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Before They Were Educators: Arledge Armenaki

By Tyler Auffhammer
On August 19, 2011

  • Arledge Armenaki before arriving at WCU.

Not many people can say that they have worked on a feature film, even less people can say they have worked on numerous cinematic pieces of high caliber. Among that select few is Arledge Armenaki, associate professor of cinematography at Western Carolina University.

Born in Portland, Oregon, the son of a United States naval officer and pilot, Armenaki's early life was spent packing bags and moving schools every 3-4 years. Despite the constant relocations, he was able to experience different environments from a young age, including Kenitra Port Laude, Morocco, in Northwestern Africa and London, England.

As a young man, Armenaki found enjoyment in the visual world around him, inspired by the beautiful and exotic locales of his childhood.

"When I received an Ansco twin lens relex camera one Christmas, I was captivated," Armenaki said. "I loved taking pictures of everything. I explored my little world with that camera."

That curiosity for cameras and pictures led Armenaki to the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California, where he would later meet his wife while filming for the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon.

At the time of his graduation from the Brooks Institute, Armenaki had earned his Bachelor of Performing Arts degree and his thesis film became an award-winning documentary called "Visions of the Sea".

During his time at the Brooks Institute, Armenaki studied and admired the innovative camera work of Laszlo Kovacs in Easy Rider, Vilmos Zigmund in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Conrad Hall in Cool Hand Luke, just to name a few. For this reason, he knew that his future was in cinematography, the art of photographing and lighting motion pictures.

After years of experience working on independent films in the Los Angeles area, Armenaki found himself in a predicament while prepping an independent action film in which the aggressive production company pushed the film crew so that they rushed an intense and intricate stunt that resulted in a major accident. However, Armenaki had stepped down before the stunts execution and left the production.

During this rough patch in his life, Armenaki found himself praying a lot for support.

"I was asking the Lord for direction and guidance and to use my talents so I could serve Him," Armenaki said, looking back on his growing experience.

Armenaki's direction turned around a few months later when his alma mater, the Brooks Institute, offered him a position as an instructor. He accepted the offer and was invited onto their staff, becaming head of the cinematography program in the Department of Film over the next four years, and with the help of his colleagues, revamped the entire program.

In 1995, Armenaki was hired on as the first cinematography instructor and filmmaker in residence for the new film school at the North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) in Winston-Salem. Along with helping to develop the initial cinematography program, Armenaki enjoyed a decade-long residence, spending his time with "some very creative students and faculty."

It was during his ten years with the UNCSA that Armenaki began to rise to prominence as a cinematographer in the film industry. He earned the Pelican Award for Best Cinematography at the 2001 Marco Island Film Festival for his camera work on the feature film "Surfacing," and he received the North Carolinas Filmmakers Award for a short dance film called "Surrendering in a Champion's World" at the 2003 River Run Film Festival.

In 2005, Armenaki joined the faculty at Western Carolina University, where he is currently an associate professor of cinematography in the Stage and Screen Department. Like his time at the NC School of the Arts, where his films uniquely incorporated student crews, Armenaki has always tried to aggressively place his students at Western on professional films and videos as working crew members.

On involving his students on film productions, Armenaki notes, "I believe it is one of the greatest ways to learn. Be in the thick of it; be on a production where it all matters. See the pull and stress of a tight daily schedule. Then see the final results; whether it turns out good or bad."

During his time at Western, his cinematography students have been involved in many productions that help the local community greatly, including "We Are Nypro," used for Nypro, an Ashevile-based art plastics extrusion company, and "Our Presence is Your Insurance," which was prepared for Griffith Security, a private security firm located in Hickory. Many local companies that have worked with WCU students on these corporate films have seen their business flourish.

Along with corporate films, Armenaki and his documentary class have also worked on art films like "Whimzick," which just completed shooting on the brand new Ramsey Center stage, and service learning videos, which help to bring awareness to causes such as the Cashiers Highlands Humane Society and United Christian Ministries.

Armenaki and his students have also found themselves experiencing feature filmmaking, believing that work on feature films is filled with many challenges and obstacles that, when met and overcome, can be very gratifying.

The feature film "Wesley," in particular, was daunting for the Director of Photography and his student crew, who worked in museum settings that did not allow flames of any kind, but worked hard to devise convincing off-camera flames for the historical film directed by John Jackman.

In the face of difficult and challenging conditions on the daunting scope of the film, Armenaki relates that "with extremely modest resources, WCU student interns worked very hard under most challenging conditions. The students were able to perform admirably, which I felt was a testament to the training and education they were receiving at Western. I am very proud of what they were able to accomplish." His work on the film would go on to earn Armenaki the 2010 Telly Award for Creative Lighting.

Going into his seventh year of teaching at WCU, Armenaki has survived the rigors of the film industry and also that of academia. After the university was re-organized and the Motion Picture Program and the Theater Arts Program were merged into "Stage and Screen" about three years ago, Armenaki and his colleagues have worked hard to give students the skill and understanding that is required to succeed in the motion picture business. He says that giving his students a glimpse into the industry by giving them an opportunity to work on professional films and videos is a "fantastic experience and bridge into the real world" and that he believes "we have something quite special in the School of Stage and Screen."

This summer Armenaki has been working as an on-site videographer at Christian Movie Connect, a brand new video podcast that relays news of the latest faith-based movies and Christian personalities on and off screen.

He also works for the "Life in the Carolinas" TV show hosted by Carl White that showcases cultural activities in both North and South Carolina, in which he recently filmed an interview with N.C. governor Bev Purdue at the Highland Games. The show airs in the Western North Carolina area on My 40 at 2:00 p.m. on Sundays.

To keep up to date with Armenaki's film works, visit his website at: www.arledgearmenaki.com.


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