USC Cinematic Arts Professors Installed in New Endowed Chairs

In a ceremony at the Ray Stark Theater on USC’s Cinematic Arts campus last Thursday, Dean Elizabeth Daley joined George Lucas in welcoming three USC film professors to their new endowed chairs. Made possible by a generous gift from Lucas, the three new chairs — The Sergei Eisenstein Endowed Chair for Cinematic Design, the George Mélies Endowed Chair in Visual Effects, and the William Cameron Menzies Endowed Chair in Production Design — are now held by Bruce Block, Michael Funk, and Alex McDowell respectively.

The evening began with remarks by Dean Daley, who praised the professors, and the film pioneers for whom the chairs were named. “In the mold of the filmmakers they are named after,” she said, “these new chairs represent innovation in the cinematic arts.” Daley went on to point out that the School of Cinematic Arts now boasts a total of 24 endowed chairs, more than any other cinematic arts program in the country.

Lucas spoke next, saying in part, “I’m pursuing my own agenda about the school and what I think they should teach.” Lucas, an SCA alum and longtime contributor to the school, has made a series of substantial gifts over more than a decade. The building where the event was held is named in his honor.

After reminiscing briefly about his time as a student at SCA, Lucas issued a word of caution that seemed directed at both the honorees and the industry as a whole. “Don’t get too enamored with the new technology,” he said. “The art of what we do is exactly the same.”

For their part, the evening’s honorees were unanimous in praising Lucas’s continued generosity, and in honoring the film pioneers for whom their respective chairs were named. Block, a producer whose credits include “What Women Want” and “As Good As It Gets,” praised Eisenstein’s visionary techniques, which “influenced all of Hollywood’s filmmakers.”

Fink, a legend in the world of visual effects, noted that Mélies, the French film pioneer who invented many of the first special effects seen on film, was a personal hero of his. And McDowell, the last honoree to speak, said that Menzies had “single-handedly transformed the craft of art direction into the art of production design.”

In an evening largely devoted to paying tribute to the aspects of filmmaking that are timeless and immutable, the event also looked forward to the emerging technological future. All three honorees praised the liberating possibilities of new technology, with McDowell suggesting that technology was “shortening the distance between imagination and creation.”

McDowell also noted that all three honored professors were founding members of the 5D Institute, a research unit within the school dedicated to help foster the “future of narrative media.”