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SIU storms Hollywood: Alums make their mark in showbiz
April 28, 2022
Southern Illinois University (SIU) Mass Communication graduates are making their mark on Hollywood. Each year for many decades now, a group of fresh graduates take a huge risk by moving to the media hub of the world to try to break into showbiz. Many of them succeed with help from other SIU alums who went before them.
2020 graduate Hayley Walsh first connected with SIU alum and alt.news creator Michael Cioni when he visited campus in 2017.
“I had just changed my Facebook saying ‘moved to L.A.’ and he immediately hit me up,” Walsh said from her Los Angeles apartment. “He knew that I did alt.news and I think…that definitely helped, the fact that having that connection, having met him a few times prior definitely aided in that”.
Walsh was hired as a production coordinator for a six-week project at Cioni’s production company.
“I was working, like, a part-time serving job at the time, too”, she said. “So, I would work nights and then wake up and work those morning hours and then I’d go back and do my serving…but it really helped because I got to go on a few shoots and do a lot of things.”
Shortly after, Cioni’s company hired Walsh as a full-time production assistant. The company was then acquired by Adobe.
In addition to the alumni connection, Walsh also credits her SIU studies for her Hollywood success.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t, you know, branch out and join the extra curriculars and meet those people, because that’s what drove me the most – the people I was working with and the group and community aspect of learning and how to get scrappy,” Walsh said.
2013 SIU graduate Savannah Steiner dreamed of working in film.
“I drove from SIU to Hollywood. I truly left SIU with all my stuff and went straight to Hollywood, “ Steiner said. “I think it was actually when I was driving through Colorado, and my car could not make it up the mountain. I had a really old car and I just felt like, I’m going to break down and I’m going to be stuck in Colorado. Then, I had this feeling of…I’m free! I have this whole life ahead of me. If I get stuck in Colorado, I’m gonna figure out how to get to Hollywood!”
Steiner made it there and began waiting tables to support herself when an alum reached out and helped her get her first job as a production assistant/office assistant for the SYFY Channel.
“I also did a lot of low budget, free work and I was doing art department and costumes for literally like two years…and this is the advice I give to everyone – talk about what you want to do because you never know who knows someone, especially when you’re in L.A. It’s like, people who don’t know you want to help you,” Steiner said.
Steiner was waitressing when a man asked her what she wanted to do.
“He says oh, my friend owns this studio and he gave me her direct email,” Steiner said.
She emailed the name on the card, Kelli Bixler, owner of animation studio Bix Pix Entertainment. They didn’t have any openings at the time but Steiner followed up every other week with an email until she was hired. The company hired her as an intern and eventually began giving her small assignments until she had proved herself to be a dedicated animator.
While at SIU working on her Cinema and Photography degree, Steiner took an animation course led by Professor Michelle Torre.
“Taking her animation course really helped me think, ‘wow, this animation could be anything’ and she showed all these amazing films that were very artsy and it felt like ‘I can do this,’” Steiner said.
Steiner also credits other SIU professors with helping to shape her as an animation artist.
“Antonio Martinez, I took a stop-motion class with him and he…was really, really into story and learning to shape the story”.
Cade Bursell convinced Steiner to create animation for her final film project.
“She kind of pushed me to do a stop-motion…a crazy story”, Steiner laughs. “I did not know anything. I had to, like, learn all myself. Yeah, it’s not the cleanest, like all cleaned up and beautiful and shiny, but people still love it because of the story and the crudeness of stop motion animation is sometimes why people love that medium”.
Steiner’s advice to those students who are thinking of a career in animation:
“Make your own films, make your own stuff…there’s a wealth of information online, like, there’s no excuse. Like, you can totally make your own little stop motion thing. All you need is a light, a table and a camera. And you can do anything ‘cause stop-motion, you can animate a rock. You know?”
Steiner is currently an animator on “Pinocchio” which is set to be released on Netflix in December of this year.
In the spring of 2010, SIU Cinema and Photography student Madelyn Wilkime traveled to Hollywood to do a photojournalism piece on a group from alt.news that went out to Los Angeles for the Student Emmys. She graduated soon after and followed a group of SIU graduates who relocated there.
“I started cold-emailing places in Los Angeles and started answering ads…I ended up finding a fashion clothing company called Pin-Up Girl Clothing and got the job”.
Since then, Wilkime has been busy learning all she can about being a production designer by working on both union and non-union television and film projects.
“I am working on being a full-time production designer, but since I’m still a bit younger and since I didn’t go straight to school for that, there’s a few technical things I’ve been learning over the years to fill out my background and make me a better designer”.
Wilkime currently works two jobs.
“I work as a production designer and I also work in the set decoration department in television and film…I’ve also worked on music videos, commercials and a myriad of internet projects”.
Wilkime recently worked in a different capacity as a set decoration buyer for the 2022 movie “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” starring Jamie Lee Curtis. (See our review on page __).
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reaching out to alumni and saying, ‘hey, I’m interested in this field you’re working in, what can you tell me, can we have a phone call’ or ‘hey, we’re in the same city, can I buy you a cup of coffee and pick your brain?’”
Wilkime stresses that, not only should SIU students and alumni not be afraid to reach out to other alumni, but reaching out to others you want to be involved with is a reasonable and smart thing to do.
Wilkime’s husband, Tim Wilkime, is also an SIU graduate. Wilkime moved to Hollywood after his graduation in 2009.
“It was a simple decision to land in Los Angeles over say Chicago or New York because being a part of alt.news, the whole alumni base was, as far as I knew, based in Los Angeles,” Tim Wilkime said.
But unlike most people, he hit the ground running in showbiz.
“In college, I had a sketch comedy group that was making sketches for YouTube and through that work we were making, we actually kind of got some offers, some work through the work we’d been doing,” he said. “So, by time I moved out to L.A., I was kind of already making, continuing to make sketch comedy for various brands and websites around town”.
Tim Wilkime made sketches for a show called “CollegeHumor”, which led to him becoming a staff director for the show. He then directed the sketch comedy information show “Adam Ruins Everything,” which allowed him to branch over to making sketches for “The Late, Late Show With James Corden”. Most recently, Tim Wilkime served as a temporary second director on “The Jimmy Fallon Show” while the staff director was out for a few months.
“I think that one hundred percent, the line that is from college to now, it’s like this unbroken connection…so here I am, whatever it is, 12, 13 years later doing it on a bigger platform, which is exciting you know – a dream. Had I known I’d be doing that in college, I wouldn’t have believed it”, he said.
Tim Wilkime’s best advice is:
“Treat your time in college as though it is also a part of your professional career, treat the things that you’re making outside of school as something that could lead to work down the line. Make as much as you can while you’re in school, be as involved as you can in extra-curricular or find one club that speaks to your interest and just dedicate as much time outside of classes, ’cause I think the majority of your learning kind of comes through your extra-curricular, ’cause you have so much more time and freedom and less limitations to like really kind of find your voice as a storyteller, as a filmmaker, at least that’s what worked for me”.
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