Tuesday, June 14, 2005

32nd annual student academy awards

This past Sunday afternoon I forced myself away from the sofa, out the door, and west of La Brea to attend the 32nd Annual Student Academy Awards at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theatre. Founded in 1972 to encourage filmmaking in university students, the Student Academy Awards are the only student film competition sanctioned and sponsored by the Academy. Past winners have included Spike Lee, Trey Parker, and Robert Zemeckis. It figured to be a great place to meet up-and-coming talent, and to see a few interesting films.

I arrived just seconds before they closed the front door. Just as I found my seat on the aisle, the lights dimmed and, unlike the ceremony we watch on television, there was no glitzy opening number and no wise-cracking actor/comedian-turned-host. The program listed Frank Pierson, President of the Academa, as the only speaker, but he didn't show up and sent Executive Director Bruce Davis to deliver the opening remarks instead. Mr. Davis said when they first launched the Student Academy Awards, they modeled it on the ceremony we see on television, but it was so sad to have these kids who were nominated fly out and look so dejected because they didn't win anything. "It's okay to torture professionals," he quipped, "but not kids." That got big laughs. In any case, they changed the awards structure so that student filmmakers weren't invited unless they won a gold, silver or bronze trophy.

One winner in each of the four categories (Narrative, Animation, Alternative, and Documentary) won the gold, Saul Bass-designed trophy and a $5,000 cash grant. The silver and bronze winners received $3,000 and $2,000 respectively and a $1,000 grant was awarded to the Honorary Foreign Filmmaker. All four of the gold-winning films (plus the winning Honorary Foreign Film) were shown after the awards ceremony and clips of the silver and bronze award winners were interspersed throughout the ceremony.

Voice actor June Ferrer and cinematographers Karl Walter Lindenlaub and Caleb Deschanel were called in to hand out awards and introduce young filmmakers. In handing out the documentary awards, Mr. Deschanel defined docs in this way, "They're like Michael Moore films only without Michael Moore." One Animation-category winner mentioned in his acceptance speech that he was glad to see that hand-drawn animation was still alive and kicking. Then June Ferrer announced the winner of the gold trophy in Animation, Shane Acker (of UCLA), and mentioned that his film "9" was computer-generated. This got huge groans from the audience. After an uncomfortable silence, Ms. Ferrer shrugged and said, "Hey, whaddya gonna do?"

A friend asked me earlier today what the main difference was between this ceremony and the one we're used to seeing - the grown-up, slick, big-budget production laden with red carpet coverage, paparazzi, goodie bags and publicity whores. They didn't have any red carpet arrivals, paparazzi, goodie bags or whores, it wasn't slick at all, and they're given all the time in the world to accept their awards. But mainly, these filmmakers were very young and hadn't yet grown bitter, jaded and/or cynical. And parents were still in shell-shock from having to finance their budding Spielberg's 30-minute short.

My favorite Hollywood/Not Hollywood moment came when one young filmmaker approached the podium to accept his award. At first very cavalier and nonchalant, he swaggered past June Ferrer and said glibly, "I love your shoes, June." Then he looked out into the audience, realized where he was, and stammered, "I practiced this in the shower, but now I'm drawing a blank." He then started weeping and whimpering as he launched into his thank you speech. Not just tears of joy or a catch in the throat, but openly weeping. He turned away from the microphone, then continued to cry and finally he bent over, covered his face in his hands and was wracked by sobs. A gasp rose up from the crowd. It was horrifying to watch, I wondered if someone was going to take him and lead him off the stage, wailing. But then he raised his head and the trophy, and cried out, "Roger Smith - thanks for the money." Touching.

The best film of the evening was one that I'd already seen. Alfonso Mayo's "Wednesday Afternoon" was featured on Not So Foreign Filmmaker's Showcase on SiTV last month. Starring Traffic's dreamy Jose Yenque, Mayo's film was a very sophisticated, tight little film that was a very effective calling card.

Also noteworthy was "Frog", a hand-drawn animated short by Christopher Conforti. This short elicited the strongest response, not just from the cleverly drawn animation, but because it showed a teenager trying to shit out a frog.

Here's the complete list of nominess, gold-medal winners listed below.

Gold-Medal Winners:
“Knock Knock,” Jaron Henrie-McCrea, Ball State University, Indiana
“9,” Shane Acker, University of California, Los Angeles
“The Life of Kevin Carter,” Dan Krauss, University of California, Berkeley
“Wednesday Afternoon,” Alonso F. Mayo, American Film Institute, Los Angeles

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