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CalArts Music Video Hits the Right Notes

Team of classmates helps create a winning project for singer James McMurtry-- with a little money and a lot of ingenuity.


Someone posted a copy of the Grammy Awards nominations inside the CalArts film school office. Otherwise, a few more weeks might have passed before Gregory E. Connor and his classmates heard the news.

"I walked back into the office after Christmas vacation and the secretary congratulated me," Connor recalled. "I said, 'What for?' "

Connor and eight other students from the Valencia arts institute had, unbeknownst to them, been nominated for a Grammy in the long-form video category. Wednesday night, they will take their place among pop stars and country-western divas at the Shrine Auditorium ceremony.

This unlikely honor stems from an equally unlikely project. Last spring, the students volunteered to write and direct a collection of videos for Texas singer-songwriter James McMurtry. Working with little money, but aided by independent director Linda Feferman, they produced a videocassette featuring 13 songs from McMurtry's latest compact disc, "Where'd You Hide the Body?"

The collection sold only a few hundred copies and received virtually no airplay on cable music networks. As a result, most of the student directors had chalked the project up to experience.

Then came the nomination. Included were Feferman, who directed two videos, and a pair of USC students who also worked on the project.

"It's so surreal," said Brenda McIntyre, one of the CalArts directors. "I mean, who's our guardian angel up there?"

Not that McIntyre is questioning her good fortune. She and her classmates are too busy anticipating the Grammy parties and wondering if they can afford a limousine to take them to the Shrine.

"It's a Cinderella story, right?" Luis Ruiz asked. "So put on the glass slippers and let's go."

A similar story unfolded at CalArts last year when a class project, "The Janitor," by animation student Vanessa Schwartz was nominated for an Academy Award. Like Schwartz, the CalArts film students find themselves in heady company.

Other nominees in the category include Peter Gabriel's "Secret World Live" and Kate Bush's "The Line, the Cross & the Curve."

"In comparison to videos that cost a half-million dollars to produce, I was surprised we would get nominated," Ruiz said. "I guess it goes to show you that inventiveness counts for something."

The effort originated with McMurtry's manager, Mark Spector, who wanted an inexpensive way to promote his client's new album. He persuaded Columbia Records to put some faith, and a small amount of cash, in the hands of student filmmakers.

Then he turned to Feferman, a friend who had directed the well-regarded film "Seven Minutes in Heaven" and an Emmy Award-nominated episode of the PBS documentary series "The Astronomers."

"I thought it was a great idea," Feferman said. "And I thought the students would fall over backward in absolute delight and frenzy at the opportunity."

In December 1994, Feferman contacted the film schools at CalArts and at USC, where she had previously taught. Interested students were given virtually no guidelines as to what kind of video to propose. But McMurtry, the son of novelist Larry McMurtry, writes undeniably narrative songs.

"When someone is telling a really distinct story in their music, it almost feels sacrilegious to get away from that," said Nathan Hope, one of the USC directors. "Music videos work best when they come from within the song."

It took Columbia several months to approve the submitted proposals. From there, Feferman and her 11 directors had less than two months to shoot and edit. They were given budgets of $2,000 to $4,000 each and one set of equipment to share.

"It was an intense experience, with too little time and too little money," recalled Feferman, who oversaw the filming of each video. "There were lots of rocky times."

Ruiz shot McMurtry against a blue screen only to find that the singer's long hair looked too scraggly. He had to scramble for a re-shoot. Hope shot much of his video on a dry lake bed in San Bernardino.

"A storm was blowing in, which gave us beautiful visuals, but the wind kicked up to 60 miles an hour. The props were literally blowing away," he said. "Then it started to rain so we moved back to a stage at school. But it rained so hard there, the school flooded."

Each student received only 1,200 feet of film, which allowed for a couple of tries at each shot, but no major gaffes.

"Here we are at CalArts, a hermetically sealed womb, and all of a sudden we were wrenched into the spin cycle of a professional setting," McIntyre said. "I wasn't sure whether to love or hate it."

Such trying conditions proved inspirational. While the finished videos were largely narrative, they varied from the slick and standard MTV style.

Stark black-and-white images fill Connor's work. Hope framed his wintry shots in lush red curtains. Ingrid Calame made use of uncomplicated footage, shooting urban streets and long stretches of highway. And Ruiz haunted prop houses to assemble a hyper-real vision of 1960s furniture and clothing.

"He put together this incredible set and fantastic costumes," Feferman said. "We called him Cecil B. DeMille."

McMurtry, for his part, had not expected much to come of the project and was caught off guard by the nomination of his directors, who also included Deborah Stratman, K.C. Amos, Johannes Gamble, Sande Chen, Pip Johnson and Bill Brown. He says he still does not understand how they culled so much from so little.

"They were working for no money, but they were really motivated," McMurtry said. "I guess they're not jaded yet."

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