USC student films win at Cannes

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USC Student Films Win at Cannes

Trojan productions were once again recognized as standouts among the 38 official selections in The American Pavilion’s Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at Cannes.
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The American Pavilion’s Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at Cannes has become an important event for budding creators, particularly student filmmakers beginning their careers in the film industry. This year, films from the United States, Australia, Canada, Nigeria and Sweden competed in six categories: Student Short Films, Student Documentaries, Emerging Filmmaker Short Films, Emerging Filmmaker Documentaries, Emerging Filmmaker LGBTQ Showcase Films and an Alumni Showcase. The films must all be 25 minutes or shorter, with a jury of industry professionals choosing winners. USC student films were once again recognized as standouts among the 38 official selections in this “festival within a festival.”

Fathead, an experimental film created under the auspices of the School’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) was recognized as the Best Student Short Film. A dystopian story about children living in a place called Junkyard Paradise, the heroine, called Fathead, takes on a children’s army known as the ragamuffins, after they kidnap her beloved brother. More than 90% of the film’s locations were created virtually, and it was commissioned as a workshop for creating best practices in virtual production. Fathead, directed by c. Craig Patterson ’20 and produced by Mitchell Graham Colley, Anthony Gaitros, Letia Solomon, Alexa Villarreal, and Brandyn Johnson, staffed a talented team of 122 USC alumni.

The documentary, Waves Apart, took Best Student Documentary honors. It was directed by Josh Greene ’22, and produced by Aslan Dalgic and Ela Passarelli. Greene grew up as a passionate surfer in Orange County, California. His Bar Mitzvah was held at the San Clemente Surfing Heritage and Culture Center. Years later, his parents would tell him they had to rearrange the venue’s decor to move surfboards engraved with swastikas out of sight of partygoers. The boards, made in California, were among the first mass-produced surfboards ever made. Waves Apart, which was also nominated for a Student Academy Award, explores the sport’s antisemitic roots.

The following USC films were also in this year’s showcase:

Backlog is a drama based on the true story of a college student who tries for three years to get authorities to investigate her shelved rape kit, and becomes a key witness at a Senate hearing about rape kit backlog. It was written and directed by Jacqueline Elyse Rosenthal ’23 and produced by Robin Wang, Marian Cook and Josh Powell.

De Closin Night is a drama that follows a Chinese theater student in America who loses her first role due to her accent, causing her to become determined to lose it by any means necessary. It was directed by Shicong Zhu ’20, written by Ella Rouwen Chen and produced by Ella Rouwen Chen and Brielle Yuke Li.

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Annenberg Inclusion Initiative unveils The Inclusion List

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The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative unveils The Inclusion List in collaboration with The Adobe Foundation
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The Adobe Foundation partnered with Associate Professor of Communication Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative to debut The Inclusion List, a new data-driven ranking that provides the titles of the 100 most inclusive theatrically-released films from 2019 to 2022.

The website also highlights the top distributors associated with the movies on the list, names eight individuals as the top producers and showcases two top directors for inclusion across the time frame evaluated.

“With The Inclusion List, our goal is to celebrate the films, filmmakers, and companies who are supporting inclusion on screen and behind the camera,” Smith said. “This is the first rigorous, quantitative assessment of hiring practices across almost 400 movies and more than 900 producers, over 350 directors, and 16 distributors. The results are clear: Universal Pictures, A24, Will Packer, James Lopez, Kevin Feige, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Lulu Wang and the others on the list are ushering in a new era for inclusion through the choices they have made and the stories they have told. We are excited to showcase and recognize those efforts.”

To form the list, the research team scored 376 theatrically-released films across 20 inclusion indicators, with the highest-scoring films receiving top honors. The indicators ranked gender, race/ethnicity, LGBTQ+, disability, and age representation for cast in leading and all speaking roles. Behind the scenes, gender and race/ethnicity were assessed across 10 positions to create a crew score. Those ten positions were: Director, Writer, Producer, Cinematographer, Editor, Composer, Costume Designer, Production Designer, Casting Director, and First Assistant Director. More than 14,000 speaking characters and over 5,500 crew members were evaluated in the process of compiling the Inclusion List.

Whereas other Hollywood lists about inclusion rely on submissions, a nomination process, or subjective decision-making, The Inclusion List draws solely from data to create a cast and crew score based on actual hiring practices and story elements. As a result, the films, distributors, and producers on the list appear based on a demonstrated track record for inclusion.

