Category Archives: Film

Tukufu Zuberi: Penn professor, TV show host, documentary filmmaker and curator

tz_headshotIt’s been a whirlwind year of arts-related activities for Tukufu Zuberi, a professor of sociology and Africana studies at Penn and the University’s Lasry Family Professor of Race and Relations.

First an exhibit he curated for the Independence Seaport Museum opened May 4. Then on June 2, Black Bodies in Propaganda: The Art of the War Poster — an exhibit of wartime propaganda posters that Zuberi both collected and curated — opened at the Penn Museum.

On top of all that — and while hosting the tenth season of PBS’s History Detectives TV show — Zuberi somehow also found time to write, direct and produce the feature-length documentary film African Independence. It won Best Director and Best Documentary at the San Diego Black Film Festival in January.

While we can’t claim to know how Zuberi finds time to sleep, we can give you this overview of his recent arts-and-culture projects:

Tides of Freedom: African Presence on the Delaware River
On view at the Independence Seaport Museum on Penn’s Landing through 2015.

Screen shot 2013-06-12 at 11.13.45 AM

Spanning 300 years of African-American history along the Delaware, Tides of Freedom explores the concept of freedom through the museum’s collection and four major moments in Philadelphia’s history: enslavement, emancipation, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era. Zuberi himself recorded introductions to each section of the exhibit, which is the first in the Seaport Museum’s new “Freedom” series.

The museum’s recovered “waste book” — a 250-year-old ledger that documents commercial transactions on the wharf — is one of the artifacts on display. Zuberi discovered more than 60 entries of bought and sold African slaves in the book, which is said to be the only document of its kind in Philadelphia.

You can see scans from the “waste book” online here.

Black Bodies in Propaganda: The Art of the War Poster
On view at the Penn Museum through March 2, 2014.


From the collection of Tukufu Zuberi

Zuberi combed through his personal collection of propaganda posters to curate Black Bodies in Propaganda at the Penn Museum. The exhibit presents 33 wartime posters, the majority of which target African and African-American civilians. According to the Penn Museum, “these carefully designed works of art were aimed at mobilizing people of color in war efforts, even as they faced oppression and injustice in their homelands. The exhibition explores changing messages on race and politics through propaganda—from the American Civil War, to World War I, World War II, and through to the African independence movements.”

As Zuberi explained: “These posters tell a story about the dynamics of race. Black bodies are racialized in these posters as they capture defining moments in history. Race is always about second-class citizenship, it is always about a relationship between two groups and how one group is defined as superior and the other group is defined as inferior. These posters represent definitive moments in this historical process.”

Zuberi has done several radio interviews about the exhibit that you can listen to online, including:


Power99 FM


African Independence
Screening at select events and locations, including Penn’s State of the Field of Africana Studies Conference on Oct. 17, 2013.

Here’s the official synopsis for the 2013 feature-length documentary that Zuberi wrote, directed and produced:

The film highlights the birth, realization, and problems confronted by the movement to win independence in Africa. The story is told by channeling the voices of freedom fighters and leaders who achieved independence, liberty and justice for African people.  This film offers a unique presentation designed to enlighten and provide audiences with insights from Africans into the continent’s past, present, and future. Through the lens of four watershed events—World War Two, the end of colonialism, the Cold War, and the era of African Republics—AFRICAN INDEPENDENCE shows a unique side of Africa’s recent history.  

This is the trailer:

And here’s an interview Zuberi did about his academic career and making the film:

History Detectives
historydetectivesZuberi has been a host for all 10 season of PBS’s History Detectives, the most recent of which aired last June through October. (We’re told that Season 11 is being filmed right now.) He’s one of five “detectives” on the show who each travel the country delving into historical mysteries, local folklore and family legends.

In this video, Zuberi explains why he enjoys working as a history detective.

You can also watch full episodes from the show’s tenth season here.

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7 DMD alumni helped to create Oscar-nominated ‘Brave’

Image: Disney/Pixar

Image: Disney/Pixar

Come Sunday evening, we may or may not see Brave win an academy award for Best Animated Feature Film.

What we will almost certainly see, during whichever clip rolls on-screen at the ceremony, is the work of more than half a dozen alumni, all graduates of Penn’s Digital Media Design (DMD) program. Through their work at Pixar, Paul Kanyuk EAS’05, Ariela Nurko EAS’09, Nathan Zeichner EAS’11 GEng’12, Emily Weihrich EAS’10, Samantha Raja EAS’10 GEng’10 and Nadim Sinno GEng’10 all helped bring Brave to fruition.


Paul Kanyuk EAS’05 / Image: Pixar

We spoke with Kanyuk earlier this week about his role as the “crowds technical lead” for Brave — and first found out exactly what that title means.

