Megan McLachlan chats with SCAD President Paula Wallace about what makes SCAD aTVfest a television festival unlike any other.
From Thursday, February 7 through Saturday, February 9, I had the pleasure of attending the 7th SCAD aTVfest in Atlanta, Ga. It was an especially notable festival since SCAD is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
Over the course of three days, I hobnobbed with many of the most influential people on and behind the scenes of television, including Ellie Kemper, Jorma Taccone, Miss J Alexander, and more.
I had a chance to catch up with SCAD President Paula Wallace about the importance of the festival, for both students and nonstudents alike, how TV has changed in seven years, and why Georgia is the new Hollywood.
Awards Daily: SCAD aTVfest seems to be growing bigger and bigger every year. What differentiates SCAD aTVfest from other festivals?
Paula Wallace: There’s a scholarly, academic aspect to aTVfest that other festivals lack. In the past, people thought about television as a less-sophisticated form of entertainment because, after all, it’s in your own living room, your bedroom, in the kitchen. I have a TV in my kitchen. I never watch it anywhere else, actually. While we’re cooking dinner, we’ll turn on the news—it’s a casual means of watching.
What differentiates our festival is that SCAD takes TV seriously. We treat it both as an art form and an academic subject. Professors have students actually studying the work of say, John Ridley, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker and television producer who visited SCAD. When he came, John said making television is really no different from making a major feature-length film, except that you have more time to develop a story over a TV series, whereas you might be constrained by the typical 90 minutes for a feature film. When you have 12 episodes, then you can more fully explore the characters and flesh out the plots.
The recent industry focus on story and character development has revolutionized television. The thoughtful approach more serious filmmakers bring to television– long-form storytelling–is what aTVfest celebrates. The industry professionals and filmmakers love attending, because they get to meet students and faculty who are actually studying their work. It’s mutually beneficial to all parties.
AD: How does it feel to see so many students involved in Emmy-award winning and Academy Award-winning work?
PW: Equipping students with the practical knowledge and artistic skill to make award-winning work is always our intention at SCAD. It’s no accident we have so many Emmy and Academy Award winners: when you look at our mission—to prepare students for rewarding careers—that’s what we set out to do from day one. Before prospective students even enroll, we’re educating in high schools about the professions you can start the moment you graduate from SCAD (and sometimes even before).
I just talked to a prospective student coming in for a university tour who was extremely focused on sound design, and knew SCAD has an outstanding sound design program—it’s because we’re getting the word out on these fascinating professions.
The average viewer of the Academy Awards might gloss over all the nominations for essential elements of filmmaking, like editing and sound design. But these are the creative and innovative backbones of film, and SCAD offers programs in all of these: costume design, music composition and production, production design.
Each of these fields is a necessary piece of the puzzle. If you take even one of them away, you have a less important, less impactful, less artistic end product. SCAD curriculum was designed to prepare students for stellar careers from the beginning.
AD: Georgia was named the No. 1 filming location by FilmLA in 2017. What makes the state and area so accommodating to filmmakers?
PW: A skilled workforce like the 63 students who were working on Julie Taymor’s new film The Glorias: A Life on the Road might have something to do with it! Again, our students are extremely well-educated, so prepared to take on big production work. Filmmakers don’t show up in Savannah saying, “Let’s round up some people who are hanging out in Forsyth Park and see if they’re interested in making a movie.” They look for professionals: people who exude focus, skill, and expertise. When you find those people, it takes a production to another level. That’s why filmmakers start looking for crew and talent at SCAD.
About 10 years ago, SCAD conducted a survey and found about a third of our graduates with degrees in the entertainment business were going to the West Coast. Now more and more opportunities are springing up in Georgia.
Plus, after spending four years at SCAD, everyone falls in love with Georgia. Spending such formative years in the state makes it feel like home to students, and for them to be able to stay here and work is a huge benefit.