“The Inclusion List shows us who has excelled at showcasing stories featuring voices that are often missing from popular movies. Seven of the top 10 films on the Inclusion List were directed by women of color, and the first 47 films on the list were made by directors from historically marginalized communities,” Smith said. “What’s even more powerful about this list- and consistent with our previous work-is that films from women and women of color directors on the list earned the highest average Metacritic score. These women are excluded from the industry when we know that they are some of the top performers, telling some of the strongest and most compelling stories. This list celebrates women of color in an industry that doesn’t.”

The top distributors reflect the companies responsible for bringing the films on The Inclusion List to audiences. They were ranked by the number of films appearing on the list itself. Among large distributors, Universal Pictures took top honors with 24 films on the list, followed by Sony Pictures Entertainment (14 films) and Warner Bros. Pictures (11 films). For smaller distributors, A24 led among its peers with 9 movies, with Neon landing in second place (6 films).

A total of eight producers received a nod for their work in film over the past four years. Will Packer, James Lopez, Kevin Feige, Dede Garner, Jeremy Kleiner, Jordan Peele, Ian Cooper, and Jason Blum were named the most inclusive producers for having 3 or more films on The Inclusion List.

“These producers have a clear commitment to championing material that reflects culturally specific content and/or a variety of perspectives, and for their inclusive hiring of crew behind the scenes,” Smith said.

“At Adobe, we believe that when more diverse stories are told, the world becomes a more equal and vibrant place,” said Stacy Martinet, VP of marketing at Adobe and Adobe Foundation Board member. “Initiatives such as the Adobe Foundation’s collaboration with USC Annenberg gives us the ability to elevate the stories and people that are making inclusivity a priority, while also finding the ways we can still make change in the industry.”

This latest partnership builds on Adobe’s commitment to creating greater inclusivity, access, opportunity and creativity for all. The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and Adobe Foundation together launched a landmark website on inclusion among Academy Award-nominees and winners ahead of the 2023 Academy Awards ceremony. The Adobe Foundation also announced funding to support the USC School of Dramatic Arts MFA program, directly supporting the production of short films for underrepresented students.

The results from the groups’ first report, and the full methodology for The Inclusion List, are available at

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Public relations grad crafts multimedia campaigns for music, health policy and more

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Public relations grad crafts multimedia campaigns for music, health policy and more
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Progressive degree graduate Jonathan D’Aguilar creates a diverse portfolio of work, including his own music brand and a health policy campaign for the USC Schaeffer Center.

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With operatic flourish, activist Dolores Huerta and younger cousin to receive USC doctorates on same day

When June 5, 1968, began, Robert Kennedy seemed to be on track to be elected president in November.

Minutes past midnight, Kennedy addressed his supporters from the lectern of the Ambassador Hotel, 4 miles from USC. Next to Kennedy was his friend, ally and farmworker activist Dolores Huerta. She was wearing a red frock, and her face seemed filled with hope.

Then, Kennedy left the stage.

So ends the first act of Dolores, a new opera based on Huerta’s life that was composed by her cousin Nicolas Lell Benavides, a USC lecturer who will receive his doctorate this week from the USC Thornton School of Music.

“In that moment, the Chicano civil rights movement, the United Farm Workers, they were in a crisis,” Benavides said. “They had spent their resources to help get him elected, and now he’s not there for them. Dolores said: ‘What matters is our dream, our perseverance. We go on. There is no one human who represents this movement, or the loss of hope.'”

Although the two were born years apart, their lives will intersect at USC’s commencement on Friday as Huerta is awarded a USC honorary degree and Benavides receives his Doctor of Musical Arts in composition.

“It seems like just yesterday he graduated from Santa Clara University,” Huerta said. “And now he’s getting his doctorate.”

Decades apart but close in heart

Benavides, 36, is more than 50 years younger than his cousin. She’s known for leading the 1960s grape boycott that led to a landmark labor contract, but her work as a civil rights leader never stopped.

“Growing up, she was always the most patient listener,” Benavides said. “She still is, and that’s what makes her a great leader. I know it sounds like propaganda at some point, but it’s true.”

Benavides was not fully aware of Dolores Huerta’s status as a civil rights leader until 2007, when he was studying at Santa Clara University earning a bachelor’s degree in music with a minor in Spanish.

“It was a course called ‘Intro to Chicano Studies,’ and we came to a point where we were to study Dolores. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s my cousin.’ Then, we had this midterm essay project and I asked, ‘Do you mind if I call her and interview her?’ I got a good grade on that paper because nobody could refute anything I wrote. I went to the source,” he said.

“That was one of the first times I realized what a big deal she is. That’s a testament to her humility.”

Dolores: It’s not just about opera

Raised, as were many of his family members, in New Mexico, Benavides grew up around music of many kinds — except classical.

