Oscar-winning alumnus teaches students the ins and outs of filmmaking
Oscar-winning cinematographer Sean Fine ’96 holds a heavy camera on his shoulder. He inches closer and closer to the subject, a young man sitting at a counter who appears deep in thought as he turns a plastic cup over in his hand.
“This is good acting,” compliments Fine. Then he hands the camera over to James Lafortezza ’16.
Lafortezza momentarily struggles under the surprising weight of the camera, but quickly recovers and focuses on the young man, who is also a student. The scene is one Fine set up on the fly, part of a workshop on the top-of-the-line equipment used by today’s best filmmakers.
“This is insane,” Lafortezza says after Fine shows him how to change from a tight shot to a wide shot. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing to experience this so early in my film career.”
Lafortezza is referring not only to the opportunity to try out two of the industry’s top cameras – the RED Epic, a staple of indie filmmaking, and the Arri Alexa, the digital flagship used to film the Hollywood blockbuster “Gravity” – but to the entire experience of working so closely with Fine and his wife, Andrea Nix Fine.
The Fines, owners of the Washington, D.C.-based Fine Films, are in the midst of an intensive three-week residency on campus. As the Stark Distinguished Guest Residents in Film Studies, they are working one-on-one with students, screening their films, critiquing student work, giving talks, hosting workshops, bringing in guests and meeting with film studies classes. Throughout, they share tips from the field and anecdotes from their impressive careers in film.
Fine and Nix Fine are best known for their documentary work. They took home the 2013 Academy Award for Best Short Documentary for “Innocente,” about a homeless 15-year-old Latina artist. Their film “War/Dance,” about a children’s music group in war-torn northern Uganda, won the 2009 Best Documentary and Best Cinematography Emmy and was nominated for the 2008 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Their latest documentary, “Life According to Sam,” chronicles one family’s struggle to save their son from a rare disease that rapidly ages children. It debuted to sold out audiences at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and recently premiered on HBO.
While they are still working on documentaries, the Fines have recently ventured into commercials and are currently working on scripts for narrative features and a TV pilot.
Aspiring filmmaker Juan Pablo Pacheco ’14 says that while some filmmakers are reluctant to talk about their art, Fine doesn’t hold back.
“He’s open to talking about his work and reflecting upon it,” Pacheco says. “That’s probably what I admire most about him.”
During one workshop, Fine described the start-to-finish production of a commercial he and his wife created for Gillette’s Fusion ProGlide razor, in which one man travels all around the world for five weeks with just one blade. Fine showed students the storyboards his team created to pitch the idea, explained the casting process (“We must have seen 110 people a day for three days straight”), described filming in more than half a dozen countries in a short time frame (“it was hectic”) and then showed the final product, which premiered during the NCAA Final Four.
“This is a story that has to be told in 60 seconds or less,” Fine said.
At Connecticut College, Fine designed his own major in zoology and film studies (the College didn’t officially offer a film studies major until 2002). He credits his professors with helping him explore his many interests and find his niche. And when “War/Dance” was screened on campus as part of the residency, Fine was happy to see several of his former teachers in the audience.
“It was great to see so many of the people who had such an influence on me,” he said.
Now, Fine is relishing the opportunity to influence the next generation of Connecticut College filmmakers. For students, it’s an opportunity to learn from the best.
“As a cinematographer, he’s top-notch,” says film studies major Amanda Jordan ’15. “He makes visually stunning films.”
Jordan says Fine is the master of close-ups, something she has difficulty with in her own work. The two have been working on the skill over the course of Fine’s residency.
“He saw my film and the first thing he said was, ‘You have to get closer.’ I said, ‘I know, teach me how!’” Jordan says. “And he has.”
The Fran and Ray Stark Distinguished Guest Residency in Film Studies brings leading scholars and artistic professionals involved with the production, distribution and interpretation of cinema to campus for intensive engagement with students in the Film Studies Program. Stark Guest Residents work with film students in a comprehensive film seminar or production setting over the course of an academic semester. Previously, the residency has brought to campus groundbreaking documentarian Jennie Livingston and filmmaker and dance artist David Hinton.