They write and direct movies, but most of them are not film majors. They are cinephiles through and through, but they’re not a snobbish elite. They bring the likes of Frances McDormand and Ken Burns to campus, but they’re not the Yale Film Society. They’re sponsoring a film festival this weekend, but they’re not necessarily showing films that they made.
They’re Upix: a combination film school, exhibition forum and equipment repository for student filmmakers.
For only $15 a year, members gain access to the group’s professional film equipment — including cameras and a top-of-the-line editing system in Calhoun that will be fully functional next fall — weekend workshops on technique and many chances to work on the organization’s films.
Their festival of student films this weekend exhibits the enormous talent of members and the benefits of having professional equipment and a supportive artistic community. Two of the films are official Upix productions. Many were shot on personal cameras, and some were filmed in China and Prague.
Like 1920s Russia, 1940s Italy and 1960s France, Yale in the 1980s was the site of a cinema explosion. Upix (University Pictures) was founded in 1983 by undergraduates Jennifer Beals ’83, the decade’s icon from “Flashdance”; and George Hickenlooper ’86, who has made a formidable directing career in Hollywood. His most recent film, “The Man from Elysian Fields,” is currently in post-production and stars Andy Garcia and Mick Jagger.
The goal for the group in the 1980s was to create a community for filmmakers at Yale. They supported and exhibited student works. Now 20 years later, with a thriving major, a film society and even talk about a graduate film program, there is still a need for support of student filmmakers since Yale’s film department focuses primarily on film theory and all but ignores production.
Filmmaking is a craft that needs to be tested and nurtured. You don’t learn it in a book. Even the department’s lone production class uses only video, which many filmmakers shun as an inferior medium.
When Ross Wachsman ’02, co-president of Upix with Elizabeth Newman ’02, came to Yale three years ago, there was zero support for student filmmakers, and Upix was nearly defunct. Wachsman, who chose Yale over the University of Southern California, a prestigious film school, wanted a community to help him develop his art. That first festival, in the spring of his freshman year, showcased seven films. Five were Wachsman’s.
In his junior year now, Wachsman can happily look at Upix and see something of a film renaissance at Yale as Upix expands its budget and goals for the coming years. Their membership has grown to 150, with many enthusiastic and talented underclass members.
Wachsman and Newman have similar goals for the future of Upix: They hope for an increased budget that can bring in better equipment. With each increase in the quality of their technology, the student productions grow in narrative complexity and visual polish.
This spring’s festival will feature the Upix project “Milk,” written by and starring Jonathan Sela, and directed by Caitlin Taylor and Johnathan Fireman. The film is seven minutes on the noble pursuit of cereal accompaniment. It is in the “slapstick comedy, slacker-tramp-odyssey” vein, Wachsman said.
It is a marvelous piece of work and conforms perfectly to the gospel for any student filmmaker: For God’s sake, keep it simple. Any story or visual structure that does not take into account the fact that you’re telling a story in seven minutes, possibly without diegetic sound, is one that succeeds or fails based on its own expectations.
“Milk” is exactly the sort of fare that one expects to see graduate students in film school produce for classes, which is quite an accomplishment. There’s little profundity here, but that’s not the point. It has excellent sound editing (very hard to do), a tight narrative (very rare for student filmmakers) and a brilliantly funny performance by Jonathan Sela. Like the silent film stars of the 1920s, his genius lies in his excess.
Though the co-director Johnathan Fireman notes that “[‘Milk’] was a learning project for a lot of people. There’s a reason for some of its discontinuities,” I could find very few. The film moves so quickly that even if some shot constructions are more masterful than others, it is barely noticeable.
There is a great sense of camaraderie in Upix. Caitlin Taylor proudly notes that “lots of people did this [worked on ‘Milk’] and then went and did their own things.” Many freshman were behind the camera for the piece and will show films at next fall’s festival.
One of the festival’s few works shot on video is Omri Navot’s “Backdoor Guest,” which he made for the film department’s “The Language of Film Workshop.” It is more typical student fare, perhaps because it is shot on the grainy, faded medium that is video. In video’s defense, though the beautiful shimmering surface of film is lost, there is a stark reality gained. The experience of seeing a video capture leg hair and pimples is a realist’s pleasure. But a sensitive performance by Navot and succinct narrative makes it a fine piece. Indeed, the shots are well constructed and the music raunchy and delightful.
Tucker Capps, co-directing with Emerson College film student Michel Hausmann, went abroad last semester to Prague, where he made “Clockwork” at FAMU, the Czech national film academy, through the World Capitals study-abroad program run by American University. Many other Upix members have participated in the same program in Prague or intend to do so in the future.
Shot on luminescent Super-16 film stock, the quality of the images is, in itself, cause for celebration. The days of grainy, faded student productions appear to be over. The gently surreal story involves bureaucracy and time, and the manipulations of both proves to be enormously entertaining. The international crew’s aesthetic control is remarkable.
Also featured will be several very short films by Nicole Michaelis, whose work is more self-consciously experimental, and Felix Bennet’s “Reflections on the Female Form.” Another film, “Take It From the Top,” was made by Taylor Krauss in the fall of 2000. Filmed in China on a Yale fellowship and using Digital Media Center for the Arts equipment, it was Krauss’ goal to “and find out how [the people he encountered] would interact with the camera.”
“AM Following: Three Studies of the Morning After,” is a Upix production directed by Elizabeth Newman and with cinematography by Caitlin Taylor. In this self-described “triptych about intimacy,” two actors, a post-coital man and woman, replay the same motions three times, subtly progressing from self-disgust to embarrassment to bashful glee.
Having just seen Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad,” Newman wanted to explore the different potential relationships that can be formed following one important event.
Newman has been an actress for many years, and the film’s pathos is largely from her nuanced and professional performance. Though the music, appropriately chosen for each segment, ends too abruptly after each third of the film, Newman and Taylor counter with their lovely visual compositions, particularly evocative in the black-and-white 16mm film they shot it on. The piece was filmed in a day and complies beautifully with an earlier plea for simplicity.
Newman’s films are known for not having credits. Her “slice of life” films never feel the intrusion of extra-diegetic titles. It works.
In many ways, the budgetary restrictions for these productions free the filmmakers. Sound-sync film is very expensive, so many of these productions are shot silently and then a soundtrack (musical or otherwise) is added. “It’s worthwhile for any filmmaker to learn to tell a story without sound. Otherwise, you get plays on film” notes Fireman. The quality of the visual compositions in all these
works testifies to the fact that the students are making the most of their technology while honing their craft.
New members to Upix are welcome next fall, and even if you haven’t ever worked on a film before, workshops and seminars will train you in all pertinent areas. Future events may include teas with the marvelous Steve Buscemi and Willem Dafoe.
A festival next fall will feature Wachsman’s latest opus entitled “So To Speak.” As Upix’s first sync-sound color film, it benefited enormously from a professional cinematographer and cast. Structured like a Mobius strip, the narrative loops in and around itself. “It’s a real mind-f—er,” boasts Wachsman. It will no doubt be a welcome addition to the Internet and underground film festivals to which he hopes to submit it.
Francois Truffaut notoriously quipped that “film lovers are sick people.” They can tell the difference between 16- and 35-mm film. They speak in weird jargon and love films you’ve never heard of. They shoot for endless nights in strange buildings because they’re free. But their passion is universal and palatable. And in this weekend’s Upix festival, you will see student works that herald the next generation of filmmakers and film lovers. It is an auspicious future.