Award-Winning International Filmmaker Elliot Caplan Joins Media Study Faculty

Release Date: December 3, 2004 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Elliot Caplan's work as a producer, video maker, filmmaker, theater designer and cinematographer is internationally recognized and held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), France's National Museum of Modern Art, Cinematheque Francaise and museums in Taiwan, Germany, Israel and Brazil.

His art films featuring such artists as Naim June Paik, Merce Cunningham, John Cage and Bruce Baillie have been celebrated with more than a dozen major awards in the U.S. and across Europe, including a 1999 Emmy for "Outstanding Cultural Programming," two "Grand Prix Internationals" for dance video, the Czech Republic's "Golden Prague" award and similar distinctions in France, Germany and Sweden

Earlier this fall, Caplan added another distinction to his resume -- professor in the Department of Media Study in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences. He commutes each week to Buffalo from New York City's Lower East Side to teach two four-hour classes, including cinematography.

"I just enjoy teaching," Caplan says, "I always have.

"I've taught courses and workshops," he says, "at CSU Long Beach in 1998 and later at Bennington, Sarah Lawrence, Manhattanville and other schools, but it never has been full-time, in part because being on a faculty involves meetings.

"After years of experience with PBS and public arts organizations," he admits, "I do everything I can to avoid meetings. Being a visiting artist is nice, you know? Good pay, people are very pleasant to you and no meetings! It's also worked for me because I live full-time in New York City and my work has required an enormous amount of travel -- 180 working days a year, at one point.

"I have a wife and two children, and wanted to spend more time with them, to be more settled," says Caplan, "and since Sept. 11, I've wanted to travel even less."

The hardship of missing his family is mitigated for Caplan by his affection for and familiarity with Buffalo, hometown of his wife, Debbie Weiss, a psychologist.

"I've known for many years about the Department of Media Study because from its inception, it pioneered experimental and innovative work," he says. "I used to see the rooftops of UB when I visited Buffalo and always thought of it as one of the few places where you could make an independent film.

"All of my film professors at Bard, where I did my undergraduate work, and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I studied for my MFA, had visited UB or taught at UB or went to school here," he says. "I always thought I should write a letter to UB and ask to have my work screened here."

It was just such a letter to Roy Roussel, chair of UB's Department of Media Study, that led to UB landing Caplan as a faculty member.

"His response was very enthusiastic. When I met him and his wife, I thought, 'This is the kind of place where I would like to be.' There was a position open in the department and the CAS Dean Uday Sukhatme was very supportive -- it's unusual to have an administration be so supportive -- and I decided to do this." he says.

Caplan describes Buffalo as a city "full of people who are courteous, kind and take great pride in their work, whatever it is -- store clerks, tailors, car mechanics --everyone knows their job and does it well," he says. "That -- well, you won't find that so much in New York City anymore. Now I do a lot of things here that I used to do at home. I buy all my pants here, for instance -- but that's just an example."

UB's students, he notes, "work so hard and have so many responsibilities, including full-time jobs. I understand that, and I respect it. They're like Buffalonians -- they take pride in their accomplishments and skill and they're 'straight-talkers.'"

Caplan, widely spoken of as "a really nice guy," is well-liked by his students, department faculty and staff, and already is a boon to the department, according to his colleagues. His commitment to UB is no small thing. In addition to the two 400-level courses he teaches for undergraduate and graduate students (Cinematography, and Special Topics, which involves independent graduate study), Sukhatme has asked him to develop a Center for Film Arts.

In connection with the center, Caplan has been charged with forging collaborations between artists in various fields at UB (he currently is working with composer David Felder, who directs the composition program in the Music Department) and has been asked to organize a film festival, develop a unique library collection of American independent films and videos, and found a summer institute to attract students from all over the world to Buffalo to study media arts.

Caplan most often is described as a filmmaker who makes documentaries about the arts, but that is not quite how he defines himself.

"I'm not an artist in the way most people describe an artist, but I work in the arts," he says, "I'm not, strictly speaking, a documentary filmmaker, either. I document the making of art; I use film and video as part of my palette, but I'm a collaborative artist. I've used video installations as part of operatic production, for instance, and media applications as theatrical décor."

Caplan is known best for the work he produced as filmmaker-in-residence from 1983-96 at the Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation, where he collaborated with Cunningham and composer John Cage in the production of videos that aired nationally on PBS and in 35 countries overseas.

Among his many notable works are "Beach Birds for Camera;" "Cage/Cunningham," a feature-length documentary about the life-long collaboration of the two artists that was translated into six languages for international theater and home video distribution; "Points in Space," commissioned by BBC Television and later distributed to more than 400 libraries in the U.S. through a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, and "Changing Steps," filmed at the Sundance Institute and produced in association with the French production company La Sept/ARTE.

From 1996-2000, Caplan served as a segment producer for "Egg the Arts Show," the PBS national series on art in America for which he received the Emmy and a Cine Golden Eagle awards for segments on sculptor Richard Serra and the 2000 Whitney Biennial.

In 1998, he founded his own production company, "Picture Start Films." Its current projects include productions with Austria's Landestheatre in Linz; "Nicholas and Alexandra," a new documentary film with the Los Angeles Opera, and "Hidden Things," a visual poem illuminating the lives of Jewish children in the Holocaust. The company's other projects include "Steel Work," which mixes dance with industrial elements that simulate dance movement and form, and "UTango," in which Caplan applies the dance form to the screen as an abstract painterly image.

More information on Caplan, his biography, awards and work can be found at the Picture Start Films Web site at

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