Producing a Better Ending – Castaic media arts school plays matchmaker between local U.S. veterans and the movie business
As Jimmy Lifton walked from one sound stage to the next, through the costume and set design departments and eventually settling into the special effects edit bay, students and instructors alike perked up around him, awaiting pauses in his narrative to give too-familiar greetings, ask rapid-fire questions and fill him on the institute’s minute-to-minute needs. Taking it all in stride, Jimmy easily shared his story’s beginning, passing stunt students suspended from climbing equipment and sampling the sarcasm of his students as they tinkered in the details of a post-apocalyptic set. He faded into the background as a roomful of intensely focused students edited a feature film frame by frame, and he made sure to ask about the lunch menu as he passed through the kitchen. On a typical Tuesday morning, the LIMS campus felt as much like a self-contained studio backlot as it did a random confluence of passion-driven projects – and none of it felt like Santa Clarita.
Tucked in Castaic on Fantastic Lane, the sprawling four-acre media arts institute houses six sound stages, post-production facilities, screening rooms and offices. Once accepted, students choose one of 10 departments – camera operation, grip and electric, art and construction, visual effects, production management, picture editorial, audio editorial, wardrobe, makeup and hair, and stunts – that best suits their existing skills and passions. Guided by expert instructors, students work on production of a real 90-minute feature film for 8-10 hours daily Monday through Friday for 10 weeks – a fairly typical production timeframe – gaining first-hand experience and developing immediately marketable skills.
“We put up the money for people to work on a real feature film and give them enough time on the film to mess things up and fix the mistakes,” said Jimmy Lifton, LIMS founder and president, as well as an accomplished Hollywood filmmaker and two-time Emmy-winning producer. “With that kind of completely hands-on training, they can walk into a paid position.”
But Jimmy saw an opportunity beyond the chance to influence the education of his industry. During production of his 19 films, he noticed a common thread: U.S. veterans quickly and easily fit into Hollywood.
“The way a military person operates in the service, methodology-wise, is very similar to what happens on a production set,” Jimmy said. “You don’t have people shooting bullets at you on a set, of course, but each department has to get their people together and give them a specific objective to be met in a specific amount of time. Then they go to work, with all departments working together in a cohesive manner. They don’t stop ‘til the job gets done.”
In 2015, the media arts boot camp launched with a program called “VET 50,” a class of 50 veterans who graduated the 10-week course, for free. Designed to create stability for veterans, including and especially homeless veterans, students receive the opportunity for immersive hands-on training taught by working industry professionals, job placement and a path toward financial independence, while fulfilling the industry’s ongoing need for a dependable production workforce.
“Certainly, if something breaks, [veterans] don’t sit there and worry about it; they fix it or work around it. And that’s a perfect movie crew member – that’s what they do,” Jimmy said. “The men and women coming out of the military already have the mindset, work ethic, desire and ability to work as a team, which is also imperative in production. Military veterans have so much of the built-in gumption that makes an excellent crew member.”
Today the program enrolls up to 200 veterans, who pay nothing out of pocket. With approvals from local, state and federal job placement authorities, LIMS students’ tuition is funded through the Department of Labor.
“We’re now working with U.S. Vets, AMVETS, the Salvation Army, Volunteers of America, Goodwill Industries and all the various state and local WorkSource centers,” Jimmy said. “We’ve also just been approved by the VA (Veterans Administration) to work with the vocational rehab department and with some of the transitional housing. So now we’re developing more ways to work directly with the military, to give veterans a clear path to a good career just as they’re being discharged.”
VET candidates can come from anywhere, but the vets do have to live in the Santa Clarita Valley or Los Angeles County area while participating in the program.
“For those who need transportation, we have a couple of vans that run around the city and pick up people at destination points,” he said. “And then we provide meals for all the students every day for free.”
A rare combination of outside-the-box ideas with a simple purpose, LIMS seems to have discovered a win-win partnership and forged a pipeline for America’s armed forces.
“If there’s one thing we do here, it’s break the mold,” Jimmy said with a smile.
To date, LIMS has placed more than 80 percent of its graduates in well-paying industry jobs, in their chosen fields, since it first opened its doors, and this session’s VET program is looking at a future as bright as those of its graduates.
“Our goal is to increase our trainees population to 300 and put up student housing,” Jimmy said of plans for the school’s growth. “There’s some land adjacent to the LIMS studio that we’re investigating to take that over and then build dormitories. It’s just a normal move forward. We’re expanding and getting lots of people reaching out to us from around the United States, not just California, and we really want to be able to help a good number of people.”
Veterans interested in the LIMS VET program can contact Ed Bernstein at 818-437-4619 or [email protected] For more information, please visit http://www.limsla.com. The LIMS Studios are located at 27567 Fantastic Lane in Castaic, CA 91384.