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Filmmaking Pilot Program Embraces the Liberal Arts

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Drama professor Andrew Tsao had long dreamed of a UW film program that would combine the liberal arts and applied film production. But the daunting cost and logistics of such a program gave him pause.


Students filming in a CineMedia class. Media credit: Nav Tombros

Then he met Evelyn Osborn.

Osborn came to Tsao in 2011 as a UW sophomore to discuss the possibility of an individual major in filmmaking. She had identified existing courses in cinema studies, drama, English, and Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS), which she hoped to supplement with independent study in applied filmmaking.

“I already had this idea for a program that would focus on the present and future of media-based storytelling, exploring all the media platforms that are emerging,” recalls Tsao. “Then into my office walks Evelyn telling me what she’d like to do. It was like she was repeating back to me what I’d already decided.” 

That nudge led to a pilot program, CineMedia, with Osborn among its first small cohort of students. Tsao worked closely with Kevin Mihata, A&S Associate Dean of Educational Programs, and Cynthia Caci, Assistant Director, C21
Program, to design the pilot program. “Pilot programs like CineMedia are a way to try out new majors and see what works,” says Mihata, who explains that the College of Arts and Sciences is working to make its curriculum more flexible and adaptive to address emerging areas of interest. “At this point, CineMedia is still an experiment.”

Experiment or not, Osborn is thrilled to be part of the program. The Anacortes native took her first film class in middle school, continued in high school, then directed UWTV’s student television news magazine The Daily's Double Shot as a UW freshman. She worked as a production intern at KCTS-9 during her sophomore year, but her first love has always been narrative film. She sought Tsao as a mentor due to his background as a film, theatre, and television director.

“Andrew has tons of film experience,” says Osborn. “You trust that he really knows what he’s talking about. He’s one of my favorite people in the world.”

That’s a good thing, since CineMedia majors get plenty of face time with Tsao. They take his courses through the School of Drama and serve as technical crew for an MFA course he teaches on screen acting. They also take other drama courses on acting, directing, and text analysis.

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Andrew Tsao and Evelyn Osborn on set during a film grammar workshop. Media credit: Daniel Yu

“The CineMedia students struggle with the acting class,” says Tsao, “but that’s exactly why they are there. Whatever path they choose when they graduate from the program, whether it be grad school or working in film and television or new
media, they will spend most of their time working with actors. It’s my belief that you can’t effectively shape an actor’s performance to serve a story unless you understand the process the actor is going through. Their ability to communicate well with actors will separate them from students coming out of professional film production programs.”

CineMedia students also study screenwriting in the Department of English, where they learn to write and analyze scripts, and take a series of courses in the Cinema Studies Program, a specialized degree track within the Department of Comparative Literature. Cinema Studies offers courses on film analysis, film genre, and film history, from the earliest days of silent-era film to the present, while encompassing a wide range of world cinemas and cultures. The program, like CineMedia, has been popular with aspriring filmmakers.

"There's a deep interconnectedness between what we've been doing and the growth of the CineMedia program," says Jennifer Bean, director of Cinema Studies and associate professor of comparative literature. "Having Cinema Studies involved in the CineMedia pilot program ensures that the students' technical training is grounded in critical thinking and a vibrant liberal arts education."

That mix of theory and application has appealed to Osborn from the start. “I love that the program has this liberal arts component to balance the technical and methods part,” she says. “It’s what makes it different from a film school where you just learn how to run a camera.”

Students also take an experimental video course through DXARTS, producing their own short videos. “That’s a technologically based class that forces them to be creative in another way,” says Tsao, who explains that while other CineMedia courses emphasize storytelling, the DXARTS class requires students to work outside of the narrative mode. “They must look at filmmaking from a completely different view,” says Tsao. “That’s how they grow.”

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Students filming in a CineMedia class. Media credit: Nav Tombros

Osborn admits that the open-ended DXARTS assignments threw her at first. “I like rules, so it was really hard for me to break out of the box,” she says. “But by the second quarter, I really loved it. It helps you think creatively and develop a style.”

All of the required CineMedia courses lead up to a final thesis project: a short film of up to 24 minutes, which is the maximum length for short-film submissions at most film festivals. Several of the first cohort are now working on their films, which they write, shoot, direct, and edit, with classmates assisting as crew. It’s a chance to demonstrate the technical and storytelling skills they have gained along the way.

Tsao has been impressed with his students’ progress and looks forward to their thesis projects. As for whether the CineMedia pilot project will expand to a full-fledged program, he is more noncommittal.

“On this small scale, the program has worked very well,” says Tsao. “But this training is very hands-on and very production intensive. Once you have 200 students, it can’t work the same way. That’s a challenge we still have to sort out.”