“I did rancheras, folk music, jazz, a lot of popular sounds, and it wasn’t until I graduated high school that I first heard an orchestra,” he said. “I’m one of those weirdos who heard an orchestra play when I was 18 and thought, ‘That — that’s what I want!'”

“He gets his musical genius from his mother,” Huerta said. “His mother and grandfather had a band, and they played Latino songs. They made a record when Nick was very young, and it’s still being played on radio stations in Mexico.”

In 2014, Benavides earned his master’s degree in composition from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He then spent four years in the music industry writing, teaching and running a nonprofit before arriving at USC Thornton in 2018. While finishing his dissertation, he served as a lecturer, and he will continue to teach aural skills and composition for non-majors after commencement.

Benavides’ operatic progress moved at a fast tempo: He worked with the Washington National Opera and the Nashville Opera, and he earned support from the National Endowment for the Arts for a new opera with librettist Marella Martin Koch.

The pair were commissioned to develop a full opera about Huerta in 2021.

The genesis for Dolores began in late 2016 — a time of tumult and fear surrounding the presidential election.

“Friends were down. Some of them felt powerless,” Benavides said. “I thought, that’s crazy, because historically there are so many examples of people who’ve been hit with difficult situations, and they persisted. I saw no excuse to give up.”

“I think it’s quite exciting,” Huerta said. “And I’m really happy that he chose to do this.”

Civil rights history condensed in music and time in Dolores opera

The opera covers a time span of a few months, but most of the action takes place over the course of a day.

“I would be honored to stand by your side, as you have stood by ours,” Huerta sings to Kennedy just before his assassination.

“It plays with the tropes of an opera, but turns it on its head,” Benavides said. “The female protagonist has a lot more power. She’s not a soprano. She’s a mezzo soprano, so she’s more down to earth because she’s someone of the people.”

Historical figures including Cesar Chavez, Richard Nixon, Larry Itliong, Paul Schrade and Ethel Kennedy play into the story.

Audience members will hear English, Spanish, Spanglish, a chamber orchestra, trombones, trumpets, electric guitar, saxophone and an opera chorus.

“The chorus is vital,” Benavides said. “It’s the sound of the people, people moving, organizing, it’s a sound that inspires the hair on the back of your neck to stand up.”

Dolores opera: A not-so-close collaboration

Huerta is, of course, an adviser to Benavides. But she has given her younger cousin plenty of creative space.

“I haven’t given him any advice,” Huerta said. “I’m just really thrilled he chose to do this.”

She’s told me, ‘I’m here for you as a resource, but you write the work you want to write.’

Nicolas Lell Benavides, Dolores opera creator

“She’s been generous, helping us with inspiration, with rights to things, but she’s hands-off,” Benavides said. “She’s told me, ‘I’m here for you as a resource, but you write the work you want to write.'”

“For me, it’s an origin story of Dolores Huerta, the person who invented ‘Si se puede‘ [‘Yes, we can’], the person who rallied generations — especially people like me, Chicanos in this country — to fight for our rights, especially farm workers, the most vulnerable among us.”

Dolores has been commissioned by four opera companies and is expected to premiere across the Southwest during the 2024-25 season. West Edge Opera in Oakland, Calif.; The Broad Stage in Santa Monica; the San Diego Opera; and Opera Southwest in Albuquerque, N.M., all plan to stage it.

“I’m really looking forward to it. And to think that Nick was chasing a tragic moment, like the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and put that into musical form so that memory can be transformed into a spiritual remembrance. It gives us a better way to remember him, through music,” Huerta said.

“Had Bobby Kennedy not been assassinated, we would have a different world right now,” she added.

When the opera debuts, Benavides hopes to see plenty of family members in the audience.

“I come from a family that doesn’t know anything about classical music. Opera at its worst is full of gatekeeping and exclusivity, but opera at its best is a beautiful story that’s sung on stage. It’s just an emotional vehicle. For the audience, it’s a beautiful ride.”

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Velina Hasu Houston has been carving out her place since she was a girl

Editor’s note: Title IX — the landmark legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding — was signed into law on June 23, 1972. In recognition of this anniversary, we’ll be profiling Trojan Title IX trailblazers throughout the academic year.

Velina Hasu Houston learned at an early age that she needed to carve out a place for herself in a male-dominated world.

Houston, USC resident playwright and Distinguished Professor of Theatre in Dramatic Writing at the USC School of Dramatic Arts, grew up in the predominantly white community of Junction City, Kan. She stood out from her peers simply by being a young girl from an immigrant family of mixed-raced ancestry that includes Japanese, African American, Native American, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Korean roots.

