Meet Russell Williams, Artist in residence
By Keisha Jackson
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 25, 2004;
Artist in residence. Russell Williams' job title at American University is somewhat misleading. Some may think that he's a painter or sculptor. Actually, he's neither.
For more than two decades, Williams ate, slept, and breathed the feature film business as a sound engineer in Hollywood, California. So, what Williams' title conveys is that he has a special insight into the creative side of the entertainment industry.
L.A. or Bust
When Williams landed in L.A. on July 21, 1979, he had no clue what to expect. All he knew was that he had to prove if he could make a living. "I figured that 90 days would be long enough for me to see if I could tackle the 469 square miles of Los Angeles," says Williams.
After that time, Williams needed to let his supervisor know whether or not he would be returning to his position as an on air radio engineer at WMAL-AM in Washington, D.C.
He had the technical skills to make a living as a sound engineer. Williams worked at WAMU-FM as an undergrad at American University, WRC-TV during the Watergate hearings, and later in WJLA's documentary unit. All Williams needed was a chance and 90 days.
And the Oscar goes to . . .
His plan worked. As a sound engineer he made his name known in the industry. "I introduced myself to producers, directors, and anyone who was in a crew position," he remembers. "Nowadays they call it networking. Back then we called it hustling."
Williams' hustle occasionally included appearing to be busier than he really was. He'd never pick up the phone on the first ring, and his answering machine would always leave the details of his whereabouts whenever he was "on location" with a movie.
He explains his strategy, "You never wanted the decision makers to think that they are taking a chance on you. It's all about creating the perfect image." Soon Williams was in demand as a sound engineer and there was no need to create an illusion.
With the work, came the awards. His biggest were the back to back Oscar wins for his sound works on "Glory" and "Dances with Wolves". He received Emmy nominations for the NBC drama, "The Temptations" and won the coveted award for Showtime's "Twelve Angry Men," and the CBS miniseries "Terrorist on Trial."
The Race Factor in Hollywood
Williams remembers the time when he knew all of his Black colleagues - there were so few. The Hollywood he entered in 1979 wasn't convinced that African Americans were capable of mastering the technical aspects of feature film making or carrying leading roles that would appeal to the masses.
Over the years the circle became larger, to the point where there were more African American sound mixers and videographers than Williams could recommend personally to Hollywood managers. "At every phase of my career, I saw more and more people of color doing their thing," Williams recalls. "Not so much within the executive positions, but an increase nonetheless."
Although Williams acknowledges that there is double standard, he cautions that Hollywood is a different animal. Race isn't always the Achille's heel in Hollywood, especially when you're in front of the camera. "Anything can be used against you; gender, height, weight . . . so you have to bring your "A" game," he says.
Being better than the best was and still is important for African Americans to make progress in this industry. "Whether or not a person of color was going to get their break usually depended on the director's and producer's last experience [with a person of color]."
There's No Place Like Home
Williams never made peace with L.A. He hated that you needed a car to go everywhere and that you could cut the smog with a knife. The traffic was horrendous and the arts scene wasn't seasoned with the flavor that D.C. possessed. It just wasn't home. "The only reason I went to L.A. in the first place is because no one would be able to question my credentials once I returned to the area," says Williams. "I just didn't plan on staying so long."
Williams has made his journey full circle, returning to his alma mater.
In August 2002, Williams began teaching two classes; Introduction to Basic Visual Media, a course that generally interests the freshman and sophomores, and Financing and Marketing Independent Feature Production, a graduate level course that is part of a larger seminar taught by three other professors.
He's loving his new position as artist in residence at American. "I like to see the look on the student's faces when they get it," Williams says. "Especially when those who have let their insecurities get the best of them come in with a good piece of work."
For the next five years, Williams wants to rediscover every inch of D.C.'s art scene. When asked if he would ever consider returning to L.A. to live, you quickly get the sense that it isn't part of the plan. "I may fly in to do lunch or take a meeting, but I've been there and done that."
Editor's note: This article by Keisha Jackson, was acquired by washingtonpost.com on May 7, 2003.
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