Meet me at the Movies: An Interview with Dr. Steven Lavine, President of CalArts


In 1964, at the Hollywood premiere of Mary Poppins, Walt Disney showed a short promotional film, outlining a bold vision for the future of the California Institute of the Arts as “the cultural center of the new age”. Formed from a merger of the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music (founded in 1883), and the Chouinard Art Institute (1921), CalArts has blossomed into a vibrant institution with a rich curriculum, covering all aspects of art including animation, theater, film, performance, music, integrated media, dance – even virtual reality production into the digital beyond. Famous Hollywood alumni include Alison Brie (How to be Single) Chris Buck (Frozen), Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands), Brenda Chapman (Brave), Don Cheadle (Iron Man), John Lasseter (Toy Story) and, bringing us right up to date, two 2017 Academy Awards nominees: Rich Moore (Zootopia) and John Musker (Moana).

Dr. Steven Lavine, President of CalArts, is stepping down after an astonishingly productive thirty years at the institution. cinemathread went to Valencia, 30 miles north of L.A., to find out what he’s most proud of, the movies he still watches time and time again – and why a move to the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance might be his next chapter.


cinemathread: Firstly, Dr. Lavine, take us back to 1988: what brought you to CalArts?

SL: Before CalArts I worked at the Rockefeller Foundation where, in our grants program, CalArts graduates kept showing up. So when an advertisement for the presidency came up here I was immediately interested, although I hadn’t run an institution at that point, so I didn’t apply. But my name was put forward and after that, it happened really quickly.


CT: Can you describe how you felt when you first came here?
My wife, the writer and photographer Janet Sternburg, and I, walked in together and we were just knocked out by the swirl of energy.  


CT: As your time at CalArts draws to a close, can you pick two highlights that you’re most proud of?

SL: There are so many: first we brought more order, greater breadth of curriculum, and put systems in place – while still retaining great creative freedom. Then there’s REDCAT, and, of course, our community arts programs which reach thousands of kids. But the thing I’m most proud of is the diversity today in our student body. When I came to CalArts, it was primarily attracting middle-class Caucasian Americans. My mission from the beginning was to reflect the US in a more profound way – and then, after achieving that, to reflect the world similarly – and it now does.


CT: What will you be doing next?

SL: I decided five years ago that I would step down in 2017 because I wanted another chapter – but nothing is decided yet. There are two things floating out there: one is an invitation from the German Foreign Office to be involved with the Thomas Mann House, to build a focus of exchange for German and American social scientists and government and business leaders here in L.A. Particularly interesting, for me, because, at this point in history, both countries have concerns about the future of democracy.

CalArts 1975 Alumni. Back row: Joe Lanzisero, Darrell Van Citters, Brett Thompson, John Lasseter, Leslie Margolin, Mike Cedeno, Paul Nowak, and Nancy Beiman. Center row: Jerry Rees, Bruce Morris, instructor Elmer Plummer, Brad Bird, and Doug Lefler. Front row: Harry Sabin & John Musker.

CT: A worthy endeavor indeed. What’s the other potential next step for you?

SL: I’ve been approached by a leading Italian businessman to build a new multi-arts school in Italy.


CT: Taking the Italian Renaissance ideas, nurtured by your three decades at CalArts, and taking them back to their birthplace?

SL: (Laughs) In a way – yes! It’s not that I necessarily want to run something again, but I want to put active ideas back into the world, and that often comes with an institution at its heart.


CT: Back to your current job, CalArts has often been referred to as “Disney U” – is that still the case?
SL: I don’t know that Walt Disney ever designed CalArts as a feeder school for Disney – in fact there was no film school or animation program in his original design – that came later. He just believed in turning out artists who were adaptable and “tuned in” to their moment in history.  Having said that, when CalArts started it was very dependent on the Walt Disney Company and the Disney family for financial support. Their support is still remarkably generous, but CalArts now has a much broader circle of support.  We still naturally attract students who know the Disney story and many of our graduates still go on to work there, at some point in their careers, but you find our alumni equally in every other area of the arts and entertainment.

I don’t know that Walt Disney ever designed CalArts as a feeder school for Disney – in fact there was no film school or animation program in his original design – that came later. He just believed in turning out artists who were adaptable and “tuned in” to their moment in history.

John Lasseter – CalArts Alumni

CT: In turn, when Disney hires someone from CalArts, they know they’re properly trained, up on the latest techniques and technologies, and ready to work – not just an “I’m totally fabulous” arts grad?

SL: (Laughs) Exactly. And although animation is still central to their requirements, they do take students from our Theater School, our Herb Alpert School of Music, and so on – right across the board, especially for Walt Disney Imagineering.


CT: Quick segway – as this interview is for cinemathread, can you name three films that have meant the most to you in your life?

SL: Oh, there are so many. Let’s see, the first would be Hiroshima Mon Amor (Alain Resnais), which I saw in high school, in the little town I grew up in. I didn’t understand what I was seeing but the tone of it – it was the same response I had to Bob Dylan – this is the moment in which I am living. Then Godard – hard to pick just one, but, if I had to – maybe Masculin Feminin. For me that film was about the power of genuine social engagement. Finally, oh, I’m dating myself, but early Fellini: La Strada, for the purely emotional power of the performances. With all three films, the directorial vision and ideas are just indelible.

Disney's 'Zootopia'
Disney’s ‘Zootopia’, directed by CalArts graduate, Rich Moore

CT: Finally, as you watch the Academy Awards this year, which movie will you be rooting for?

SL: I’ve just seen Toni Erdmann (the German entry for Best Foreign Language Film), which was terrific but, of course, I’m very proud of CalArts graduates John Musker (Moana) and Rich Moore, (Zootopia) as both films are nominated for Best Animated Feature. But, if I had to choose just one, the way Zootopia captures expressive feeling from portraying animals in animation is truly wonderful. In fact, there’s a photograph outside my office which shows Disney animators in the mid-60s studying animal movement from a real life deer – and drawing from life remains core to our animation program. Moore’s work is a direct through-line from that period right up to today.

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