For the past 20 years, David Oliver Pfeil has played a key role in Academy of Art University’s commencement ceremonies. The former director of the School of Motion Pictures & Television (MPT) creates the engaging videos that celebrate the accomplishments of each distinguished alumni and honorary doctorate recipient. This year, in addition to filming the stories of other honorees, Pfeil got to turn the spotlight on himself. On May 9, he received an honorary doctorate from Academy President Dr. Elisa Stephens.
“Getting to know the people I profile as I do these pieces has been amazing. It’s made me appreciate all of the talent around us at the Academy,” said Pfeil. “I’m number 36 of the 38 doctorate recipients I’ve produced so far and have made about 40 or 50 videos of alumni. It’s been great fun.”
Editing a reel of his own work still posed a unique challenge, selecting which work to show, and cutting the running time of each for the commencement screening. To the delight of the audience, Pfeil ended up focusing on a few of the title sequences he created for some of the most iconic movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Toes were tapping and heads were bobbing as they witnessed his creativity in action for the openings of hits such as Innerspace, Nine to Five and Footloose.
After the video, Pfeil talked about making the title sequence for Innerspace, Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi comedy. The legendary director’s only instructions were “Take me to a place I’ve never been before.”
“Is that freedom or what?” quipped Pfeil. “Actually, it was 31 days of sheer terror.”
Drawing on his problem-solving skills, he succeeded in producing a riveting sequence that takes viewers on a fantastic journey through what appears to be an alien molecular world but is actually ice cubes in a glass of whiskey.
Pfeil knew he was destined to be an artist from the time he was a young boy growing up in Texas. His mother was a musician who played the piano and organ; his father was a professional pilot and amateur photographer. Pfeil attended the University of Texas at Austin where he majored in music and theater. But he’d always been passionate about movies and photography. While flipping through a photography magazine one day, he spied an ad for a photo competition that would award the winner a scholarship to ArtCenter College of Design in Los Angeles. He put together a portfolio of new and old material, submitted it, and won.
After graduating with honors from ArtCenter in 1970, Pfeil started his career as an advertising photographer, gradually moving into film and television. His work on more than 75 movies and TV shows has garnered him two Emmys: one for the popular CBS daytime drama The Bold and the Beautiful, the other for the prime-time NBC show The Bronx Zoo.
Pfeil urged the graduating students to say yes to opportunity and embrace reinvention, advice that has served him well throughout his career. He admitted he was filled with doubt when his friend Jim Wood—Director Emeritus of the Academy’s School of Photography—approached him about helming the university’s MPT department in 1997.
“I was rooted in my work in L.A., comfortable in what I was doing,” he explained. “To write curriculum and direct a film program was something I’d never imagined.”
Then he remembered Slavko Vorkapich, a montage expert and one of Hollywood’s most respected filmmakers between the ‘20s and ‘50s. Taking a class taught by Vorkapich had a seismic impact on Pfeil. He began to see the job at the Academy as a chance to pay forward Vorkapich’s legacy. Today, he’s grateful for the wealth of experience and relationships seizing that opportunity provided him.
At the end of his speech, Pfeil—who is also a private pilot—left the graduates with this fitting send off: “When you fly an airplane cross-country, there’s no such thing as a perfectly straight course line to your destination. My wish for all of you is to keep your eye firmly focused on the horizon, expect the unexpected, pack only the essentials, and may every single detour be an adventure.”