Mark Urbanek, 'tireless in his dedication to accomplishment,' wins Amy J. Blue Award

As technical manager for the Film & Media Studies Program, Mark Urbanek helps train undergraduate and graduate students in the proper use of video, audio, lighting and editing equipment. His other passions include superheroes, gardening and bubbles.

Kurt Hickman

The 2014 Amy J. Blue Award winners were honored at an afternoon reception.

If you're looking for Mark Urbanek, technical manager for the Film & Media Studies Program, head to McClatchy Hall, one of the historic sandstone buildings on the Main Quad, and take the elevator to the basement below the basement.

When the doors open, walk down the hallway toward the doorway covered with a curtain of wooden beads – décor Urbanek jokingly calls his "visitor early warning system."

Step inside and you'll see that he shares his office with an entourage of superheroes.

On one wall are posters of Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman and Captain Marvel. On another are reproductions of the first issues of The Fantastic Four and The X-Men.

"I do like my superheroes, as you can see," said Urbanek, who created a backsplash of superhero action figures – still in their original boxes – along the back of one counter.

The posters reflect Urbanek's admiration for comic book artist Alex Ross, one of the world's most pre-eminent and well-respected comic book artists, who paints in gouache and whose interpretations of iconic superheroes cast them in a new light.

Urbanek collected superhero comic books as a child. As an adult, his fascination with superheroes was rekindled when he saw a Ross poster for Kingdom Come – a comic book mini-series published in 1996, displayed in the front window of a comic book store.

Urbanek, who has worked in the subbasement office since November 1990, is the technical manager for the Film & Media Studies program, which offers an undergraduate major and a minor in Film and Media Studies, and a Master of Fine Arts in Documentary Film and Video Production.

Under the two programs, which are part of the Department of Art & Art History, undergraduate and graduate students alike produce documentary films.

Urbanek is one of this year's recipients of the Amy J. Blue Award.

Praise from faculty

"In my many years of teaching film production at various universities, I have come to appreciate the fundamental importance of the 'technician' within a department, often an unrecognized lynchpin," said Jan Krawitz, a professor of art and art history and director of the MFA Program in Documentary Film & Video. "Mark approaches his job with unflagging fortitude and enthusiasm."  

L.A. CiceroMark Urbanek

Mark Urbanek teaches students how to use video cameras, and audio, lighting and video editing equipment.

Jamie Meltzer, an assistant professor in the MFA Program in Documentary Film, said faculty and students alike look to Urbanek for support – and all of them find a receptive and patient person ready to resolve whatever technical or equipment issue has arisen. Urbanek handles unexpected problems with ease, Meltzer said, and also manages long-term projects with a care and attention to detail that few people possess. Meltzer said his excellence is visible every day.

"Mark is constantly finding ways to streamline and organize the support for all of our film and video classes, continually checking and fine-tuning the condition of our equipment and keeping us up to date on the latest developments – and in film and video there are many," Meltzer said.

"But more than that work, which is so important to all of us and our program, Mark distinguishes himself in his personal interactions with faculty and students. He has been an invaluable resource for me at Stanford. I can't imagine having come this far without him. I am impressed with the level of respect and admiration he has earned from our students. They really see him as a trusted confidante and resource."

Handling the technical side

On one table in his spacious office is a small tower of DVD cases containing the latest batch of five- to seven-minute films produced by undergraduates, and 12- to 20-minute films produced by MFA candidates.

Urbanek compiles the films, creates DVDs for the students, and sends copies to the Media & Microtext Center in Green Library and the Art & Architecture Library in the Cummings Art Building, home of the Art & Art History Department.

Urbanek, who works with faculty, staff and students, is responsible for all technical aspects of the Film & Media Studies Program, as well as its operating budget and web pages. He anticipates what new equipment will be needed, and does extensive research before purchasing hardware or software. Sometimes, he even delivers the equipment to the office.

"I picked up a video monitor and a camera audio part for the program on my way into work this morning," he said one recent Thursday morning.

He also produces the alumni newsletter – an assignment he loves because it allows him to keep in touch with former students – and runs the alumni Facebook page.

Urbanek, who earned a bachelor's degree in Radio-Television-Film in 1985 at the University of Texas, Austin, grew up in Taylor, Texas, a small town just outside Austin. Those who know him well know Urbanek's favorite color is purple – a color he favors in flowers, as well in the patterned, striped and solid purple shirts he wears to work.

Urbanek and Christian Gainsley, the documentary film technician who joined the program in 2008 to assist Urbanek, offer equipment training for six classes, including Introduction to Film and Video Production, an undergraduate course, and Digital Video Production, an MFA course.

"We're here to support all of the faculty needs for any of the film production courses," Urbanek said.

The warren of offices where they work includes a classroom/screening room, seminar room, a television studio, an equipment checkout room, group editing room, and offices with individual editing stations for each MFA candidate.

They train students how to use high-end HD video cameras, audio recording equipment, lighting and digital video editing systems.

"I couldn't do this without Christian, because the amount of equipment and the complexity of the equipment has increased exponentially over the years," Urbanek said.

"We're both in the room during a training session. Students have a video camera in front of them. During the slide show presentation, I float around the room and watch what the students are doing. I help make sure they don't get lost as he's demonstrating the parts of the camera and how they work. Before we let the students go out into the world with our expensive cameras, we hold review sessions and one-on-one proficiency tests. Usually it all sticks because they come back with amazing work."

Colleagues applaud Urbanek

Individuals who nominated Urbanek for the Amy J. Blue Award praised his dedication to the program, as well as his positive attitude, creativity and enthusiasm. They also applauded his kindness, patience and good humor.

Roberta Tugendreich, an administrative associate in the Communication Department, said Urbanek is "tireless in his dedication to accomplishment."

"Whether it's just the day-to-day operations of a technically complex department, or in planning special events, such as film screening receptions for students, Mark takes charge and gets things done – and done extraordinarily well," she said.

Tugendreich said he recently transformed a bare stage in Annenberg Auditorium into a professional screening set by acquiring and arranging furnishings for the screening of the film Perfect Strangers, by Krawitz.

Urbanek has an intense dedication to the MFA candidates and has worked many long nights to help ensure that their projects are the best they could be, said Mark DeZutti, an administrative associate in the Communication Department.

"View many of the films, and if they placed acknowledgements and thanks in the credits, Mark Urbanek's name is at the top of the list," DeZutti said.

When Urbanek goes home to Mountain View, his focus turns to plants. His front yard is tiny, he said, but these days it is awash in yellow and orange nasturtiums. The Boston ferns are doing well, he said, and so are the bearded irises, calla lilies, Mexican sage, succulents and the two Japanese maple trees.

Inside, Urbanek said he has "huuuuuge" houseplants, "mainly because, you know, a bunch of little ones just don't do it," including a philodendron with a room almost to itself.

Colleagues have benefitted from his green thumb.

"I pull up stuff all the time and give it to people," Urbanek said. "I helped a former coworker create a succulent entryway by giving her much of what she needed to get started, because I had so much extra. It's trickle-down gardening. I love encouraging other people to plant gardens. They are always so happy once they get going with a garden."

Urbanek's colleagues and friends also know he is big fan of blowing bubbles.

"They are huge stress reliever, especially when you're stuck in traffic," he said. "It is always rewarding to see the smiles on the faces in the cars around me – especially the kids."