fame), Syd Mead (futurist artist who would design Bladerunner), and Ron Cobb (who had designed the earth technology for Alien). He, like me, was obsessed with his interests and it wasn’t unusual to find him sitting on the end of his bed, Starlog Magazine in hand, studying photos of the “Enterprise dry-dock sequence” from Star Trek. Here’s the thing: Steve was a genius at 18. I had never known anyone to be so apt (and that is a weak word) at what they did.

He would crank out an oil painting per day that would result in a vision of a fictional Starship, or exploratory ground vehicle that would be dwarfed against an alien vista. When not doing that, he would be producing marker sketches (not unlike those done by Joe Johnston for Star Wars) at an impressive speed. His proficiency was intimidating.

I know I freaked him out at first. I had grown a beard (my little personal protest against four years of Catholic School), my hair had grown out, I had photos of Tracy and myself between photos of monsters and creatures. My side of the room was a complete mess. We had studio space, but it wasn’t conducive to the kind of work I was pursuing. I know I tried his patience, but judging by our still-existent friendship, we both could have done worse for roommates.

The Film Graphics Department, as I said before, basically consisted of a large room with cubicles for the students. Inside of every cubicle was a drawing table with an animation disc (a rotating, round, drawing surface with a centered, under-lit ‘Milk-Plexiglas’ rectangle beneath an animation peg-board for holding animation paper). And sitting in these cubicles were: “Savage” Steve Holland (director of One Crazy Summer and Better Off Dead), Peter Chung (creator of Aeon Flux for MTV), Wes Archer (director of King of the Hill and Beavis and Butt-head), James Belohovek (miniature builder for Aliens, Dreamscape, and The Addams Family), and Drew Neumann (who went on to compose music for too many Nickelodeon cartoon series to name). These were just a few of the very talented people with whom I shared a classroom. This was good. However, when it came time for instruction, things….weren’t so good.

The Film Graphics classes were unstructured to say the least. There were no “grades” and most of your “performance” in the school was based on two reviews: one, sophomore year, and the other, senior year. This meant you, in theory, could just glide through your experience at CalArts and only be answerable for your work, twice. Unlike the Disney school, where every student had to produce and turn in work for grades, we in the Film Graphics Department did a lot of discussion about what we hoped to produce one day. That isn’t to say that no one worked. It was quite the opposite. CalArts was a self-starting school. If you were interested in producing work, then you produced work.

Jim Belohovek, inspired by The Black Hole, had a HUGE spaceship miniature in his dorm room across the hall. Another animator, Rick Garside, was building miniature sets and making Stop Motion Puppets for a short film he was producing. Peter Chung animating INCREDIBLE short pencil-tested films, unlike anything I had ever seen before. However this work was being done in spite of the instruction of the school, not inspired by it.

So, like everyone else, I bought my materials, and with knowledge shared by other students with similar interests, I started sculpting monsters.

NEXT WEEK: “Make Up Effects Explosion!”

…And last time on Blood, Sweat and Latex: Bluffing My Way Into Film School

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.

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