A Seat In The Cinematic Classroom
With so many people moving to Georgia for the film industry, it’s no wonder that many of Atlanta’s universities have either grown or completely transformed...
With so many people moving to Georgia for the film industry, it’s no wonder that many of Atlanta’s universities have either grown or completely transformed their film programs to accommodate the cinematic boom happening in the state. Oglethorpe University, Georgia State University (GSU), and Emory University have all been at the forefront in fostering film communities within the academic world. The professors, program coordinators, and department heads of these film programs have meticulously planned and fought to create the impressive and impactful film programs that have now become crowning jewels for some of these educational institutions. Both Oglethorpe and Emory have brand new film programs that launched this very year. Meanwhile, GSU’s film department has been climbing the ladder of academic prowess for years to rightfully establish itself as one of the nation’s top film programs. Each of these three universities offer students something different, but they all have similar goals: to lift up new voices, to train students to be world-class film industry professionals and to give their students the tools they need to go out in the world to both view and make movies with undeniable skill and intention.
Oz recently spoke to a few key players within the film programs of Oglethorpe, GSU, and Emory to hear what each one had to say about their experience on the academic side of film studies and film production.
The Oglethorpe Objective
Before 2020, if you wanted to study filmmaking at Oglethorpe, you had to be a studio arts major with a concentration in filmmaking, video, and photography. This changed largely thanks to Dr. Katharine Zakos, Oglethorpe’s Program Coordinator for the brand new Film and Media Studies Department, which launched this past January. The program offers both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and requires students take courses in history, theory, and practice. Planning and fleshing out a new film and media studies program at Oglethorpe was an arduous process, however, and one that Dr. Zakos has been working towards her entire academic career. One institution she is happy to credit with helping her along the way? Georgia State University.
"I FELT LIKE I COULD MAKE MORE OF A DIFFERENCE IN THE CLASSROOM BY HELPING PEOPLE [AND] PREPARING THEM TO ENTER THE INDUSTRY.”
- DR. KATHARINE ZAKOS
“All my degrees are from Georgia State,” Dr. Zakos proudly credited her alma mater. “I originally did a political science degree. I completed that in 2007 and then after that, I went on to work on my Master’s in mass communications, because my focus was on political news media and that was the direction I was kind of moving in … the more I did, the more I became interested in … film and media, [and the] entertainment industry, more broadly. After I finished the Master’s I started the Ph.D. of moving image studies.”
While completing her Master’s in mass communications, Dr. Zakos served as an advisor for GSU’s Communications Department. During this time, she met and spoke with many undergraduate students who were majoring in film and video. Her conversations with them and the positive feedback she received about the film program was part of what made her decide to pursue a Ph.D. in moving image studies. And although Dr. Zakos has family in the industry and is therefore quite familiar with it herself, GSU’s program still opened her up to a whole new world.
“When I started in the Ph.D. program,” Dr. Zakos recounted, “I recognized that there was so much I didn’t know about the history, the theory, and the studies side of it, which actually kind of informed my understanding of how the industry works today and where we’re at now, why we do the things we do. And even as far as techniques and things like that, it’s really fascinating to understand where things have originated, why they originated, why they may or may not have changed over the years.”
It was the hands-on teaching experience that Dr. Zakos enjoyed most during her graduate studies at GSU. While many teacher’s assistants (TA) spend the majority of their time grading papers or taking attendance, GSU’s TAs do far more interactive work with their students. In the classroom, Dr. Zakos saw her own potential for working in academia and made the decision to pursue an academic career in film instead of going into production.
“I felt like I could make more of a difference in the classroom by helping people [and] preparing them to enter the industry,” Dr. Zakos said. “One thing in particular that I found especially helpful — like when I was at Georgia State — I would bring in all my friends and other people who worked in the industry. They were very generous with their time. They would come speak to my classes for free and tell them the actual, you know, ‘This is what we actually do day to day.’ I think people have all these ideas of, ‘I’m going to be a director! I’m going to be this! I’m going to be that!’ And I think we don’t quite know what really goes into these roles or how they’re the same or separate in different places.”
For Dr. Zakos, pursuing a career in academia was never going to be a choice between film production and film studies. Dr. Zakos understands the importance of having both practical and theoretical skills in your toolbox when engaging with the film industry. And with skill often comes intention: a vital part of successful filmmaking.
