Film without a Camera

We recently hosted a Saturday afternoon workshop in Direct Animation with historian, artist, and filmmaker Janeann Dill. Dr. Dill is an accomplished painter, animator, teacher, and the biographer of Jules Engle (1909-2003) founder of American experimental animation. This Spring she will lead a course on Animation Histories in CFILM, and so the workshop was a taste of things to come. Dr. Dill walked us through experimental animation’s history and development in Europe, showing work by Walter Ruttman, the unparalleled Oskar Fischinger, and others. With those images still buzzing around our heads, we grabbed light boxes, strips of 16mm leader, and started making movies.


The Workshop at Work. Clockwise from bottom left: Laura Perez Maquedano, Lex Slater, Dani Rodriguez, John Chicco, Daniel Osofsky, and Dr. Dill

Armed with sharpies, thumbtacks, and a dental tool (!), we set about scratching and drawing directly on filmstock. Marking out 24 frames at a time, we drew repeated patterns, each a little different from the last. This was our first experience in “camera-less filmmaking.” If you’ve ever made your own flipbook, or played with a zoetrope, you’ve created moving images from still pictures. The principle is the same, but there is something revelatory about marking and scraping a length of film. In out digital age when every smartphone is a mini-studio, we can lose touch with the magical simplicity of cinema’s fundamental illusion. Few of us really know what happens to that light once it hits an image sensor, or how data is stored and rearranged to put a video on our screen. Effortless moviemaking. But touching film, leaving a physical trace in a tiny 10 X 7 mm (roughly) rectangle, and working through six feet of stock and 240 frames for 10 seconds of movement — that gives us a new, tactile relationship with the medium.

John, Daniel, and rolls of film.


Laura builds up to a blue background.


We toiled steadily on our tiny artworks, squinting at the acetate and making endless dots and dashes. Dr. Dill unrolled a bit of film she’s been working on, and we gasped at its precision and detail.


Dr. Dill shows her work in progress.

Our efforts were crude, but enthusiastic. We spliced our bits of film together, wound them on a reel, and threaded a projector. In the end we had barely enough footage to fix focus. We held our collective breath as our little dots quivered, wobbled, and zipped across the screen. For a moment, all those still pictures became something else entirely, they came to life. We witnessed the spark that ignited an artform.

At the end of the day, we separated our bits of film so that we can continue to work on them, guaranteeing that the little movie we made will never again be shown. But I was lucky enough to make a smartphone video of one piece of film. Laura Perez Maquedano, a junior film major who’s short Méliès movie was featured a few months back on this blog, created this little dance of blue, black, and white.

What’s Steve Collins up to?

By Steve Collins

This Fall I’m teaching two sections of our introduction to film production course, Sight and Sound. Every year I see something that surprises me. It’s a class where we make a series of small exercises and one of the advantages of this is that we can focus on doing something truly cinematic with absolute precision and not have the burden of an entire film to finish. We put all our energy into doing a small thing very well and year after year, I find the profound in these little bite-sized films the students make.

As I’ve been preparing to return, and finishing up work on my own film, I am reminded again, how maddening the filmmaking process is. The pursuit of a film where everything is exactly in its place, every composition, every movement, every cut, every sound, and to have all that in place without sucking the life and spontaneity out of the work, it’s can make you drop your head and bang it on the editing table. And yet… I would do it again, and again, and again.

Filmmaking is hard, and I think our job as teachers (in whatever our subject) is to present students with an impossible task and say, here are some tools to solve it; you are going to fail in some respects, but you are going to move forward. We have to learn to embrace impossible tasks, tasks that test our whole intellectual and emotional being. How else can we deal with the world we live in – its beauty, grace and promise, tangled up in injustice, tragedy and suffering?

I try to focus on what I can do to help. I prepare my lectures on how complicated it really is to get across the feelings and ideas in your head onto that screen. Art is about connection (artist to audience) and connection is our only refuge from a broken world. In class this semester, we’re going to struggle and sweat and try, and every year I get to bear witness to the beauty of growth, progress, change. I do not care if it is perfect, I’m hooked.

Back to (film) School

Ben Model accompanies DOCKS OF NEW YORK in FILM 307


Well, it’s over! We started courses on Monday and already the Summer seems lightyears away. Not that Middletown has suddenly turned autumnal, we’ve had a sweltering week, but on the syllabus, in the classrooms, and here on our BLOG it is definitely fall. After a brief August hiatus, the CFILM social media team are back and ready to share. If all goes according to plan, you can check in here for bi-weekly blog entries, bi-monthly Podcasts, and a regular feed of nonsense (umm, vitally important intellectual exchange) on Facebook and Instagram.

