CalArts

In 1983, the California Institute of the Arts, being a liberal arts college in, what was then, a remote part of the Santa Clarita Valley had garnered a few reputations. It was not unusual to see helicopters hovering around the dormitory on weekends because of the “clothes optional” pool (if you enjoyed seeing naked hippy-types). There were also the drugs. It was well known that on the west side of the dorm building was the “fourth floor walk up” which was the only floor not accessible by an elevator. I visited that corridor once and it was like walking into an opium den. The air was thick with marijuana smoke and half of the dorm room doors were open all of the time. However, I believe what CalArts had become most infamous for was their Halloween party. Every year, attending students and alumni who were fortunate to call in early and request tickets would gather in the Main Gallery room for a party that resembled something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. You name it; it was there. I can best illustrate with this short story:

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For those of you new to the column, I’m revisiting formative events in my life that have made me what I am today: A Special Effects Make Up Artist looking for relevance in the 21st Century. I have completed one year at the California Institute of the Arts Film Graphics program, and I have returned for my second year, I have moved off campus and have a small garage shop to make monsters. I am nineteen years old… My second year at CalArts, I ended up on Academic Probation. That was no easy task since students were not graded on an A, B, C, etc. scale. Instead, it was High Pass, Pass, or Incomplete. There was no “fail” but every two years (sophomore & senior) all students were “reviewed” by a board made up of a few faculty members. It probably had something to do with my cessation of attending classes primarily because they truly weren’t much more than glorified “wrap sessions.” It would be unfair to mention faculty names, but I will mention some of the classes to illustrate what I mean. I took a class called “Direct Animation” which the course description promised the manipulation of three-dimensional objects in front of a camera. To me, that is a description of Stop Motion Animation, right? It was finally something in which I had a passionate interest.

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For those of you new to the column, I am revisiting formative events in my life that have made me what I am today: A Special Effects Make Up Artist searching for relevance in the 21st Century. I left my home in a suburb of Gretna, Louisiana, traveled to Valencia, California where I attended the California Institute of the Arts. I am nineteen… Being in college, in California, in 1981, was like being in the front seat of an incredible roller coaster. Unlike how it was in New Orleans, where I would be lucky if I was able to get a hold of a genre magazine like Cinefantastique because it was not consistently available in news stands, now I felt like I was closer to “the hub” than ever. Magazines, trade papers, Hollywood poster stores, all were up to date with what was happening in motion pictures. There was also the benefit of being in one of the two (or three) “preview” cities for new films. Altered States, for instance, had opened in late November rather than at Christmas time when it opened wide, nationally. This, for a fan and initiate to Make Up Effects, was like being at ground zero.

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California Institute of the Arts or CalArts as it was known, informally, was set on a hill just off of the 5 freeway in Valencia, California (NOTE: It is still there, I toured it four years ago as a potential college choice for my daughter, but I’m telling a story here, right?). In 1980, when I arrived, CalArts was basically two buildings: The Main School building, and a set of dormitories. Inside the Main building, the schools were cordoned off like “Delos” in Westworld, but instead of “Westworld,” “Medievalworld,” and “Romanworld,” CalArts had the Music School, the Drama School, the Fine Arts School, the Dance School, and the Film School. The Film School, then, was subdivided into three departments: The Disney Animation School, The Live Action School, and The Film Graphics Department. I was in the last of those three. Keep in mind, that there was very little in the way of consumer computers in 1980 and there might have been some people messing with digital graphics at CalArts in 1980, but it was nowhere near what is being produced today. The Disney School was the most structured of the three film schools from what I could tell. Every day, lines of students holding drawing boards and carrying plastic Art Boxes would go through the wooden double doors to attend classes in Life Drawing, Design, Animation, Color Theory, etc. And folks, that is where the structure at CalArts seemed to end.

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Special effects master Shannon Shea continues his trip down memory lane in an attempt to find relevance in the 21st century world of movie-making… There was something I had known since I had seen Star Wars: I was going to leave the state of Louisiana to go to college. My older brother, who was a fellow film-nerd/fan/geek/whatever, had graduated in 1977 and gone to the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and was pretty much just miserable. True, there was a lot of drinking to do, but aside from his joining a band (he was much more into music than I was), he didn’t share his taste for genre pop culture with many of the other students. And, as a historical note, the drinking age in Louisiana at this time was 18 so being drunk on a college campus in Louisiana was as required as “Introduction to English Literature,” and the grades were easier. Needless to say that by the time I was a High School Senior, he had dropped out and worked for a salvage company. We both attended an all-male, Catholic High School in Marrero, Louisiana: Archbishop Shaw High School. It boasted being a “college prep” school, however, unless you were training to be an engineer, or a geologist, or some vocation that would keep you in a local oil field, Shaw had little to offer in those days. It did have football, which was a major focus for both the faculty and students. Not being from what […]

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