“For me,” Dr. Zakos began, “it’s about knowing and making informed, deliberate decisions. So even if you think from a creative perspective, if I want to shoot a short film or write a screenplay or something like that, it’s helpful to me to understand what choices to make. It’s one thing to be able to say, ‘I know how to light a scene,’ but it’s another to then think about, ‘Well why would I light it this way and what’s the impact?’ And also to think and understand the legacy. So many filmmakers and media makers, in general, were all inspired by different people and so we’re all kind of … legacies of people who come before.”
Legacy and history is something you’ll hear more than once in this piece, because film professors, filmmakers, and film lovers alike understand how past creators still have an impact on what’s being made today.
“You look at someone like Tarantino and you see why he does the things he does and you look at all the different callbacks he’s doing to different genres and people. I think that that’s helpful in developing our own voice as creatives, and thinking about the most effective way of telling the story you want to tell,” Zakos said.
Learning how to tell a story through film and, furthermore, finding your cinematic voice is not unique to Oglethorpe’s film program. GSU was also instrumental in teaching Dr. Zakos the importance of these lessons. Both programs aim to equip students with the tools they need to make great films and cultivate their own unique creative voices, but their approaches to such tasks — as well as their means — differ in a few ways. For one, the sizes of both universities could not be more contrasting.
“Oglethorpe does not have the resources that Georgia State has. Georgia State is huge,” Dr. Zakos said. “There are a lot of really cool things they’re able to do, especially with the Creative Media Industries Institute. That was developed while I was there, and it’s really gone crazy in the time since I left. For us at Oglethorpe, we focus on what we can do and we try to do that really well.”
Dr. Zakos cites Oglethorpe’s smaller size as a benefit to their film students. With a smaller university comes smaller class sizes, which means students have more one-on-one time with their professors. In addition, Oglethorpe has students jump into the production side of filmmaking right from the get-go. For those interested in the practical side of filmmaking, there are no barriers to entry, no waiting lines, and no applications necessary to take those classes.
“At Oglethorpe, because they’re taking that intro to production class early on, there are no prerequisites to the class,” Dr. Zakos added. “They can get in there and get their hands on equipment that first semester, right away. We can offer that. It’s not something that they have to wait for and hope they get in.”
Because Oglethorpe’s film and media studies program just launched this year, Dr. Zakos cannot speak on the success of her alumni; however, Oglethorpe alumni from the studio arts major with a concentration in filmmaking, video, and photography have gone on to work various jobs within Georgia’s film and media industries.
“We have students who have interned at Third Rail [Studios] and then gone on to do stuff with them,” Dr. Zakos explained. “One of our grads is actually working at a talent agency right now at People Store in Atlanta. We have quite a few students who are independent filmmakers … they’re working on documentaries and submitting them to film festivals. And then we have grads who have gone in kind of different directions. Like we have people who have gone on to work for CNN for instance. A lot of it’s very interest-based.”
Regardless of where your interests lie within the realm of filmmaking, Oglethorpe’s new Film and Media Studies Department has something for everyone.
Georgia State University’s Rise to the Top
30 years ago, Georgia State University was hardly a big name in film and media studies, but a lot has changed over the past two decades. Atlanta’s growth as one of the largest media capitals in the country is part of what caused GSU to step up their game within the Film and Media Department. However, it would be remiss not to recognize that Atlanta’s industry success is also partly thanks to GSU. Professors, program coordinators, department heads, and college deans worked tirelessly to make GSU what it is today. Dr. Philip Lewis, a Senior Professor in the School of Film, Media, and Theatre, and Dr. Jennifer Barker, Director of Graduate Studies for the moving image program and Associate Professor of communications, are pillars of the film community at GSU who have watched the program ascend the ranks to establish itself as one of the best in the country.
"YOU'RE LEARNING HOW TO RACK FOCUS AND ABOUT NEUTRAL DENSITY FILTERS — STUFF THAT YOU JUST DON’T LEARN AT OTHER SCHOOLS UNTIL YOUR JUNIOR YEAR OR SENIOR YEAR, IF EVER. THAT APPROACH MADE ME COME HERE AND BE PROUD OF IT.”
When asked about the program’s humble beginnings, Dr. Lewis described it as, “One professor [and] some camcorders in the Journalism Department.” Dr. Lewis received his Master’s from Indiana University and his Ph.D. from Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia in 2006. He has worked as a filmmaker for almost 40 years in many different cities and was living in New Mexico when he received a job offer from GSU.
“I was recruited from New Mexico State University to be one of the faculty and I said, ‘Atlanta?’” Dr. Lewis recalled. “This particular program attracted me because your freshman year you take two introductory history classes and then you’re in Production 1 and you’re holding onto a $5000 ENG couple-year old camera and you’re learning how to use it. You're learning how to rack focus and about neutral density filters — stuff that you just don’t learn at other schools until your junior year or senior year, if ever. That approach made me come here and be proud of it.”
