A documentary filmmaker joins the new Seaver College graduate program in cinematic media production.
Seaver College alumnus Takuji Masuda (’93) was catching waves along the Pacific Ocean when he dived into the world of documentary filmmaking. From surfing in Malibu to surfing the Internet, Masuda has made a career out of spotlighting the surfing lifestyle for over two decades.
As a professional surfer with a two-year run, Masuda used his time on the beach wisely, making connections with fellow surfers who also happened to be industry insiders. “I felt surfing gave me a place in the world,” Masuda says, as he organized trips to various surf sites, wrote articles about what he calls “the pandemic beach culture,” and produced surf videos as an extension of his surfing career.
After he retired from surfing in 1995, Masuda began working on Super X Media, a trilingual magazine featuring articles in English, French, and Japanese. He also developed a website for Super X Media, a technologically advanced notion in the mid-90s, when many still considered the Internet to be foreign territory. His involvement in HTML coding piqued his interest in motion pictures, and he began collaborating with his colleagues to create surfing videos.
It was in Super X Media that he published a literature review about the culture of the Pacific Ocean pier, a place where passionate, dedicated, and fearless surfers develop a strong sense of camaraderie with one another as they enjoy the endless water and sand. Masuda’s literature review eventually evolved into a documentary film entitled Dogtown and Z-Boys, directed by skateboard legend Stacy Peralta. A few years later, this concept was developed into the Hollywood film Lords of Dogtown, a production that included Academy Award winner Heath Ledger.
Through this experience, Masuda saw the results of what compelling storytelling can do, and gained a deeper understanding of the filmmaking process. He also realized that his personal interests had a broad audience, as there was definitely a market for people invested in this topic.
The worlds of extreme sports and film production collided again a few years later for Masuda, when he was introduced to the story of Bunker Spreckels, an American surfer who famously rode Hawaiian waves until his untimely drug-induced death in 1977. “It’s a cautionary tale,” Masuda warns. “His story resonated with me, and I kept it close with me. And when I had an opportunity and a desire to be a filmmaker, I chose to tell this story.”
That’s how Masuda’s Bunker 77 film project was born, which he admits he initially attempted “without much knowledge” and often improvised throughout the development process. “I assembled a documentary film that was close to two hours long, and it was expository, and I didn’t really have a story,” Masuda shares. “It was about how the guy lived and died, and I wanted to have more depth to that film. That’s when I started studying how others tell a story.”
After graduating from Seaver College in 1993, Masuda returned to Pepperdine in 2009 to learn more about the art of filmmaking, and met communications professor Craig Detweiler, who helped inspire and prepare him for a career in film production. “I brought a half-baked documentary into the program,” Masuda recalls. “I was the first student to bring in a thesis, and with the help of Dr. Detweiler and his colleagues, I was able to really challenge myself and ask all the right questions.”
Studying at this particular university was especially beneficial to Masuda, who expresses that “Pepperdine is amazing in its geographical terms, because you’re studying and learning near some of the captains of the industry, from the actors, to the producers, to the directors.” As a result of this opportunistic proximity, Pepperdine students can “find a way to communicate with those people. My way was surfing.”
Masuda further emphasizes the impact his time on the beach has had on his career. “Surfing has really added value to my life,” he explains. “It has helped me connect with so many people that I would probably not have had the opportunity to engage with,” adding, “I have a lot of support and advice that I’m given for the Bunker 77 project by my friends in the industry that are surfers.” These surfing friends include Stephen Gaghan, known for his work on such films as Syriana and Traffic, who joined Masuda’s thesis committee.
Masuda’s acceptance of this support and advice resulted in further recognition of his film in March 2016, when Bunker 77 won first place at The Film Lab at Sun Valley Film Festival, a competition that provides filmmakers whose projects are in the final stages of the post-production the opportunity to have their movies screened and win a cash prize to help them complete their work.
After his many years in the entertainment industry, Masuda notes that “the only successful people that I see are the ones who really see the task at hand, and they do the best they can at it. And when you do the best you can, you will get acknowledged. There are a lot of shortcut ways to get things, but without substance, it will not withstand the test of time. In this small space of beach culture and the surfing world, I have put 25 years of my life into it and contributed to it, so I feel like I can be a voice for the people that I am a part of. I have my own interpretation. It’s not the absolute voice, but I can voice it.”
Masuda has also received a wealth of useful advice from established industry insiders, including veteran voice actor, animator, and producer Mike Judge, who told him that it’s only on the first project that filmmakers can work on the entire process exactly as they want. After that, they can see which parts they enjoyed the most, which parts they want to do more of, and which parts they have weaknesses in that they need to improve upon for their next film.
A film poster for Bunker 77 (2010) directed by Takuji Masuda and produced by Super X Media
Along with all his other accomplishments, Masuda continues to actively pursue an education in the filmmaking realm at Pepperdine, as he is currently enrolled in the new master of fine arts program in cinematic media production, offered by Seaver College. He highly recommends this program “for anyone who is already immersed in studying entertainment, production, or screenwriting, because it’s a chance to learn about those things.”
He adds that this program “will accelerate your career, strengthen the learning process, and get you face-to-face with how it works, because the people that are involved in it have made films, and have very strong moral compasses that help Pepperdine thrive. They also bring in industry professionals very frequently, so you’re hearing from people that are shifting the landscape.”
Inviting industry professionals to be guest speakers is a major benefit to Pepperdine film students, who can also use these sessions as networking opportunities to develop industry contacts. According to Detweiler, who also serves as a creative director for the Pepperdine University Institute for Entertainment, Media, and Culture, “At Pepperdine, we can offer a more personalized film education rooted in students’ particular interests,” adding, “there’s nothing I love more than connecting our students with industry mentors from right in our backyard.”
Michael Smith, associate professor of media production at Pepperdine, also looks forward to commencing the new cinematic media production graduate program. He reveals that the mission of the program is to “educate cinematic storytellers as cultural leaders in a diverse world.” As he explains, “We’re excited to launch this program because it meets Pepperdine’s vision to be a preeminent university known for more than just providing an education. We want to graduate leaders with stories to tell that make the world more beautiful and more meaningful.”
Classes will feature cohorts of 12 to 15 students, who will participate in the program as a group. They will also experience “required interaction with industry mentors,” Smith says, as the program offers “units for students to earn credit for meeting with a mentor in their direct area of interest.” Mentors who have previously worked with Pepperdine include Academy Award-nominee screenwriter Randall Wallace and documentarian Lucy Walker. Smith also notes that students will “finish with a creative product and a business plan for another product they will take to the market upon graduation.”
Seaver College alumna Samantha Smith (’13) is another student enrolled in the new MFA program. “I was interested in film from a really young age, but I didn’t really start [making them] until Pepperdine,” she expresses. Smith decided to enroll in the program when she was an undergraduate student, noting, “I knew I would graduate and go work on my own films, and now I can do that and still learn.”
Like Masuda, she has also gained valuable advice from those thriving in the entertainment industry, including one from a documentary filmmaker. “My current boss told me that working on a project is like riding a bike,” Smith explains, “because you have to have momentum. And if you lose momentum, you’ll get wobbly and you can fall off track.” Smith calls this “invaluable advice,” which she admits has been “difficult to practice, but so true.”
Masuda also offers some invaluable advice to those considering enrolling in the new cinematic media production program. “In surfing, if you want to catch another wave, you want to be healthy, so you eat healthy. So when you have the right knowledge, you can navigate yourself.”