Title IX logo“Even as a little girl when I was attending elementary school, I was well aware of differences in terms of how males and females were treated,” said Houston, who cited one example of the reaction she witnessed when she won a county spelling bee in sixth grade. “My success generated a lot of discussion, not just because I was a female, but also because I was a person of color and the child of an immigrant. I was retested on the spelling of the winning word and the audio recording of my win was replayed for several white male evaluators.

“When I went to the state spelling bee, the skepticism about an immigrant-kindred female being able to win a county spelling bee was even more pronounced,” she said. “Indeed, there were many more young men in the room than there were young women, and the presence of females was disconcerting to many. Sometimes I felt that I was expected to prove myself just a little bit more than my white male counterparts.”

The attitudes did not hinder Houston. Instead, they motivated her. She went on to be a gender equity and racial equity trailblazer in her work at USC and beyond. Houston’s work is internationally acclaimed, with over 30 playwriting commissions and other outputs in musical theater, film, television, essays, poetry, journalism and blogging. The former Fulbright Scholar also teaches story-building at the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy, and is an associated faculty member of USC’s Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture, affiliated faculty with East Asian Studies and American Studies and Ethnicity, and a member of the USC Asian Pacific Islander Faculty and Staff Association.

The courses that Houston teaches organically embrace inclusiveness. While she integrates elements of Eurocentric, patriarchal culture into her curriculum, she firmly believes it is vital for students to be educated in the perspectives of nonwhite, nonpatriarchal cultures as well in order to function meaningfully in society, including as a global citizen. Beyond her curricula, she creates artistic panels and invites guest artists to engage with her students. With intentionality, she includes guest artists who are ethnically diverse, gender-inclusive or from other marginalized groups.

Title IX trailblazer ensures a level playing field

In addition, vis-a-vis her artistry and academic endeavors, she is committed to ensuring a level playing field for students who are historically at a disadvantage and marginalized by the mainstream.

“I feel that if we don’t actively bring in our perspectives in terms of gender bias and other types of biases then students affected by such attitudes are left to climb uphill and without any water,” Houston said. Marginalizing bias is in the DNA of heterosexual, Eurocentric patriarchy and its institutions, Houston noted: “With regard to openness and fairness, we must be active and intentional about how we teach, create and indeed live our lives to make sure that students feel comfortable in the room and to ensure equal access to all.”

I believe students appreciate hearing perspectives that are filtered through varied backgrounds and not just one.

Velina Hasu Houston

Her students have noticed and appreciated the efforts as well, Houston said. “The richest feedback for me is what my students will say to me once they’re exposed to that kind of thinking,” she said. “When it comes to literary creation, I believe students appreciate hearing perspectives that are filtered through varied backgrounds and not just one.

“They feel that it’s beneficial for them to be able to hear a woman or a person of color speak about their involvement in writing. It gives them a path forward for their own work and an understanding that, as a female or as a person of color, they too can achieve success.”

Title IX trailblazer: Motivated by the groundbreaking legislation

Houston said that Title IX has been an important personal motivator, creating a means for her to take her rightful place at the table for whatever situation she may encounter — the classroom, the faculty meeting, the campus — even when she faces microaggressions that often show up as inquisitive looks about why she is in the room.

“In Tokyo while choosing where to have dinner with a friend, he teasingly suggested a sushi bar that only had male patrons,” Houston recalled. “I asked him why and he said it simply had always been that way. Immediately, I decided on that place.” Clearly, the male patrons were surprised to see a woman present, she pointed out, noting that history has erected barriers for too many people. There is an invisible sign that says no women or BIPOC people allowed, she remarked. “And so I go in.”

She’s also becoming more aware of the issue of age bias as she gets older. Much like her feelings about gender bias and biases against people of color and immigrants, Houston is not deterred by ageism, but, rather, she is motivated to continue her work with vigor and not waste her energy on any form of hate-based biases.

The marriage of gender, race, immigrant and age bias is potent, but a circus to which I don’t buy a ticket.

Velina Hasu Houston

“The marriage of gender, race, immigrant and age bias is potent, but a circus to which I don’t buy a ticket,” she said. “My focus is my work. Artistic projects and academic experiences have not slowed down, and I approach them with innate energy and dynamism.”

She expressed feeling bolstered by USC’s recognition of Title IX’s 50th anniversary because it highlights the ongoing importance of advancing gender equity. “Diligence and intentionality are required,” she said. “I think Title IX has changed USC in terms of attitudes toward women, which has a significant impact on the overall culture of the university. There is still work to do, and we must continue to do it. None of us can afford to sleep on the job. Gender bias requires a constant, active conversation.”

