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“Obsessed” filmmaker is youngest accepted in prestigious AFI graduate program

May 10, 2019

Jess Hess has always had a passion for movies, but it wasn’t until she studied film at University of the Pacific that she realized she could make film her life’s work.

“I’ve always been obsessed with movies ever since I was a little kid, but I never thought it could be a real job,” she said.

Hess is among the first graduates of Pacific’s 2-year-old digital media program, Media X. In August, she will enter the prestigious American Film Institute (AFI) Conservatory in Los Angeles as a producing fellow.

The school has helped launch the careers of many well-known filmmakers, including director Terrence Malick, producer Edward Zwick and producer and editor Julie Dash.

“AFI is one of the three top film schools on the planet,” said Media X professor Gary Armagnac. “As I understand it, Jess is going to be the youngest person ever admitted into their producing program.”

Many film students want to be directors or actors, but early in her time at Pacific, Hess concentrated on producing, a path Media X nurtures with its focus on problem-solving, collaboration and self-sufficiency.

“Specifically, what I like about producing is that I’m the one who fixes everything,” Hess said. “A lot of things go wrong on a film set, whether someone broke a light, someone’s not showing up or the location’s messed up. The producer is the problem-solver.”

Hess has had many chances to hone her skills. In last fall’s Media Mash, Pacific alumni Chris Schueler ’78 and Dean Butler ’79 led students in a concentrated weekend-long filmmaking project. Students developed a story, shot and edited it in just two days.

Last spring, Hess appeared in the transmedia play, “Ecce Homo,” in which she not only acted, but also operated the controls for the motion capture video, which was incorporated into the performance. When problems occurred — and they were inevitable — Hess had to solve them.

“It taught me to be very self-sufficient in terms of learning things on my own,” she said.

Hess credits her professors with giving students support and the freedom to learn on their own. In the Media X program, students learn performance capture and virtual reality, as well as more traditional filmmaking. They are encouraged to figure things out for themselves. Failure is accepted as part of the creative process.

When Hess received the email from AFI inviting her to join its producing program, Armagnac was one of the first people she called.

“I think being at Pacific really has changed my life because of the faculty and their willingness to help,” she said. “When I see people watching my films, it’s the best feeling in the world.”

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