“Normally, a professional animator can take weeks to animate a single character,” he says. “When you have hundreds on screen, you can’t just do things the same old way. I was in charge of overseeing the technical aspects of how to animate and render those crowd shots.”

Once you start looking for them, you’ll find crowds everywhere in Brave. In fact, nearly one in five shots in the 2012 film featured a crowd, according to Kanyuk. This short trailer includes one of his major crowd-animation scenes:

As does this one:

So in Pixar-world, what constitutes a crowd? “My joke is, ‘Three is a crowd,’” Kanyuk says with a chuckle. “All our software and techniques tend to be built toward small personal moments and as a result, a crowd can be as small as three — but usually they’ll kick it my way when it’s 10 or more. It’s the 10 to 50 range that’s most challenging. You can’t get away with the same tricks you can for bigger groups, like reusing the same characters in multiple places.”

While they may not garner the same attention as a main character, crowds boost an animated film’s realism, Kanyuk says. “With computer animation, you have to build everything. You have to create an environment, but unless it’s inhabited, you’ll notice it’s fake instantly. Part of the role of crowds is not to be noticed and to make things look alive. At the same time, the stakes are very high.”


Paul Kanyuk EAS’05

Kanyuk’s work at Pixar dates back to 2004, when he interned there and created “chipped paint, rust and dust” for Cars. He returned for a full-time job directly after graduation and has been working there ever since. Over the years, he’s developed crowd scenes for several Best Animated Feature Oscar-winners, including Ratatouille (2007), WALL*E (2008) and Up (2009).

Ratatouille was one of the first times I got to work on group pack movement,” he says. “It was very fun. We made little brains for the rats and then had a program that told them what to do based on information in their environment.” The film also resulted in one of Kanyuk’s favorite crowd shots: a colony of rats falling through an elderly woman’s ceiling. (We couldn’t find a video online, but trust us — it’s a memorable moment.)

After spending two-and-a-half years creating Brave’s crowds — his small team of six included fellow alumni Zeichner and Weihrich — Kanyuk began work on Monsters University, due out this summer. (Crowd scenes in the trailer below start around 0:37.)

So will he be watching this weekend to see if Brave wins the Oscar? “Absolutely.” And so will crowds across the country.

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Harry Potter and the Sophomore Sorting Banquet

Ah, to be a student again. Clever editing, a giant snake andHarry Potter tribute? I’m not entirely sure what’s happening in this video, but I like it.

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Our 5 most popular posts of 2012

You may remember our “best of” (i.e. most-viewed) blog post countdown from last year. We’re back with another for 2012, only this time with a twist: We decided that only posts written this year would be included.

Before we get into our countdown, ever wonder where people are reading this blog?
Picture 1

It seems the answer is “all over the place.” This past year, we had visitors from Zimbabwe, Argentina, Australia, Thailand and 90 other countries. (Long-distance readers: please say hello sometime in the comments!)

Now, without further ado, here are our five most popular posts from 2012:

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Howard Gensler C’83 inspired ‘Hysteria’

Most Philadelphians know Howard Gensler C’83 as the Daily News’s longtime entertainment editor and gossip columnist, but it turns out he’s been writing his own movie scripts and stories for years. In a recent Daily News column, Gensler recapped his decade-long journey from conceiving Hysteria to watching it screen at the Toronto International Film Festival. (It’s now playing in theaters across the country.)

Hysteria is based on a story Gensler wrote about the invention of the first vibrator. In his Daily News story, the alumnus said his tale grew out of “a magazine article that had a couple of lines about the vibrator being invented in Victorian England for the treatment of the bogus, catch-all female diagnosis ‘hysteria.’ I thought the notion that what we now consider a sex toy came from the Victorians seemed kind of odd, and when I did a little research, the story got odder.”

Here is the official trailer:

And here, in his Daily News story, Gensler recounts watching the film screen in a 2,500-seat Toronto theater last fall:

We were ushered upstairs to a private balcony to watch the film with its first paying audience. It was truly a crazy mental intersection of excitement and nervous breakdown.

But then there was a laugh. And another. Then a big laugh. And a bigger laugh. And by the time “Hysteria” ended, the audience was cheering.

Even the credits were getting laughs.

Our elated director and stars bowed. Women shouted for Dancy’s autograph. And we all went off to a hot, noisy, crowded after-party where no one could hear anything and most of the people outside the VIP rope hadn’t even seen the film.

But for the first time, after seeing dozens of premieres at festivals, I understood why filmmakers have that euphoric, glazed look when they debut their movies. The odds of making it from conception to reception are so slim it’s like running a marathon in a potato sack.

