New Academy Aims to be the State’s Biggest Blockbuster
Filmmaker, cinematographer and UH instructor Anne Misawa (Waking Mele, Eden’s Curve) coaches cinematic and digital narrative production students Chrystal Jameson, left, and Nelson Quan in camera technique.
For Chris Lee, the term "made in Hawaiʻi" has little to do with Kona coffee, aloha shirts or chocolate covered macadamia nuts. The Hollywood producer turned UH academic envisions documentaries, movies, Web sites and video games made in Hawaiʻi for an audience that encompasses the viewing eyes and pocketbooks of the entire world with just the click of a mouse.
For 15 years, the notion of a Hawaiʻi film school had all the momentum of a Hollywood script that everyone liked but no one would produce. Since studio executives, a.k.a the UH Board of Regents, approved the production in January 2004, it has premiered to rave reviews and a promising future—predicted to transform the stateʻs economy and create opportunities for Hawaiʻiʻs own to become stars without leaving home.
Kailua-born ʻIolani graduate Lee began his career in entertainment after earning a degree in political science from Yale University. His first job was in New York City with ABC’s Good Morning America, but he quickly worked his way west to Los Angeles and ascended the ranks to become president of motion picture production for TriStar Pictures and Columbia Pictures.
Lee’s credits include Academy Award winning films Jerry Maguire, Philadelphia and As Good As It Gets as well as numerous popular hits including My Best Friend’s Wedding, Legends of the Fall, The Mask of Zorro and Starship Troopers.
The chance to return to his family after 27 years on the mainland and the opportunity to work for "a billion dollar enterprise that to my mind offers the only viable chance this state has to change its future" brought Lee back to Hawaiʻi and to the position of chair of the new Academy for Creative Media.
"I signed on to the university to helm something called ‘The Film School’" in October 2002, Lee recalls. It didn’t take him long to realize it shouldn’t be the one-campus, brick-and-mortar structure initially conceived. "If students want to go to a traditional film school, there are already standards of excellence at USC, UCLA and NYU, which have hundreds of millions of dollars in backing from alumni like George Lucas and Martin Scorcese," he explains. "What we have to do is create something unique to Hawaiʻi."
That includes entertainment media—television, digital filmmaking, video games, computer animation, dynamic Web design. It has evolved from just the Manoa campus to the entire University of Hawaiʻi system, taking advantage of complimentary activities already underway.
These include Kapiʻolani Community College’s New Media Arts program, where students work in 3-D computer animation and games, Leeward Community College’s established Television Production program, Honolulu Community College’s expertise in computer and network technology, Maui Community college’s state-of-the-art media center, Windward Community College’s theater and planetarium and the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo’s efforts to restore the Hawaiian culture and revive the Hawaiian language.
All offer unique facets that could be brought together to create a one-of-a-kind program that takes advantage of the latest technologies, Lee says.
Lee recruited two Hawaiʻi born and UH educated filmmakers to assist with the program. Both Chief Academic Officer Peter Britos and Instructor Anne Misawa trained at the University of Southern California film school and established award winning careers as writers, directors and producers. Rounding out the staff are chief technologist Kaveh Kardan and assistants Marie Shimomura and Nelson Quan.
Lee’s Hollywood connections also open doors for students. He is creating internship opportunities in firms across the Pacific, including Honolulu-based animation company Sprite Entertainment.
The Academy for Creative Media is designed to be a system-wide initiative that anchors the digital media industry for the state of Hawaiʻi. Lee describes it as the university’s "evolving 21st-century model of a film school."
Sixty students enrolled in three spring 2004 Manoa courses—oceanic film, TV and multimedia culture; narrative game design and cinematic and digital narrative production. The goal is to launch a BA in creative media through interdisciplinary studies at the Manoa campus in fall 2004.
Eventually, Lee seeks to establish a globally competitive media studies school with instructional programs that span the entire academic spectrum, from certificates to associate, baccalaureate, master’s and doctoral degrees.
