What does a 21st-century film school look like? That was the central question Dattner Architects considered as they transformed the top two floors at 25 Washington Avenue into a visually arresting, state-of-the-art facility for the next generation of movie-makers.
The first public film school in the city, and the country’s only cinema school located on a working film lot, Brooklyn College’s Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema occupies 70,000 square feet on the fifth and sixth floors of a Steiner Studios building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The former naval building was originally used as a testing ground for military hardware.
If you’ve ever driven along the BQE at night, you’ve seen the two enormous metal structures rising from the roof, illuminated like a pair of baby Eiffel Towers. They were used for low-frequency radio transmissions from the Navy Yard to ships and submarines all over the world.
Steiner Studios moved production offices into 25 Washington in 2013 following a $90.1 million renovation, also by Dattner Architects. The country’s largest film lot outside of Hollywood, Steiner occupies 26 acres of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and is a major player in the borough’s thriving film industry.
Film and television is one of Brooklyn’s fastest-growing creative industries, according to a July report by Center for an Urban Future. As students make Brooklyn-based work connections and get comfortable shooting in the city, they’re more likely to remain after graduation, further increasing the borough’s pool of competent filmmakers.
The Feirstein School was more than seven years in the making and only just opened its doors at the end of August to an inaugural class of 75 students.
The school was funded through a combination of public and private contributions with $8 million from the city for construction, scholarships, and programming. Additional funding came from alumni of Brooklyn College including the school’s namesake Barry Feirstein, as well as Steiner Studios, the Brooklyn Borough President, and the City University of New York.
Brownstoner recently visited the renovated space on a tour organized by Open House New York.
The largest and most architecturally impressive room is the stair-stepped double-height Forum — an amphitheater adjacent to the lobby. “It’s the heart of the school,” Dattner’s Mia Lee told Brownstoner. “We fought to make it a generous space for gatherings and ceremonies.”
Dattner Principal Daniel Heuberger noted that moving through the spaces of the school also mimics the movement through the filmmaking process. There are rooms for meeting and mulling over ideas, rooms for building sets and shooting scenes, recording studios for adding music and sound effects, editing suites for cutting it all together, and even a gorgeous wood-paneled screening room.
“This space has everything necessary to making a movie,” Heuberger said. “Of course, there’s no more film in film. The school has an incredible digital infrastructure.”
At the top of the Forum is a large open lounge with work tables and seating areas.
Digital film files are so enormous that the architects had to devote considerable space to running dedicated wires and hiding banks of computers for storing, accessing and rendering work.
The acoustics of the school of the school are another impressive-but-hidden marvel, with raised floors and acoustic barriers enveloping particularly sound-sensitive spaces.
The sound studios on the fifth floor received particular attention so that recording studios wouldn’t be contaminated with sounds from the construction shop. There’s even a Foley stage with trapdoors covering shallow pits of gravel and other materials for creating the sounds to enhance film.
Two roomy production classrooms serve a dual purpose, providing education space and recording space. They’re outfitted with velvet backdrop curtains, a full lighting grid, wooden planks for securing sets and, in one, a curved cyclorama used as a special backdrop for green screen shoots.
The HVAC system was also specially designed to be as silent as possible, with massive slotted registers that provide a constant flow of air rather than the typical single-source kind that might burst to life in the middle of a shoot.
A motion-capture studio has spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline and features two sets of independent truss systems: one for suspending actors in mid-air and another for holding the motion sensors that record their movement.
A full-scale soundstage provides a space for larger, more complex shoots.
The soundstage is connected to an enormous scenic construction shop which will probably never look as clean as it does in the picture below.
The overall color scheme of the school was designed to echo the essence of film — light and shadow, the silver screen.
Walls are either black or white, some with pixelated murals of enlarged film stills from old movies, others with a steel chair rail to protect from the wear of gear-filled carts.
“We wanted the color to be from the people,” explained Dattner’s Mia Lee. “From the people and also some carefully chosen furniture.”
A cafe on the upper floor illustrates the black-and-white color scheme.
The lighting fixtures became a thematic element of the school’s design. Dattner wanted something with an industrial, exposed-bulb kind of look that would also be versatile enough to be used in different ways throughout the space. They brought on One Lux Studio as a lighting consultant and settled on a straight tube of light used as a vertical pendent, horizontal pendent, and wall-mounted fixture.
The power requirements for the school are enormous. Dattner’s Maya Maxwell told Brownstoner that just programmatically fitting everything into the space was the project’s biggest challenge. With the acoustic and HVAC requirements — the larger air ducts, wiring, cable trays, etc. — the team was left with less space to work with than they’d anticipated.
“Some of the design was based on theory. Some of it was empirical in the field,” said Heuberger. “One day, Mia came into this room [the screening room] and put a bucket here where the front row was going to be. And she sat on it and looked at a mockup of the screen on the wall and said ‘nope’ and we had to move everything back.”
One guest on the tour — who identified himself as a filmmaker — told the group, “I’ve been to film studios all over the world and this is great. This is an engine for the film industry.”
[Photos: Barbara Eldredge | Floorplans: Dattner Architects]
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