By Jeff Berg
Just over a year ago, Gov. Bill Richardson awarded New Mexico State University a $2 million grubstake that should eventually help decrease the distance between southern and northern New Mexico when it comes to attracting movie-making crews. The funding was 20 percent of the total allotment that had been made available for promoting film and media arts within the state. The allocation was designed to help create new programs in southern New Mexico, "in film and digital media, animation, visualization and related technologies."
Once an important part of the state's economy—north and south—movie shoots fell by the wayside for many years. But it appears that Hollywood has decided to give us another chance, as evidenced by last year's filming of scenes for North Country here last year. Short filmmakers along with television and advertising production crews are also keeping the state film office busy.
One of the more interesting, just-completed titles, for example, is The Astronaut Farmer, which is about a former NASA employee (Billy Bob Thornton), forced to retire to save his family farm, who decides to go to outer space in his own homemade rocket. There is hope that this film will have a special screening in Southwest New Mexico to tie in with the March lift-off of the first X Prize-related commercial space launch from the planned spaceport at Upham, north of Las Cruces.
Add to this moviemaking the number of revived, improved or brand-new film festivals taking place in every corner of the state. Gallup, Roswell, Alamogordo, Santa Fe and even Clovis now have film fests, and there are folks in Silver City and Las Cruces talking about hosting long weekends of movie madness.
Finally, of course, there are the filmmakers who already live here, plus tomorrow's would-be movie moguls. That's where the new film programs at NMSU and the Dona Ana Branch Community College (DABCC) come into focus. The DABCC program held its first classes this fall, and NMSU will begin film classes this semester. A kickoff ceremony for NMSU's new state-of-the-art digital media center will be held Friday, Jan. 6, from 1 to 3 p.m. in Milton Hall Room 185.
The Creative Media Institute (CMI) at NMSU was created with funding made available when NMSU Provost William Flores and Las Cruces-based playwright and filmmaker Mark Medoff pitched the governor on the idea. Once funding was granted, part-time New Mexico resident and former director of the prestigious American Film Institute (AFI), James Hindman, took on the job of consultant for the CMI project. Hindman's credentials also include stints as a documentary producer in the 1970s, and as teacher and instructor in various forms; he has a PhD in theater from the University of Georgia.
"I have had a house in Taos since 1994," Hindman says. "I was the CEO at AFI and retired in June of 2004, but have come to New Mexico at least one weekend a month for the last 10 years. When I retired, it was a goal of mine to spend more time in New Mexico."
That became possible after he met the provost through some business associates. "When he (Flores) got funding through the governor, I came to Las Cruces in October of 2004 and met with a number of people who were already involved in film production and training. I then sent (NMSU) President Martin a long analysis and report stating that 'you already have 70 percent of what you need for an undergraduate program in place. It might take a bit of magic, but (further development) of the planned program was not unthinkable.'"
Besides his new duties at NMSU, Hindman continues to be a part-time consultant to the film institute, and recently has also been working to create a film school in the kingdom of Jordan and in Korea. He feels that both countries are ready for these academies, as film has a "tremendous role in the cultures" of both countries, not to mention the economic potential. The Jordan venture may also include internships for NMSU students in the future.
As for the CMI program here at the university, Hindman says, "We have started CMI by assembling a faculty to design a curriculum. We asked: What kind of a person do you want to train for this? We are training people for careers, and we want to train storytellers. We are preparing them for an important future, and the curriculum is based on certain values, so we are helping people to find their own voice."
This will be a collaboration, Hindman says, adding, "We did not want to call it a 'film program.' The term 'Creative Media Institute' puts the emphasis on media. It is more of a linking or a pairing. What we are all in love with is screens and we are making things that can only exist on screens."
Hindman has been spending 10 days to two weeks in Las Cruces since signing on with CMI, commuting from his home in Santa Monica, Calif. His wife, Elizabeth Daley, is the dean of the film school at the University of Southern California.