The ACM model of the 24/7 Education Environment is Lee’s effort to make the program as innovative as his students and provide them with the opportunity and incentive to study at odd hours, even when not on campus. Students can write, shoot and edit their projects 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year and collaborate electronically.
"The emphasis is on removing limits, revealing opportunities and simplifying the way students perceive, access and wield technology," Lee says.
At students’ disposal is the ACM digital tool belt, which includes a production-ready laptop and a consumer quality digital video camera. The laptop comes installed with software applications ranging from traditional screenplay writing tools to cinematic and video editing applications, DVD authoring tools, sound editing software and other pertinent programs.
In tandem with the tool belt, the ACM dynamic Web site environment allows students from across the system to communicate and collaborate at any time or distance. For example, an ACM student in Hilo can share work with a Leeward student in real time via the Internet.
Lee has raised close to a million dollars in grants and donations, including $100,000 from Roy and Hilda Takeyama. Takeyama, a former UH regent, says he is impressed with Lee’s "creativity, dedication and public service," and hopes that other small business people will support Lee’s efforts "because there will be more job opportunities for our community college and Manoa graduates."
Another $100,000 grant, from the family foundation of businessman Jay Shidler (BBA ’68 Manoa) will sponsor the ACM Master Class series of distinguished speakers from the entertainment industry. Hollywood Director Roland Emmerich (Universal Soldier, Stargate, The Patriot) provided $100,000 for equipment and student scholarships.
UH alum Peter Britos brings Renaissance talents to film school
Study French literature in Switzerland and obtain a PhD from the University of Southern California. Work for several transnational media corporations, including AOL Time Warner, NBC and Clear Channel Communications. Collaborate with celebrities like James Cameron, Quincy Jones and Samuel L. Jackson. Add that to experience as a sports champion, accomplished musician, waterman and painter. The term "versatile" is an understatement, but the name Peter Britos would be accurate.
The new director of UH’s Academy for Creative Media was born at Tripler Hospital and graduated from Castle High School. In between, his father’s job as a meteorologist took the family to posts all over the world, including Japan, Turkey, Germany and Wahiawa Heights. Participating in the family band, which played at venues around the globe, honed Britos’s performance skills. Having several brothers fostered a penchant for competition.
The result was a desire to excel in all endeavors. (Britos was Hawaiʻi’s first world-class racquetball pro and international squash competitor. Among those he defeated and coached were Hawaiʻi state champ John Britos, his brother, and world amateur champ Egan Inoue.)
After high school, Britos enrolled in Leeward Community College. "I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study, and Leeward gave me the opportunity to explore various areas," he says. "I took classes in science, drama and art." He received an associate’s degree and transferred to Manoa.
"I wanted to study something I needed to work on. I decided to study English literature," says Britos, who enjoyed the learning environment at both campuses. He also played several small parts on TV detective show Magnum P.I.
Britos moved to Switzerland, where he studied, worked as a logger, wrote short stories and painted prodigiously. His writing skills earned him a spot in USC’s prestigious School of Cinema-Television, where he earned an MFA in screenwriting and PhD in critical studies. He taught global media, television history and oceanic media at USC and UC Santa Barbara and worked in the entertainment and news industries.
Back in Hawaiʻi, Britos is charged with directing and codifying UH’s new academy. "You can talk all you want about an abstract idea, but until you actually have something in writing you can present and bring to the table, it won’t get approved," he notes. Laying groundwork in fall 2003 to justify the program meant dozens of deadlines to meet and hundreds of e-mails a week.
"A few times I had to have critical paperwork finished and on the governor’s desk within 24 hours," he recalls. Britos persevered because he believes that Hawaiʻi, with its island topography and rich cultural diversity, provides an excellent test bed for emerging communication and media technologies, as well as an opportunity for students to reframe aspects of media theory.