For Kimby Caplan (M.A. ’04), her love of filmmaking came suddenly.
“It was born the first time I projected a roll of black and white film on a wall, and played a scratchy soundtrack of a friend singing, to see how the two would mesh,” she said. “It was electrifying, how beautiful, how powerful, and how utterly cosmic it felt, to create, and to be inspired by the creation.”
But before her days behind the camera began, she was already used to being in front of it.
As a deaf child, Caplan was involved in an educational film about teacher Doreen Pollack, who “mainstreamed” deaf and hard-of-hearing children using hearing aids.
“It gave me this sense of importance,” Caplan says of the experience.
It would later be the inspiration for her master’s thesis at SMU – a documentary titled Listen, a part-autobiographical and part-educational film about Pollack’s work in what’s now called Listening and Spoken Language Therapy.
Now, the 45-year-old is a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood, working on documentaries and shorts primarily as a director of photography or cinematographer.
Caplan came to SMU in 2002 to pursue an M.A. in communication arts – TV and radio, after earning her B.F.A. from the University of Colorado-Boulder in experimental filmmaking.
“At Boulder, there wasn’t a very structured environment,” Caplan said. “We were allowed to play and make mistakes. But when I graduated, I realized I had no idea how to make a living doing this.”
So, she packed her bags and moved to Dallas, where she had family nearby.
“SMU told me, ‘If you come here, we’ll do everything we can to support you.’ They seemed like the only school interested in developing their program,” she said.
But, the filmmaker was old-school in a world that was going digital.
“I struggled quite a bit with production at first, because I had learned on film,” Caplan explained. “So, I talked with the chair of the department, and was able to work with two new production professors who had just been hired, which helped a great deal.”
The learning curve wasn’t easy – Caplan admits that she pulled more than a few all-nighters in the film department’s wing of the Umphrey Lee building.
“Back then, the building closed at a certain time,” Caplan said. “So when the cleaning crew would come in, I’d hide in an empty garbage can! Then when they were gone, I’d get out and edit some more until 4 a.m.”
(Fortunately, students now have 24/7 access to the building’s editing labs with their SMU IDs – no hiding in trash cans required.)
Caplan spent her two years on campus dedicating her time to working on her thesis, then took a few months after graduation to promote the film. Out of hundreds of potential entries nationwide, it was one of just a handful of films selected for the Student Academy Awards competition (yes, those Academy Awards), where it won a bronze medal.
“I’ll be forever thankful I was able to pull that off,” Caplan said. “That really was my ‘thank you’ to SMU. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my education.”
For her, Listen was more than personal. Growing up as a “mainstreamed” deaf child, meaning Caplan uses hearing aids instead of American Sign Language or other forms of communication, meant she “kind of got swept to the side,” she said.
“My childhood made me learn to advocate for myself,” Caplan explained. “Yes, it takes a village, but other problems can put you on mute.”
Caplan questioned her place, even wondering if her deafness caused her parents to divorce: in Listen, this is depicted through the repeated imagery of a baby doll being tossed in a garbage can. (Her father joked to the Dallas Observer in 2005 that when he found out his daughter was deaf, he thought to himself, “We’d have to throw her away – she wasn’t good anymore.”)
These experiences are what drove Caplan to filmmaking in the first place. “There’s just this desire to share your own story because you couldn’t for so long,” Caplan said. “I really only have one story I know how to tell, and it’s mine.”
After SMU, she made the cross-country trek to Hollywood, where she began her Master of Fine Arts at the American Film Institute, thanks to connections she made at SMU. She was one of only 25 students accepted into the prestigious program that year.
“It was always my goal to get to California,” she said. “I was quite militant about that.”
At AFI, Caplan says she was able to build on the education she received at SMU.
“I learned how to be a well-rounded filmmaker. I had all these questions, like, ‘What really happens on a production set?’ that I finally started to have answers for.”
Now, Caplan’s resume includes commercials with multi-national companies like Domino’s, award-winning shorts and documentaries including How Jack Became Black and Cubamerican.
Life in Hollywood has presented its own challenges for Caplan. The first: being a woman in a male-dominated industry. Starting out, Caplan said she had a “lightbulb moment” when she realized her male coworkers were making more than she was.
Her solution? “For my day rate, I’d quote double what I thought was fair,” she said with a laugh. “And they’d usually give it to me!”
“I’ve had many directors, male and female, tell me that I am the first female director of photography they have worked with,” Caplan noted.
And, as a mom, Caplan has had an additional set of hurdles to face: “Childcare is a problem for many women in the camera department,” she said. “For myself, I’ve had to pump breast milk in bathrooms/utility closets for privacy, bring my child and a babysitter to the set and bring my child to pre-production meetings, camera prep houses and color correction sessions. At times it has been more messy than graceful.”
As if that wasn’t enough, Caplan said she still has to tackle the assumptions she faces for being a deaf filmmaker.
“I’ve had a lot of producers say to me, ‘We just think you’re the greatest director of photography ever, we just think you’re amazing,’” she said. “‘But we pitched you to this other show, and they don’t want to work with you because you’re deaf.’”
But she’s not deterred. “All my life, I’ve had to work hard to get where I want to be. I’m used to it,” she said.
For her, being a filmmaker means being a storyteller. “People that have worked with me are surprised that others may be intimidated to have to figure out how to communicate with me. But, by its very nature, isn’t the act of storytelling a means of communicating?”
And, as Caplan points out, “We all speak different languages, we just don’t always admit that we do.”
“You take somebody who communicates with American Sign Language and someone who doesn’t know it and there’s an interpreter, and that’s a literal example. But the reality is, we’re all doing that all the time anyway, we just don’t know it.”