If you’ve been monitoring the Instagram feed (or following the trades), you already know that CFILM started this school year with the distinction of being ranked #9 on the Hollywood Reporter’s Top 25 American Film Schools.

The first 8 schools are big fish on the West and East coasts, all with graduate programs in filmmaking. It’s a true testament to our alumni and to the little program that Jeanine Basinger founded in the early 1970s that CFILM manages to make a showing year after year. We are the only exclusively undergraduate program to make the rankings, and the only liberal arts institution on the list. CFILM punches above its weight! More accurately, we focus on what we’ve always done and are happy that someone agrees it is special.

What we’ve always done is to take cinema seriously as an artform best understood from the perspective of the filmmaker. Studying and making go hand in hand. Sadia Shepard’s course FILM 104 Documentary Filmmaking: An Introduction to Project Learning exemplifies this philosophy.Shepard (’97), a novelist, filmmaker, and documentarian, returns to campus each fall to initiate students into the history and practice of non-fiction storytelling.

Sadia Shepard ’97

Her students produce, shoot, and edit short documentaries about Middletown and the surrounding community, which we screen for the public at The Buttonwood Tree arts center on Main Street. These movies show Wesleyan students at their best: creative, engaged, and compelling. Our first podcast of the season will feature an interview with Shepard and her students recorded at last year’s screening. Based on the course’s success, and student demand for it, we’ve added a second section this year.

I am once again teaching our gateway course FILM 307 The Language of Hollywood, which for many students is their first college film class. This week we went to cinematic extremes. We started on Tuesday with a thunderous showing of Ryan Coogler’s Creed (hence the boxing analogy above) to a packed (and rather warm) house. On Thursday we welcomed silent film composer and historian Ben Model who accompanied von Sternberg’s Docks of New York on his unique theater-organ emulator.

Ben Model in the Goldsmith Family Cinema

The cinema reverberated with Model’s original score and we felt what it was like to go to the movies in 1928. We will spend the rest of the semester studying how movies made between Docks and Creed manage move audiences with image and sound.  Ben will return in the spring to teach a whole course on silent film, and he will provide live accompaniment for every movie. For now, though, we have an exciting fall ahead of us.

Coming Soon… Michael Slowik’s Fall Course Offerings

By Michael Slowik

This fall, I will be teaching two courses that—on the surface—may seem to have little to do with each other.  Both, however, are fundamentally engaged with analyzing and understanding the power and potential of cinema. The first class—on the Western—approaches the genre from the perspective of craft, directorial vision, and cultural mythology.  Tracing the genre from its earliest iterations through Django Unchained and beyond, we ask: what are the character types and plot structures commonly found in the genre?  How do iconic images—and sounds—impact the audience? How has the genre served as a way for particular directors—including Howard Hawks (Red River), Budd Boetticher (Seven Men From Now), Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars), and of course John Ford (Stagecoach, The Searchers)—to make their own personal statements?  And since so many Westerns are fundamentally about the myths of America as a country, how have these myths been employed to reflect upon—and make statements about—the nation’s identity?   The course is a mostly chronological history of the Western, which gives us the opportunity to consider how elements of the genre change over time. It is illuminating, for instance, to consider how a more noble conception of the gunfighter character in The Gunfighter or Shane becomes the more fallible protagonist of a “revisionist” Western like The Wild Bunch or McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

If the Western class deals with filmmaking within a broad American mythological landscape, my other course (titled “Cinema Stylists”) is more far more personal in orientation.  This course centers on a close examination of four directors—Josef von Sternberg, Max Ophuls, Douglas Sirk, and Federico Fellini—who have stamped their personal vision on their films by putting film style front and center.  All four filmmakers had unique visions, and figured out various ways to use cinema for their particular concerns. Obsessions mark the work of all four directors: von Sternberg collaborated with the actress Marlene Dietrich seven times in the early 1930s (including The Blue Angel, Morocco, Blonde Venus, and The Scarlet Empress), Ophuls’ films often feature exceptionally formal, rigorous and even circular plotting (such as in La Ronde and The Earrings of Madame de…), Sirk obsessively returned to stylistically elaborate Hollywood melodrama (in movies like the aptly titled Magnificent Obsession), and Fellini found himself increasingly preoccupied with his own personal fantasies and dreams (such as 8 ½).  Students will submerge themselves in highly personal worlds of masks, performances, illusions, and decorated images, and will hopefully emerge with a better understanding of how cinematic stylization can engage with reality and suit a director’s personal vision.  

