PSS Winter '13


Life Through the Proper Lens

by Jeanne Nagle

Judith Ayers Vogelsang ’65

FIRST JOB: Reporter for a daily newspaper in New York City

CURRENT JOB: Independent Filmmaker

As a novice filmmaker and graduate student at the University of Iowa, Judith Ayers Vogelsang ’65 came up against an interesting opponent to cinematic clarity in a surfeit of lenses.

“I was using an ancient Bolex 16mm camera that had three different turret lenses,” Vogelsang recalls. “Each time you wanted to change a lens you had to rotate the turret. I was never sure which lens was the one taking the pictures!”

Vogelsang did not let her initial foray, or that old camera, get the better of her, as her 35-year-and-counting career in film will attest. She has worked as a director and assistant director for several major studios and television networks, and now produces feature films and documentaries through her own Los Angelesbased production company, Stone Harbor Films.

Her film credits include the USA Network feature film “Heartless,” the short documentary “SUV Taggers,” and “Going Green: Every House an Eco House” for PBS, which earned her a 2007 DGA nomination for outstanding direction in a children’s program. Additionally, her television work is highlighted by four seasons directing the CBS series “Simon and Simon,” as well as assisting directing the Peabody Award-winning PBS miniseries “Tales of the City” in the late ’90s.

Growing up in Brooklyn and Staten Island, Vogelsang chose to attend William Smith as much for the school’s atmosphere as the Colleges’ excellent academic reputation. “I had attended big-city high schools with many thousands of students and wanted a small, more intimate college experience,” she says.

Graduating cum laude with a degree in English, she worked for a summer as a reporter for a daily newspaper in New York City before traveling to Baltimore for graduate school. Her time at Johns Hopkins in the University’s Writing Seminar program is significant she explains, for two reasons: First, it is there that she met her husband, Arthur Vogelsang, a poet. Second, it was while working toward her master’s degree in fiction writing that she came to the conclusion that she wanted to pursue a career in film.

“The films of the '60s were so thoughtful, immediate and organically a part of my attitudes and intellectual and aesthetic values at the time that going from writing to film was a natural gravitation for me,” she says.

When her husband got a teaching job in the Midwest, the couple moved to Wichita, Kan. There, Vogelsang found work as a public relations associate for a nonprofit until she could resume filmmaking. The market for directorial work in Wichita was small—four television stations—but she set her sights on the local PBS affiliate and wouldn’t take no for an answer. After six months of letter writing and phone calls, she was offered a job making short films and directing TV shows.

The experience taught Vogelsang many aspects of the business. “I produced the idea, shot it, edited it and rolled it into my live, nightly show, which I also directed. We all did everything at that station, hands-on,” she explains.

“Being hired in Philadelphia and, eventually, in Los Angeles was culture-shock. Everything there is hands-off. Unions and guilds strictly control who does what and who touches what,” she says. “All of those rules had to be learned and applied everyday. It was a fascinating experience to go from one extreme to the other and I thoroughly enjoyed both ways of filmmaking. Both work environments gave me a great range of ways to do things and lots of technical expertise I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.”

Vogelsang bemoans the state of movies today, which she feels aren’t as relevant—at least to her own personal experience—as the films of the 1960s that inspired her enough to join the business.

“Working there [at that time] was fun,” says Vogelsang, “a thrill at first, like being part of a well-oiled machine where everyone knew their place and role. Efficiency and excellence went hand-in-hand. But the system was creaky and doomed to undergo reform. Accountants became king, not producers or directors or writers. The importance of making money trumped all other concerns, including aesthetics.”

Even independent filmmakers often seem to have become more about the bottom line, she observes. It’s the reason why she started her own production company. “We don’t need anyone’s ‘green light’ to do our own projects.” Her latest documentary, “HUMBLE BEAUTY: Skid Row Artists,” is one such project. About how talented homeless people saved their own lives through art, Vogelsang’s film will soon be airing on public television stations across the country thanks in part to several former William Smith classmates.

As part of an online fundraising campaign to help pay the bills of national distribution, a mini-network of alums from classes in the 1960s and 1970s (spearheaded by Vogelsang’s good friend and former William Smith roommate, Susan Sharin ’67) contributed generously and became, in part, underwriters for the program which will air for the next three years on local PBS stations.

“It was an overwhelming and moving experience to see that those old school ties are still there, more than 40 years later.”


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