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Screening, lounge dedication close out yearlong celebration of John Singleton’s career

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The USC School of Cinematic Arts Dedicates New Lounge to Close Out Year-Long Celebration of SCA Alum John Singleton’s Career

SCA Dean Elizabeth Daley joined John Singleton’s mother Shelia Ward-Johnson in welcoming a packed house to a special screening of the series finale of FX’s Snowfall and unveil plans for the John Singleton Lounge in SCA.
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On Thursday April 20, Dean Elizabeth Daley joined John Singleton’s mother Shelia Ward-Johnson in welcoming a packed house to a special screening of the series finale of FX’s Snowfall, which Singleton co-created. It was his last work before he passed away, at age 51, in 2018.

The screening culminated a year-long celebration of Singleton’s work that began in September.

“These last few months of showing John’s projects at the School of Cinematic Arts have been a journey of memories, adoration, inspiration, and admiration,” said Daley. “John’s films and episodic work hold reminders of his personality, his character, and his fierce talent. In addition to his family, John gave generously to his audiences, to the City of Los Angeles, and yes, to the School of Cinematic Arts. His legacy will always be revered here. He is, and will always be, an inspiration to all our students.”

Ward-Johnson told the crowd, that despite her son’s untimely death, he was someone who “got it all in,” meaning he had lived a full life.

Dean Daley also used the event to unveil plans for the John Singleton Lounge, an area outside the Dean’s suite in the School of Cinematic Arts building that will serve as a memorial to Singleton, and will be decorated with posters of his work. The Dean also encouraged guests to check out the Singleton exhibit in the Mary Pickford Lobby of the George Lucas building.

Following the screening, Snowfall’s main cast members–Gail Bean, Carter Hudson, Michael Hyatt, Isaiah John, Amin Joseph, Angela Lewis, and lead star Damson Idris–participated in a Q&A. They were joined by renowned writer Walter Mosley, who Singleton had personally asked to work on the show; Dave Andron, who co-created Snowfall with Singleton and Eric Amadio; and Tomas Voth, the show’s production designer. They spoke of having built personal relationships with Singleton, the way he encouraged their work, and the vision he brough to the show. Hyatt told the audience that Singleton’s presence was always felt. “We stood by and made sure that even when he wasn’t here, the right story was told,” she said.

John Singleton: A Celebration, ran from September through April and featured Singleton’s best-known work, including classics Boyz N The Hood, Poetic Justice, Rosewood and Baby Boy.

For more on the Snowfall series finale screening, click here to read The Hollywood Reporter’s coverage of the event. Fight On!

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AI panel quells worries about bots taking over creative industry jobs

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AI Panel Quells Worries About the Bots Taking Over Creative Industry Jobs

The USC School of Cinematic Arts and the Viterbi School of Engineering held a forum in SCA to discuss the central question, “Is AI Creative?” The event sponsored by Adobe, served as an exercise in level-setting, to dispel myths about what AI is currently capable of creating.
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“Is AI Creative?”

That was the central question of discussion at a forum held at the USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) on Wednesday April 26, that brought together specialists in engineering, computer science, and filmmaking to talk about the capabilities, and limitations, of platforms like ChatGPT, Midjourney and DALL.E.

The event, “AI, Creativity & The Future of Film”, was conceived by SCA alumnus Jon Dudkowski, a director and editor whose credits include Star Trek: Discovery, and Karim Jerbi, a Visiting Scholar at the Brain Imaging Group at USC’s Ming Hsieh Institute, which is in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. Sponsored by Adobe, and presented as a joint effort between SCA and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, the evening was an exercise in level-setting, to dispel myths about what AI is currently capable of creating. The answer? Nobody’s job is in danger–yet.

The night began with a presentation by Yves Bergquist, Director of the AI & Blockchain in Media Projectat USC’s Entertainment Technology Center at the School of Cinematic Arts, on the science behind the most popular emerging platforms. He explained the generative models at the heart of the technologies–from the Transformers like ChatGPT, which is able to sequence data to produce text for essays, prose, poetry, scripts etc.; through Diffusion models, like DALL.E, which add and then remove “noise” from existing images to create new ones; to efforts at integrating existing models. He then offered this definitive assessment of ChatGPT, the essay-writing bot that has been at the center of plagiarism concerns across the university: “It is very good at writing bad and boring text. It is not going to be able to write a story. It is not going to be able to write a script. It does not understand the world at a level of symbolism, at a level of depth that we understand.”

