41st Student Academy Awards presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

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The presentation of the 41st Student Academy Awards marked the end of a whirlwind week for the fifteen winners of this career-launching honor. As Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs explained in the Directors Guild Theater on June 7, 2014, the purpose of the awards are “to engage filmmakers at the college level, support emerging voices, and celebrate the excellent work that is being done by young filmmakers worldwide.” 
In the days before the ceremony that revealed their final rankings, the winners rubbed elbows with Hollywood greats, taking advantage of the collaborative spirit shared by members of the Academy from all of its many branches to gain insight into how the industry networks and what pitfalls to avoid as their careers advance. These discussions ranged from casual conversations to workshops and tours with such venerable organizations as the Writers and Directors Guilds of America, DreamWorks Studios, the American Society of Cinematographers, and the Sundance Institute. As our interviews show, however, the winners prized the real sense of camaraderie and creative exchange they built amongst themselves during that week together. Don’t be surprised if you hear about upcoming joint projects, that’s all we’re saying… 
The awards are presented annually to student filmmakers in five motion picture categories: Alternative, Animation, Documentary, Foreign, and Narrative. Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals are potentially awarded in each category. The Academy and Academy Foundation provides winners with a year of support through grants, education, media literacy outreach, and screenings for their films. Past notable recipients include such luminaries as Spike Lee, Peter H. Docter, Trey Parker, Lauren Lazin, and Robert Zemeckis. Several renowned names in cinema presented the awards, from Frozen’s filmmaking team of Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck, and Peter Del Vecho to actors and fellow filmmakers Demian Bichir, Adrian Grenier, and Nate Parker. 
Out of the 500 entrants, these fifteen filmmakers earned their prestigious places at the top of the marquee. Take the time to familiarize yourself with their work by listening to their acceptance speeches and interviews conducted at the ceremony with Indiezone.tv’s Christie McDonald. You’ll want to, as your bound to see their next features in a theater near you soon enough.



Alternative Winners

Drew Brown, Person, the Art Institute of Jacksonville, FL


Winning Academy Awards for modern-day silent films isn’t just for the Artist, anymore. Drew Brown of the Art Institute of Jacksonville won the Gold Medal in the Alternative category with Person, an entirely silent short film that he wrote, directed, and starred in. As Brown described during our interview, the topic matter of Person is close to his heart as a gay man because it follows a transgendered teenager as she embraces her feminine qualities through dance and art. 
Brown, who recently earned his bachelors of fine arts in digital filmmaking and video production, has been happily surprised with how well the film has done and the exposure it has gotten. The week of career enrichment sponsored by the Academy opened his eyes to the possibilities of Hollywood, an avenue of filmmaking he hadn’t really considered before as a Florida native. During Brown’s speech, accolades flew for his producer, Ramona Ramdeen, and their unusual cross-generational and cross-ethnic partnership. Praise for his fellow winners and how they inspired each other in the week leading up to the ceremony also effused out of Brown as we spoke.
Daniel Sierra, Oscillate, School of Visual Arts, NY
Oscillate, the Alternative category’s Silver Medal winner, is the culmination of Daniel Sierra’s studies in the MFA Computer Arts program at the New York School of Visual Arts. In addition to this honor, Oscillate took the gold in digital animation at the 2014 Taiwan International Student Design Competition. The polychromatic, four-minute-long video plays with the beauty of the sine wave, relying solely on visual effects and music to create its mood. Sierra designed the heavily intertwined visual effects and music, though at our host’s prodding, he admitted that the music was finished a little earlier. Perhaps the effects were more of a prima donna in this scenario?
Live, immersive audio/visual performance pieces are definitely in Sierra’s future, a goal that his current position as a technical artist with Microsoft should help him achieve. His parents and his brother were thanked during his speech for spurring on his learning and imagination, and he told us he was also excited by all the people he had met in the prior week. Still, Sierra admitted that the food at the previous night’s dinner with the Academy’s Board of Governors was the most remarkable part of the evening. Even when surrounded by creative geniuses and peers, an appetite sometimes proves the biggest prima donna of them all. 