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Oscar predictions in the Penn Current

The Penn Current recently ran an article on Meta Mazaj’s Oscar picks, which I can’t resist sharing. Mazaj, who lectures in the Cinema Studies Program and is currently teaching an introduction to film studies course, a class on film festivals and a graduate course on world cinema, singled out these winners:

Best Picture: The Artist or Hugo

Best Director: Martin Scorsese for Hugo

Best Actor: George Clooney in The Descendants or Jean Dujardin in The Artist

Best Actress: Viola Davis in The Help or Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn

Best Supporting Actor: Jonah Hill in Moneyball

Best Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain in The Help

Will you watch the Oscars this weekend? Who are you rooting for?

I haven’t heard about any Penn alumni who will be up for awards this year, but you may remember last year, when I wrote about Todd Lieberman C’95 and Tom Heller C’95, both of whom had produced 2011 Oscar-nominated films. (You can also reader a longer interview with Heller here.)

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Kien Lam W’06 on his trip around the world—and the viral video it sparked

On the last day of 2011, Kien Lam W’06 logged on to his YouTube and Vimeo accounts and posted a video he’d made. He’d been trying his hand at time-lapse videos since October, but there was something special about this new one. It swiftly became an Internet sensation and in less than a week, it had almost a million views on YouTube alone.

Titled “Time Is Nothing” or “Speeding Around the World in Under 5 Minutes,” depending on which video-sharing site you visit, Lam’s video has now been viewed more than two million times on YouTube. The New Yorker listed it as a “To watch” video. The Atlantic shared it with readers, too, and Lam even appeared on CNN to discuss his work.

In addition to its stunning photography, viewers loved the video’s inspiring back story: In August 2010, Lam left his job as a financial-firm strategist and spent 343 days traveling around the world. He visited 17 countries and took more than 6,000 photos. When he got home, he established himself as a professional photographer and, by the end of 2011, had fused his travel photos into a time-lapse video. (He even squeezed in a nod to Penn. Don’t miss the Locust Walk scene at 3:05.)

Now based in San Francisco, Lam put down his camera to answer a few questions about his incredible round-the-world trip.

Can you run me through the events that transformed you from a 9-to-5 employee into the world traveler who created this video?
I used to be very envious of the people I’d meet on my travels who told me they were traveling around the world for six months or a year at time. Where we met was simply just one of many places they would see on their journey. I would return from my two-week trip wishing that I could quit my job, pack a bag and explore the world more than one country at a time.

In 2010, I felt like it was a good as time as any to take a break from my career and travel before it became too hard to leave. I wrote down all the places I had always dreamed of traveling to, packed a bag and bought a one-way ticket to London, where I’d get to visit some friends and start my journey. I had a general idea of the direction I’d be headed, but I left it pretty open-ended. I didn’t always end up where I thought I’d be going and often times found my “itinerary” was created from city to city.

Along the way, I wanted to capture my journey in a way that could both preserve the spirit of the trip and what I experienced. I didn’t want to only capture beautiful landscapes devoid of people. How do you show the busy maze-like city of Fez without showing the people? How do you capture locals and visitors hurrying about in Taksim Square? Wherever I was, if there was some form of movement in the scenery and I happened to have my camera, I would set it down and take about 40 to 60 photographs timed a few seconds apart. As the pages of my passport filled up with stamps, so did my portable hard-drive with thousands of images that would eventually be put together to form this video a few months after I finished my travels.

Did you have regrets about leaving your job at any point on your trip?
It was a little unusual at first to think that I’d no longer be receiving a bi-weekly paycheck or that I had to wake up a certain time to get into the office, but that disappeared pretty early on. On a few occasions, I would miss the sense of accomplishment you get after delivering on a big project and grabbing celebratory drinks afterwards.

Tell me about some of the most memorable moments from your travels.
I am a big fan of scuba diving and I could go on and on about how amazing it feels to be underwater and watch as a school of barracudas dart about perfectly synchronized or swim ever closer to massive sharks or a baby turtles. Above land, I think about celebrating Christmas in 80-degree weather on a tropical island in Thailand, riding a motorbike through heavy Bali rush-hour traffic and returning the rental in one piece, and sleeping under the stars in the Sahara with nothing but miles and miles of sand in every direction.

Which places are at the top of your list to re-visit?
I would love to go back to relax on the beaches of Lagos, Portugal, dive around the islands in Thailand and Indonesia, and explore the landscapes of Bolivia and Peru.

What are you up to now?
Somewhere along the way, I made the decision to pursue photography as a full time professional and it is something I am dedicating my time to for the foreseeable future. Beyond just taking images, I like to tell stories and capture moments whether it’s with a camera, on film or with a brush on canvas. At the moment, I am splitting my time between portrait and wedding photography.

What about travel? Where are you hoping to go next?
I’d love to explore Eastern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa, take the Trans-Siberian train between Russia, Mongolia and China, and somehow get to Antarctica to get to that seventh continent.

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