Jerbi took the standing-room-only audience through demonstrations of the kinds of experiments being done by researchers in Neuro-AI, a new field of inquiry that compares the “brain” activities of humans and machines that are performing the same tasks. The goal is to compare the biological networks of the brain with the artificial ones. “We are seeing tremendous progress in AI but still far from human level intelligence,” said Jerbi. “Some things a toddler can do that the most advanced AI can’t do.” Jerbi however offered this discomforting fact. The next generation of AI, dubbed Artificial General Intelligence, is focused on closing that gap. The key word is “General” meaning the ability to apply instructions innovatively. Today’s AI might use a hammer to just hit the nail it is instructed to pound; but generalized intelligence might then apply the hammer in breaking up rocks, without being told.

Dudkowski then moderated a panel discussion in which Bergquist and Jerbi were joined by filmmakers Chad Nelson, whose film Critterz features characters created using DALL.E; Mary Sweeney, who produced and/or edited several David Lynch projects, and SCA alumna Athena Wickham, the executive producer of Westword and The Peripheral. They were also joined by William Swartout, Chief Technology Officer of the USC Institute for Creative Technologies.

No one on the panel yielded to any suggestion that AI, in and of itself, can be creative. Instead the consensus was that as a tool, it could facilitate faster iterations of works like script drafts, storyboards and production design. “What excites me for myself is being able to use it like a tool to accelerate the process and to see what you have and don’t have more quickly and inexpensively,” said Wickham. “What scares me is people getting lazy with it. I do worry that I’m going to start getting a lot of scripts and pitches that feel like someone hasn’t taken the time to edit it and put their own spin on it and that’s going to piss me off.”

Nelson concurred: “I personally haven’t seen an AI image where I think ‘that’s all that needs to happen, it’s done.’ It doesn’t know good from bad. Someone still has to say that’s good.”

Sweeney worried that AI platforms will encourage more of the kind of device addiction that has been linked to depression in young people. But she described her approach as “cautiously curious” and compared new approaches to the shift from analog to digital film editing. “I’m always interested in new tools.”

Essentially reading the room, Swartout acknowledged the attention AI platforms have been receiving in the press lately, and succinctly summarized the state of AI creativity at this moment: “In the popular mind we are going to think we are much further than we are.”

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Studying for finals? Let classical music help

This story was first published on Dec. 5, 2014.

As the season of cramming and finals approaches, Trojans can get help with a healthy, easily accessible study aid — classical music.

It’s a solution available 24/7 at Classical KUSC in Los Angeles or Classical KDFC in San Francisco. Listen either on the radio or live-streamed at or There’s a new version of KUSC’s free app and one for KDFC to use on mobile devices.

A number of academic studies recently zeroed in on classical music, showing that listening benefits the brain, sleep patterns, the immune system and stress levels — all helpful when facing those all-important end-of-semester tests.

Face the music

University research in France, published in Learning and Individual Differences, found that students who listened to a one-hour lecture where classical music was played in the background scored significantly higher in a quiz on the lecture when compared to a similar group of students who heard the lecture with no music.

The researchers speculated that the music put students in a heightened emotional state, making them more receptive to information.

“It is possible that music, provoking a change in the learning environment, influenced the students’ motivation to remain focused during the lecture, which led to better performance on the multiple-choice quiz,” they wrote.

According to research from the Duke Cancer Institute, classical music can also lessen anxiety.

Researchers gave headphones playing Bach concertos to men undergoing a stressful biopsy and discovered they had no spike in diastolic blood pressure during the procedure and reported significantly less pain.

But make sure you are listening to classical music, because not all music aids blood pressure, a University of San Diego study found.

Scientists at the university compared changes in blood pressure among individuals listening to classical, jazz or pop music. Those listening to classical had significantly lower systolic blood pressure when compared to those listening to other musical genres or no music at all.

??Just relax

Classical music helps you relax even when you don’t pay attention to the music, a Russian study published in Human Physiology found.

Children who listened to classical music for one hour a day over a six-month period exhibited brain changes that indicated greater levels of relaxation — even when the children were not asked to pay attention to the music.

If testing anxiety causes sleepless nights, classical music can help soothe insomnia. A team of researchers at the University of Toronto found that tuning into classical music before bedtime helped people fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Works by Brahms, Handel, Mozart, Strauss and Bach were effective sleep aids because they use rhythms and tonal patterns that create a meditative mood and slow brainwaves, the study found.

(KUSC and KDFC make it easy to access quality classical music all night, every night. The California Classical All Night program airs on both stations from midnight to 5 a.m., seven days a week.)

Cut out the cannons

So what selections do classical music experts favor for listeners trying to absorb new information?

KUSC host and producer Alan Chapman suggested pieces that are more restrained to provide a nice aura in the background. Skip over large orchestral pieces, particularly those with a dynamic that ranges from whispers to booming cannons.

