Use the Force

Art Institute professor brings Star Wars to the classroom

*A correction to this article was made on June 27, 2007.

Scott Essman looks like you'd expect an academic to look: thick glasses, graying beard, vaguely hippie-ish hair and a dress style that's a step up from casual slob but a notch below business attire. You could easily imagine him at an antiwar rally, or possibly opining on the works of Shakespeare.

But Essman is no stuffy lecturer. Rather, this is the man who's about to school a bunch of teenagers in the art of Star Wars.

Essman: Skilled in the Jedi arts. Courtesy Art Institute
Essman: Skilled in the Jedi arts. Courtesy Art Institute

From June 26 to 29, high school juniors and seniors will "awaken their creative force" at the Art Institute of California-Orange County Summer Studio Workshop, using officially licensed Star Wars elements and images to create video-game projects, magazines, and set and character replicas. Even the culinary students will get in on the action, creating an R2-D2 dessert.

A cynic might call this a clever marketing move by Lucasfilm, which Essman thinks is a fair comment and may be part of the reason the company agreed to participate. But the Art Institute is, after all, a commercial art school. "This is stuff that industry professionals are using," Essman says, referring to the materials and computer programs the students will be working with, as well as their practical application with the familiar franchise. "And if these guys are getting a functional knowledge of this, they can walk into an animation studio in LA or here in Orange County and work."

Despite the Star Wars element, Art Institute communications director Anne Mack says class size didn't have to be limited. "The student really has to want to come here," she notes. "I mean, they're not gonna just come here and play with Star Wars. . . . They have to wanna really get involved and do that work." Still, it has to be a lot easier to get kids to do their homework if it involves Darth Vader as opposed to, say, Millard Fillmore.

Like so many others who attended USC cinema school, Essman was inspired by Star Wars when it first came out in 1977. "It was this seminal movie to me. I think it was the movie where I really thought I'd like to get into this world somehow," says Essman, who was 10 years old at the time. At USC, he took a camera class taught by future Austin Powers director Jay Roach and waited in line for movies with classmate Bryan Singer. But after graduation in 1988, Essman's career wasn't quite the expected dream. In fact, he describes his immediate post-college years in New York as "a very difficult time . . . not a great job market for video and film and whatnot."

Returning to Los Angeles a couple of years later, he became fascinated with special makeup effects, particularly the work of Jack Pierce, who designed most of the iconic Universal monsters, such as the Karloff Frankenstein and the Mummy. (One notable exception was Dracula, as Bela Lugosi insisted on doing his own makeup, though Pierce designed the famous widow's peak.) Essman would eventually direct a live stage show about Pierce that re-created most of his monsters; it was filmed for a DVD released by Visionary Cinema, a company he had created during his New York years. Essman did a similar show celebrating Jack Dawn's special character makeup from The Wizard of Oz, timed to that film's 60th-anniversary celebration, and a tribute to Dick Smith, makeup designer for such films as The Godfather and The Exorcist, as well as mentor to current FX guru Rick Baker.

Essman also directed documentaries for DVD supplements, including The Chronicles of Riddick and Van Helsing. The Van Helsing piece gave him access to George Lucas' effects company, Industrial Light and Magic, which planted a seed in Essman's mind about doing something Star Wars-related for the film's 25th anniversary in 2002. Nothing much happened at the time, but the idea remained.

Essman eventually earned a master's degree in educational multimedia and began teaching at the Art Institute. Two years later, Dean of Education Melinda Lester asked him to run the school's summer program, based on his reputation working with special makeup effects.

"Put events together, and make it fun," he recalls her saying. The idea appealed to him, but Essman needed a unifying theme—and that's where his love of all things Jack Pierce came in.

"The idea was that our students, the high school students from 2006, have been whisked away into 1931, and now they're in a Frankenstein movie," he says. Having recently worked with the updated monster in Van Helsing, Essman went to Universal, which saw the class proposal as an opportunity to build interest in the 75th anniversary of the original James Whale-directed film. "They just gave us all this stuff!" he says, clearly still psyched that he pulled it off. Normally, studios charge $10,000 per minute, with a 10-minute minimum, to use movie clips, Essman explains. "But Universal just said have fun, go for it. We made a video, and we actually have scenes from Frankenstein in the video."

So how could Essman top himself the following year? Well, it turns out a certain beloved George Lucas film was celebrating its 30th anniversary. In addition, one of Essman's favorite parts, the Mos Eisley Cantina scene, has a huge amount of historical significance for makeup aficionados because it involved names like Rick Baker and Stuart Freeborn, who are now recognized as pioneers in the field. Since there aren't a lot of pictures of the Cantina creatures floating around—"most people who are interested in Star Wars wanted pictures of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, stuff like that," he says—Essman asked Lucasfilm for a license to use pictures from the scene. The company agreed, and Essman plans to have his students create "an affectionate parody" of it for class.

As for the closing ceremony, Frankenstein's monster has nothing on Darth Vader and Chewbacca, who'll be making appearances (though not, alas, with Dave Prowse and Peter Mayhew in the costumes), as will the 501st, a group of hardcore fans who dress in painstakingly replicated Stormtrooper costumes and march in unison at such events as the Rose Bowl Parade and San Diego's Comic-Con. Effects gurus Phil Tippett and Ken Ralston will also be there to take questions.

Call it product placement for Lucasfilm, if you will—but it's actually more of an infomercial for the school itself. Essman explains: "We want them to come away saying, 'Yeah, this Star Warswas fun, and we had a great time this week.' But more than that, we want them to say, 'This is a cool place because you learn applied arts, and it's a practical way of learning, and even though I'm not going to be doing Star Wars the whole time, I'm gonna get to interact with faculty, have cool ideas, have industry ties, and that's the kind of education that I want at this time.'"

Bet you never had classes this cool in high school.

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