Sunday, January 1, 2012


It’s a pristine, sunny afternoon in Costa Mesa, CA, and from the front of the quiet, unassuming home on Congress St., it’s pretty easy to miss what’s going on inside. Walking up the drive, clues begin to emerge: signs about camera equipment, wires snaking away to unknown destinations, lights, filters. And then comes the call, ”Quiet on the set! Action!”

Director Joe O'Brian on the set of "Coffee and Games"

While it has all the inner workings and the feel of a professional Hollywood movie set, students are actually running the show here. It’s the seventh year of National University’s digital cinema MFA residency, and some of the students have come from as far away as Bulgaria, Canada, China and Israel for this experience.

The students have also come from all walks of life. Silvia Luz, originally from Brazil, was formerly a lawyer. While enrolled in the media and communications program at Grossmont College in San Diego, Luz had an instructor who told her about the program.

Ben Mercier, Director of Photography on the film “No Regrets”, is a former marine who now hails from Hawaii. Mercier saw action in Iraq, and explained that working in film helps him with his PTSD. “Holding a camera is kind of like holding a weapon,” he said.

The set of "No Regrets"

The four-week program is designed with a hands-on approach, teaching students various aspects of the film industry. Even before the July 4 start date, students and staff were hard at work preparing for the residency, with directors choosing the scripts, and production teams being formed.

The scripts for the three short films were all written by Desiree Poteet, a fellow in National University’s professional screenwriting MFA program. According to Professor Warren, the directors were allowed to choose scripts that fit their own style and personality.

The first week of the residency included a directing workshop, led by former actress and director Nancy Malone. Malone appeared in many television shows during the 1950’s and 60’s, and won an Emmy in 1993 for producing the television special Bob Hope: The First 90 Years. During this workshop, students learned how to interact with professional actors, supplied by Malone.

Set of "No Regrets"

Later in the week, students visited Panavision in Woodland Hills, CA, for the camera movement workshop, and learned to use equipment like steady-cams, Panaflex cranes, and Fisher dollies, which were donated to the program by the JL Fisher Company. Four camera operators from the Society of Camera Operators were also on hand to offer assistance.

“It gives all the students hands-on working with the equipment and seeing how you can incorporate these different tools in your cinematic design,” said program director Professor Alyn Warren.
July 16 found the students at the home of Alyn Warren, where they were wrapping up the last day of production on the film “No Regrets”. The final scene of the film was set at night, and black screens and curtains covered the French doors. Various members of the crew huddled around a monitor out in the covered porch. Every now and again, assistant director Silvia Luz would poke her head out to shout something to them.

Professor Warren drops in and out of the action like a shepherd of sorts. In addition to being the director of the program, he’s also the executive producer on all the films, guiding the students in proper techniques and procedures. Christopher Rossiter, the production instructor, is also there making sure everything is running smoothly. On the set, he’s the production supervisor. Acting as Production Manager is Leroy Thomas, who was a student at NU’s first digital cinema MFA residency in 2005.

Director Ryan McKinney on the set of "No Regrets"

Thomas, Warren and Rossiter also worked behind the scenes to make certain that the students had the equipment and transportation they needed for all three films.

After two solid weeks of editing the three short films, they were shown to the students and guests at a screening at NU’s Los Angeles campus July 30.

Two versions of each film were shown at the screening, and the audience was given an opportunity to offer feedback to the three directors, Ryan McKinney (“No Regrets”), Gil Ben-Haroch (“He’s A Bleeder”) and Joe O’Brian (“Coffee And Games”).

“It was a wonderful experience,” said actor Cal Bartlett, who played George, a blind and crippled old man in “No Regrets”. “I’ve been an actor for a lot of years and I’ve worked on a lot of projects, and I thought Ryan [McKinney] was a terrific director, the crew was great, everybody. The communication was wonderful, I really felt like I was on a solid, professional movie set.”

Bartlett is no stranger to a professional movie set, either. He received his SAG card in 1962, and did a lot of work in television including series such as “Bonanza” and “Remington Steele”. He even acted alongside Clint Eastwood in “Paint Your Wagon”.

“I had a nice moment watching this with an audience because I really saw the collaboration,” said Pablo Giustorobelo, who was the producer on “No Regrets”. “Feels like magic to me.”

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