The 1812 Overture would not be a good study aid, unless you were studying to be a demolitions expert,” he observed — a sentiment echoed by KDFC host and assistant program director Rik Malone.

Chapman suggested choosing solo piano pieces, perhaps Mozart sonatas or French piano music by Poulenc, Debussy or Faure. Mozart string quartets are also good choices, he said, for the regularity of phrase structure in classic period pieces.

Guitar music is gentle enough to study by, as is lute music, which has enjoyable, dulcet tones. Sample Bach lute suites, Chapman suggested.

Elizabethan consort music from the late 16th century, played on viols, was intended to create a pleasant atmosphere at court without demanding attention, Chapman said, and is another good candidate for music to study by.

So before turning to the books, turn on Classical KUSC or Classical KDFC.

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Trailblazer Emily Roxworthy credits role-model mom for ‘bulletproof’ determination

Editor’s note: Title IX — the landmark legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding — was signed into law on June 23, 1972. In recognition of this anniversary, we are profiling Trojan trailblazers throughout the year.

Growing up in Michigan, Dean Emily Roxworthy of the USC School of Dramatic Arts didn’t have to look any further than inside her own home to find “absolutely the most important female role model” in her life.

Title IX logoThat would be her mother, Margaret Colborn, who spent more than four decades working as a reporter and columnist for The Detroit News.

“I was very inspired by her career as a writer, and she really taught me that I can do absolutely anything I put my mind to,” Roxworthy said. “She herself worked so hard and suffered her own discrimination. But she gave me the most incredible self-esteem.”

Roxworthy firmly believes that unwavering support is “part of the reason I kind of went through the world so bulletproof.”

Title IX went into effect three years before she was born; Roxworthy is grateful for the law that so many who came before her pushed to have passed and enforced.

“When women can just know that this safeguard exists, it allows us to thrive,” she said. “We can really do what we came here to do, which is to learn, to network and to create.”

Fighting stereotypes

Still, Roxworthy quickly learned that Title IX wouldn’t be able to completely protect her against sexist attitudes. She has sometimes found herself having to fend off assumptions that she wouldn’t be as productive in an administrative job as other colleagues because she had young children at home.

“I became a mother when I was in graduate school getting my doctorate and then proceeded to have three more children while in various stages of my professorial life — both before and after I was fully tenured,” Roxworthy said. “If you focus on the strengths that being a mother brings versus the liabilities, being a mom is my most important training ground as an academic leader.”

But harsh judgment first came from an unexpected source while Roxworthy was earning her doctorate and starting a family. A woman who Roxworthy described as “a profound role model” reacted to the news of her first pregnancy by saying, “Haven’t you ever heard of birth control?” She was concerned that as a young mom, Roxworthy wouldn’t be able to land an academic job.

“The different waves of feminism have sometimes made generations of women tough on each other,” Roxworthy said. “My mentor from graduate school was of a different generation. How she succeeded was by choosing not to have kids and fully focusing on her career in that way.”

But Roxworthy stayed the course academically and professionally as her family grew.

After earning degrees in theater arts, literature and performance studies from Cornell University (master’s degree) and Northwestern University (bachelor’s and doctorate), she joined the department of theater and dance faculty at the University of California, San Diego. There, she rose through the ranks to become associate vice chancellor of faculty diversity and equity, provost of Earl Warren College and associate dean of the graduate division.

Roxworthy’s first book, The Spectacle of Japanese American Trauma: Racial Performativity and World War II, was published by the University of Hawaii Press in 2008. Her second book, The Theatrical Professoriate: Contemporary Higher Education and Its Academic Dramas, was published by Routledge in 2020.

‘You’ll make it work’

Roxworthy’s personal experiences have made her especially understanding whenever a graduate student turns to her for advice about family planning.

“I’ll say, ‘All times are equally good, or equally bad, depending on how you look at it,'” she said. “‘I’ve done it every phase of the academic journey, so you’ll make it work.'”

But there are always skeptics.

When she first applied for an administrative job at UCSD, Roxworthy said one of the men on a 20-member search committee asked her how she planned to balance a demanding administrative role with her “private life.” She remembered choosing to reframe the question to make it about balancing the administrative work of the position with her research. The man persisted and finally came out and said, “No, I was asking about your kids.”

It was this moment where you’re waiting for someone in the room to say, ‘No, you can’t ask that.’ But nobody did.

Emily Roxworthy, USC School of Dramatic Arts dean

“It was this moment where you’re waiting for someone in the room to say, ‘No, you can’t ask that,'” Roxworthy said. “But nobody did. It was striking to me that it was still considered OK.”