Animation Winners


Daniel Clark & Wesley Tippetts, Owned, Brigham Young University, UT
Co-directed by a pair of Brigham Young University film program graduates, Daniel Clark and Wesley Tippets, Owned was a multidisciplinary project in its truest form, drawing from the work of fifty BYU students in both the animation and computer science departments. Owned follows the embarrassing defeat of the imaginary Jeff, a World Videogame Champion, at the hands of a baby gamer. As in, a gamer who is actually in diapers.
Clark interned with Pixar Animation Studios as an undergraduate, and Tippetts is now a story artist at Illumination Entertainment. Their mutual respect was evident during their shared acceptance speech when Clark credited Tippetts with all the heart and Tippetts named Clark the director of efficiency, keeping them on task during the filmmaking process. During our interview, Tippetts’ revealed how his own humiliating defeat at the hands of a much younger competitor inspired Owned’s story concept. Touring DreamWorks was his highlight of the week, which makes sense for a talented animator like himself. Although no longer together at BYU, collaborating on another animated feature has definitely not been ruled out for this Gold-Medal-winning team. Neither has Jennifer Lawrence cameos in their future work, we hope.
Teng Cheng, Higher Sky, University of Southern California
Teng “Eric” Cheng’s Silver Medal winner, Higher Sky, is his second-year film with the animation and digital arts program at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. After winning several awards from animation festivals in the Asian Pacific region, where he also served as an animation director on the Huainanzi Tales animated series, Cheng came to the US to broaden his audience and attempt commercial animation for a culture quite different from his own. Higher Sky’s main characters, a swallow and monkey who engage in a near-calligraphic martial arts battle, were designed to draw on the universality of animals in pleasing a diverse audience. 
For a man as focused as Cheng on his career, the past week was a wonderful opportunity. But as many of the winners expressed during our interviews, building relationships with each other was the best part.  Cheng also appreciated how the events gave him insight into networking and how to break into the industry, encouraging him to take his career to the next step, which he also gave thanks for during his speech. Cheng has already put those new skills to use, recommending Higher Sky’s composer to anyone in the Directors Guild Theater audience who may need one. 
Hayley Foster, Yamashita, Loyola Marymount University, CA


The Bronze Medal winner in the Animation category, Hayley Foster is a 2-D animator with a bachelor’s degree in animation from Loyola Marymount University and a minor in Asian and Pacific studies. Presently living in Burbank, the least memorable part of Foster’s award week was the traffic en route to the events! The most was talking with past winners of the Student Academy Awards, especially Shane Acker, who was a faculty advisor for her boyfriend’s thesis project a few years ago. Hollywood’s a smaller town than we knew!  
Yamashita is about the experience of a Japanese American girl in one of World War II’s internment camps, a historical injustice that has yet to get its full day in the United States’ cultural sun, as Foster asserted in our interview. The impressive work she did on the film no doubt contributed to her current position as a storyboard artist with Warner Bros. Animation. Yamashita also won the Woody Woodpecker Award for Best Animated Student Film from the Walter Lantz Foundation.
Foster was overwhelmed by gratitude for her family as she gave her speech, choking up as she thanked them for putting her through college, then cracking up as her boyfriend’s role in the production was revealed. She hoped she did justice to the experiences faced by Japanese Americans in WWII. 



Documentary Winners

Helen Hood Scheer, the Apothecary, Stanford University, CA


First and foremost, Helen Hood Scheer made sure to give the Documentary Film & Video MFA faculty at Stanford University and her fellow students a lot of the credit for the Apothecary’s success. As she expressed during our interview, Hood Scheer was thrilled to share the experience of winning a Student Academy Award with her fellow Stanford student, J. Christian Jensen, who took the Silver to her Gold. While describing how her inspiration for the Apothecary came from a New Yorker article on Dr. Don Colcord, we learned Hood Scheer has rock-solid instincts; the rights to Colcord’s life-story have been optioned by Steven Soderbergh! At the podium, she thanked Colcord’s family for travelling to Los Angeles to support her.
Pre-pitching her newest film ideas to the Sundance Institute has had an amazing effect on informing Hood Scheer’s next career steps, but she was clear in her answers to us that getting to know her fellow finalists had been the most beneficial aspect of winning a Student Academy Award. Coming from someone who had already produced documentaries for HBO, PBS, and several other networks before pursuing her MFA, that says a lot. Her directorial debut, JUMP!, was acquired by Showtime.
J. Christian Jensen, White Earth