The faculty that Hindman helped assemble includes some familiar names from the Las Cruces creative scene. CMI's curriculum coordinator and director of animation studies is Chris Kientz, an American Indian filmmaker noted for his work in computer animation. Kientz, whose involvement with the highly successful "Raven Tales" series of computer animated films has taken him across the globe in the last year, is also an active advocate and mentor to other Native American filmmakers and is involved in the All Roads Film Project sponsored by National Geographic magazine.
"My major interest with CMI is to make sure that graduates of the animation program can step directly into a career in either commercial or corporate animation," Kientz says. "The program has been designed to concentrate on both production issues, giving students a clear understanding of the tools available to them, as well as teaching them the central importance and function of narrative.
"I got involved pretty early on with CMI, when it was still in discussion stages," he goes on. "I expressed an interest in helping them develop an animation department that would address needs in both commercial and corporate sides of the business. 'Raven Tales' and my work at TRAC-WSMR have taught me that computer animation has a much wider application than most people realize."
Keintz worked with CMI to get funding from the state as well as some federal money. He says he's now working on getting additional state money for a "game/visualization lab."
Another area instructor involved in the early stages of the program is Rod McCall, a Hillsboro resident. McCall's first two feature films, Lewis and Clark and George and the wonderful made-in-New Mexico feature, Paper Hearts, both premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. For CMI, he plans to teach a course on storyboarding, an essential tool in the planning of a feature film.
"Drawing from my own experience, I want to teach a course about how the storyboard is more than just a tool to lay out camera angles and choreograph a scene or an action scene," McCall explains. "It is all of those things, but, more importantly, it's a critical structural element of filmmaking—a building block, if you will, to visual storytelling. I want to show how a single image and a series of images can tell a story, create an emotion—without words. It's like the old acting-school exercise where students are required to act out scenes with just facial expressions, body language and other actions before they are allowed to say anything. My storyboard course will be like teaching silent movie making—a series of specific visuals to tell a story, which, in turn, I think, will make the use of dialogue—when the student gets to the scriptwriting stage—ultimately more elegant and sharp. It will make the filmmaking (and the storytelling) more visual and pure. In other words, 'show me, don't tell me.""
In his spare time, McCall also has his fourth feature film in development, one he has written and will direct, called Traveling Salesmen. He describes it as a comedy fable about two Iowa guys who, desperate to save their small town from bankruptcy, go on the road to sell an unusual and very, shall we say, "personal" product. McCall is also developing "Eight American Buildings That Changed the World," an eight-hour TV series about the history of 20th-century architecture, with Paul Goldberger, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic for The New York Times and the New Yorker magazine.
A number of other committed individuals are involved in the CMI program, including Cissie Lujan-Pincomb, special projects coordinator and liaison, and Monica Torres, an assistant professor of English and women's studies at NMSU, who is a member of the advisory board.
Besides developing classes, CMI is planning a place for movies: On the drawing board is the construction of a 100-plus seat THX Theater. The theater will adhere to the THX technical standards developed by Lucasfilm to ensure that moviegoers see and hear a film at optimum performance levels, as the director intended. It will be New Mexico's first such venue.
Unlike many programs that are talked about and spoken of in terms of "someday," Hindman insists, "We are creating a place where filmmakers will want to create and bring their work. We are doing it, not just sitting around."
A parallel program to NMSU's Creative Media Institute is the Dona Ana Branch Community College's (DABCC) Creative Media Technology (CMT) Program for Film and Digital Arts. Chaired by Rebecca Kongs, professor of digital imaging and design technology, the program held its first series of classes during this fall. The CMT program consists of two nine-credit, 12-week courses, held on Saturdays. Approximately 30 different classes were offered in fall 2005.
All of last semester's classes were taught by union-certified instructors, and gave students the chance to work with state-of-the-art equipment. The goal is to enable graduates to be voted into the union (IATSE Local 480), and to become part of a mentor program sponsored by the state film office.