Dr. Barker had a similar experience. In 2004 she earned her Ph.D. from University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). From 2004 to 2008 Dr. Barker taught courses in the Radio, TV, and Film Department at Northwestern University in Chicago. She also spent time as a Visiting Assistant Professor of film at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. While there, she discovered GSU’s burgeoning film program.
“I got a call from [Georgia State] because they were developing their Ph.D. program. That’s what they primarily brought me here to do,” Dr. Barker recounted. “One of the things I learned as soon as I got here is that every single class we have — every model, every module we teach — is meant to go cross-platform. So for instance, if I’m teaching a course on style or genre or author, [students] can write on television, they can write on film, they can write on music video or advertising or whatever it is they want.”
GSU offers a Bachelor’s degree in film and media, which largely concerns itself with the histories and theories of cinematic, electronic, and digital media. This program also provides students with practical experience in film production. For those who aspire to obtain a higher degree, the Master’s program in communications has a concentration in film, video, and digital imaging. Within this Master’s program are two tracks. “One is Film and Media Production and you can make music videos, you can do stop-motion animation, you can do whatever you want. The other one we call Critical Studies, or Studies, and that is the one that covers theory, history, [and] genres,” Dr. Barker explained.
The moving image production and moving image studies programs contain a multitude of classes, but requiring degree candidates of either concentration to take classes in the opposite program is what makes professors like Dr. Barker and Dr. Lewis proud to teach at GSU.
“We are starting to do some co-talk classes, which is something we’ve always wanted to do but never had the flexibility at the administrative level to do that,” Dr. Barker said. “A lot of us are like-minded when it comes to wanting to include production assignments for our studies students and studies type work for our production students. It’s rarely just one or the other.”
“There is definitely a crossover that’s not typical in a film school,” Dr. Lewis added. “Most film schools focus on one thing or another, so I think that we’re able to walk the walk and talk the talk when it comes to production.”
GSU’s wide variety of production classes is part of what makes their film program so special. Dr. Lewis considers these classes a vital part of any film major’s curriculum. “Obviously there are certain things in production that you have to have — cinematography classes, editing classes, special FX classes, producing classes — and then elements like documentary, fiction production, experimental, and expression,” Dr. Lewis said. “I think every school should have all of those in it! But we also teach 16 and 35mm film classes. We just started an animation class as well, and we’re now doing sound design and combining working with composers in the film school. So we’re putting directors and composers together and that’s a can of worms that most schools can’t have.”
Like Dr. Zakos at Oglethorpe, Dr. Barker understands the importance of teaching film students the theory and history side of cinema as well. She also understands how important it is to compare and contrast older films with contemporary ones, as well as to include an array of diverse voices that far too often are pushed to the last two weeks of class.
“I teach early cinema while I’m teaching the Avengers,” Dr. Barker said. “My colleagues try to mix up the old and the new. They try not to put all of the female filmmakers into a two-week period for example. They use African American filmmakers to demonstrate editing, and not just in the last two weeks of the class or whatnot, as one of my colleagues would say.”
When asked what they liked most about working at GSU, Dr. Barker and Dr. Lewis both cited the diverse student body and the palpable ambition those students have when it comes to filmmaking. “We have students who are parents, we have students who go on to do production, who go on to be lawyers … It’s just a diverse classroom in a lot of different ways,” Dr. Barker said.
“[Our alumni] end up in film crews of course, in television crews — “Ozark” and Black Panther — that’s pretty obvious. But we also have people who are editors over at Warner Media,” Dr. Barker said. “We’re speckled all over. We’re working corporate communications, we work at churches running the board on doing dynamic church services. We work for the Falcons running their media! So there isn’t one thing — we give them a lot of skills.”
Emory’s New Clothes
Emory recently gave their film program a major facelift. This fall, Emory’s Media Studies Department and the Film Studies Department will merge to become the Film and Media Studies Department. The merge didn’t happen overnight, however, and the history of studying film at Emory has been a process in the making since the 1980s. In fact originally, if you wanted to study film at Emory, you would declare yourself a theatre studies major with a concentration in film. Dr. Matthew Bernstein, the Department Chair for the Film and Media Studies Department, saw the need for a bigger and better film program as early as 2006. Dehanza Rogers, Assistant Professor of cinematography and narrative filmmaking, also saw the potential Emory had for creating an impactful and unique program.
