Graduate Alumni Research Award, Tyler Walton

On December 10, 2013 by Grad Forum

tyler_walton_film_thumbnailEach spring, Dartmouth graduate students have the opportunity to apply for Graduate Alumni Research Awards. The funds for these awards come from donations by graduate alumni and are intended to enhance graduate thesis research activity. Below, Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) student, Tyler Walton, describes how the Graduate Alumni Research Award facilitated his thesis work in the area of film and screenwriting.

Thanks to the generosity of the Graduate Alumni Research Award, I traveled to Pordenone, Italy, and Austin, Texas, to attend two film festivals in October 2013. As a student in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program with a concentration in film and screenwriting, these two festivals were the best way for me to conduct meaningful research and to round out my degree at Dartmouth.

Whereas most other film degrees require a focus in either media studies (MA) or screenwriting (MFA), the MALS program gives me the flexibility of combining my interdisciplinary interests in both critical theory and creative writing. Thus, I am able to take courses in film studies, comparative literature, theater, linguistics, and screenwriting with some of the best faculty in higher education. At this point in my studies I have completed coursework and am currently writing my thesis. It is an original teleplay – think Arrested Development meets Hitch meets National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with a cast of unemployed people in their 20s.

Let me explain briefly how these festivals informed my thesis project. At the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy, I attended over 50 screenings of silent films (in less than one week!). Many of the films were recent discoveries that had been locked away in some vault for nearly a century. Of all the films, I think the most informative for my thesis were the comedy films like Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith (1921) and Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925). The Freshman in particular taps into the deep insecurities of being new and feeling like you have to prove yourself – feelings shared by the main character of my creative thesis who struggles to bridge the gap between his intellectual pursuits in college and his more practical pursuits for life (work, romance, family).

Moreover, seeing these films with live musical accompaniment was a rare experience. Silent films were never truly “silent” because they required the efforts of many musicians to accompany the action on screen. There are few places left in the world outside Pordenone, Italy that regularly screen silent films in a manner consistent with the original experience. Thus, many musicians came to the festival for this purpose. Hearing their conversations about how to “read” a film and compose music (often improvised without having first seen the film) was very insightful. These conversations proved to be the most valuable part of attending the festival; they inspired me to think of composing stories in ways parallel to composing music. The Pordenone festival provided me with pure, raw inspiration.

The Austin Film Festival & Conference (AFF) in Austin, Texas gave me more practical information about the craft of screenwriting. Known as “the writer’s festival,” AFF hosts hundreds of industry experts who speak on panels and roundtables – much like an academic conference – imparting their wisdom to aspiring writers both young and old. One practical question I had when entering the festival was: Should I craft my thesis towards new media, and if so, how might that affect the form and aesthetic of my project? While YouTube video content aims to be short (3-5 minutes), content for Netflix still adheres to traditional expectations for television (generally hour-long episodes). At AFF I came to realize that what really matters is not the form, but rather the story. What is the best form to tell this particular type of story? Does it work best in 5-minute mini-episodes or in half-hour segments? These are questions I am still seeking to answer as I craft my thesis project.

Without the support of the Graduate Alumni Research Award, I would not have been able to travel to these film and screenwriting festivals – festivals that have greatly informed the shape of my thesis project.

by Tyler Walton


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