to the 546 Semester at USC Film School
#1 in a series of 13
Fade up & zoom in.
Production III, or 546,
as it's referred to, is
structured such that, for the first time,
students assemble to form larger filmmaking groups, taking a significant step toward
the way things work in the industry. The ability to work as part of a team therefore
becomes a factor in 546.
Considering that Film schools are inhabited primarily by people who want, more than
anything, to direct, and who therefore have strong opinions and personalities, the
ability to work together, as part of a team, under a director, is not as easy for them,
compared to other groups of people. Everyone wants to get their hands on the
Specifically, 11 students team up to create a single 12-minute, 16mm, color film,
with sync-sound dialogue. By contrast, last semester (508) was structured such
that two students teamed up to make two films (each 5 minutes, b&w, no sync'ed
For 546, four Directors are chosen by a panel, comprised of members of the 546 faculty.
The Directors, in turn, each select a 'crew' (see below), to help make their films.
Directors select from a list of students who compete for available positions, by pitching,
which typically means that they give the Director a reel, containing samples that
showcase their filmmaking talents. The Director also talks to profs, TA's and other
students to get an idea of each student's reputation as a filmmaker and collaborator.
Crewing on a 546 is a prerequisite for graduation. Most students take the class
(6 units) during the first semester of the second year (3 year program). Since 546
is taken during the second year, students no longer feel like rookies, or newbies.
They have a good idea of what's required to make a film, having already scaled the
steeper slopes of the filmmaker's learning curve.
Students wanting to crew for positions as Director of Photography must first take a
(semester-long) preparatory class. So DP's, as they're called in industry lingo, won't
take 546 until the second semester of the second year, at the earliest.
For example, both Doug and Luke want to be DP's. They are both taking the prep class
this semester. Wendy will miss having them in her class.
Four 546 films are made each semester. Each film is staffed with the following crew
1 director *
1 writer *
1 asst director
2 directors of photography (also called, 'cinematographer')
2 sound people
* Writer & director are sometimes the same person.
Crew members decide which 546 they want to crew on, by reading the scripts for
each film, and by talking to directors, and by seeing what crew members have already
been selected (they prefer to work with classmates they know, like & trust). But, just
like in the real world, not all students get the positions they want, or are able to crew
on the films they want to work on. There's competition for the positions.
Some students pitch as a team. In other words, a director gets both students or
neither one. Advantages of pitching as a team (for example, a team of Editors) is
that you're sure to work with someone you know & like (if selected).
For this semester, more students petitioned for Editor's positions than any other.
This may be cuz USC has migrated to using the Avid to edit 546 projects, and the
ability to edit with with an Avid is a marketable skill in itself. Competition for the 8
available editing slots was fierce (4 films, 2 Editors per film).
Of the 8 editing positions, Wendy and Lisa are the only female editors. They both
have Film school undergrad degrees.
Avid has a deal with USC. At the end of every 546 film screened at USC, the big Avid
logo is flashed on the screen, with the words, Edited with an Avid (or something like
Directing a 546 also satisfies the school's graduation requirement for a thesis project.
Before a student can be selected to direct a 546, he/she must first crew on one. In
addition to directing a 546, thesis project requirements are also met in various other
Without detailing the specifics of all possible thesis options (e.g. 581, 582, 587, etc.)
the benefits of directing a 546 is that the school pays for the film. The downside of
directing a 546 is that the faculty has a lot of input in how the film gets made.
Most students prefer to retain creative control over their films.
All other thesis projects require students to secure their own financing. The ability to
secure financing is a very real part of filmmaking in the industry. Sponsoring a Film school
thesis project is tax deductible. Tax forms are available from the school.
In 546, students from all four films come together in one large group (~44 students)
to view footage, both raw & edited, from all four films. All students critique all four
films, as they're made during the semester. This is one of the more valuable aspects
of Film school, this continual dialoging of what works and what doesn't, and why.
After viewing & critiquing all four 546 films as a single, large group, students break
into their respective groups for further instruction. For example, all 8 Editors meet
with their Editing prof. All 4 Directors meet with a Directing prof, etc.
Wendy isn't going to take the Visual Expression class, like originally planned. She figures
she'll have her hands full with 546 Editing (6 units) and Intermediate Directing (2 units).
Most of the students taking 546, are limiting their course load to one other class. Lisa,
for example, is taking only 546, no other classes.
Word is that Visual Expression is a great class, and you want to allocate enough time
to do it right, not be swamped with other classes. She also wants to keep her GPA up,
to qualify for scholarships. She may take V-E this summer, when she'll have time to
dedicate to it. It's a mandatory class, so it must be taken sooner or later.