Georgia’s just friendly, too. I think people here tend to be extra respectful. I remember we used to have an actor on SCAD’s Board of Trustees and he told me his director would be filming out in LA, and people were a little cynical about movie-making there. On a shoot in LA, he said the neighbor in the residence next door would deliberately start up his lawnmower and loudly mow the lawn until he got paid enough money to stop. I remember another filmmaker who owned a restaurant in New York and would say the same thing. The crew would begin shooting and then all of a sudden street work started up.
People in Georgia tend to be a little bit more polite, respectful, hospitable. Maybe we just don’t see filmmaking as such an everyday, ordinary thing. We still see it as special.
AD: What would you say the goal of the festival is?
PW: In any SCAD event, whether it’s in our museums or at our festivals, our goal is to advance the degree programs and future careers of SCAD students and alumni. Like I mentioned earlier, so many different degree programs contribute to successful film and television—we host the aTVfest because it offers students firsthand knowledge of the industry they’re working toward. Our aTVfest encourages them to meet professionals, ask a lot of questions, see exemplary work, and have scholarly discussions.
The festival is an addendum to the curriculum and celebrates the successful professionals, including our alumni, who are out there making great television.
AD: How has television changed since the start of the festival (now in its 7th year)?
PW: There’s more of it! Everybody’s streaming and binging, and the industry is more open than ever before.
As the television industry boomed, we created SCADFILM to offer networking and engagement opportunities year-round for the public, professionals, and our students and faculty to collaborate with each other and learn from the best in entertainment, particularly in Georgia.
With resources like SCADFILM and our university casting office, we’re seeing our student stars rising far more rapidly than they would if they tried to make it on their own. Kayli Carter, for one, utilized the casting office and expertise of our dean of entertainment arts and former director of CBS prime-time casting, Andra Reeve-Rabb, to jump-start her career. Kayli launched her TV debut as Sadie Rose in Godless on Netflix in a testament to the proliferation of excellent series from streaming services.
AD: This was my first time at SCAD aTVfest and I so enjoyed it. Was there anything new that happened this year that hadn’t happened in other years?
PW: We screened the season premiere of G.R.I.T.S., SCAD’s newest sitcom! We’re so proud of the cast and crew, who participated in a Q&A on stage after the screening. The students had the opportunity to field the same sorts of questions that they’ll get when they start their careers. They were professionals every moment of the event.
Another exciting moment was our interactive panel where students actually recreated a scene from Grey’s Anatomy. One of our former students, Michael Metzner, is a medical adviser on Grey’s Anatomy, and he was determined to present a panel that would never be forgotten. He had the operating gurney from the show sent to SCAD, and he brought his prop surgical instruments. He even had his surgical hat!
He wrote lines for the students to perform on the spot for our panel on the science of Grey’s Anatomy storytelling. Joining Michael was Fred Einesman, executive producer and MD. They’re both board-certified surgeons, too. Even still, everybody was on the edge of their seats when they asked a student to lie on the operating table! Then Michael placed the prosthetic on him—everything looked so authentic. They had another student recite lines as a medical resident. With yet another student filming with a GoPro, the panel actually became a demo! That’s the surprise element of SCAD. Learning here always takes new and unexpected turns.
AD: I was there, and that was such an awesome presentation! One final question: what’s your favorite television show?
PW: I tend to prefer historical dramas; right now I’ve been watching The Crown and Victoria.
You know, I still love Sesame Street. I used it when I was teaching elementary schoolers, and it’s still impressive how Sesame Street appeals to every generation, from parents to children, and then their children’s children. It’s such a special skill set for a show to speak to so many people over so many years. I saw an episode recently with Taye Diggs, who came to aTVfest with the cast of All American. Before I interviewed him, I looked at his recent feature on Sesame Street. If there’s a reason that Taye’s career has had such remarkable longevity, it’s because he’s versatile and appeals to a wide age range. I mean, who doesn’t appreciate a person who makes riding in a car with Elmo look so cool?