Susan Zwerman: 2013 Frank Capra Achievement Award

DGA Awards 2013

December 20, 2012

DGA Assistant Director/Unit Production Manager Council West (AD/UPM) Vice Chair Susan Zwerman will become the 27th recipient of the Frank Capra Achievement Award, which will be presented at the DGA Awards ceremony on February 2, 2013. The Capra Award is given to an Assistant Director or Unit Production Manager in recognition of their career and service to the industry and the DGA.

Zwerman joined the DGA in 1980 and almost immediately became active in Guild service by being elected to the AD/UPM Council East in 1982 and serving as a member of the Negotiations Committee in 1984. After moving to Los Angeles, she became active on the AD/UPM Council West, during which time she has been elected to various officer positions including Secretary/Treasurer, Second Vice Chair and her current position of First Vice Chair. She has also served multiple times as a delegate to the DGA Biennial Convention.

“Susan’s career is a testament to her inquisitive nature and collaborative spirit,” said AD/UPM Council West Chair Marie Cantin when asked why Zwerman was deserving of this award. “By embracing new media and emerging technologies, Susan’s signature moments are marked by the infectious enthusiasm she brings to all her endeavors. Her service to the Guild is generous to a fault and she is always the first to think of ways she can share knowledge with other DGA members. By honoring Susan Zwerman with the Frank Capra Award, the DGA acknowledges her accomplishments, but more importantly it honors her commitment to upholding the core values of the Guild.”

Of the many accomplishments in her service to the Guild, Zwerman is proudest of her work as Chair of the AD/UPM VFX Digital Technology Committee which she has chaired since its inception. “I realized that my work as a 1st AD and UPM on visual effects units put me in a position to share a lot of valuable information with my fellow members,” Zwerman recalls. “So in 1998 I volunteered to head a committee and became the Chair of the DGA AD/UPM VFX Digital Technology Committee which endeavors to make sure our members are fully informed of new visual effects techniques and digital technologies.”

Under Zwerman’s leadership, the Committee has presented more than three dozen technology and visual effects seminars for the DGA membership, including, Understanding the VFX Process from Script to Screen in 2002, Cutting Edge Visual Effects from “The Guardian” in 2007, Seamless Visual Effects From Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies” in 2008, Science Fiction In The Future, Spectacular Visual Effects From Script To Screen on “Star Trek” and “2012” in 2009, and “We Can Do That!” When To Use Visual Effects and Why in 2012. Zwerman has also participated in the ever-popular annual Digital Day symposium at the Guild where she has helped produce numerous events including: Inside the Virtual Technology of “Avatar” in 2010, From “Tron” to “Tron Legacy” in 2011, and Non-Human Characters: Creating Creatures: Physical or Digital in 2012.

Reminded of the quantity and quality of this impressive list of events, Zwerman is humble in her reflection. “I would like to be remembered for teaching and organizing events and seminars. It is my way of giving something back to the DGA and this industry that has been so supportive to me.”

DGA Special Projects Digital Day Sub-Committee Chair Randal Kleiser praises Zwerman for her many contributions to making the event a success. “I first became aware of Susan Zwerman back in 2001 putting on seminars about new technology,” Kleiser recalls. “As I saw more and more informative events being organized and run by her, I approached her to help with our annual Digital Day. She came through like gangbusters and each year I gave her more and more to do. Now, she is a permanent member of our Digital Day committee and I can't imagine mounting another event without her vast knowledge, endless contacts and indefatigable work ethic.”

Originally planning to become a math teacher, Zwerman’s course was altered after viewing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Its hypnotic quality was unlike anything I had previously experienced. I was so overwhelmed that I discovered something creative inside myself that I never knew existed.” So, although attending school on a full math scholarship, she took a leap of faith and changed her major from math to English and drama and began working her way through school as a theatre lighting designer and technician. Her life was changed again when she met Director Burton Greenberg, who gave her a shot as a commercial film producer, and later UPM George Goodman who gave her an entry into the feature film world as a production assistant which eventually led to her joining the Guild as a location manager. Along the way she met, worked with and was mentored by other members such as 1st AD Wolfgang Glattes and UPMs Kenny Utt and Roger Rothstein while working on films such as Nightshift, Hanky Panky, Scarface, The Flamingo Kid, and Wise Guys. “This was a happy time in my life working with talented directors like Bob Fosse, Sidney Poitier and Garry Marshall,” Zwerman recalls.

But it was her work for UPM/Producer Bill Badalato that led to her biggest breakthrough. “I worked for Bill in New York on a film that was logistically very difficult called Nighthawks. I had to negotiate the closing down of the public tram service that went from New York City to Roosevelt Island for two weeks of filming.  As I recall, the perks that helped convince the people of Roosevelt Island to allow the filming were providing coffee, newspapers and free bus transportation round- trip from Roosevelt Island to New York. My success with this assignment earned me Bill’s confidence and trust.”

