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Digital Cinema program at SOU is a hit

Incoming students are flocking to Southern Oregon University’s newest and most popular degree program — Digital Cinema — which they say differs from other film schools in putting students hands-on in all aspects of movie and television from day one, preparing them to get entry-level production assistant jobs right after graduation.

“When they walk in here, we tell students, ‘You’re here to be storytellers and learn to use film production equipment to do it,’” says department chief Andrew Gay, who teaches a range of courses, including virtual reality, directing, producing and storytelling.

Most film schools require a portfolio for admission and focus on the academics — the history and theory of film, says Gay, who sold the major as a new animal to provide total immersion in all aspects of film-TV, including a capstone project called “the Crew Experience.”

Crew Experience students this spring shot a scripted (fictional) film called “Eight and Sand,” and raised $6,000 on crowdsourcing website indiegogo for food, travel, location rental and professional talent. The film is about two sisters trying to fulfill a dying mother’s challenging last wish — much of it in the outback of Southern Oregon.

Crew Experience is an upper division, 12-credit project in the junior and senior year where students interview for a role, get admitted, hire actors, and have industry professionals mentor and advise them so they can start their life’s work knowing “how to behave on set, keep employed and get hired again.”

Students who signed up for a sitcom class in January have produced a half-hour pilot show called “Local Heroes.” It uses local actors and will premiere on campus this month, with teachers and industry veterans and show writers Jim and Beth Falkenstein attempting to market it after that to the TV business.

It will debut at 1 p.m., Saturday, March 14, at Meese Auditorium at the SOU Art Building. It’s free and open to the public.

The show was mainly written by Beth Falkenstein, who worked on NBC’s “Mad About You” in the 1990s. Another sitcom teacher, Randy Cordray, worked on “The Office.”

“The beauty of this degree is that it’s not snooty,” says Jim Falkenstein. “These students are willing to learn and get to work on it. They’re excited they might work in the business. There are so many opportunities for motivated people — and TV shows are great fun.”

When Junior Marjorie Miller gets her digital cinema degree next year, she plans a move to Los Angeles to open a career in the administrative and organizational side of TV-film, noting, “That’s my thing. I found my passion and got the hands-on experience. I loved the sitcom class, but I want to do production scheduling and budgeting, not the creative stuff.”

Senior Anna Mendes of Redding, California, says she was drawn to an education in Ashland because “the university is known for arts and film, as is the whole community. It wasn’t a hard choice. I loved the sitcom course. It got me interested in directing, and I will be heading to LA to seek work as first assistant cameraman.”

Mendes observes that colleges usually require two years in basics, then you get to your major. Here, “you go out and shoot. I did a short film in my first year and will graduate with a film reel of my work.”

Gay notes “unprecedented interest” not just regionally, but from all Northwest states and California. One couple, professionals in the film industry in Los Angeles, said they wanted their daughter to study in a different atmosphere, one with “a sense of family, instead of being in a big university and big city, where it’s very competitive and you need a portfolio to get in.”

The degree started last fall term.

Teacher Chris Lucas, a board member of the Ashland Independent Film Festival, says the degree blossomed because “there’s a lot of untapped potential in this region. We’re close to production centers in California and Portland, lots of folks with professional skills have moved here from California — and the weather is great for shooting. Students can job-shadow with professionals here. We wanted to make the crew base and the area more attractive to creative workers.”

The degree is now drawing “returning students,” that is, older people or retirees who don’t seek a degree, but want to pick up skills to make films or TV about nonprofits they’re involved in — or personal passions.

The department’s home page, sou.edu/academics/digital-cinema, pitches the degree like this: “Digital Cinema provides students with highly experiential education in visual storytelling, creative problem-solving and professional collaboration. While rooted in the film school tradition, Digital Cinema embraces entrepreneurship and innovation to prepare students for dynamic careers in an expanding video arts and entertainment landscape that includes conventional motion pictures, documentary media, streaming television, web series, virtual reality, social and mobile media, live and interactive media experiences, film festivals and cinematic platforms and technologies that have yet to be invented.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Marjorie Miller, Digital Cinema student, and Danielle Mancuso, Associate Director of Student Life, record a intro to a new student online orientation program.
Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneMiles Treece works Tuesday on a production at the Southern Oregon University Digital Media Center.