CMT was developed in part because of the need for support positions brought on by the number of production companies using New Mexico as a workplace. Instruction concentrates on behind-the-scenes jobs, such as electrician, grip (the people who move and maintain production equipment on a set), wardrobe, hair and makeup and the like.
The course catalog also touches on design and theory; technical classes that work with software programs such as Photoshop, Maya and Final Cut Pro; plus general education classes. The other idea behind CMT is to prepare graduates for admission into NMSU's Creative Media Institute.
"We prepare students to go anywhere," says assistant professor Abby Osborne. "By the time they finish the classes here, they could go anywhere. They can earn an associates degree. It is two years of solid training, and we get them ready complete with portfolio, demo and other materials."
In turn, the DABCC program gets some crossover from NMSU. Mark Rosenberg, assistant professor of digital graphics technology, notes, "We often get students from the recommendation of others, since we have such 'cool classes.'" Adjunct professor Mike Brown adds, "We even have two NMSU grad students."
"One indication of the success of the program," says Rosenberg, "is that some of the work that has been done by our students has won top prizes at the Organ Mountain Film Festival. Some of our students have also been chosen to finish up work on several music videos that were being produced at the Carlsbad branch."
Cissie Lujan-Pincomb and CMT adjunct professor Lamaia Vaughn developed the Organ Mountain Film Festival several years ago. It's open to filmmakers of all ages, but especially encourages students to submit their short film work for judging and screening.
"One of the current class projects is a video shoot of a house being built," says Rosenberg. "It is taking place all semester and in April or May we will be able to put together the entire video project." This is a continuing project that is being supported by Las Cruces City Council member Dolores Connor, he says, adding, "We will go on to another house, and the students may have to go through the whole process, including getting the various building permits."
Typical of the expertise CMT students can tap is Mike Laurance, who is serving as an adjunct professor and director of operations for the program. Laurance brings 30 years of still and motion picture photography to the program; he is also a graphic designer dabbling in advertising. "I have probably worked every job (related to filmmaking) from production assistant to director and producer," Laurance says. (You can view some of his outstanding photos at www.zianet.com/laurance/SwellPhotographer.html.) He is also one of the few instructors so far who will cross over to the CMI program, where he will also teach cinematography.
Laurance emphasizes the need for properly trained people to fill the technology jobs created as the media "frenzy" continues in New Mexico. In the past, the lack of such trained people has kept film companies from coming here, he says. "We are training people for jobs that do exist and are needed, and the more business there is, the more work there is, and the more people are needed."
Some of the state incentives for film production companies require that students and trainees be employed, Laurance notes. "If they fit the requirements, then the state will give them tax breaks and rebates for the use of student trainees."
He says that media production work is now one of the top three revenue generators in the state, trailing only behind oil and gas production and the dairy industry. "It has generated $500 million in the last 23 months alone. There are eight films currently in production, and 33 have been shot here since the incentives came into being."
Recently, Laurance and a group of CMT students went to Carlsbad to shoot a Christmas special featuring noted country singer Randy Travis, titled "Christmas in Carlsbad." Laurance explains, "It was a small project. It will be offered by the department of tourism to the television networks, and a DVD will also be issued. It features an all-student crew working with a professional director and lead people.
"Digital filmmaking really trains people to work in many different fields," he goes on. "It goes well beyond movies, and includes everything from medicine to games."
Although new and still small, the CMT program has proven to be popular. Adjunct professor Vaughn says, "We are bursting at the seams for all programs." The program has the capacity for only 14 openings at this time, but expansion is planned and underway. Two sections of video editing will be offered this spring, and it seems likely that the program will be moving to bigger digs at DABCC's East Mesa Campus in the fall of 2006.
"There is a lot of traditional thinking that is being redesigned across campus and department lines," says Laurance. "They are making a connection systemwide, and the project administrators have given us all the opportunity to excel."
In other words, lights, camera, action!