Badalato agrees with that assessment, stating, “From the outset it was clear to me that Susan was inspired by the challenges of the work rather than daunted by them. Her opinions and solutions were always based on what was best for the production in both the creative and business sense.  What she brought to the table as a Visual Effects Producer was her deep knowledge of how a set worked.   When she discussed a visual effects sequence she included in her analysis not only from visual effects point of view but from the UPM viewpoint of what the implications would be for everyone from the grip, electric, to make-up and hair departments.”

In 1989, Badalato hired Zwerman as his UPM on David Green’s effects-laden action feature Fire Birds. “There were a number of aerial sequences that required a combination of live action with visual effects and miniatures. Working in this visual effects world was thrilling. It opened up a whole new world for me.”

Although her previous work as the producer of the Grammy Award-winning music video “I’m Fat” for Weird Al Yankovic began her love affair for making magic happen on the screen, she was encouraged to take another leap to pursue a career as a production manager on visual effects films. Then a tidal shift came in the industry, and Zwerman found herself uniquely positioned to catch the wave.

“I saw Jurassic Park and those amazing CGI dinosaurs represented a defining moment in the industry’s permanent shift from optical effects to digital. It was at this point I decided to segue from Unit Production Manager and expand into the visual effects industry. This was another huge leap of faith, but I knew that this would be my dream career path.”

Since 1992, Zwerman has worked as a VFX Producer, as well as a UPM and 1st AD on DGA projects managing visual effects units on such films as Tale Tall, Broken Arrow, Alien Resurrection, Jane Austen’s Mafia!, Men of Honor, Around The World in 80 Days, Fat Albert, The Guardian and Vamps.

She has also taken time to share what she has learned by teaching visual effects techniques in the entertainment field at university seminars; co-authoring the book, The Visual Effects Producer: Understanding the Art and Business of VFX; and presenting the seminar VFX 101: Visual Effects Technology Past and Present for the past five years to the trainees at the Directors Guild-Producer Training Plan. 

“This seminar is an important part of the overall training and preparation for trainee’s future work as an Assistant Directors,” said Directors Guild-Producer Training Plan Administrator Janet Dyer Gould. “The Trainees have commented that this is one of the best seminars presented annually.”

Although she left behind her initial desire to be a math instructor, Zwerman is ever-the teacher, as she’s always ready to share the benefits of her hard-earned knowledge with other DGA members and trainees. Her advice to them is; “Work hard, be thorough, and keep up to date in the areas of new technology and visual effects to make yourself a more valuable player in the industry. Keep re-inventing yourself whenever possible and take that ‘leap of faith’ as I have done throughout my career.”

Thus it is no leap that Zwerman’s is the latest name deservedly added to the list of legendary AD/UPMs who have received the Frank Capra Achievement Award. Still she is truly moved by the acknowledgement. “I feel tremendous gratitude that the value of my accomplishments is being recognized in the industry by my peers. I am so grateful for the opportunities that I have had. Hopefully the work that I have performed with the Guild has inspired other DGA Members.”

Past recipients of the DGA Frank Capra Achievement Award

  • Katy E. Garretson (2012)
  • Cleve Landsberg (2010)
  • Kim Kurumada (2009)
  • Liz Ryan (2008)
  • Jerry H. Ziesmer (2006)
  • Herb Adelman (2005)
  • Stephen Glanzrock (2004)
  • Yudi Bennett (2003)
  • Burt Bluestein (2002)
  • Cheryl R. Downey (2000)
  • Tom Joyner (1999)
  • Bob Jeffords (1998)
  • Peter A. Runfolo (1994)
  • Willard H. Sheldon (1993)
  • Howard W. Koch (1991)
  • Stanley Ackerman (1990)
  • Alex Hapsas (1988)
  • Henry E. “Bud” Brill (1987)
  • Jane Schimel (1985)
  • Abby Singer (1985)
  • William Beaudine Jr. (1983)
  • William C. Gerrity (1983)
  • Wallace Worsley (1982)
  • David Golden (1982)
  • Francisco “Chico” Day (1981)
  • Emmett Emerson (1980)
  • Robert Caminiti (1999)
  • C.J. Rapp-Pittman (1998)
  • Joseph L. Dicso (1997)
  • Don Lewis Barnhart (1996)
  • Larry Carl (1995)
  • James E. Wall (1994)
  • James “Woody” Woodworth (1993)
  • Marilyn Jacobs-Furey (1992)
  • Chester O’Brien (1991)
  • Mortimer O’Brien (1991)