Oscar-winning alumnus attributes success to SF State cinema department

Ethan Van der Ryn SFSU

SF State alumnus Ethan Van der Ryn poses with his two Oscars from previous years in the backyard of his Malibu home. He was recently nominated once again for his work as supervising sound editor in the Transformers films. Photo by Louie Heredia / Special to Xpress.

This golden knight holds the sword of a crusader, stands at 13.5 inches tall and weighs 8.5 pounds. His name is Oscar.

For SF State alumus Ethan Van der Ryn, the recipient of two Academy Awards, that’s a total of 17 pounds of pure win.

Van der Ryn graduated from SF State in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in cinema. He knew he wanted to go to film school, but it wasn’t until after a road trip through California surveying various campuses that he chose SF State.

But the road to Hollywood isn’t an easy one. Like many others, Van der Ryn had to start at the bottom. It was during his last year in college when a teacher with an insider’s connection got him a job as a dolly grip for the 1986 film “Nutcracker.”

“I did what you kind of have to do to get your foot in the door,” Van der Ryn said. “Which is basically work for free.”

After graduation Van der Ryn began specializing in sound. His first long-term job was at Lucasfilm in San Rafael, where he worked for 14 years. During this time he did sound editing and effects on films such as “The Godfather: Part III,” “Titanic” and “Saving Private Ryan.”

His next career step is what he described as “stepping off a cliff.” All his belongings were put into storage and he took off on a plane to the other side of the world for a film he wasn’t sure would succeed. It was there that he began his work on “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. His experience in New Zealand was life changing, both on location and when he came back to the United States.

It was that experience that landed Van der Ryn his first Academy Award nomination for Best Sound Editing for the film “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” Once back in Hollywood, all it took was a walk down the red carpet, the tear of a small envelope and he had won.

“The thing about the Oscars is there’s such a little bubble, and it feels odd to be in this bubble while there’s such crazy stuff happening in the world,” said Van der Ryn.

In 2006, he won again for his sound work in “King Kong,” and was then nominated twice more for work in the “Transformers” trilogy, once in 2008, and again in the most recent 2012 Academy Awards.

Van der Ryn is currently living in Malibu with his wife and two kids, and is working on two projects; “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” and a film Ben Affleck is both directing and starring in, titled “Argo.”

Despite his successful career, Van der Ryn hasn’t forgotten his days at SF State. He attributes the cinema department as part of the reason he is who he is today.

“I think those years play such a big role in terms of making us the people we end up being,” said Van der Ryn. “My time at SF State was really rich and productive in shaping my aesthetic.”

Catering to the student’s desire to learn is something that SF State’s cinema department strives for. Daniel Bernardi took over as chair of the department in August. He said the department’s program is different from most universities and trade schools.

“They train people how to be really good at making Hollywood films and how to fit in that industry,” Bernardi said. “Our model emphasizes the individual, creative and intellectual spirit of the student. ”

The cinema department may not focus on producing students who will make it big in Hollywood, but SF State alumni have done so anyway. Graduates of the department have won a total of 10 Oscars and been nominated another 16 times.

“Stuff like this makes you realize really how good this place has been for so long and I feel proud that I joined it,” Bernardi said.

The success of Van der Ryn and other SF State alumni is an inspiration to cinema students such as 22-year-old senior Gavin Murray, who studies mostly production and cinematography. He finds the success of cinema department alumni encouraging.

“It’s fantastic ’cause I know a lot of them and I’m going to hit them up for jobs,” Murray said. “It gives people hope in this not-so-stellar economy.”

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