It always seems likes great teachers are institutions in and of themselves. Joe Hoffman was one of those. I’m thinking of him tonight, because I received word today that he had died. Joe taught a Tuesday night production design class at U.S.C.’s School of Cinema. He also, occasionally taught Scenic Art and possibly scenic design with the U.S.C. School of Theatre.
I always felt like Joe was a bit of a mischievous fellow in his professional life. He designed variety shows for television, beauty pageants, magic shows, musicals and more. Joe was a bit mischievous in class too. He gave assignments, and watched students do way more work than they needed to, until they learned the art of design for the camera. How much of the set will be visibile? Don’t design and build more than that! After actually working in television, I learned how true that is. When I think of Joe teaching, I remember a glint in his eye as if he was waiting for us to discover the great secrets of design.
Joe insisted that we make white models in less than two hours. A skill that has served me well in my professional life. The final project in his production design class was a production model (full color, detail), for a brief scenario of our own devising. Oh, he didn’t grade the model. When we got to class, we were handed a video camera as promised, and told to film our model with the shot we had planned (at least 30 seconds). The video was what was critiqued and graded. I personally worked about 36 to 48 hours, no sleep, very little food to complete the model. My set had a bookcase in it, I made and painted each 1/4″ scale book individually. I made furniture, I made trees, I made bricks, I made stained glass windows, I made lit torches. I got to class tired and hungry. After making our videos, we were all invited to Joe’s house where his wife made a huge turkey dinner for everyone, and Joe watched the videos, and verbally critiqued our work, and by the time dessert was done we had our grades in the class. One of the best points he made about my work was that despite the fact my model wasn’t the prettiest in person, I had worked out the shots carefully, and had spent my time working on the pieces that would be in focus and in front on the shots. (Oddly enough most of the models that were stunning in person photographed very very badly). Joe made an offhand comment when we started discussing the project about looking at our work through a camera lens occasionally. I built much of my model looking through a camera lens, and it made such a difference. I don’t do a lot of design on camera, but I learned that when I do, the world looks very different through that lens.
He taught me about working with new tools. His was the first time I had used a CAD (Computer Aided Drafting) application. We used MacDraft which was very simple, but useful program, and a great introduction to the concept. Joe, in class, seemed from an earlier generation, yet he was pushing us to use technology in a way that few if any of my other teachers during undergrad were doing.
Joe also taught me a lot about being a generous colleague. I helped him on some project or another. I do not remember what, it was truly nothing. Joe was forever thankful and gracious. Small things, like inviting me on a field trip that his class was taking to look at the set of the “West Wing.” He also invited me on a backstage tour of the Magic Castle. After doing a project with Richard Sherman (of the Sherman brothers), and knowing that I am a huge fan of classic Disney films, Joe got me an (Autographed!) copy of the Sherman Brothers’ memoir, “Walt’s Time.”
Joe taught me about efficiency, professionalism, and graciousness. He taught me you don’t have to be stodgy to be a great professor. I learned that the technology can be used in the creation of art, and there is no shame in that. I learned that just couse I’m not young, I can still embrace the technology.
We exchanged the odd email over the years. Always contemplating getting together, and never actually doing so. I regret that. A Lot. Like so many others, I assumed he’d always be around.
Joe, If you read this, You taught me a lot. Thanks. A Lot!