WE WANT TO CONTRIBUTE TO A CREATIVE COMMUNITY THAT IS ACTUALLY COMMITTED TO WORKING IN GEORGIA. WE HAVE A LOT TO CONTRIBUTE AND I THINK IT’S ONLY GOING TO GET RICHER AND BETTER.” -DR. MATTHEW BERNSTEIN”
“We began in 1986 with one faculty member,” Dr. Bernstein recalled. “When I arrived in 1989, I was the third hire and we were strictly a studies program. When I became Chair in the fall of 2006, I persuaded the Dean at that time to invest a couple of thousand dollars so we could buy some rudimentary filmmaking equipment. We’ve just tried to grow that from there.”
Before, the film department wasn’t a film department at all but simply an appendage to the theatre school. Now, the Film and Media Studies Department can offer students a wide range of classes that equip them with an assortment of skills and knowledge. Course topics cover everything from film genres to cinematography, the history of American television, French cinema, and even a philosophy course called “Time and Space Media.”
Meanwhile, Rogers saw the industry boom that was happening in Atlanta when living in California. Rogers attended UCLA for a dual Master’s of Fine Arts in cinematography and production/ directing. Having lived in California for years, Rogers had come to realize that LA filmmaking was expensive and, at times, exploitive. She jumped at the opportunity to work at Emory.
“I was drawn to Atlanta being a space where a lot of filmmaking is happening, … I lived in LA for quite some time and I understand what filmmaking looks like there, and the cost of filmmaking, as opposed to what it looks like here in Atlanta. It’s a little more cost-effective as an independent filmmaker than it is in LA, because if you’re on a set and you live in a neighborhood, you can kind of extort a production out of their money, while here it’s a lot cheaper to find labor as well as locations. That really appealed to me,” Rogers explained. “The cost of living is lower as well, as there’s a lot of filmmaking happening, and it’s a budding independent scene.”
On the production side of things, Emory offers courses that focus on screenwriting, cinematography, producing, documentary filmmaking, and more. Students are also required to take a “practice class” that gives them hands-on experience with filmmaking. Additionally, Emory has partnered its Film Department with the university’s Gouizueta Business School for a concentration on the business side of the entertainment industry.
“We’re the first department in the college to create a partnership with the business school, and it’s really about training students to be able to work in the industry,” Dr. Bernstein said. “Just understanding how the industry works, understanding the various roles people can play. It’s distinct from production in a certain way, but there’s also a certain amount of overlap. Some production students are in the concentration. That’s been a real boon for our students and something that sets us apart from, I think, any other program in Atlanta.”
“When you learn to produce, you understand the intricacies of production itself,” Rogers said when asked about the importance of including production courses in the curriculum.
“When we’re talking about interpretation, we’re talking about getting students to appreciate the thousands and thousands of decisions that are made … how do those decisions create meaning?” Dr. Bernstein added. “How might they have done this scene differently, in terms of the camera work or the editing or the blocking? Students learning what goes into filmmaking is so crucially important.”
“It’s not something that just happens on the fly and, when I first started teaching, students were in awe of the fact that you shoot a scene multiple times from multiple angles. So I think that’s where production really comes in and helps them understand, ‘Oh this theory means this,’ but it’s more complex and more layered once you have the production side, the understanding of the filmmaking,” Rogers explained.
The reverse is also true: those who work primarily in production can also greatly benefit from studying the theoretical side of film.
“I think going backwards,” Rogers began, “you’ve already done the thing — you’ve already created something — but going back and looking at the history and the interpretation and the analysis helps you realize, ‘Oh there’s a better way I could have done that.’ It’s after the fact, right?”
“History is a treasure house of ideas about technique and creating meaning in certain ways,” Dr. Bernstein said. “One of our alums, who is an agent, was telling me that because he studied film history, when he starts talking to film directors, if they’re referencing Nicholas Ray and they love Nicholas Ray, having that knowledge and being able to connect on that level helps create a rapport that can turn into a creative partnership.”
Though Atlanta’s university film programs have done a staggering amount of heavy lifting to help turn the local industry into what it is today, there is still work to be done. “A major next step is to center content creation here — have content originate here,” Dr. Bernstein said. “We want to contribute to a creative community that is actually committed to working in Georgia. We have a lot to contribute and I think it’s only going to get richer and better.”
“Atlanta right now is labor and extras, because your department heads are still coming from LA and New York … so I think [Georgia] film schools are starting to develop and cultivate department heads — people who are gonna be a little higher up on the food chain,” Rogers said. “We’re really trying to create a culture of filmmakers.”