Most seventh graders aren’t quite sure about what they want to be when they grow up. At that age, I already had my entire adult life mapped out. I’d attend Stanford or some other prestigious school with a big name and an equally hefty price tag, but in my freshman year I would create an insanely successful startup with my genius roommate. (I wasn’t quite sure what we’d make, but I reasoned that we could hash out the details later.) Eventually, my business would take up too much of my time to run, and I would drop out of college to continue expanding it. It would become so ridiculously profitable that I would be able to buy out both Apple and Microsoft and merge them to create a supercompany called Micrapple. Then I’d retire at the age of 30 and move to Disneyland. Ah, the American Dream.
At first, this story was simply a way for me to counter the adults who expected a seventh grader to know what she wanted to do with her life. After hearing my plans,most adults would look at me uncomfortably, chuckle and wish me luck, then finally make me promise to save them some stock options. Of course, this was never going to happen. Why would I give some random strangers stock options potentially worth billions of dollars? Oh, and I guess the whole dropping out of Stanford part wouldn’t really work either, because there was no way in hell my Asian parents would let me throw away their chance of having a daughter that was a Stanford graduate. [UPDATE: Sorry mom, didn’t get into Stanford.] Still, I found it enjoyable creating a narrative by taking elements from well-known success stories and putting my own ridiculous spin on it, subtly critiquing the Silicon Valley achievement culture in the process. I wanted to make people think about their preconceived notions of success. This was something I found fascinating about storytelling — I could be subversive without being obvious about it.
Indeed, my fascination with stories has always manifested itself in various ways throughout my life. I just wasn’t always so punk rock about it. Before the creation of my Stanford success story, my interest in words began in preschool, when my teacher suggested I begin writing poetry. My first poem was about the stars. I continued writing poems, finding new ways to describe the things around me. Poems led to prose, and I now have an outlet to write in my school’s newspaper, publishing new articles every month. And with words came pictures. I began drawing at a young age, always doodling on my homework and drawing elaborate costumes on people in newspapers. Maybe that’s where my rebellious streak started. I wasn’t the most technically gifted artist, but that didn’t stop me from branching out to comics. I learned enough to be able to draw things I’d be proud of, and if I was unsure about anything, I’d just ask my friends or look it up on the Internet. By learning constantly and practicing often, I’ve developed an eye for design and improved my drawing skills. Two years ago, I decided to put these skills to good use and started A Study in Chartreuse, a blog that I guess I’d say is part study guide and part webcomic (follow me on Tumblr!). It presents the content found in my textbooks in a more concise way and with much cuter illustrations. In this, I’ve found an alternative use for media that actually serves a greater function.
I’ve also been adept at communicating through sound in the form of music. I started on piano in first grade, then also decided to sing in a choir and play percussion. In particular, playing percussion has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Contrary to popular belief, percussion does not only encompass drums; it includes all instruments you can hit to produce sound. Through playing many of these different instruments, I’ve come to appreciate an entire world of styles. Of course, there’s that Western orchestral tradition that we all know and love, but through percussion, I was also exposed to Afro-Cuban grooves, the dissonance of the contemporary sound, and even the traditional drumming of Taiwan. Learning all of these varied approaches has made me a better player, and this has helped me widen my perspective on learning. However, the most important thing that I’ve learned from being a percussionist is the importance of collaboration. Sure, there’s all the dirty logistical stuff that you could be referring to — who shares which mallets, who sets up the cymbal stands, and most importantly, who puts it all away — but within any percussion section, rhythm is everything, and it can’t happen without every person locking in with each other as well as the rest of the ensemble. Now, I always take care to really stop and listen to others. This has been perhaps one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my entire artistic career.
Even though I have so many different interests, they mostly existed as separate spheres of influence that barely touched each other for a few years until one fateful summer when I realized that I could join all of these worlds in one harmonious medium: the moving picture. Since then, I’ve created several films, with no regrets except one: not realizing the potential of filmmaking as a storytelling medium sooner. I think that my pursuit of all these different artistic disciplines has made me a better filmmaker in the process. My background in writing has helped me communicate ideas, to make them tangible. The influences of my design background can be seen in the spectrum of visual style in my films. Finally, my background in music has not only given me an encyclopedic knowledge of style, but also a great feeling for time. I’ve found that rhythm is incredibly important, especially for making films. Now, as a filmmaker, I find myself constantly using the things I’ve learned from other fields to tell better stories and, most of all, create better art.
In all of my art, I believe that integrity is important, to not only stay true to the source but also to my vision as an artist. I want to breathe new life into those time-honored concepts like the hero’s journey, but still respect the underlying elements that drive each narrative. After all, authenticity is what makes art relatable. It’s what makes stories resonate with people. Therefore, I’m interested in capturing different aspects the human experience, since this creates the heart of any film, but I also want to do it in a way that is against the norm. Maybe that’ll be by writing a mind-blowing plot twist, and maybe that’ll be by incorporating new technology into my storytelling. Who knows. The future is a crazy place. I just know that I want to create work that will make people think — about their perceptions, about their convictions, and about their lives. And that’s what I’m going to do when I grow up.