She's excited about the Intermediate Directing class, with Jeremy Kagan. She looks
forward to it every week. Kagan usually teaches on Tuesdays, but is teaching a Monday
class this semester. Some students signed up for a Tuesday class, thinking they were
getting Kagan, but didn't.
Tania recommended Kagan's class to Wendy, saying, "Even if you have to wait a
semester, that's the class you want." It deals with how to work with actors. There
are two other Int Directing classes, which deal with the cinematography aspects of
directing, rather than working with actors.
His Monday class is full. Kagan has been teaching his Intermediate Directing class a
long time. He's not trying to develop a new system of teaching. He already has a well-
Kagan said, "If there's one thing I want you get from this class, if nothing else, it's this:
this class is about getting what you want from people. Being a director, as in life, is
about getting what you want from people. From your actors & actresses, you want a
very specific performance. One critical part of getting what you want is communicating
clearly, directly & effectively. This class will focus on these techniques."
Some 546 directors ask their editors to function as Script Supervisors during the shoots,
but Wendy's Editing prof says it's important that editors approach footage from a fresh
perspective, and that they'll be too busy to both attend the shoots and edit the footage.
Wendy's editing partner, Geof, has a class the night they'll be editing. She thinks she
may edit until midnight, then turn over to Geof, and let him edit to the wee morning
hours. After editing on the Avid, Wendy and Geof will actually cut the 16mm film (called
conforming the print). So there's more work to editing a 546 than Wendy anticipated.
Geof did his undergrad work at Columbia University, in NYC, the same school the Dog
attended. Geof's degree is in Literature. He knows all about the craft of storytelling.
The 546 Editing prof is teaching a class on the Avid. It's open to all students, but
priority is given to those who are actually editing a 546 this semester.
Word is that USC had requested funding for a class dedicated solely to teaching the Avid,
but the money/funding didn't get approved until the last minute, after it was too late to
include the course in the course catalog. Faculty was unsure what to do once funding
was approved, but decided to teach the class anyway, so they don't lose funding for
So students in this class are basically getting free instruction. Wendy got six straight
hours of instruction today. She says the prof knows his stuff, but it's hard to concentrate
for such a long period of time, on such detailed info. This is the first class ever offered
on the Avid at USC.
Some students in Wendy's class don't want anything to do
with Production this this
semester (546 is a Production class). They got burned out last semester (508).
Keith is one such classmate, taking only non-production classes this semester,
getting a breather.
Wendy met Helaine for dinner last week, at Engine Company No. 28, downtown LA.
She had a great time. Wendy said, "I love that woman."
Helaine is on standby to direct a private gospel music film sponsored by the Baptist
church (national organization), but the people running it are Music people, who know
nothing about making movies. So now, they're finding Movie people to bring in & get
the ball rolling.
We saw the movie Traffic last week. When the main
actor arrived on screen, Wendy
said, "I know him. We ran into him in an elevator while on a shoot last semester. His
name is Benicio Del Toro, They call him Bennie. One of the guys I was with said, "I
know you. You're Benicio Del Toro. You're a good actor." Benicio said, "You have very
good taste, my friend," and smiled.
Tomorrow eve, USC is screening last semester's 546 films. One called Virus Man is
supposed to be hot. It's being hyped all across campus, with flyers everywhere.
Wendy plans to attend.
Wendy enjoys working with Pema, the director of the 546 film she's crewing on. He's
a Buddhist from Tibet, who meditates, and is always calm. A welcome change from
some of the frantic-ness of last semester.
Wendy said she had some good ideas during a recent Production meeting. Everybody
liked a few of her suggestions, one thematic, & one technical. She said she didn't know
where the ideas came from. They surprised her.
Her 546 crew partners are from disparate backgrounds. Pema is from Tibet. His wife is
here with him. They have a 5-year-old son, back in Tibet, staying with his grandmother.
Pema had actually planned to take the semester off and return to Tibet, if he didn't get
selected to direct a 546. He was surprised that he was selected.
One of the sound people is a Native American (Running Wolf).
The other sound person
is is from India. So both sound people are Indians, so to speak. Wendy likes her 546 crew.
One of the DP's is Chinese. A veritable melting pot.
Tania was selected to TA a 508 class this semester. That's a great gig. USC gives 8 credits
for TA'ing a 508 ($800/credit), plus an hourly wage (or maybe a salary?). But before they let
you TA, you first have to work a semester, at a non-TA job. That's the deal.
Before wrapping up this update, I want to send a special shout out of thanks to Sidney,
who had this email update archived, when I lost the original, after my hard drive crapped
out. I wouldn't have been to post this without him.
Next -> 546 Screenings
Previous -> 508 Semester
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