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‘Non-Conformist and Rule-Breaking’: Faculty Recall Oscar-Winning Alumni as Students

Scheinert holds out Oscar while Kwan speaks into mic on Oscars stage
Daniel Kwan ’10 and Daniel Scheinert ’09 joke around at the 28th Annual Critics Choice Awards. (Photo from twitter.com/dunkwun)

Long before Daniel Kwan ‘10 and Daniel Scheinert ’09 were Oscar winners, they were students in Professor John Craig Freeman’s Computer Animation class.

“There’s kind of a case to be made that they became the Daniels in the process of that class, and then the following class, which was … Advanced Animation. They weren’t working directly together on their projects at that point, but they were very much kind of forming a team,” said Freeman, who added that early on, the pair learned to trust their own creative instincts.

“And I think that’s really clear in the work they’re doing now. It’s pretty unconventional, shall I say?”

Kwan and Scheinert raked in Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture Academy Awards for their sci-fi/superhero/comedy/family drama/immigrant story Everything Everywhere All at Once, which also yielded Oscars for Actress, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor, and Editing.

Read: Daniels Win Everything Everywhere at Oscars

Like many Emerson students, Kwan and Scheinert spent their last semester at Emerson Los Angeles, Freeman said, but once they had their degrees, they didn’t wait for someone to give them a job in a studio. They formed their own production company and began making award-winning music videos for artists including DJ Snake and Lil Jon, The Shins, Foster the People, and Tenacious D.

“I think it was through that process that they were even able to pitch the idea of their first feature, Swiss Army Man, which, you can imagine young directors trying to pitch that idea to a studio?” Freeman said. Swiss Army Man (2016) stars Paul Dano as a desperate man stranded on an island with a bloated, animated corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe.

“They had to develop confidence in their own creative ideas.”

Senior Scholar-in-Residence Peter Flynn, whom, along with Freeman, the Daniels singled out for thanks after winning a Film Independent Spirit Award earlier this month, seconded their confidence and said he recalls the Daniels as “immensely talented.”

“Not that that’s terribly unique at Emerson, but what I think makes them unique is that they were able to find an avenue to express and realize their talent, and not everybody gets that opportunity.”

 “The Daniels, as I perceive them, are equal parts sweetness and sincerity and nonconformist and rule-breaking. And those things are at the heart of Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Flynn said.

Professor Cristina Kotz Cornejo, who taught Kwan, said he “stood out because he was focused, disciplined, and passionate, and took a great deal of care to produce quality work.”

Freeman said his classes focus on using emerging technologies to innovate – skills Kwan and Scheinert clearly absorbed.

“The thing about Everything Everywhere All at Once is it’s seven different genres, all kind of mixed together and all kind of … reimagined. So it was that spirit of invention that I think is probably the cornerstone of their success, in a way.”

Freeman recalled that for a project in his Advanced Animation class, Scheinert came up with a project he called Timmy and the Tiny Tigers, in which all these tiny dancing tigers lived in the bloodstream of a cadaver, reanimating it – a concept that was resurrected (excuse the pun) in Swiss Army Man.

In that same class, Kwan’s project was about doing the laundry in a kind of dream state, Freeman said. Everything Everywhere All at Once is set (at least on one plane of reality) in a Los Angeles laundromat.

Not only are the Daniels remixing genres, Freeman said, but, by centering the film on an Asian-American family who become the heroes in their own story, they’re upending dominant narratives about who can be a superhero and whose story is valued.

“It’s a film that takes on those issues [of representation] with a kind of sense of humor and optimism that’s really quite wonderful,” Freeman said.

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