What and WHY will we teach in the Fall?

Scott Higgins, CFilm Director

The echoes of commencement weekend have faded, and we are busy balancing budgets, repairing equipment, cleaning our desks, watching probably too much FilmStruck, and getting ready to start all over again. This is the time of year that a teacher can honestly ask questions like “what will I teach” and “why will I teach it?” In the heat of the semester we rarely have time for reflection, so I’m asking my colleagues to share their thoughts on this blog over the summer. For my part, on Tuesday September 5th at exactly 8:50 am, I’ll be in the Goldsmith Family Cinema launching our gateway class FILM 307: The Language of Hollywood. This is our introduction to Wesleyan Film, and so I’ll be meeting many members of the class of 2022 as well as students from across the campus who are intrigued by film. It is a “film watching” class, but (not so) secretly it is also a filmmaking class. In it, we aim to understand films from the perspective of the filmmaker, to reverse-engineer cinema to see how it all works. CFilm’s curriculum is built on the premise that study and practice are inseparable and mutually beneficial. Film critics and historians have a LOT to learn from the experience of holding a camera, setting up lights, and cutting together pieces of stock. For filmmakers, there’s no better way to open up the craft, broaden visual vocabularies, and find inspiration than sitting in the dark, watching, thinking, and feeling.

Because I’m a historian, and because “watching, thinking, and feeling” doesn’t quite work as a syllabus, I organize this class historically. We look at three changes in film technology: the coming of sound, the introduction of color, the shift to widescreen, and the development of 3D. The class isn’t so concerned with the history of technology (if you want to know, say, about the history of Technicolor, I have a book for you), but with how working filmmakers react when change happens.

On that first day, I will probably show one of the great silent films from the 1920s. For the past several years I’ve started with Frank Borzage’s ravishing romance Street Angel, a movie so confident in its storytelling that the absence of synchronized dialogue hardly seems a deficit. Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell find love, lose it, and then miraculously find it again in shimmering soft focus. What more could one possibly ask from cinema? And yet, within just over a year no studio in Hollywood was making silent films! The transition to sound was a crisis point for all film artists. They lost some tools, gained others, and struggled to find the same emotional power and visual poignance in the new era of “talkies.” Looking at what filmmakers do under pressure, at how they solve problems when the game has changed, reveals how artists think, what they value about their medium, what works and what doesn’t. Within a short time, sound cinema had the confidence and air of effortlessness that silent film once claimed. But studying the excitement and desperation of sound when it was new helps us see its possibilities with fresh eyes (and ears). This sensitizes us to film form, so that we can look at a much later sound film like Ghost Ship, a wonderfully strange horror movie from the early 1940s, and find filmmakers who kept the novelty of sound alive, using effects, music, and silence, to create a new emotional journey.

At the end of this class, elements of film form like sound, composition, lighting, cutting, depth, and color should be visible in a new way. If class goes really well, cinema will cease being a “given” and become instead a field of possibilities, some long forgotten, ripe for exploration. Using sound in a movie should feel like a positive choice rather than a stale inevitability. Watching is the gateway to making. That’s the BIG idea behind this class, and I hope to keep it in mind even in the depths of November when we are all overwhelmed with deadlines, page-counts, and tests. For now, with summer stretched before me, I’ll be revising, re-watching, reworking, rethinking.



Celebrating CFILM!

Congratulations to the class of 2018, and to all the CFILM students who made it through another school year. CFILM is busy with celebration!

On Friday and Saturday, we present our Senior Thesis Films in the Goldsmith Family Cinema. See them on the big screen while you can.

Saturday morning, we offer our annual Reunion and Commencement FILM BREAKFAST. Starting at 9:00 AM, the lobby will be given over to coffee, bagels, fruit, pastry, and conversation.

Then, on Saturday afternoon at 3:00 in the Goldsmith, we present Wesleyan and the Hollywood Connection. Distinguished alumnus, Paul Weitz; Writers Guild of America award-winning television writer, Evan Katz; and Academy award winner, Akiva Goldsman, talk about their work in movies and television and answer questions about the Wesleyan connection to the business of moving images.

Thesis Film Screenings!

Last weekend saw the final thesis presentations: screenings for both the 16mm and digital thesis films. THRONGS OF FANS attended.


Miss the screening? No worries– if you’re around for R&C, you can catch additional presentations on Friday and Saturday. Details below!

