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March 01, 2016

"Birdman" Star Lands at ETC

Michael Keaton Immerses Himself In Student Projects

by Kelly Saavedra /

Michael Keaton and Ralph Vituccio
Award-winning actor Michael Keaton (left) and ETC faculty member Ralph Vituccio are longtime friends.

A familiar 'ping' announced the arrival of the elevator onto the second floor of CMU's Entertainment Technology Center. But on this day, the door opened to release a special visitor — award-winning actor, director and Pittsburgh native Michael Keaton, who was, as usual, ready to get to work.

Best known for his starring roles in "Batman," "Beetlejuice" and last year's multiple Oscar-winner "Birdman," Keaton — making his first trip to the ETC as a Visiting Scholar — strode down the hall to the office of Ralph Vituccio, an ETC professor and Keaton's lifelong buddy since they were 14 years old. There, he greeted a handful of guests, donned a virtual reality headset and, against the backdrop of the Monongahela River outside the windows, stepped into the role of a witness to a racially motivated police brutality.

"This is tremendous," Keaton said.

He was referring to the virtual reality project "Injustice" being developed by a team of ETC students including Tiffa (Xu) Cheng, Jaehee Cho, Martin (Zixu) Ding, Atit Kothari, Elizabeth (Yeongmin) Won and Stephanie Fawaz. "Injustice" uses 10 GoPro cameras on a rig that capture every angle to give users a completely immersive 360-degree live video experience.

"That’s what they did in 'Birdman,'" said Keaton, who has worked steadily in film and television since 1977.

"Potentially, if done right, this has more impact, the immersive quality, as opposed to watching a documentary," he said. "You feel like you're there, especially when someone walks up close to you. And it's great that you're doing that with social issues."

Keaton moved on to several more project demos, including "Decisions That Matter," in which he played the role of a bystander who weighs how to respond to a potential sexual assault. Kirsten Rispin and Stephanie Fawaz produced the project along with a team of artists and programmers.

Michael Keaton with students
Keaton discusses a virtual reality project with students.

"We definitely got to show him things we’re excited about and proud about," Fawaz said. "He asked insightful questions about how you would watch this in the future. Would you need to do this at home? Could you see it in a big theater? Would one person drive this and others be spectating on a screen? What would happen on a big screen? We might not be able to definitively solve or answer those questions this semester."

Jun Wang's team showed him their project sponsored by Legendary Entertainment, in which the user, playing King Kong, reaches down to pick up a variety of small creatures, all of which react differently. And Ding discussed his Electronic Arts project through which family members can use a tablet or their mobile phones to connect with each other for a virtual snowball fight. Both projects aim to demonstrate how virtual reality can enhance storytelling and better engage audiences through an interactive experience.

"I was thrilled to meet Michael," Ding said. "I have long known him as a brilliant actor. After meeting him, I found him a charming, friendly and humorous person. While trying the demo, he was genuinely interested in the technology and asked us several in-depth questions about VR and its potential applications. I felt he is not only an actor, but a man who is constantly learning and has a vision of the entire entertainment industry."

Keaton described CMU's ETC students as "extraordinary" and "mind-blowing."

"They are the future," he said.


"This is an incredible opportunity for our students to get feedback from one of the most creative and influential talents of our time."— Ralph Vituccio, ETC Professor


"This is an incredible opportunity for our students to get feedback from one of the most creative and influential talents of our time," Vituccio said. "I've wanted to get Michael involved with the ETC for some years now. Every time we would get together I would always talk about the exciting projects I was working on with the students. He was always interested in hearing more and asking questions. One night when we were out together, I asked him to become a Visiting Scholar, and he agreed."

Vituccio said, "What’s truly a wonderful and unique story is that we've remained close friends ever since 9th grade. Every time Michael would come back to the 'Burgh, he would often make the effort to get family and a small group of friends together. He really didn't have to do it, but he always makes the effort. That is a rare thing in this day and age and says something about enduring friendships that last a lifetime.

Michael Keaton Q&A
Vituccio and Keaton hold a Q&A session with students.

"Michael's roots are Irish-Catholic and mine are Italian-Catholic, and coming from such strong ethnic backgrounds you grow up with certain values like being loyal and honest with the people around you. And if you’re not grounded or 'real,' believe me, family or friends would not allow you to get away with it."

After a short break for lunch, Keaton and Vituccio wrapped up the day with an entertaining and insightful Q&A session with students. Vituccio prodded his childhood pal, telling tales of their shared history.

"I always thought Mike would do well, but I never ever thought he would become the star that he is," Vituccio told the audience. "Not that I thought he couldn't do it. It's just the chances of that happening are like winning the lottery. Such a tiny percent in Hollywood get the good roles, and the rest are still waiting tables."

Keaton said it's about timing.

"Certain things happen in the world, and you're in the right place at the right time. And all you gotta do is just be locked in, and know that — or sense that — it's the right thing. And keep moving forward, stay focused and don’t back down," Keaton said.

He shared anecdotes from the set of Batman, explanations for why he did and didn’t accept a variety of different work, and offered career advice and his philosophy on life.

"The universal question for everyone is what do I want? Always drop back to that question," Keaton said. "The problem is, in the creative world it ain't easy. And it changes and shifts so fast now. You gotta just keep asking, what's going to make me happy? And on a practical level, what's going to keep food on the table? And as a creative person, am I going to be fed by this? Is it going to keep me inspired?"

Then, Keaton told students, look for the opportunities. And when they open, go.

"It's like when the offensive line opens, run through it and just keep on going. Don't let people back you down. Don't let circumstances wear you down," he said, "because they’re gonna."


"What’s really valuable for us is having people like Michael come in and share their expertise and their experiences with our students, who hope to shape the next generation to do the next big thing." — Drew Davidson, Director, ETC


"In his talk," Vituccio said, "Michael also mentioned about, in this phase of his career, he wanted to start giving back. And I know he would agree this is exactly what he had in mind. In future visits, I would love to get Michael onto main campus to visit with my IDeATe students and with the drama students as well. Mike loves Pittsburgh and CMU. In fact, his late wife Carolyn McWilliams was a graduate of the School of Drama and an accomplished actress in her own right."

Drew Davidson, director of the ETC and a teaching professor, summed up the enthusiasm over Keaton’s visit.

"We're just really excited. One, because he's a Pittsburgher and it's nice to have him come back home. But what's really valuable for us is having people like Michael come in and share their expertise and their experiences with our students, who hope to shape the next generation to do the next big thing," Davidson said. "It's that type of inspiration and challenge, in a way. He's told them, 'You can do better. You can do more.' That's what we're excited about."

Keaton's latest film, "Spotlight," won this year's Oscar for Best Picture. 

Actor Michael Keaton Discusses His New Role at the ETC