Faculty Feature: J.J. Vazquez-School Of Film

Sometimes you just fall into things by accident. That’s how it was for J.J. Vazquez, instructor in the production branch of the PSU School of Film.

Originally, J.J. wanted to teach history. While in school at Cal State LA studying U.S. history, a cousin asked him to cover a job for him on a film set as a production assistant. J.J. didn’t know anything about film, but as a college student, was happy to make some extra money. He showed up for the gig, and unexpectedly, fell in love with the work. When the producer asked him to come back for another job, he said yes. It happened again, and again. In the midst of working these jobs, he decided to take some film classes at Cal State LA⁠—and “the next thing I know, I have a degree in film⁠—and I’m working in it, too. It’s literally just luck,” J.J. laughs. “I guess I just fell into it.”

What was once a random side gig to make some extra cash has turned into a career for J.J., who has worked on award-winning films and media ranging from Dragon Ball Z: Light of Hope, to Tracklandia, a niche web series about track and field based here in Portland.

J.J. teaches a variety of courses in PSU’s School of Film, including Narrative Film Production, Cinematography, Virtual Effects, Advanced Production, and Short Film Production. He is also on the committee that oversees the equipment room, and has been able to increase and improve their stock⁠—equipment that is available to any student in the department to use.

As an instructor at PSU, he brings his students onto set with him, committed to giving them as much experience in the field as possible as they earn their degree. “The way that I teach and what I teach⁠—I always think back to what I wish would have happened when I was in school. My teachers were great, but I always wished that we had a little more help … so that when we graduated, we’d have something on a resume. That’s what I was trying to achieve here.”

This dedication to helping his students gain real-world experience drives J.J. to hire his students to help with projects like Tracklandia. For a Tracklandia event January 27th in Spokane, J.J. was able to hire ten students to assist on set working as camera operators, technical directors, managing graphics, and assistants. Any student can join him on jobs like this: when asked how he selects students for this work, he says, “I try to be as equitable as possible. I make an announcement in all my classes. For this one, the first ten people to contact me, go. Once I know who’s going, then I work with them and have meetings to try to develop their skills so they’re ready when we get there.”

The School of Film works hard to provide students with a range of opportunities and experiences. J.J. and his colleague Courtney Hermann were awarded a grant to work on a mini documentary with the Oregon Ravens, discussing women and sports with a focus on equity and discrimination⁠—all of which will be directed, shot, and edited by students. The department is building a multicamera livestream studio to teach students skills applicable to sports, Twitch, Youtube, TikTok⁠—any media that utilizes multiple cameras. They also bring in guests from the industry. Last year, J.J. booked Brian Buccellato, who wrote the Flash Detective comics; Tim Story, who directed Think Like A Man, Ride Along, Tom and Jerry; Gregg Hale, who produced the Blair Witch Project; and more. And the PSU Film Showcase is a testament to the incredible talent and hard work of PSU film students. An annual curated showcase of the best in production and writing, department faculty judge and award honors to the best work created by students.

Portland is a great place to study and work in the film industry. Moviemaker ranked Portland #21 on its list of best places to live and make movies in 2022. But not only is Portland one of the best cities to make movies, but Portland State was listed as one of the best film schools in the Pacific Northwest in 2021 by the same magazine.

For prospective students interested in studying film at PSU, J.J. recommends going first to the department website, then booking a tour of the department —preferably with a professor. “I think that going in person, seeing the location, seeing the equipment, seeing how we conduct our classes, is the best way to do it. If you’re interested in getting hands on [experience with] equipment, PSU is a good place to go because that’s how we teach it. You’re gonna get this great base of film theory that you don’t get in most other schools. And so you’re getting a great base in both the theoretical side, the study side, and you’re getting your hands on. I think it just makes for a better filmmaker.”

How can a student interested in film get started? J.J.’s advice is simple: “Just start filming. Start filming, start filming. Robert Rodriguez once mentioned that every single filmmaker has eight bad movies in them. Get those eight bad movies out so that you can start making better work and start getting noticed. Really try to get on set as soon as you can, even while you’re going to school. I’d recommend during the summers get on set, because that’s gonna be the best way to have experience and the resume ready to go when you finish—and that’s really what it’s about.” And be sure to check out the PSU School of Film.

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