Filmaker & Teacher: A chat with Troy Perkins
by Grace Lim
COLS Special Reports
Teaching by Doing
Filmmakers make films.
Those three words could sum up Troy Perkins' teaching mission at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where he is an associate professor in the radio-TV-film department.
Perkins is aware that most film programs insist on students producing a film of their own as a rite of passage. However, he is also aware of the great difference in quality between student-produced films and professionally produced films.
A director's vision: Filmmaker Troy Perkins discusses a scene with actor Justin Bricco in the film Brothers, which is about a farm family grappling with the decision to sell their home.
His solution to bridge the quality chasm? Put his students on production sets where they learn from and work alongside industry professionals. With real deadlines and tight budgets, he says, students can truly experience the highs and lows of a professional film production.
"Sure, it would be a lot easier working with just professionals," says Perkins, who has written and directed Tractor For Sale (2006), Brothers (2008) and recently finished production on two new short films Birthday Girl (2010) and Billfold (2010). "But I see us having a profound impact on the students when they go off and do their own productions. They are so much better prepared for the professional world just by working on some of these productions."
Perkins' gambit has paid off. The summer faculty/student professional collaborative productions have been showcased at national and regional festivals and won numerous awards including a Gold Remi from Worldfest Houston, a Faculty Juried Screening Finalist Award at the 2008 UFVA National Conference and the Central Wisconsin Film Fest Audience Award. Brothers has also been an Official Selection at the Charlotte Film Festival, Minneapolis/St. Paul Int'l Film Festival and the 2009 Sedona Int’l Film Festival.
In an interview with COLS Special Reports producer Grace Lim, Troy Perkins, filmmaker and associate professor at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, talks about how collaborating with his students on professional films has affected his teaching and filmmaking and what he has in store for future productions.
The video is also available for download to your iPod through UW Oshkosh iTunesU (requires iTunes).
Working and Learning Together
His advocacy for such collaborations is borne of his own undergraduate experience in the very department where he is now teaching. "What I remember the most was the opportunity that radio-TV-film provided me to get on productions and to work with advanced students immediately," says Perkins, who graduated from UW Oshkosh in 1994 and earned his M.F.A. in Film Production from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He then worked for several years in New York City and Milwaukee on independent features, music videos, television, commercials, corporate videos, and concert tour video and animation design for Tina Turner, Janet Jackson, and the Beastie Boys.
Students at work: Sound recordist Jon Stricklin captures actress Liz Lohuis's footsteps for the short film Brothers (2008).
Now as the coordinator of the RTF department, Perkins aims to keep the tradition of collaborative learning going. "Hey, if you are a student, and you want to see what it's like to be on a film set, be in a studio television production, work in a radio station, you can get involved immediately."
RTF student Brittney Berna appreciates the real-world experience that Perkins brings to class. She says instructors who lack real-world know-how suffer from what she calls the "driver's ed syndrome," or all theory but little application. "You get the classroom portion of driver's ed," she says, "but until you get the hands-on behind-the-wheel thing, that's when you can really pass along that knowledge."
A Love for Stories
Growing up in Medina, Wis., a tiny rural one-stop-sign town 30
minutes north of Oshkosh, Perkins didn't dream of becoming the next
Scorcese or Spielberg. The love for films and filmmaking came later. He
grew up honing the art of good storytelling.
"I grew up in a family of farmers, and they all happen to be really good storytellers," he says. "I just spent a lot of time with them. I was lucky that way."
When he left Wisconsin for graduate school in the Big Apple, Perkins described that move as "an awakening." While he appreciated what the big city had to offer, he longed for the comforts, sights and sounds of home. "When I moved to New York City, I realized almost immediately that I wanted to move back to the Midwest," he says. "It was at that that time there that I truly appreciated being from Wisconsin and what Wisconsin has to offer."
His film professors also helped him see the value of what he had left
behind. "They said, 'You've had an unique experience because most of
our students are coming from the coasts, coming from the East coast or
coming from California, but your experience growing up in rural northern
Wisconsin, that is unique.'"
He took their words to heart. "I wanted to develop real characters that I knew growing up and that people in the Midwest could relate to, instead of the Hollywood version, which is usually a stereotype," he says. "It was really exciting to develop these personal stories and these personal films but yet turn it into collaboration with our students."
Trailer for "Brothers"
three farm brothers face an uncertain future as they confront a landscape that is rapidly changing around them.
22 Minutes - Color
written & directed by Troy Perkins
starring: Justin Bricco, Jon Hanusa, Jeff Straus, John Koker, Liz Lohuis, Fran St. Andre