Our Stories

From Math Models to Film Reels

Craig Webster '05 seemed well on his way to a physics or mathematics career when he left Willamette. Now he's making movies about math in Hungary.

Movies about math? What happened? Well, he put his liberal arts education into practice. During his senior year, as he finished up a double major in math and physics, he was named a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship and a UK Fulbright grant. He didn't win either. But he went to Oxford University on his own to obtain a master's in applied mathematics, and finished in September. Along the way he realized his interest in filmmaking, something he explored as an undergraduate, was more than just a hobby.

Last year Webster won a Fulbright to explore his new path in Hungary. He recently took time out from his work in Budapest to explain his journey.

Q: What made you switch gears from a possible math career to film?

A: For me, math is a secure and ordered career path, but I didn't feel my heart was in it. My heart was in the creative endeavors I did during my free time: writing stories and plays and making films. I'd invested so much time in formal mathematics and I had so much opportunity to be funded to study and research, but I felt it would be wiser for me to do what I want, even if it is more difficult.

I've been interested in film for awhile. I like artsy films such as "Taste of Cherry" and "Close Up" by Abbas Kiarostami, an Iranian film director, and also I like films from the French new wave, such as "Masculin Feminin: 15 Faits Précis," "Vivre Sa Vie" and "Notre Musique" by Jean-Luc Godard.

I was influenced by my dad, who likes to watch slow foreign films, and Professor Ken Nolley, whose History of Cinema II class I attended at Willamette. The class focused on experimental films and videos, i.e., non-narrative, non-character driven. I started to see film in a new light and became interested in how films challenge conventional expectations. A film doesn't have to have a plot. It can explore the physical properties of light shining on a screen, for instance. We watched films that employed "functional boredom," where the author is intentionally trying to bore the audience in order to make them aware of what it means to go to a cinema or watch a film. The best example of this is "Wavelength" by Michael Snow, which is essentially a 45-minute zoom-in shot to a picture on a wall. Of course, only a handful of people are interested in this kind of stuff.

I shot two short films while in Oxford. The first was about an autistic girl who had to get a tetanus shot, and the second was a narrative plot built on the idea of Schrödinger’s cat.

Q: What are you doing in Hungary with your Fulbright? Why did you choose Hungary?

A: I will be making videos and films that involve mathematical ideas. I quite often write with structures and sequences and symmetries in mind, even if the audience is not aware of these structures. In particular, I want to use some ideas of the famous Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos as the basis of my work. I hope to create a body of work in this spirit, perhaps 10 short videos/films. It may be confusing that I seem to have renounced math but am making it the center of my creative work. I like riddles and problems, and I especially like to think about words and letters in math-like ways.

I chose Hungary because a lot of great scientists and artists (Teller, Bartók, Rubik, Moholy-Nagy, Karoly, etc.) are from Hungary, including Erdos, and the language is difficult, interesting and obscure. There's a lot of neat video art and art in general happening here.

Q: What are your plans for after the Fulbright?

A: My plan is to do an MFA in filmmaking. I'm becoming more certain I will do this at the University of Iowa, which has a wonderful creative community and a small, open-minded filmmaking department.

Q: What were you involved in while at Willamette?

A: Everything. I had a very neat group of friends. We started calling ourselves the family, a family of seven. I learned a tremendous amount from these people, and I owe my interest in pursuing creative projects to them. They were the actors in my first movie, "Life Is."

Two other influences in my life at Willamette were my math and physics advisors, Johnner Barrett and Rick Watkins. They spent an inordinate amount of time helping me one-on-one, teaching me how cosmology, quantum mechanics and differential equations work. And they were kind enough to be in my films, too. Rick starred as the doctor in "Life Is." His role was to tell a patient that he had a fatal illness, but he couldn't help bursting into laughter each time. It took us 10 takes to get through his 20-second scene. And the sound wasn't even being recorded, so he didn't have to memorize any lines! He would try to cover his mouth like he was really concerned, but you could see the smile under his hand. Rick also let me use his house to make two other films the following year.

The English department also was very helpful. They let me take independent study classes to make films even though I was a math and physics major. Ken Nolley supervised me on my second film, which was a documentary of Willamette (2003). That was a very successful film because it opened on campus to a 200-person audience of Willamette students and faculty. So the film was about a community, and that community actually showed up to watch the film.

I read a lot of books for leisure. I took a lot of classes outside my discipline. I played ultimate Frisbee.

I hung around [Director of Student Academic Grants and Awards] Monique Bourque's office a lot. Does that count as an activity? She is very helpful and nice, and the most relaxed scholarship person I have met.

To watch some of Craig Webster's films, including a clip of his Willamette documentary, visit www.vimeo.com/user273103.

For information on the Fulbright grant and many others, contact Monique Bourque in the Student Academic Grants and Awards office on the second floor of Putnam University Center.