On Feb. 28, Salamanca native Dustan Whitcomb will celebrate Oscar Sunday at SUNY Buffalo State as one of the executive producers of the ninth annual TFA Night at the Oscars.
The college and community come together at the event to watch the Oscars live on a theater-sized screen, as well as present the Pioneer Awards for film students who go above and beyond expectations, according to the event’s webpage.
“I thought it would be a great opportunity to jump in headfirst,” said Whitcomb, a Television and Film Arts major at the college. “I like the idea of saying I accomplished something. Even though the whole class is producing it, the executive producers do take on a lot of the work load.”
Whitcomb is part of the TV and film criticism class that is given the task of putting the event on each February. Work began as soon as classes resumed in January, he said, but not before his professor, Jeffrey Hirschberg, gave the class some supportive words.
“He said, ‘If you can produce this, you can produce for film, TV, radio or anything,’” said Whitcomb, who is no stranger to several different media productions himself.
A 2013 Salamanca graduate, Whitcomb’s interests in media began in eighth grade while watching the high school’s media class produce the live morning announcements.
“I just wanted to be a part of that crew,” Whitcomb recalled. “It looked like so much fun, but I just didn’t know how it worked. It was a whole new world that had never been opened to me before.”
After some discussions with media teacher Michelle Hill and his academic advisor, Whitcomb said he was able to join the media crew in eighth grade, staying with it every year of high school through graduation.
At Jamestown Community College (JCC), Whitcomb continued his love of media production, but not without learning the basics first.
“The first year of JCC is always getting your general requirements out of the way,” Whitcomb explained. “But pretty quickly after that I was able to get into some basic writing classes. I was a Communications major, which is different from being a Media Arts major.”
According to Whitcomb, a Media Arts major focuses more on computer work, such as graphic design, whereas Communications majors focus on how a story is developed and what everything behind it means.
While attending JCC, Whitcomb also got a taste of other arts while working at The Weeks Gallery on campus.
“I never fully realized my interest in the fine arts until that job,” Whitcomb said. One of Whitcomb’s responsibilities included helping prepare the gallery for new featured artists and their collections.
“The best part was talking to all of the artists who came through,” he recalled. “It was so interesting. Whether they were talking to the workers before the event opens about why they chose art, what subjects they chose or why they started a project, it made me and my friends hover in that area and love hanging out there.”
Along with his work at The Weeks Gallery, Whitcomb said he also spent time at the Reg Lenna Center for the Arts and its WRFA-FM radio station.
“Jamestown is one of the smallest, but most interesting art communities out there,” he said.
For his final project in writing for electronic media at JCC, Whitcomb put his knowledge from his communications classes and his newfound love for the fine arts to the test, but recalled feeling unsure during his meeting with Deb Lanni, director of the media arts program at the time.
“I came to her with this idea,” he explained. “All of my friends either play an instrument or dance or are in theater or do something with the arts. I really wanted to take their love for what they do and see if I can portray that to an audience and make them feel that love.”
Through Lanni’s support and interest in the project, Whitcomb said he was able to go ahead with the idea, even if it didn’t exactly meet the projects guidelines. In the end, after just over two months of work, Whitcomb presented his 5-minute video to his class.
“I was so surprised at how well it all came together,” he recalled.
Now a junior at Buff State, Whitcomb said if he had the chance to do it all over again, he would follow the same media-arts path.
“It’s a whirlwind kind of culture,” Whitcomb said. “But I needed to go through the rungs of the ladder, from Salamanca giving me that foundation to Jamestown giving me that next step I needed. The students (at Buff State) who get accepted to the program are just as surprised as anyone. We all come from the same place in terms of early foundational steps like Salamanca and Jamestown.”
As one of the four executive producers of the TFA Night at the Oscars, Whitcomb said he will be supervising the inside of the auditorium, notably organizing the flow of the evening.
“We watch these Oscars on this huge screen in the auditorium,” Whitcomb explained. “Then during the commercial breaks, there’s live music that plays, different announcements are made—like thanking everyone for attending—and then the Pioneer Awards are presented during the commercial breaks, too. It’s just one big celebration of film.”
Whitcomb said seeing how everything behind the scenes comes together has been a valuable experience, noting that it’s not much different from a film production. However, he said the biggest difference is the live element, making it much closer to a play than a movie.
“You have a whole auditorium full of people that are there to watch a show and have fun,” he said. “So you have that pressure of scheduling everything just right. This is more like a live show in that most of the work is the planning. If I was still in the drama club (in Salamanca), it would be planning for weeks, get there the day of at 2 and work so hard until show time.”
From there, Whitcomb said he’d like to keep working in the area, even after graduation. Although spending time in Hollywood is suggested, he said he wants to bring the Hollywood culture to Western New York instead.
“It’s not hard to find people who love movies here,” Whitcomb said. “I like the idea of trying to keep all the stuff I work on in this area. I want to make things that are unique to Western New York—not necessarily about Western New York, but unique to it.”
In his quest to bring Hollywood home, Whitcomb said everything from the stories and locations to local talent would be great for many productions in the area, including the history and the social dynamics across the counties.
“It’s all treasured by a lot of people,” he said. “I think it deserves a seat at that (Hollywood) table.”
Regardless of where he goes or how he does it, Whitcomb said he likes the idea of keeping his productions as close to home as he can, primarily because of how much the area made him into the filmmaker he is today.
“I am so gracious to this area,” Whitcomb reflected. “Not only for my childhood, but for the foundation this area gave me. I’d never think of this area as something I’m stepping away from. I’m truly grateful for this area, the Salamanca school system, JCC, everything like that. You can make your way and find your way in this business.”
(This story appears in the Feb. 20, 2016 edition of The Salamanca Press.)