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Spotlight: Thomas Sylla, Chair of Digital Film at SAE Expression College

We sat down with Thomas Sylla, award-winning writer, filmmaker and Program Chair, Animation & Visual Effects and Digital Film at SAE Expression College Emeryville, to discuss his career, passions and why a good screenplay is essential for the success of any movie.

Please tell me a bit about your background. What brought you to SAE? Why Film?

I grew up watching and making movies. I loved them and always wanted to make a career of it. After going to film school at USC in Los Angeles, I settled in the Bay Area and worked for various production companies, including Lucasfilm, before shifting my focus into writing and producing my own projects. A friend worked at SAE Expression College, so I took a look. Teaching seemed like a great way to stay engaged in the film world, work with enthusiastic students and share my knowledge and passion. That’s the reason why I’ve been at SAE Institute for over 15 years now.

About teaching at SAE Expression College

What I love most about teaching at Expression College is the atmosphere buzzing with creative energy. Everyone here—both students and staff—are so excited about the work they are doing. There is nothing better than being surrounded by people who love what they do and radiate positive energy and enthusiasm. I used to love meeting with groups of students on campus as well but, of course, COVID-19 has paused this for now. Looking forward to when it’s safe for us to all be together again.

Where it all begins: the magic of a good screenplay, his favorite part of the curriculum

My favorite parts of the curriculum are story development and screenwriting. I really love the process of coming up with an idea for a story, fleshing it out and turning it into a screenplay. In my view, this is where the real magic happens – creating exciting situations, compelling characters, dramatic twists and turns, seeing the story play out in my mind…the screenplay is where it all begins. I often tell my students that you can make a bad film from a good screenplay, but it’s probably impossible to make a good film from a bad screenplay.

About transferring skills from classroom to a working environment

One of the most important things I took from the classroom was the ability to work with a group of people to accomplish a goal. Learning how to organize, coordinate, delegate, and compromise is vital.

Errors and regrets

I could have budgeted more time for my personal creative projects. I always feel like I want to be spending more time on them.

  • 5 tips for an aspiring film student
  • Learn the basics of good storytelling.
  • Watch lots of films to see what works and doesn’t work.
  • Build a community of fellow filmmakers so you can network.
  • Go above and beyond what’s expected with every job you get.
  • Stay current with the technology but don’t obsess on it: remember that a good story is key.

A movie I would have liked to make

“The Silence of the Lambs.” That film is a masterpiece of suspense and characterization, and it’s one of the leanest stories I’ve ever seen – every detail and plot point is vital to the story. Nothing is extraneous. I would have really enjoyed seeing it being created. It’s a testament to the film’s excellence that it won all five major Academy Awards the year it was released: picture, director, actor, actress, and screenplay.

My favorite quote

“Reality Ends Here.” (motto of USC Cinema, from which I graduated)


About Thomas Sylla

Award-winning writer and filmmaker with 15 years teaching experience. Scripts sold to major Hollywood film and television studios. Worked for Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic on films including “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “Ghostbusters II,” “Back to the Future III,” “Joe Versus the Volcano” and “The Young Indiana Jones” television series. Wrote, directed and edited feature film “No Return” which was accepted into national film festivals, won a Directing Award and was distributed domestically and internationally. Wrote and directed two commercials which won awards at MOFILM’s international competitions. Tom did voiceover work in the three original “Star Wars” movies.

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