Richard Brett is pictured in his office at McDaniel College in front of one of his Trompe L'oeil paintings and holding a 1960s video camera from his collection. Trompe l'oeil means to fool the eye because the images are so 3-D they look real. (Lyndi ...
Richard Brett is a Westminster artist. He is also an associate professor of cinema at McDaniel College.
“I was interested in art as far back as I can remember. I was probably 4 or 5 years old,” Brett said. “I drew when I was a child.”
When he was 15, Brett had the opportunity to attend the National Music Camp one summer at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan as part of an orchestra. While there, he took a painting class that would influence him for his entire life.
“While taking the class, I was given two good pieces of advice that I did not understand until 20 years later,” he said. The instructor told Brett that his paintings were too stiff and mechanical because little white lines show in between the images of the painting because Brett was afraid to overlap the colors. The second piece of advice was to paint what you really see because many people simply paint what they know is there.
According to Brett, many beginners paint glass with a thin blue wash indicating glass. Glass is invisible and does not need to be represented by that film.
“Now it seems so simple to me. I look at the color value of everything. I don’t paint what is there. I paint what I see,” Brett explained.
Brett is busy with his career but comes back to painting from time to time. He calls it a guilty pleasure. “I feel like I should be doing something else that would be profitable. It feels too indulgent and fun,” he said.
An expert realist, Brett has painted flowers, landscapes and portraits. He also paints abstracts and recently completed a mural.
“I get tremendous fulfillment and peace from painting,” he said. “It pushes everything else out of my mind. It is pure, unadulterated fun.”
Brett was also interested in movies since he was 11 years old. His parents bought him a Super 8 movie camera. Since both “Jaws” and “Star Wars” came out at that time, he filmed some of his own movies in the same genre.
Brett attended Monmouth High School in Illinois. He and his friends filmed a movie for their algebra semester project. They created a super hero called Mr. Factor who used math to solve people’s problems and save their lives.
When he attended Carleton College, the institution had new VHS equipment. He took every class he could on how to use the camera but there was no class on how to actually craft a complete story on film. Although he majored in anthropology and sociology, his heart was still with film. It never occurred to him it would become a career.
Brett learned that the University of Southern California had a program in visual anthropology, a field in which anthropologists document what they do in the field. It married his two major interests. USC is the premier film school in the world.
As part of the program, Brett took three beginning cinema courses and fell in love with it. Brett began to think about film in his future. The program there was more of a trade school program that narrowed the field that students would work in someday such as a designer, director or a director of photography. Brett decided he wanted a more broad-based experience.
He left USC when he learned about a good program at the University of Iowa. He received a master’s degree in film and video production there in 1987. “It was a great experience because I got to teach classes there while I was in school,” he said.
After graduation, Brett moved to Minneapolis and did freelance videography and editing. He filmed car commercials, yoga instructional videos and other things the production house he worked for needed.
When he decided that he really wanted to teach at an institution of higher learning. Brett went back to graduate school at the University of North Carolina where he received a master’s degree.
After a short stint as an assistant manager at Blockbuster Video, Brett took a job at St. Andrews University in North Carolina teaching film in a one-person program for the next 10 years.
In 2006, Brett met Jonathan Slade, McDaniel College’s associate professor of communication and cinema, at a conference on adapting novels into film. Slade impressed Brett because both he and Slade were more interested in, and knowledgeable about, film than any of the other participants.
When Brett began to look for a place that would have an opportunity for growth, he found a job advertised at McDaniel College. In 2009, McDaniel decided to make cinema a major and advertised for the position of an assistant professor of cinema. Brett jumped at the chance to work with Slade. He was hired.
“The students are bright, curious and enthusiastic. They love film. It is exciting to see the light bulb go on when they learn how things really work in the field,” Brett said.
The growing program stresses cinematic story telling. As opposed to how to use the latest gadgets, they teach things that never go out of style and the skills that are important if you want to become a filmmaker. Skills include preplanning, lighting, screenwriting, shooting and editing.
It is also important to understand film history and film theory. “It is important for you to understand what leaf you are on the tree. You must understand what you adding to work that has been done before you. You don’t want to reinvent the wheel. Understanding how you are building on past knowledge and expanding it is important,” Brett explained. “We are trying to graduate complete filmmakers who understand every aspect of producing a movie.”
What is also good about the McDaniel cinema program is that the instructors are actively working in the field. Slade is producing documentaries for MPT. Brett is a represented screenwriter.
“At the point I stop learning I should no longer be teaching,” Brett said.
Lyndi McNulty is the owner of Gizmos Art in Westminster. Her column appears on the first and third Thursday of each month.
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