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The Big Picture

April 7, 2014

At the new Television, Film and Media Center, students prepare for work in show business

Hollywood is populated with landmarks that cement its status as the entertainment capital of the world: the Hollywood sign, the Walk of Fame, the footprints outside the Chinese Theatre.

And now Cal State L.A. has its own living monument to Hollywood with the opening of our Television, Film and Media Center.

An enterprise more than 20 years in the making, the center opened this fall with the sole purpose to connect students with best practices in the entertainment industry.

The $7-million state-of-the-art center provides creative undergraduates and graduates in the Television, Film and Media programs with everything required to make their ideas come to life. It houses a two-story soundstage, a sound post-production suite with recording studio, theatre-style screening room and a computer laboratory for editing, screenwriting and production management.

This production space is where the coursework moves from theoretical to practical. It’s where students will create the documentaries, films, shorts and shows that build the portfolios that will help them get hired in Hollywood and beyond.

Hollywood is only five miles away, after all, and with more than 1,400 alumni working in the Los Angeles entertainment business, Cal State L.A.’s influence in the industry is undeniable and can only grow stronger.

“The economic impact of the entertainment industry in California is over $270 billion, and is responsible for one in seven jobs in the Los Angeles region. Los Angeles is easily the creative capital of the state, and many would say of the nation,” says Peter McAllister, dean of the College of Arts and Letters. “According to a recent report, almost half of the 80 occupations in the creative industries require a bachelor’s degree or higher. Here at Cal State L.A. we are proud of our undergraduate and graduate degree programs that are directly connected to the creative industries through internships, industry alliances, and alumni.”


The exterior shot of the building may still be a model of functional midcentury commercial design, but don’t let that fool you. The interior is brand new and significant preparation went into every aspect of design. The building is “future-proof” thanks to some strategic planning by the faculty, staff and McAllister.

Take the center’s upgraded wiring, for example, which is a critical component for compatibility with new technology. Unlike traditional buildings that run wires inside walls, the conduit in the TVFM Center is situated so that future rewiring can be done without having to punch open drywall.

“I did not want to see our building open and then have it lose relevance after two or three years,” says McAllister. “Our students and faculty deserve better and Cal State L.A. deserves to show Hollywood how a structure can be kept up to date and remain best in class.”

Balanced power units remove “dirt” from electrical transmissions entering the facility, so that volts powering the cameras, lights, computers and sound boards are clean, protecting the equipment from wear and the students’ digital files from unwanted interference.

And because quiet is so crucial in the production of new media, several measures have been taken to soundproof rooms. Special hinges have been installed on doors and lighting selected for the building emits no sound. Ventilation units allow air to silently fall into rooms rather than be pushed in with a rumble and a hum.

The steel grid and catwalk in the two-story soundstage, on which students will learn how to hang lights and scenery, is supported by the walls rather than the roof to ensure the students’ safety.

And then there’s the equipment. Through partnerships with entertainment leaders such as AVID, Sony, Canon, Adobe, Red Digital Camera and more, the department has acquired the latest and best technology so that students are taught using industry-standard equipment. On the 26-inch screen iMacs in the computer lab, students learn how to cut and edit digital media using AVID and Adobe software. In the screening room, an audience in cushioned theater-style seating watches movies the way filmmakers intended with the use of a Sony laser theater projector. The department has also purchased 3D motion capture technology.

Speaking of screens, the center is full of them: televisions in the lobby show student projects, screens in the classrooms and the soundstage project films. Perhaps the most notable screens reside in the recording spaces. Whereas windows would typically connect performers to the control team room in traditional recording studios, the TVFM Center has televisions. Not only does this reduce the sound vibrations made by windows, but it allows a team to work remotely, lessening the constraints of schedules and locations. Now, students can record a voiceover in the sound booth, a conversation with an author in Connecticut, or even a performance in Paris without ever leaving the recording studio.

