If you think of award-winning filmmakers, Chester Lampman, MFA Film and Digital Technologies ’14, may not be the first to come to mind, but make no mistake—he’s the real deal. His thesis documentary “The Marquee on Main Street” was accepted to six film festivals, and also won a Recognition Award for Short Documentary from the Hollywood International Independent Film Awards in May 2016.
“The Marquee on Main Street” is a short documentary centered on three small, independent theaters in and around Pittsburgh: the Strand in Zelienople, the Oaks in Oakmont, and the Hollywood in Dormont. Chester interviews the owners about the challenges they face keeping these small theaters afloat in this era of multiplexes that use digital platforms. “Hollywood is essentially forcing theaters to go digital,” he says. “It makes it so much harder for single-screen theaters to get movies.” View trailer here:
“These places are community treasures,” Chester continues. “Once they’re gone, they’re much more difficult to bring back, if they even can bring it back.” He cites the Oaks as an example. “The Oaks was closed and brought back as a performance art space. They still show some movies, but on a much rarer basis. They do what they have to do to survive, but the space is still there.”
“The Marquee on Main Street is an award-winning short documentary by independent filmmaker Chester Lampman that explores the historic single screen cinema experience. Weaving a story of rediscovery with profiles of several independent neighborhood movie theaters, the film celebrates their histories, examines their challenges, and highlights the people that keep them going. All in an effort to prove that these often overlooked community treasures still have much to offer the movie going public. After all, one screen is all you really need.” – Trailer for “The Marquee on Main Street”
When Chester first he came to Pittsburgh after attending University of Pittsburgh Bradford, he landed a job in independent video production. Then he joined the army, and after three years in active duty, returned to find how much the film industry had changed. “Everything was digital, everything was high definition,” he says. “The mental skill was still there, but my technical skills had become outdated. I would have had to start over in the industry at minimum wage, and I wasn’t about to do that.” Instead, he got a job outside the film industry.
Soon after that, he came to a friend’s graduation at Chatham. “I heard people graduating with an MFA in film, and thought maybe I should look into that.”
He liked what he saw. In 2012, Chester enrolled in the MFAFDT program. In order to take advantage of the GI Bill, he had to be enrolled full-time, and he also worked full time to support his family. “I took three classes each semester and did project stuff on the weekends,” he laughs. It took him two years to complete the program.
“People come into the program with all different levels of expertise,” he adds. “I knew some of the theoretical stuff, but needed the technical expertise. I’d never turned on a Mac before. I’m sitting there, trying to find the power button—everyone was supportive,” he says.
“I could have gone to to some workshops if all I had wanted was a skills upgrade,” Chester says. “But actually earning an MFA was a much better use of the time and money.”
Chester dates his interest in documentaries to his junior year in high school. “I took a specialized course on the Civil War, and the teacher showed the Ken Burns documentary,” he says. “I was fascinated by it. It was the first time I realized you could learn and be entertained at the same time, and that it was a function fo the images, the music—all the elements.”
Chester was also attracted to the do-more-with-less aspect of documentary making. “Filmmaking is a team sport,” he says. “When you’re making a documentary, you can use a much smaller team.” (In fact, Chester’s team was him and one other person—at most.)
“There are also avenues for documentaries,” he says. “It’s easier to get people to see your work. Ten or 15 years ago, we didn’t have that.”
“If I were talking to someone thinking about coming into the program, I’d say to prepare to take everything seriously. Don’t look at the project work just as project work—treat it as an example of your ability, and recognize that you’re building your portfolio from day one. If you take attitude from the start, you’ll be building your portfolio all along. That’s how I look at my film—it’s proof of my ability. Hopefully I can use it as a stepping stone for other films I want to make.”
“Will I ever make a Hollywood feature film? Hell no. It’s never going to happen,” he laughs. “Documentary is interesting to me because you get to pick something you have an interest in, research it, find a unique and interesting way to tell a story, and hopefully engage the audience. I like to learn when I make something.”
Chatham’s accelerated, one-year MFA in Film & Digital Technology program is one of the few accelerated MFA programs in the United States that includes both film and digital technology. Focused on advanced project work in a range of media production areas, principally film/video, interactivity, and the web, it is designed to extend and develop students’ experiences and knowledge in the field of media production and their understanding of creative and critical practice within the media industries.