Ronn Pitts was a pioneer in Chicago Documentary and mentor to many Columbia College Chicago students. We asked his former student, Dimitri Moore, to write about his experiences with Ron after his passing on September 22, 2013.
I met Ronn in the summer of 2000. It was between my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college that I joined Columbia College Chicago’s High School Summer Institute (HSSI) for the second summer in a row. I took Creating Music the first time I enrolled in HSSI, mostly because my father was pushing me for years to live the dream he never did. I did moderately well in the class but didn’t feel any joy at composing a piece of music. I decided to buck my father’s wishes and return to HSSI as a film student.
I arrived early to the first class and waited patiently. The room was directly across the hall from the film cage at 600 N Michigan, which was daunting because the people that worked in the cage were the real deal. They’d made films, or at least had done enough to earn the privilege to work with the equipment. My classmates and I weren’t even college students. Could little high school students, with dreams as big as the sky, be of any substance to these film school veterans?
In walks Ronn Pitts. At first I thought he was a homeless man that wandered into the building. He had a tattered hat, ruffled clothes, scraggly beard, acted goofy in some ways and had colorful socks that didn’t match. He was not at all that I envisioned a “great filmmaker” to look like. What he said changed my life forever.
He told us stories about how he filmed The Black Panthers and that his activities put him and his collaborators in so much danger that he was smuggled out of the country and given asylum in Cuba by Castro himself. He told us he’d worked with Muhammad Ali. To my young ears, these were fascinating stories but there was no way they could be real. I was determined not to be so gullible so early but it turned out that every word of his stories were true.
He asked the 16 of us what we wanted to be; 13 directors, 2 cinematographers and 1 editor. He told the 13 that wanted to direct that we were young, didn’t know anything and what we thought was directing was in fact an entirely different position. He was right. By the end only 2 or 3 wanted to direct and the rest wanted to be editors, documentary filmmakers, audio specialists and I wanted to be a producer.
I later took his Film Techniques 1 class because I didn’t feel like I’d had enough Ronn in my life. He’s the only person I know that can make you understand that you know nothing about the craft of filmmaking and make you laugh at the same time. He struck a balance between humorous and serious. Those that understood the caring in his words truly learned the lessons he taught.
One day, I was holding the 16mm Bolex camera in one hand and trying to load it with the other because we were in a hurry to get going to our location. He took the camera out of my hand, placed it on the table and held both of my hands on the camera. We all think that we can multitask and do everything all at once, but we’ll make mistakes. More importantly, we’ll miss the moments that make art happen. He told me to focus only on loading the camera. Do the best job I can and, when that task is complete, move on to the next one.
Years later, I had the opportunity to work with him while I was coordinating the Advanced Practicum program, where six films were being produced by juniors and seniors with crews numbering 30 and above. While these films were in production, the faculty and I would visit their sets to lend any advice or resources they needed to keep going. Ronn went with us to film behind the scenes footage the department could use to tell the stories of its students.
I realized that I had forgotten the focus he taught me. Watching him work, those same lessons came flooding back and this time they took root. As a cinematographer, he didn’t scan the entire location looking for the next shot while he was filming. He didn’t wildly turn on the camera and point it at any and every interesting thing that occurred. He found someone he wanted to focus on, turned on the camera and watched. After a few minutes he would stop the camera, slowly look around at what was going on in front of him, move to another position, settle in and record. His instincts were razor sharp and his tactics were consistent. He was the filmmaker I wanted to be.
It took me 11 years to finish my bachelor’s degree. Between working, producing and advising, my education took a winding road. Ronn never made me feel ashamed that I hadn’t finished my degree yet. He was getting older and I was still a student. He accepted me for who I was and encouraged me when I needed it. He always asked me how my father was doing even after I moved away from home. Ronn never really realized that after I took his class the second time, he became the father I wanted to make proud.
For reasons beyond my knowledge he decided years ago that he would never go to a graduation. When I finally graduated, I asked him over and over again if he would come to the commencement. He reluctantly agreed but I had no idea if he would actually be there. After I crossed the stage and finished a career that started 11 years prior, I walked into the stands and completely lost my composure as I saw my mother (whom I was separated from for six years), my boss (who gave me my first Columbia part time and full time jobs), my girlfriend (now wife, who I thank God for every waking moment), her parents, my aunt and my sister. Beside all of them was a smiling and crying Ronn Pitts. At that moment I think it hit home for both of us that as he was there at the start of my college career, he was there for its conclusion and the start of my career beyond Columbia.
When Ronn died, I cried for hours as I am sure many others did. In the days since hearing the news, I cannot look at a picture of him without tears welling up. He wasn’t “like” a father to me. From the moment I turned 19, he was my father. Knowing Ronn, he would tell me to stop all of this crying nonsense and get back to work. He would tell me to figure out what I wanted to do and do it. He would tell me not to give him another thought and get the shit done. He would do it with a smile and his goofy heartwarming laugh. He didn’t tell many people he was sick because he was the type of person that didn’t want people to worry about him. He would rather them focus on how to make themselves and the world around them better.
That is exactly what I am going to do. Thank you, Ronn Pitts, for helping me focus my life, my career and stop wasting time looking around for matching socks.