J. Christian Jensen, in addition to Gold Medal winner Helen Hood Scheer, comes from the Documentary Film & Video MFA program at Stanford University in California. Prior to his master’s studies, Jensen had an impressive resume as a journalist, participating in productions for National Geographic Film & Television, Frontline, and the American Experience. His previous work has exhibited a range of interests, including a lepers’ colony in Hawaii and Afro-Brazilian art. White Earth highlights the effect of North Dakota’s oil boom on the immigrants who’ve come to work in its oil fields. In addition to the Silver Medal Student Academy Award, White Earth won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film at the Full Frame documentary festival and Jury awards for cinematography at the Slamdance and Fargo film festivals.
In our interview with Jensen, he reveals what makes White Earth stand out from the documentary crowd: the perspectives of the children affected. Meeting with the Sundance Institute was the most exciting part of his past week. As his acceptance speech recounts, Jensen’s past educators have had a profound effect on his work, but no one has had more of one than his parents and his wife.
Zijian Mu, One Child, New York University, NY


Despite being a New Yorker, Zijian Mu was not immune the thrilling spectacle of the winners’ week in Los Angeles. Even saying the words, “I want to thank the Academy,” was surreal for him, as he admitted at the podium. As someone new to filmmaking, Mu looked on all the opportunities the Academy provided as free lessons from the best. We think that displays keen investigative insight from this former journalist whose past work has been featured by the Economist, Vice, and CNN. 
One Child follows three families in China who lost their only children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ultimately, the film explores the effects of China’s one-child policy and its temporary lifting in the special case of those families. Building trust was an easier experience for Mu than for most documentarians, as the families he focused on were family friends, and he thanked them profusely in his speech for sharing their grief with him over the course of the film. Although Mu earned his MA in news and documentary studies at New York University, he is a native of Beichuan, China, where the earthquake struck. In addition to the Bronze Medal, One Child has won the 2013 Sidney Gross Memorial Prize for Investigative Journalism. 



Foreign Winners

Lennart Ruff, Nocebo, University of Television and Film, Germany

Nocebo, a fast-paced film directed by Lennart Ruff of the University of Television and Film in Munich, Germany, is about Christian, a paranoid schizophrenic who’s discovered the death of a fellow patient at a drug study center. The protagonist’s point of view is an intriguing choice, as Ruff described for us, because the audience doesn’t know whether or not to trust Christian’s version of the events, making for a unique take on the thriller genre.  
Ruff had his own thrills to handle in the weeks since being chosen as a Student Academy Award finalist, even before being awarded the Gold Medal. Among the week’s worth of amazing opportunities? Getting a glimpse of Matt Groening’s early sketches of Bart Simpson. Even with a handful of award-winning commercials already in Ruff’s portfolio, it’s hard not to be impressed by the Bartman.
Our interviewer, Christie McDonald, loved Nocebo’s cinematography and her compliment led to Ruff’s energized praise for his director of photography, Jan-Marcello Kahl. He repeated that thanks during his speech and singled out his music directors, his fellow students back in Munich, and the Academy for the whole program of events they sponsored for the Student Academy Award winners.
Hadas Ayalon, Paris on the Water, Tel Aviv University, Israel


As the first student from an Israeli school to win a Student Academy Award, Hadas Ayalon has enjoyed a level of fame in her country that the protagonist in her drama, Paris on the Water, has always wanted but is no longer sure she should pursue. Ayalon’s fame didn’t stay in Israel, where she is an MA student in Tel Aviv University’s Department of Film and Television. Rather, it followed her to LA where an actor came up to her at a reception, quoting a line from the film! That’s an easy win for Ayalon’s most memorable moment from among the Student Academy Award activities.
With on-the-job experience editing documentaries, it’s no surprise that Ayalon’s been researching one for years. But we were glad to hear that she’s decided to write a narrative feature about the subject matter instead. If Paris on the Water is any indication, she has what it takes to bring fiction to life. We know her countrymen are thirsting for more.
Peter Baumann, Border Patrol, the Northern Film School, United Kingdom


