An unforgettable evening for fifteen students from around the U.S. and abroad awaited on September 17, 2015, when medal placements for each of the five award categories – Alternative, Animation, Documentary, Narrative and Foreign Film – were awarded for this year’s Student Academy Awards. Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs welcomed the audience at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater for the culmination of a week of celebration and recognition.
Before the first presenter took to the stage, everyone was treated to the premiere screening of a new Academy Originals video in which this year’s winners talked about the cinematic figures who influenced them to become filmmakers, naming everyone from Michael Mann to Joshua Oppenheimer.
The first medals of the evening were presented in the Foreign category by Michelle Rodriguez, star of the Fast and the Furious franchise and TV’s Lost after her Independent Spirit Award-winning in Girlfight. Patrick Vollrath from the Filmakademie Wien in Austria took home the Bronze Medal for Everything Will Be Okay, which charts a memorable and dramatic journey with a divorced man and his eight-year-old daughter. “I want to thank all the people who made this happen with their money!” said Vollrath before offering sincere gratitude to students and faculty, as well as his parents who were asleep in Germany.
The Silver Medal was awarded to The Last Will by Dustin Loose of the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg in Germany. “The heart and soul of this film are my incredible actors,” he revealed about the intense chamber drama involving a man fulfilling his late mother’s final wishes by making contact with his father, who was presumed dead after committing an unthinkable crime.
“I am the sum of all the fine encounters I’ve had in my life” was a poignant thought from Gold Medal honoree Ilker Catak of the Hamburg Media School in Germany. His film, Fidelity, was shot in Istanbul during real-life political turmoil mirroring the harrowing drama of a woman sheltering a political activist.
The next presenter for the Animation winners, John Lasseter, is best known as the chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, and the Oscar-winning filmmaker of such films as Toy Story and Cars. However, he’s also a two-time Student Academy Award winner himself.
The Bronze Medal for Animation was presented to Taking the Plunge by Nicholas Manfredi and Elizabeth Ku-Herrero of the School of Visual Arts in New York, who drew hearty applause from Lasseter himself by saying, “We want to thank all of you who support animation as a medium.” Their film about desperate aquatic measures taken to retrieve a lost engagement ring reflected the quirky, hilarious personalities of the filmmakers themselves.
A cherished personal experience was behind the creation of the Silver Medal winner, An Object at Rest by Seth Boyden at the California Institute of the Arts. The inventive chronicle of a stone’s (literally) fragmented journey through history was inspired by a relic he found at the age of ten during a fossil-hunting trip with his father, whom he thanked for a memory that inspire his creative animated tale.
Alyce Tzue of the Academy of Art University in San Francisco was awarded the Gold Medal for Soar, which drew on her own love of aviation for the story of a bespectacled young girl who helps a tiny boy pilot get back home. “Hard work shows you’re durable,” she remarked, “and wanted this badly enough.”
Two categories were presented by the producing and directing team behind this year’s Animated Feature winner at the Academy Awards, Big Hero 6: Roy Conli, Don Hall and Chris Williams, who were most recently seen at the Academy event, Deconstructing Big Hero 6. First up was the Alternative category, with the Silver Medal presented to ChiHyun Lee of The School of Visual Arts in New York for Zoe, whose dynamic portrayal of the evolution of a man’s life from birth to death was enhanced by her strong use of motion and color.
Daniel Drummond of Chapman University in California received the Gold Medal for Chiaroscuro, a study of conflict and pursuit between light and shadow played out in an abstract architectural wonderland. “We’ve had all these wonderful speeches tonight, and that ends right now!” he joked as he accepted his award, but his speech turned out to hit all the right notes including a funny, big thanks to his “good Samaritan” admissions officer who let him in even after seeing his grades.
The Big Hero 6 team remained to present the Documentary category starting with the Bronze Medal given to Boxeadora by Meg Smaker of Stanford University. A chronicle of Cuba’s sole female boxer (where the sport is banned for women), the film began when Smaker visited Cuba to train for competition. Smaker’s own story was the basis of her speech, sharing how her life as a firefighter changed after the events of 9/11.
I Married My Family’s Killer by Emily Kassie of Brown University took home the Silver Medal for its incredible look at two Rwandans brought together in a marriage under surreal circumstances. Kassie shared how her teachers had instructed her to strive for nuance and complexity, which she found priceless during her own experiences spending summers in Rwanda and falling in love with the country.
The Gold Medal was given to Looking at the Stars, another unique look at the world from Alexandre Peralta of the University of Southern California. His film revealed the astonishing story of a ballet school for the blind, where artistic expression flourishes among both the young students and teachers.
Finally the winners in the Narrative category were presented by actor Jason Mitchell, who broke through in 2015 as legendary rapper “Eazy E” in Straight Outta Compton. Mitchell presented the Bronze Medal to Stealth by Bennett Lasseter of the American Film Institute, the same school as the other two winners in the category. Lasseter choked up at the microphone thanking his family for encouraging him on his quest to make this challenging, intimate look at a transgendered child’s familial crossroads.
This Way Up by Jeremy Cloe was the Silver Medal winner for its look at a homeless man’s attempts to deal with the impending arrival of his daughter. “I’m shaking because this is so crazy and awesome!” he exclaimed, a sentiment in which he wasn’t alone.
Finally the Gold Medal in the Narrative category was presented to Day One by Henry Hughes, which in which an Afghan-American female military interpreter becomes involved in an unexpected turn of events. His speech was one of the most personal and moving of the night as he offered deep thanks to his wife, whom he first met at the age of 13 and thought about for strength during his military time in Afghanistan. This “incredibly strong woman” inspired him to deliver a powerful film that, like all of the achievements seen tonight, is just a hint of many great things to come.