Friday, May 25:

Senior Films-Goldsmith Family Cinema

9am to 11am:  Digitals

11am to 1pm:  16mm and Digitals

1:30pm to 3:30pm:  Digitals

3:30pm to 5:30pm:  16mm and Digitals

Saturday, May 26:

Senior Films-Goldsmith Family Cinema

9:30am to 11:30am:  Digitals

11:30am to 1:30am:  16mm and Digitals

Be sure to check the Facebook page for additional R&C events. As always– congratulations to the seniors!

History, Theory, and Criticism Theses!

Monday saw our second round of thesis presentations– this time, the History/Theory and Criticism projects. The students and their work are featured below.


Left: Advisor A.O Scott

Claire Shaffer, Emotion Pictures: The Art and Evolution of Music Videos

We often take music videos for granted. Over their 40-year history, music videos have provided the TV background noise in our living rooms, the fun YouTube clip we casually share with a friend, the meme we scroll past on our phones. They’ve also been cultural touchstones, viral sensations and, at times, groundbreaking pieces of visual art that add to the legacies of pop stars and filmmakers alike. This thesis pays critical attention to those moments, analyzing what makes the music video a uniquely expressive art form and how it has altered the landscape of digital media throughout its existence.

History and Theory

Left: Ari Polgar, Plot, Participation, and Playing Pretend: Narrative Pleasure in Single-Player Video Games

Long relegated to low-brow pop culture for teenagers, video games have emerged as the hot new area of media studies. With many styles and systems, games form a confusing group that is part technology and part toy. They are accepted for their fun but their power to connect with audiences and tell compelling tales is widely ignored. In this thesis, I argue for the merit of games as a storytelling medium, highlighting the ways in which interactivity supports plot while looking toward their future as an integrated narrative form, one that uses play and imagination to craft immersive stories.

Right: Graham Brown, Beyond the Infinite: A Genre Study of the Hypothetical Space Film

Since the dawn of cinema, outer space has both fascinated and challenged filmmakers. Though space has been a subject of film since A Trip to the Moon (1902), concerns of accuracy and realism didn’t enter popular cinema until Destination Moon (1950). This film laid the foundations for a genre I call the Hypothetical Space Film, a tradition fueled by a desire to distinguish itself from mainstream science fiction. In this thesis, I trace the development of the Hypothetical Space Film by analyzing the genre’s conventions and elements that filmmakers have interacted with for the last 68 years.

Not pictured: Paul Partridge, Did He Do It?: Judging the Suspect- Protagonist in True Crime Documentaries

The recent mainstream appeal of series such as Making a Murderer and The Jinx has cemented the place of true crime documentaries as a popular genre in our cultural landscape. Examining earlier works crucial to its formation reveals the common characteristic of creating a participative role for the viewer, who is asked to determine the guilt of the crime suspect around whom the narrative is centered. This thesis traces the history of how the true crime documentary came to be recognized as a genre, offers an overview of its main techniques and their evolution into long- form storytelling, and explores where the genre is headed now.

Congratulations to the thesis writers! Presentations conclude this Friday and Saturday with the digital and 16mm film screenings.


Screenplay and Television Thesis Presentations

On Sunday, the campus gathered in the Powell Family Cinema for this year’s screenplay and television thesis presentations. The department’s senior thesis writers had the chance to present and read from their year-long projects. Here are the students (and Joe Cacaci) and their work:

Screenplay writers

Left to right:

Lealand Meade-Miller, Tsar Ian 

Ian is a twenty-something American thrown into an identity crisis by the death of his father. He finds the answer to this crisis in his father’s attic, where he discovers he is the last descendant of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and heir to the Russian throne. Spurred by a sense of destiny, he embarks on a journey to Russia to claim his birthright. On this journey he finds friends, foments mob violence, and gets involved in a mafia conspiracy, leading him to question his purpose in the world and what destiny truly means.

James Cureton, Seattle Story

Leah is a hardworking high school senior, who lives in Seattle with just her mother, Alma. Leah’s life is focused around finishing her high school career on track and getting a scholarship to college. A chance encounter on the streets of Seattle brings her back into the orbit of her estranged father, Anthony. Having lost contact with him and his new family years ago, she has to rediscover what family she really has and who she has to count on.

Jack Maraghy, Burner

Every year social outcasts flock to the desert for free love and free drugs at a weeklong, Burning Man-esque art festival. But Grayson, long time “Burner” and unofficial festival fixer, can’t relax after witnessing a murder on the first night of the fest. He spends the rest of the week unraveling a conspiracy that may ultimately unravel him. It’s a surreal decent into darkness as he learns what he’ll sacrifice to protect his way of life.

