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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University March 20, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 26
A Home for Thoughtful Filmmakers

John Mann, a senior lecturer in Film and Media Studies, focuses on film production.

Documentary maker John Mann guides JHU's budding directors

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

In the world of film production study, Johns Hopkins might never be lumped in with the likes of the University of Southern California or New York University, but the Film and Media Studies program in its short history has carved out a niche for the independent-minded, thoughtful filmmaker.

For the past eight years, the man doing the carving has been John Mann, a senior lecturer in Film and Media Studies and the program's only full-time faculty member focused on film production.

Whereas larger film schools train people for the Hollywood industry, Mann says that Johns Hopkins seeks to support filmmakers who can offer a unique perspective on the world around them.

"We are not really about churning out third assistant directors for a major motion picture. We are not tied into the industry like other schools. We want our students to be able to express themselves through film and to follow their own creative path," Mann says. "I hope that our students are able, while they are here, to develop a thoughtful approach to filmmaking that allows their theoretical work to continually inform their production work."

Founded in 1995 under the auspices of the English Department, Film and Media Studies offers Homewood undergraduates courses in the theory, history and criticism of film; media studies; screenwriting; and film production.

Students in Mann's classes learn the filmmaking craft using 16mm cameras, the standard for lower budget and limited release films.

First, students learn how to craft a single shot, taking into account composition, available light and exposure. From there, the students work either in groups or individually on black-and-white or color nonsynced short films, typically three to five minutes in length. They edit the films either at the program's modest editing suite on Gilman Hall's fourth floor or the Mattin Center's Digital Media Center.

After students complete the Advanced Film Production course, focused on the use of synchronized sound, they may either take a Senior Project in Film Production course or pursue independent study, through which they can fully explore their individual approach to filmmaking.

Mann says that JHU student film projects defy pigeonholing and can be anything from a silent avant-garde piece to a narrative-driven comedy.

For C. Anderson Miller, his path led him to create a stop-motion 16mm animated film called Wednesdays. Miller, a senior majoring in film and media studies, used a hand-cranked motor to shoot the single-frame animation sequences that detail the journey of discarded organs from the operating table to a janitorial closet, where they assemble themselves into a janitor who hates Wednesdays. Why Wednesdays? Says Miller, "Because the week is only half over."

Miller says he "fell in love" with the Film and Media Studies program when he heard about it on his first visit to Johns Hopkins from his home in Kernersville, N.C.

"There's a wonderful balance here between production-oriented classes and film criticism-oriented classes," he says. "You can basically make your own concentration out of the courses you take."

With his own filmmaking, Mann favors short documentaries and experimental films for which he is often writer, director, cinematographer and producer. In 2003, he created Running to Keep From Falling, an eight-minute film that explores alienation and anxiety themes through recordings on telephone answering machines. The film received an honorable mention at the 2004 Black Maria Film Festival, an international juried competition, and was screened at that year's Maryland Film Festival. Several of Mann's works have been shown on PBS, including 1997's Locust Point, which details through that Baltimore neighborhood the immigrant experience in the early 1900s.

In addition to the program's core production courses, Mann has developed and taught such courses as Experimental Film, Documentary Theory, Film and Haiku and, this semester, the Craft of Filmmaking, in which each Friday a filmmaker comes to class to talk about her or his work. Visitors have included Peter Bogdonavich, Leslie Thornton and Ross McElwee. Mann says the course allows students to speak with each filmmaker about his or her vision of filmmaking and to talk in a small seminar setting about the importance of film as an art form.

In Lost and Found Film, students splice together pieces of archived films to create a wholly new short work. Mann says that since students have no emotional connection to the archived films, they feel less constrained by the editing process and are more apt to flex their creative muscles.

"The students are often surprised to see their editing skills grow by leaps and bounds during this course," Mann says. "And it's always interesting to see what they come up with."

Mann says he prefers that his students not emulate him but rather follow their own creative path, wherever that might lead.

Anna Prebluda, a sen-ior majoring in film and media studies, says that Mann brings a unique view and vision to every class session.

"I never feel as though he is trying to teach us how to produce or make a film but rather that he is constantly asking us to think like a filmmaker," says Prebluda, who is from West Hartford, Conn. "His classes are not so much about evaluation or learning technical skills but rather about how to re-examine the world through a visual medium. Aside from a genuine love and fascination for the cinematic process, Professor Mann brings a constant enthusiasm for his students' ideas to every class."

Prebluda to date has completed several film projects, including a short silent piece and a longer independent study film about a girl who finds an old movie in a barn. Currently, she is planning a shoot for a film in which she examines the gestures of ballet dancers and ballerina dolls through the use of close-up photography.

Linda Delibero, associate director of Film and Media Studies, who has taught film at JHU since 1989, says the film production experience at Hopkins is very different from those offered at the big-name film schools, which tend to focus on narrative-driven films that function as storytelling devices. At Johns Hopkins, Delibero says, the study of film production and film theory go hand-in-hand.

"Students here are really encouraged to think hard about the very nature of film and what it does as a visual medium," Delibero says. "They're asked to put film in the context of its aesthetics. I don't think there are many film programs that work as hard as we do to make the connections between producing and studying film as clear and important."

Delibero says that Mann's courses are oriented toward understanding narrative in unconventional ways, which often leads to some very experimental, thought-provoking films.

"Our students are Hopkins students. They're very smart, creative kids, and we want to challenge them to make films that reflect those gifts," she says. "Getting the fundamentals of operating a camera, etc., is not the hard part; it's making films that are smart, interesting, imaginative in challenging ways. And that's what these kids can do that students at the big "factory" film schools don't necessarily learn."

Both Delibero and Mann say that the program is still somewhat of a well-kept secret. The program currently has 40 majors, many of whom discovered the program after they enrolled at Hopkins, as well as film minors and occasional participants.

"We're a very young program and have only really begun to take off as a major in the past five years," Delibero says. "And, like many programs and departments in the humanities here, students discover us mostly when they want to take a break from their pre-med or other science-oriented courses. But things are beginning to change."

In the past two years, an increasing number of students have come to Johns Hopkins specifically to study film.

"Word is getting out," she says.

The Film and Media Studies program screens student films at the end of each semester, typically during the first week of finals. Look for the dates in The Gazette calendar or go to


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