How to get in: USC School of Cinematic Arts
Article by Ben Feuer, Photos by Ben Feuer (except the one of Sean Connery, obv)
Let’s get this straight right off the bat -- USC is not your father’s film school. Even if your father is Sean Connery.
WHY TO GO:
In our August 13th 2015 visit to USC’s campus and conversation with admissions counselor Lucy Leon, we covered the gamut of USC’s exciting, dynamic and sometimes dizzying set of new horizons and opportunities, and we’re here to give you the straight scoop on what the Trojans have been cooking up.
More than any other MFA/PH.d program in the United States, USC is tuned in to the rapidly evolving media landscape. Although they still retain a dominant position in the (Hollywood) filmmaking pantheon because of the size of their alumni network (12,000+ at last census, including hundreds of prominent directors and writers), USC’s eyes are clearly trained on what they consider to be the future: episodic, new media and interactive.
One great example of this is USC’s allowance for interdisciplinary study – you can cross-enroll in any of USC’s 7 majors, which means even if your focus is game design you can pick up a bit of cinematography along the way.
USC’s screenwriting program is becoming more and more television oriented, following both students’ taste and the overall job market. That said, if you’re still a feature-head no one is going to stop you from doing your portfolio that way, it’s just less common than it was when spec scripts were selling in the high six figures on a semi-regular basis.
USC was never a particularly strong independent cinema program, and despite their prominent featuring of Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler in their promotional videos, USC is not going to be a place where you develop your independent voice as a writer – it’s too regimented, too busy and far too technical a program for that.
The gaming division, on the other hand, has a decidedly indie vibe, with Jenova Chen https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jenova_Chen one of the more notable graduates. The emphasis is on fun and storytelling, and the interactive divisions, especially the newest one, Media Arts and Practice PH.d (which focuses on embedded / infotainment content and experimental interfaces), receive a lower volume of applications and are more high-touch than their filmic counterparts.
If all this choice seems a little overwhelming, then you’re getting an excellent sense of how the program can be for younger and less focused students. This is NOT a place for people looking to ‘find their way’, particularly at the MFA/PH.d level. Students should come in with a game plan and be prepared to make a lot of noise to get their needs met – with a massive 1700 students enrolled, USC is not going to cater to individuals as well as a smaller program like AFI, USC, or Columbia.
There’s also one more touchy subject to bring up – money. USC is extremely cagey about how much film students spend ON TOP OF TUITION, partly because it varies student to student, but mostly because the raw facts are shocking. Class fees range from $25 to $150 per class, production courses carry an insurance fee of $1000 per semester (very approximately) and incidental project costs on class films range from $500 to $1000 per semester, although many students spend more.
Then there’s the thesis. It’s not uncommon to hear of USC students spending $15,000 to $50,000 on their thesis films, and every year someone will break the bank and spend $100,000 or MORE (West Bank Story and Turbo being two notable examples). No one is saying you HAVE to spend this kind of cash – USC discourages it – but the fact is that it does provide a competitive edge, so students keep doing it. USC offers ‘modest scholarships’ (their words, not mine) based on need only, and production costs are not covered, so be aware before you enroll that you must pay to play.
HOW TO GET IN:
USC is one of the most selective institutions out there for film, with admits ranging from 9% to about 25% depending on your choice of program. Production is the most competitive, naturally.
The GRE is not required for MFA programs. For MA and PH.d programs, however, it is required and plays an important role in the admissions process.
All recommendations are now submitted digitally. One should be academic, the rest are your choice. Keep them to one page maximum or expect them to be ignored. As is always the case with recommendations, distinctive and thoughtful comments from someone who knows you and your work well are more important than industry position or name value.
Your portfolio is, of course, the heart of any MFA application, and Lucy says that admissions counselors like her don’t review applications at all at USC – the faculty go through every single one. That’s impressive.
Excerpts, trailers or reels are NOT a good idea for video samples, because USC wants to judge your storytelling capacity more than your technical chops as a filmmaker – they consider it more relevant. You can submit a longer video sample than five minutes, but admissions only requires faculty to watch up to 5 minute mark, and overall it’s a bad idea to submit more.
Writing samples form another important component of the application. For more information on how to create great writing samples, check out my previous publication in IECA.
Lucy was down on the general admission interview, although she did one herself – she feels it’s only a good idea if you interview well. YMMV.
AND THAT’S ABOUT IT!
If you have questions, USC provides Ms. Leon’s email address at the link above – or, of course, you can always talk to us.