Jianna Xiong, Dot

Eight-year-old Dot and his father, Adam, live alone in a secluded, undeveloped valley that encloses an otherworldly land made of rough diamonds. Working with his colleague at the federal environmental agency, Adam is committed to shielding the diamond field from the profit-driven outside world. Meanwhile, trying to shelter Dot from the truth of his mother’s suicide, Adam comes up with a mythical story that leads Dot to believe that his mother is living in the distant, all-powerful ocean. However, when the diamond field is brought to the attention of a diamond-mining corporation, the company’s imminent encroachment threatens both the valley’s preservation and Dot’s idealistic worldview.

Television writers

Left to right:

Arianna Allegra D’Andrea, Syndicate

Do intentions justify actions? Set in NYC, Syndicate explores the psychological journey of two unsuspecting people involved in illicit activities, for moral reasons. The drama centers on Ginger, a 21- year-old business enthusiast whose future gets derailed due to foolish, heat-of-the- moment decision-making. What began as a quick fix to help pay family medical bills soon devolved into total involvement in nefarious activities that eat away at her daily. Lucky faces a similar situation. His now comatose brother, Dom, would use revenue from his marijuana sales to help the less fortunate. Struggling to upkeep this financial support, Lucky is launched into a business he never wanted part in. The two form an unlikely alliance, but their pasts are dangerously intertwined. The closer Lucky and Ginger grow, the closer everything comes to falling apart…

Matt Fichandler, Whisper Valley

Whisper Valley is a mystery-comedy that follows the Buckworths, a family of four, as they move from Philadelphia to the picturesque town of Bearskin Butte, Colorado. Every resident of Bearskin Butte is a member of Envirology, a nature-loving cult. Throughout their move, the Buckworths learn that Envirology is one week away from The First Day, and while attempting to discover what will happen on The First Day, the Buckworths learn that Bearskin Butte is not what they thought it was. Not only is Envirology moving the town towards self-sustainability without permission from the government, but the town of Bearskin Butte doesn’t even technically exist. They are actually in Whisper Valley, a town that Envirology has secretly been fixing up ever since its abandonment 25 years ago. What will The First Day bring?

Kaelin Loss, Zapp and Zodd

On planet Cardosso, the aliens working at Zarthorp Productions struggle to save their most popular television show: Earth. The Cardossians have watched the evolution of Earth, its species and cultures with disgust and morbid curiosity for 4.5 billion years. But the show’s location is nearing total destruction, and evolving technology poses the possibility of human colonization in space. Enter Zapp and Zodd: producers with nothing in common who must assume human form, travel to Earth, and determine whether humanity is worth saving. Zapp and Zodd, a half-hour comedy, is bursting with criticism and commentary on human nature through an “alien” perspective.

Zenzele Price, Blame

The Shore family moved to rural Watertown, Idaho in hopes of a fresh start. But on one Sunday morning at the supermarket, Alex, the family’s eldest son, commits a crime that erases any hope the Shores harbored of living a normal life. Alex’s act is caught on camera, capturing the attention of the news and igniting the indignation of the entire community. As the media spotlight threatens to unearth decades of family secrets, one question about that fateful morning remains unanswered – why did Alex do it?

Blame follows the Shore family as the consequences of that morning ripple through the town, thrusting a grieving family and a reeling community into public scrutiny.

Eli Sands, Tenement

Tenement is an hour-long historical drama series. By 1925, only the very poorest of the million and a half Jews who immigrated to New York City in the prior half-century still remain on the Lower East Side. One such poor family is the Nadelmanns: parents Abram and Devorah, and their children Menachem, Yaaakov, and Anna. Abram’s diagnosis of tuberculosis and subsequent hospitalization sparks great change in all their lives: Menachem becomes politically active as an anarchist, Yaakov becomes an assistant to a shady and wealthy banker, and Anna explores acting in Yiddish theater. Family friend Leah starts a garment manufacturing business. As they gain experience, grow in ambition, and face escalating obstacles, they reevaluate their goals and their relationships with their loved ones.

Will Stewart, Become Death

Become Death tells the story of two families brought together to survive the nuclear apocalypse. Fifteen years after the bombs fall, the Bates and Gomez families sit opposed over the remains of the State of Tennessee in the midst of a war between the United States and China. In the pilot, the various members of the Bates and Gomez families struggle to seize power after the President’s revelation that the Chinese army has developed technology which may end the nuclear detente. Bud Bates, the patriarch of the Bates family, wants to capitalize on this new technology, while matriarch Martina Gomez wants to reveal the secrets Bud hides on his estate.

Congratulations to all thesis writers! Be sure to catch the history, theory, and criticism presentations on Monday 5/7, and the thesis films on 5/11 and 5/12.