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Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Sarah Stein

1911 building on NC State's campus

During two and a half decades working in New York City in documentary filmmaking, Sarah Stein never thought that she’d be working in academia following her roles in film production. But by 1989, she had moved out of New York and arrived at a decision to go to graduate school for a doctorate in Media Studies—which meant the beginning of a new career teaching film production and media studies courses.

“The film business is creative, thrilling and amazing. But it is also filled with the constant stress of deadlines and production pressures. You burn out. I was the opposite of someone who had a plan. At that point I just knew that I needed to have a different career. And my friends reminded me that I was always studying something and loved to take classes; that helped me to pursue an academic career”, says the Department of Communication’s associate professor, who is retiring after the spring semester.

Sarah’s love for film began when she started cutting film in New York City and she soon went on to become a documentary film editor. The films she edited won two Academy Awards, two Emmys, A Columbia-Dupont Journalism Award, and other national and international awards. The passion she felt for how films are made carried into her academic career.

headshot of Sarah Stein
Sarah Stein

Throughout her 30 years of teaching — 25 at NC State, five years before that at New York University and the University of Iowa where she did her doctorate — Sarah’s favorite course to teach has been film production. Her course focuses on how to shoot celluloid film, an analog method, as opposed to digital. She believes that learning how to shoot celluloid film requires you to be very disciplined and envision scenes before you shoot, which is a terrific way to learn how to make films.

“Digital cameras allow you to play back the footage while you’re shooting, but with film you can’t. The students have to really visualize the shots in their minds and through their storyboards and shot lists . The film has to go to a lab to be processed before they can see how their film footage turned out.

I love teaching film because the nature of the film stock allows for some really beautiful images. I get to work with really creative students. I’ve been wowed with talented and wonderful students here, and I am just so excited by their capabilities, their visions, and how they see cinematically. I learn a great deal from them year after year. And it’s a great thing to be able to draw on all of my professional experience and understanding, and apply it to teaching.”

When I asked Dr. Stein about how campus has changed over the years, she said, “NC State has expanded a lot since I’ve been here, and that physical expansion has been accompanied by an expansion of interest in the humanities—including media production–which has been very exciting. In the field of media production, I’ve seen an increase of cinematic thinking in the design of gaming: graphic design and animation have been very strong in game production and cinema is adding to that. And interestingly, the pandemic has also brought about an uptick in very high quality streaming television production, with greater emphasis on narrative structures and production values that used to be associated only with feature films. And that also means, more possible avenues for the creative and professional participation of our students!

There’s a lot of very vibrant energy here now. When I got here in ‘96 the emphasis was very much on engineering; while it still is and it always will be, I like the fact that now the humanities and our discipline in particular are enjoying much greater recognition.”

Stein’s parting wish for students is to encourage them to acknowledge their successes as they go along and to understand that failing is also part of creativity. “What we are taught to think of as failing, is, in the creative arts, just part of the process of making something good. You want to be open to things not going as planned. You can get discouraged and feel like you’re not getting where you want to go, but sometimes that can turn into something great.”

Four Fun Facts

Favorite Spot on Campus: I think I would choose the libraries! I love DH Hill and Hunt. They’re both spectacular spaces and resources. I also love the librarians; there’s an incredible graciousness and eagerness from these people. This is what I’ll miss the most.

Favorite Place to Eat on Campus: Howling Cow.

Favorite Tradition: Going out to eat lunch with my colleagues (at least before Covid; I sure look forward to the return of that).

Favorite Hobby on the Weekends: In the warm weather I garden, and in the not warm weather I’m a big reader. I also love to do jazzercise; in-person classes before the pandemic, live-streaming since. The post-pandemic world certainly looms bright in my imagination.