“We can invite people into our classes and productions through their screens,” says McAllister. “They can be in our creative spaces and we can be in theirs.”


In addition to supporting classes for the Master of Arts in Communications Studies Option in Telecommunications and Film and the Television, Film and Media Studies undergraduate program, the new center serves as the headquarters for the department’s Master of Fine Arts in Television, Film and Theatre, which launched five years ago.

“We’re trying to cultivate a sense of the new building as a point of aspiration and inspiration so that undergrads will strive to be in the M.F.A. program,” says John Ramirez, chair of the Department of Television, Film and Media Studies.

While other master’s programs offer intensive focus in just one aspect of the industry, Cal State L.A.’s program ensures that graduates are skilled in writing, production and performing across three different disciplines of media: television, film and theatre.

The students ultimately decide on a concentration in writing, acting or production in their second year, but before they get there they receive instruction and practice in all three during their first year. The third year is dedicated to the production of a thesis.

“The program is unique and intense, but it will make our graduates more competitive in the job market because they can do all of that with some confidence and skill,” says Ramirez.

This kind of versatility is a major asset in an industry as impatient as entertainment. Greater knowledge and understanding of all the different roles contributes to better teamwork and collaboration, but it can also help when they may be asked to take on several roles in a project—a very real possibility in the current media landscape.

“With budgets dropping across the industry, there’s a general demand for a student who can do everything. Someone who can write, produce, shoot, and be the whole package. Someone who can ‘make it happen,” says Kristiina Hackel, director of the M.F.A. program. “Training our students to work in different roles and think on their feet will allow them to work successfully in lots of different areas.”

The variety of the program has not only attracted those who have yet to score a Screen Actors Guild card or an Internet Movie Database profile, but those already working steadily in the business. The M.F.A. program has enrolled numerous professionals, from theatre veterans to film directors, looking to develop new skills, produce their own personal creative projects or hoping to convert their experiences and a degree into teaching the next generation of production crews.

“The industry can get so fragmented. You can be pigeonholed into being a grip, and you can make a good living as a grip, but what about your vision and the stories you want to tell?” says Hackel. “That’s something nice about a three-year program where they get to do a thesis and explore their own vision and create things they’re proud of.”


The second-year M.F.A. students were the first to really break in the new center in the fall as the cohort took a web series written by several of their own from script to final cut.

In Project 2, students took on the roles of directors, script supervisors, location scouts, camera crew and more. They climbed onto the catwalk for lighting tutorials and built a set from scratch.

“This was really my first true experience designing a set, so to do it on a massive soundstage was a little intimidating,” says Todd Leiser, the project’s art director, who directed one of the episodes. “It was a completely new experience, but I learned how to design the placement of the set to work with the lighting grid.”

The whole project was treated as the real production it was, with casting calls posted on Backstage, craft services and filming that complied with union rules for cast and crew breaks—a tough task considering production was done amidst the hectic schedules of finals week.

Representatives from Canon and Sony gave demonstrations on their cameras and lenses. The students were grateful to have industry experts give advice on which cameras to use on particular projects and learn about the latest technology.

“The industry is coming to us and we’re going to the industry. It’s exactly what I would want as the director of a graduate program,” says Hackel.

And although the student crew clashed creatively at some points in the series’ development, as crews in Hollywood productions often do, they also found that the collaborative process only enhanced the project.

“The script took on another life once others started to get involved,” said writer and show runner Mav Viola. “Actors come in for casting, and their voices, faces and abilities change the characters. Directors change the script with their own vision. At this point, it’s cool to see what it’s become—what it is now.”

But mostly, the students value the experience of working in a professional-grade facility with industry-standard equipment.

“What I loved about the new facility is the ability to have a space we can transform into whatever we need for a film shoot. The soundstage is a fantastic addition and the new lighting instruments played a significant role in making the final product of our web series look professional. It is great to have the tools to create professional pieces we can be proud of as we move from the M.F.A. program into real world production experiences,” says Candice Clasby, another student-director.