Thursday, April 28, 2011

Part 15: CalArts, Fall of 1980

Driving North, up the 5 freeway took my brother and I past downtown Los Angeles, which looked deceptively small.  After all, unlike a city like New York, we didn't understand that Los Angeles was a VAST city comprised of smaller communities and to get to CalArts, we would have to drive through some of them.

After driving through Glendale, Burbank, and Mission Hills, the houses and strip malls began to become scarce again and we found ourselves driving through canyons again as we left the San Fernando Valley and entered the Santa Clarita Valley.  We noted the 14 Fwy which led further North to Palmdale and Lancaster where my brother would finish the rest of his stay in California this time and then as the valley opened up before us, I could see it sitting on top of a hill: The California Institute of the Arts, my new school!

We took the McBean Parkway exit and drove past the yellow gate onto the campus.  Parked in the lot were trucks.  A lot of trucks, actually, and I could see movie production people moving equipment back and forth between the trucks.  I couldn't believe it!  If this was the FILM SCHOOL, I had hit pay dirt for sure!  It all looked so professional.  Following the instructions provided by the school, we drove past the main school building and parked by the only other building on campus, the dormitory.

I checked in with the dorm office, received my necessary information and keys to my dormitory room and my brother and I began to unpack.  As we entered the elevator we were joined by two students, who, by their malaise attitude, seemed to have been at CalArts for a while.  I couldn't tell you who the woman was, but the man was a young acting student who would graduate from CalArts and go on to a short but successful career, Merrit Butrick. "You new to the school?" he asked me in the elevator. "Yeah," I replied. "I'm Merrit, welcome to Calarts." he said and shook my hand.  The other woman introduced herself and welcomed me.  We got off the elevator, letting Merrit and his friend get off first since we were moving boxes.  Halfway down the hall, Merrit's friend removed her shirt and walked down the hall topless.  What the f was going on?

Remember Merrit from Star Trek and Square Pegs?
Yes, I was from New Orleans and I had seen a lot of unusual things, especially during Mardi Gras, but I confess that I hadn't expected this sort of a display, and I had no idea that this was a minor but defining moment at CalArts. 

I unlocked the door to my dorm and went in.  Scott was shocked at the size of the room, reporting that my dorm was nearly twice the size of the room he was in at LSU.  The walls were white, painted, cinder block; toward the front was a small kitchen area with no appliances.  There were two small single beds, a couple of tables with plastic bin type drawers and two free standing closets to store hanging clothes that separated the living area from the kitchen.  The bathroom was shared with an identical room on the other side forming "suite" as it was referred to.  My room mate hadn't arrived yet, so I chose a bed and quickly unpacked.

It was time to explore.  I wanted to see what was going on by those trucks and so we left the dorm and walked across campus.  Arriving outside of the site, we met a youngish guy with long hair holding a clip board.  I asked him what was going on and he said that they were shooting John Carpenter's new film ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK inside.  As we spoke, Andrienne Barbeau approached and told Jeff she was going to be in her trailer if they called for her. (I remember the name, I imdb'd him and realized it was probably Jeff Chernov who I worked with decades later on UNDERDOG!)

Turns out that production had dressed the Main Gallery in CalArts to double for the lobby of the World Trade Center.  Later, my brother and I sneaked into the set during production lunch and checked it out.  To our surprise there were destroyed cars, graffiti on the walls, a tepee and a smoldering fire!  What the heck was this movie about?!

"Mr. President, I need to get you out of Valencia, California!"
When we returned to the dorm, my roommate was there.  He was tall, thin, had light brown hair and was a bit awkward and shy.  This was Steve Burg.

Steve was from New Jersey, and like me, was interested in motion picture special effects.  Amongst the things he brought was a small color television, art books, and magazines.  I had brought a stereo, a telephone, I had purchased as small refrigerator locally, a hot plate, and I had the car between us.  The three of us shared dinner at a local Taco Bell, and then bidding Steve good bye, drove my brother to Lancaster to stay with The Porters, who were friends of our family.

Leaving Scott with the Porters, I returned to CalArts a day or so later and reintroduced myself to Steve and we began exploring the school.  ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK had pulled up stakes and disappeared after carefully restoring the Main Hall to pristine condition.  We found the book store, which was fairly well-stocked for a small school store, and we found the Film Graphics Department.  Our new department as he, too, was enrolled in Film Graphics even though neither of us was clear on what that exactly meant.

The room was large and divided into cubicles, several of which were already occupied by returning students.  We began to see names on certain desks: Steve Holland, Steve Eagle, Peter Chung.  All of the desks were vacant except one where an animator was seated working on some drawings.  He introduced himself as Dexter, and he had a summer job with Hanna Barberra in-betweening (which is producing the multitude of drawings between the extreme poses created by the animators), he was laid back and told us that school was fine and we'd be fine, and everything was going to be fine...If only it could have been that simple.

A day or so later I ran into an upperclassman named Gary Schwartz who stopped me in the Film Graphics room and asked me if I owned a 16mm camera.  I told him no, which launched Gary into a long sales pitch explaining how difficult it was going to be for me (or any freshman) to check out cameras and since all of the editing bays were 16mm based, I was going to need access to a 16mm camera.  Long story short, in my stupidity, I bought a full bolex package for $800.  In retrospect, I'm sure Gary (or his buddy with him) needed some cash, fast, and I was the rube from Louisiana that they put the pinch on.  I owned that camera for years, after only using it once.  I recently donated it to filmmaker extraordinaire, Michael S. Deak, who is one of the last film-shooting hold outs that I know.

I was suddenly $800 lighter in my budget, but it was not to worry.  Part of my Financial Aid package was a Work/Study job, and I was going to be working in the "Athletic Department" of the school.  I figured that a school with no organized sports team wouldn't have a large athletic department and the job would be a cinch.

Within a few days, Steve and I started meeting other students, primarily on our dorm floor.  Our "suite mates" were Tony Anselmo (who is now Disney's voice of Donald Duck) and Matthew O' Callaghan, a Chicago-native who is now an animation director.  Both of them were in the Disney school and were a year ahead of us.  Across the hall, we met another Disney-school student Jim Beihold, and his roommate James Belohovek.

James was in the Film Graphics Department, like Steve and I, and he was very interested in building miniatures for motion pictures.  In face, he had a very cool Cygnus-inspired space ship miniature in his room.  Steve and I had found more allies!

It is interesting, the different yet similar influences we had all shared.
Steve could appreciate Jim's ship and THE BLACK HOLE, but Steve was a complete Doug Trumbull aficionado and had been completely taken by the dry-dock sequence in STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE.

Steve was an ardent student of this work of Doug Trumbull's.
And me?  I was the monster guy, unaware that the Special Make Up Effects boom was months away with the opening of an unique film that would change everything for decades.

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