Is there a student filmmaker on the planet who doesn’t dreaming of being able to stand on a stage and say, “I’d like to thank the Academy”?
Probably not – and certainly there weren’t any among the 14 student filmmakers who did just that on Saturday night at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handed out its 37th annual Student Academy Awards.
Films from NYU, the University of Texas at Austin, the Ringling College of Art and Design and Parsons the New School for Design took home gold medals in the Narrative, Documentary, Animation and Alternative categories, respectively. A drama from an Estonian student working at the National Film and Television School in the UK won the honorary Foreign Film award, and left the audience stunned when the winning films were screened at the conclusion of the ceremony.
The awards were handed out by Academy president Tom Sherak, who hosted the ceremony; directors Penelope Spheeris and Henry Selick, who was himself nominated for a student Oscar 34 years ago; and actor Jeremy Renner.
As Sherak pointed out in his welcoming comments, past Student Academy Award winners have received 40 Oscar nominations and seven statuettes, most recently including 1992 Student Oscar winner Pete Docter’s Animated Feature award for “Up.”
Gold medal winners become eligible for Academy Awards in the short film categories; in recent years, Shane Acker’s animated film “9” and Gregg Helvey’s “Kavi” won Student Academy Awards and went on to receive Oscar nominations.
The student winners were flown to Los Angeles earlier in the week, and enjoyed several days of meetings with the Directors Guild, Writers Guild and American Society of Cinematographers. On Friday night they had a dinner with members of the Academy’s Board of Governors.
Several winners mentioned the hospitality, networking and abundant free food.
“I think I’m getting a pretty skewed picture of Los Angeles,” said NYU student Luke Matheny, a gold medal winner for his humorous black-and-white film “God of Love.” “If it was always like this, this would be the greatest city in the history of the world.”
During the days preceding the ceremony, all the students knew that they’d won; it wasn’t until the ceremony, though, that they were told whether they were the recipients of gold, silver or bronze medals. The three levels carry cash prizes of $5,000, $3,000 and $2,000, respectively. The foreign award carries a $1,000 grant.
With no 45-second limit on speeches, the students were given time to speak – though the night’s first winner, Tanel Toom, began his remarks by saying, “Believe me, making a speech is much harder than making a film.”
Toom also no doubt took away a line from many of the other winners when he accepted his Honorary Foreign Film award for “The Confession” (left), the story of two British boys getting ready for their first confession, and a film that starts out light and becomes dark and gripping.
Toom thanked AMPAS for the award, then paused. “I’ve always wanted to thank the Academy,” he said.
Spheeris, whose career has included narrative features like “Wayne’s World” in addition to docs like her “Decline of Western Civilization” series, began her presentation of the doc awards by pointed out that two of the three documentaries deal, in very different ways, with young filmmakers exploring their family’s connections to World War II Germany.
Silver medal winner Maria Royo’s “Rediscovering Pape” dealt with the revelation that her great-grandfather had been a member of the SS during the war, while gold medal winner Ruth Fertig’s “Yizkor (Remembrance)” (right) was based on her grandmother’s memoir of surviving the Holocaust.
The bronze medalist in the documentary category was Kevin Gordon’s and Rebekah Meredith’s “Dreams Awake (Suena Despierto),” which centered on a Mexican worker who came to the United States hoping to earn money and then return to his home country, only to discover that he could never save enough to leave.
“Coraline” director Henry Selick handed out awards in both the Alternative and Animation categories. In the former category Emily Henricks’ “Multiply” won the silver medal, while Varathit Uthaisri’s “Surface: Film from Below” (left), a series of vignettes of daily life that appeared as if it was shot from under the ground looking up, earned the gold medal.
In the Animation category, the bronze medal went to Andres Salaff’s haunted lost-love story “Lifeline,” with silver going to Isaiah Powers’ and Jeremy Casper’s stop-motion “Dried Up.”
The gold medal animation winner was Jennifer Bors’ “Departure of Love” (below), a delightful three-minute short that adopts the style and look of a silent film on its way to a twist ending. Bors has landed a job with Sony Imageworks – so, as Sherak pointed out from the stage, “She needs a place to live, she needs a car, she needs a bunch of stuff. So if anybody has a place …. ”
Introducing the Narrative category winners, “The Hurt Locker” star Jeremy Renner made note of the fact that the Academy names three winners in the category – “and we only get one,” he mock-grumbled about the big Oscars.
Lubomir Kocka, who won the bronze award for “The Lunch Box,” thanked the Academy “for reminding us that people really do watch our films, and they do care.”
Kim Spurlock took the silver for “Down in Number 5,” a film about a terminally-ill miner looking for care for his developmentally disabled son. And the category’s gold medalist was also its lightest entry, Luke Matheny’s deft “God of Love,” about a geeky, dart-throwing lounge singer looking to land the girl of his dreams.
Matheny (left, in his film) confessed that he is an Oscar fanatic who memorized every Best Picture winner at the age of 13 – “that’s been my annoying party trick ever since,” he said.
The NYU student also added the evening’s sole bit of collegiate trash-talking when he muttered, “better luck next year, Columbia.”
At the end of the night, about an hour and forty minutes after the show began, Sherak wrapped things up by saying, “Who said we couldn’t bring a show in in less than three-and-a-half hours?”
Of course, then most people stuck around for screenings of the Narrative, Documentary and Foreign winners, which added another hour-plus to the program. (The Animation and Alternative winners, both of whom were about three minutes long, had already been shown in their entirety, along with clips from all the films.)
So in the end it lasted about three hours – but, of course, that’s short for an evening in which a bunch of people thank the Academy.
Photos courtesy of AMPAS. Winners photo by Greg Wawrychuk. Front row (left to right): Kim Spurlock, Jennifer Bors, Lumbomir Kocka, Emily Hendricks, Rebekah Meredith, Tanel Toom, Andres Salaff and Ruth Fertig. Back row (left to right): Luke Metheny, Kevin Gordon, Varathit Uthaisri, Jeremy Casper, Maria Royo and Isaiah Powers.