One of the sad byproducts of the circle of life is that relatives, friends and colleagues precede you to that great film production in the sky. As you get older, that sadly increases in frequency. In the recent past I’ve seen my parents go. They meant a lot to me and the way they faced life’s challenges has always been an inspiration to me. But that’s a post for another time. Each passing of a friend hits you just a little harder.
This past weekend Florida lost a true legend in the business – Ralph R. Clemente. He was the program director and professor for the Film Production Technology program at Valencia College – a unique film production program that he crafted together with the then Dean, Rick Rietveld. The program grew out of a grant program sponsored by the Walt Disney Company, followed by Universal Studios in the heady “Hollywood East” days of the late 1980s and early 1990s in Central Florida. This program eventually became a formal certificate program under Valencia’s wing.
Ralph was born in Germany at the end of World War II and made his way into acting and then later into filmmaking. His family emigrated to the United States and, after many years, he ended up in south Florida teaching film production at the University of Miami. Valencia recruited him to set up the program in Orlando and, as they say, the rest is history. Unlike many other college film programs that are geared towards turning out auteurs, Valencia’s program has always targeted developing the working stiffs of the film industry – DPs, gaffers, grips, editors, production managers, and so on.
While other film programs produce student films as their bread-and-butter, Valencia’s program was structured from the beginning as a partnership with professional filmmakers. Under Ralph’s guidance over several decades, the program has produced 47 feature films in productions that paired key working crew members with student staffs. This mentorship structure usually breaks down into a student/pro split of about 60/40. In these productions, students worked alongside talented pros, but were also exposed to legendary actors and actresses – including Julie Harris, Mickey Rooney, Sally Kellerman, Ed Begley, Jr., Charles Nelson Reilly, and many others – and leading directors, like George Romero, Robert Wise and Reza Badiyi.
For many students the training they received in Ralph’s University of Miami and/or Valencia College programs paid off well. Alumni include many working professionals in Florida, Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles. This includes folks working at every crew position, as well as some who have made it up the ladder to become noted directors and production managers in their own right.
I’ve had the good fortune to edit four of the films produced through the program, including two directed by Ralph. The last of these is still in post production. I’ve also provided other post production services on numerous other films produced through the program. Even when Ralph wasn’t the director, they still benefitted from his guiding hand and assistance to the producers and directors of those projects.
As a filmmaker, Ralph always valued the collaborative side of the art and craft. He was fond of considering it a “team art” and not the dictatorial vision of only one person. He imbued this feeling to his students and practiced it as a director. In our editor/director relationship, I always found him to be open to ideas, but he was also the kind of director who’d often need to “sleep on it”. This frequently resulted in creative inspiration that tended to solve the challenges the next day.
Several aspects get less attention in the various online memorial comments I’ve seen. Ralph – a Vietnam-era U.S. Army veteran – had a soft spot in his heart for the plight of many of his fellow veterans and sometimes found ways to build those stories into his scripts as a way of honoring his comrades. When classes weren’t tied up with specific film projects, Ralph also involved them in the production of numerous pro bono videos for various charities, such as the Coalition for the Homeless. This was not only his way of giving back, but also teaching students that film production had the potential to do good in ways that were more important than box office success.
What most who knew him will remember is that Ralph was the consummate people-person. He was very gifted at navigating the triad of college politics, mentoring students, and professional filmmaking. He was an experienced “schmoozer” – in the best sense of the word. He could manage to get the necessary resources to get the job done. Students and friends called him “the humble Bavarian” – thanks to his heritage and southern-tinged, Schwarzenegger-like accent. Many were fond of mimicking his casual accented greeting of “Howya doin’, howya doin’?”. All meant only as a compliment and never received with offense. But funny remembrances aside, there was no more passionate avocate for Florida filmmaking than Ralph. He loved the stories of his adopted state and the quaint little towns that time passed by, which still made for great film locations. His efforts included tireless lobbying to legislators for the benefit of the film community, such as the state film incentive program.
Ralph’s passing came too suddenly due to illness, but he died doing what he loved, with active projects still in production. His time on this Earth left its mark with countless students who are now working film and television pros. All consider him a friend and mentor that set them on the path of their career. For those of us who worked with him on many projects and regarded him as a friend, his passing leaves a big void in the community that will be hard to fill. If there’s a Director’s Guild in Heaven, his card is waiting.
Ralph, my friend, rest in peace.
(Photo credits: Christian Saab, Brian Osmon, Valencia College, Mike Acevedo)
©2015 Oliver Peters