Peter Baumann directed an international crew on Border Patrol, his Bronze-Medal-winning comedy film. As he described the plot to us, a German border patrol crew keeps trying to watch a soccer game during their shift, only for such trifling inconveniences as a dead body to get in the way as the plot takes repeatedly darker twists. As he’s also the film’s writer, Baumann was thrilled to tour the Writers Guild of America’s facilities and speak with some of its members--heroes to any aspiring filmmaker but gracious enough to treat him as an equal.
Though he’s German, Baumann is the first student at the Northern Film School of the United Kingdom to earn a Student Academy Award. Border Patrol also won top prize in Graduate Fiction at the 2014 Royal Television Awards, Best Original Screenplay at the Cambridge Watersprite International Film Festival, and Outstanding International Student Film at the International Student Film and Video Festival in Beijing. Baumann gave his heartfelt thanks to the many members of the cast and crew, trusting himself to remember his own lines when he forewent his prepared speech. Giving special thanks to the Academy for acknowledging comedy as an art form was an especially nice way to wrap things up.



Narrative Winners

Keola Racela, Above the Sea, Columbia University, NY


Written and directed by Keola Racela of Columbia University’s MFA film program, Gold Medal winner Above the Sea was a large-scale endeavor for a student film, gaining access to a studio backlot in Shanghai for its set.  As we learned during his interview, Racela wanted to tell the rarely explored backstory of a film noir staple, the femme fatale, as he imagined it in 1930s Shanghai. Above the Sea also took the Gold Reed Award for Best Short at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival and Best Student Short at the Woodstock Film festival among other honors on the festival circuit. 

Racela first studied film in the film and digital media program at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He also served as the media director at Youth Rights Media, a nonprofit that promotes youth-led change through documentary filmmaking. With good humor, Racela shared with us the bit of fun the Academy had in telling him the film had been selected as a finalist. He also talked about the effect Columbia has had on honing his storytelling skills and the positive dynamic formed between him and his fellow winners during the preceding week. During his speech, Racela named his producer, Lily Niu, and director of photography, John Wakayama, as co-recipients of the award for their partnership on the film. He also thanked the Columbia Film School faculty for advising him to re-write the script, even when that challenge came late in the filmmaking game.
Yulin Liu, Door God, New York University, NY


Yulin Liu is one of two Chinese natives and film students from New York University to win Student Academy Awards this year. Door God, her narrative short film about a little girl waiting for her mom to return during the Chinese New Year, was inspired by a true story her grandmother’s neighbors told in the same small town where Door God filmed in Hunan, China.
Thanking her cast and crew for working through a hard Chinese winter and NYU for teaching her how to tell a story, Liu’s sincere acceptance speech related her passion for shedding light on overlooked narratives.  We’re excited to see what story she’ll tell next. She’s already working on her first feature, Once Sentence Worth Ten Thousand, which will also film in China where she’s served in various capacities on several television programs in the past.
Camille Stochitch, Interstate, American Film Institute, CA
This Parisian filmmaker was ambitious enough to make her thesis film, Interstate, half in Spanish and half in English…and about immigration issues in Los Angeles! The story, which she wrote, is about the lines an undocumented worker must navigate between legal and illegal activities as he tries to make a life for himself in the United States. A graduate from Los Angeles’s own American Film Institute, Camille Stochitch supplemented her already fluent Spanish with the aid of native Spanish speakers and her bilingual actors. As you’ll learn in our interview, her interest in immigration has followed her from France and is a passion she wants audiences talking about. 
Stochitch next career step will be as an assistant to another director in Hollywood. She’s already accumulated a handful of assistant director credits since making Interstate, and her previous work in France included assistant directing televisions shows and commercials. Stochitch gushed about the amazing caliber of screenwriters she and her fellow nominees talked with at the Writers Guild of America. The opportunity to meet the Academy’s members and governors and a fellow female French director during the previous night’s dinner was also a highlight. 
In her speech, Stochitch mentioned how wonderfully full-circle it was for Demian Bichir to be a presenter at the ceremony, as she had hoped to cast him in Interstate once upon a time. We have a feeling she’ll be more successful with that in the future. 
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