Roxworthy didn’t move forward in that particular selection process but did land a similar position a few years later. The experience had a deep impact on her and informed her future diversity, equity and inclusion work.

Breaking patterns

“The idea of allyship and bystander intervention became very important to me,” she said. “I’m sure there are people in that room who knew that wasn’t right but didn’t feel prepared or empowered to say anything in the moment.”

When Roxworthy was chair of the University of California’s academic senate committee on affirmative action and diversity in 2014, she was charged with creating diversity training workshops that involved theater skills. The goal of the training was to break workplace patterns of unconscious bias, stereotyping and microaggressions.

This led to her founding the research-based theater company Workplace Interactive Theatre in 2015 so that all UC campuses could receive the training. The customized workshops are now available to companies and organizations.

Since arriving at USC in 2021, Roxworthy said she has seen how Title IX not only made the university “such an athletics powerhouse,” but how its legacy has influenced so many other aspects of higher education.

“Even for someone of my generation, Title IX wasn’t something we thought a lot about — which showed how far we had gotten,” she said. “For students today, it’s part of what we expect to be one of the safeguards in higher education: some guarantee of equal opportunity for all genders.”

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USC School of Dramatic Arts celebrates its first tenured transgender faculty member

Alexandra Billings says she’s been too busy living in the present to think about making history. But the celebrated actress of stage and screen knows that becoming the first transgender faculty member of the USC School of Dramatic Arts to gain tenure is no small thing when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation.

“I think that it speaks volumes about how far USC has come,” Billings said at a reception on Monday celebrating the school’s LGBTQ+ alumni, faculty, students and staff. “To have a mixed-race trans woman be not just faculty, but a tenured faculty member, is to say to other marginalized queer folk: ‘We want you here. We honor you here. We honor your story and your work.’ That’s extraordinary.”

More than 150 people gathered in the courtyard of the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center to toast Billings, an associate professor of acting. A special School of Dramatic Arts performance of Tomlin’s stage show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe: Revisited followed inside the center’s Renberg Theatre.

“The room just changes in energy when she’s there,” School of Dramatic Arts Dean Emily Roxworthy said of Billings in her toast. “She’s an incredible teacher and trans activist who is a beacon to students who can say, ‘USC has a place for me because Alex is there.’ We were so incredibly fortunate to recruit her, and we’re really, really proud at this moment.”

Bringing authenticity to transgender roles

Billings is best known to television viewers for her recurring roles as transgender women on the Amazon dramatic series Transparent and the ABC sitcom The Conners. She has managed to carve out a prolific career despite having to watch better-known cisgender performers land transgender roles in television and movies.

Before the tide began to change in recent years, Billings was considered something of a pioneer as a trans actress playing actual trans characters on television shows such as How to Get Away with Murder, ER and Grey’s Anatomy, as well as the TV movie Romy and Michele: In the Beginning.

I make sure when I say yes to something, that it’s about creating dialogue and about being a portal for change.

Alexandra Billings

“I’m very lucky in the sense that I have a lot of really good friends in the business that are very loyal and believe that the marginalized voice is the voice of the future,” she said. “I make sure when I say yes to something, that it’s about creating dialogue and about being a portal for change.”

Billings is no longer satisfied with just having some kind of LGBTQ+ representation in a production.

“I want the queer voice to be the center story,” she said. “I want us to stop being only the supportive voice.”

Making her own way

The USC milestone comes amid a series of high points for Billings in a career where she has often had to create her own opportunities. This includes her one-person autobiographical show, S/HE & ME, which has toured to Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and off-Broadway. Billings made her Broadway debut in 2018 in the play The Nap, becoming one of the first openly trans people to be cast in a trans role on Broadway. Two years later, she began playing the role of Madame Morrible in the Broadway production of Wicked before and after the closures of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t tend to think about whatever I did first because that’s for the history books,” Billings said. “I feel like as long as we keep doing the thing, as long as we keep in mind that it’s the students and their artistic voice that matters, everything else will be taken care of.”

The beginning of a fruitful partnership

Reception attendees also toasted School of Dramatic Arts alumnus Jonathan Munoz-Proulx for becoming artistic director of the L.A. LGBT Center 10 months ago and for using his Trojan connections to make Monday’s performance — directed by School of Dramatic Arts adjunct lecturer Ken Sawyer and attended by Tomlin herself — come to fruition.

“To have these two worlds of USC and the center be in collaboration is such a beautiful gift and moment for all of us,” Munoz-Proulx said. “There are lots of opportunities for partnership, and we’re invested in maintaining our relationship with USC moving forward.”

The post USC School of Dramatic Arts celebrates its first tenured transgender faculty member appeared first on USC News.

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