A few years ago, Jonathan Caballero was sitting in a prison cell, pondering his bleak future as he served time for a robbery conviction.
He could scarcely have imagined the journey that brought him to a sound stage in Culver City last week, where he and his fellow crew members were preparing to film a mock scene taken from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The classic tale of second chances could easily apply to Caballero’s own life, but he was thinking about more practical matters: how to position the camera dolly and track correctly so the camera operator could properly frame a shot of two actors sitting at a table.
"I’ve come a long way," says the 23-year-old, who was helping to set up the scene for a classroom exercise. "If I didn’t have this program, I’d be in jail or probably dead.”
Caballero is among 200 students enrolled in an entertainment arts training program at West Los Angeles College that teaches the nuts and bolts of filmmaking to an underserved audience: predominantly low-income students who can’t afford film school but want a shot at working behind the scenes in Hollywood.
The 18-month program, which offers courses in such areas as costume design, set dressing and lighting, is run by a nonprofit group called Hollywood CPR, which stands for Cinema Production Resources. Funded through private donations and government grants, the group works with local unions to provide job-training opportunities for underprivileged youth looking for careers in the technical aspects of filmmaking.
”I wanted to help kids in need find their way and I felt that teaching entertainment crafts was a good way to do that,” says Kevin Considine, a former set dresser and prop man who launched the charity in 1997.
Considine wanted to address what he saw as a dearth in vocational training: Schools have severely cut arts education programs, studios have long since abandoned apprenticeships to train workers in crafts, and film schools focus mainly on the more highbrow aspects of filmmaking such as writing, directing and editing.
By contrast, Considine wanted to focus on teaching basic skills needed on the set, such as set lighting, scene painting and working with props.
"We don’t train anything pie in the sky," Considine added. "We want real."
Following a successful pilot program developed with various crafts unions, Hollywood CPR began offering an accredited training program at West Los Angeles College in 2008. Operating out of an aviation training facility on the campus, the program has a dozen instructors, all of whom are industry veterans. The curriculum is hands-on: each class makes a project, such as building a set for a crime show, and students spend one semester doing internships on movie and TV productions.
Students also learn fundamental workplace skills, such as showing up on time and respecting the pecking order on film and TV sets. Hollywood CPR has trained more than 475 students since its inception. The rigorous program has a high drop-out rate -- between 30% and 50% -- but contends about 60% of its graduates have gone on to work in the industry.
"It’s a vitally important pathway to below-the-line jobs," says the group’s chief operating officer, Laura Peterson.
Many producers praise the program for opening doors in an industry that has been notoriously tough to break in to without having connections or a degree from a top film school.
"It brings in a whole group of people who would never have a shot at the film industry," said Geary McLeod, a cinematographer on the CBS show "The Mentalist" who has worked with a half-dozen graduates.
Film producer Scott Budnick said that the students he worked with were "more eager to please than any other person on the crew: they work harder, they hustle more, they’re just grateful." Budnick was so impressed with one graduate he hired as a prop assistant on the blockbuster comedy "The Hangover" that he recruited him to work on his latest film, "Project X," also directed by Todd Phillips.
The student, Isidoro Avila, 26, has worked on a string of big Hollywood movies, including "Iron Man 2," since graduating from Hollywood CPR in 2007. He’s moved up from prop assistant to set dresser and now makes $33 an hour -- a far cry from the near-minimum wage he once earned at a warehouse in Ontario.
"Honestly, this program just changed my life," Avila said. "If it wasn’t for these guys, I don’t know what I’d be doing. Every day I go to work with excitement."
-- Richard Verrier