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Class Action: where aspiring filmmakers get a shot

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Orson Welles once remarked half facetiously that movies are the biggest and most expensive toy train ever invented for grown-ups. More so now than ever, as today's aspiring young filmmakers know well. At the top four film schools in the country--Columbia University; University of Southern California; University of California, Los Angeles; and New York University--tuition and related expenses can run up to $45,000 for a four-year undergraduate degree and $20,000 for a two-year MFA. And that's not counting the cost of a thesis project, almost a requisite for any student hoping to find a desirable job. A famous local example is the Oscar-winning 35-millimeter film shot at Northwestern by a couple of North Shore students in the early 80s, which was rumored to have cost their parents and relatives close to $200,000--more than double the budget of a typical Roger Corman B movie. No wonder film teachers and critics say that only rich kids can afford to pay for a film or TV career. No wonder minority groups fear that the future image of America might be a homogenized one served up by Spielberg clones.

"We've been trying to correct that by giving access to minority beginners," says Jim Taylor of the Community Film Workshop (CFW). Taylor founded the workshop 20 years ago, at a time when similar short and inexpensive training to ethnic and minority students was available in New York, San Francisco, and other metropolitan areas. Those programs have since disbanded, but CFW is thriving--it recently moved from its cramped, run-down quarters north of the river to an airy, light-filled suite in a renovated South Loop building. Taylor runs the workshop mom-and-pop style--his wife Margaret Caples is in charge of the day-to-day administration.

"Our operation started out as a pilot program of the Office of Equal Opportunity in 1969," says Taylor, a genial man in his 60s. "I was doing still photography then, and I was in the cameramen's union. But I couldn't get a job in films, not in this city anyway. Why? One word--discrimination. So I got involved in this program. I took a vow of poverty." The OEO program, though mildly successful, was terminated after one year. "It was turning out too many good people," says Taylor with a trace of irony. But he refused to quit and managed to secure a smallish grant from the Illinois Arts Council to keep the operation alive.

Since then, the workshop has gradually expanded, maintained by a steady infusion of grants from federal agencies and private foundations, including the MacArthur--and by tuition income. In the 70s the total instruction fees for the three-month intensive-training course in 16-millimeter filmmaking--CFW's mainstay--hovered around $400; they were so low that some people questioned the professionalism of the program until they learned more about it. A few years ago Taylor reluctantly hiked the tuition to $2,000, still a modest sum in comparison with the fees at other local film schools, such as Columbia College and the School of the Art Institute. The tuition covers instruction and equipment, as well as such essentials as film stock, processing, and work prints.

CFW is not a film school, stresses Taylor. "We don't give out degrees. We offer individualized instruction, focused learning." Caples adds, "We like to think of ourselves as a preparatory school for people who plan to get further education or to get into the unions." She also says that some students may have gotten scholarships at other schools because they went through CFW.

Caples and Taylor recruit at inner-city schools and offer scholarships. They have tried to incorporate video, especially lessons on electronic news gathering, into the curriculum in an attempt to draw more young people. But Caples admits that CFW is attracting more adults.

Caples and Taylor are particularly proud of their pedagogic approach. "We think it's unique," says Taylor. "First, the students are required to take our course in film history and aesthetics, pass a test, and write a complete treatment." Then, says Caples, "J.T. gives them drills to overcome any fear of handling equipment. They are taught to trust the equipment. During the dry runs, they go through the motions. They learn about light meters, how to make up shot cards, what lenses are appropriate, depth of field, and the rest. You'd think that film schools offer this kind of instruction--they don't. Also, many beginners are self-centered, not willing to work on other people's projects, not disciplined at all. We try to change that attitude. There's no fluff here."

Taylor's hands-on techniques for putting newcomers at ease have become a legend of sorts among CFW devotees. One of its alumni, Ramona Curry, found them so helpful that she later used the same method while teaching at Northwestern. "With marvelous results," she says. "It's the most efficient and personal way of acquiring thorough technical knowledge of filmmaking. J.T. is a rare teacher. He's kept this one going through personal dedication."

Taylor is well aware of the discrimination his students would face in many film schools. "Film schools tend to be cliquish," he says. He's also well aware of the discrimination they may face when they look for work. "We tell the students that the chances of them making it are small, but there is that chance. For minority students, we tell them they should come here first. We want them to realize that if two or three can do it, then they can do it too." About half of the 35 to 40 students who now enroll each semester belong to minority groups.

CFW has become something of a feeder outfit for local film schools, Columbia College in particular, since it accepts for credit work done at CFW. Taylor says that more than half the graduates have "gone on to big times" and notes with enthusiasm that a graduate from the early 80s won an Emmy last year for costume design on the Tracey Ullman Show. Another alum, Martin Hudson, took the course fresh out of the Navy. Through the workshop he got an internship at the Illinois Film Office, and this summer he's working as a production assistant on the Ron Howard movie being shot in town and mapping out projects of his own.

Whenever alumni-turned-independent-filmmakers such as Hudson embark on a project, they contact Taylor for advice and encouragement. They often rent the workshop's equipment at a discount and then edit the footage on CFW's familiar machines.

To reinforce his widening network of contacts, Taylor invites industry veterans and representatives from national arts organizations to lecture. He has also come to be regarded as a champion of minority voices even outside Chicago, and he recently did a stint as a member of a commission set up by the state of Maryland. "We have convinced legislators there to set aside a production endowment of $20 million. The income from that will be used to fund five minority-oriented film projects every year. Why can't we have a similar arrangement for Illinois and other states?" Caples agrees. "We are more and more a multicultural society--there should be more viewpoints. At the workshop we show our students how to look at film as a way of capturing their own culture, as an organizing tool for their community."

The workshop's fall sessions begin in September: the 18-week evening workshop begins September 11 and runs through January 19, and the 12-week daytime section begins September 17 and runs through December 7. The Community Film Workshop is located at 1130 S. Wabash, suite 400. For more info call 427-1245.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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