In two short years, Liberty University's Cinematic Arts, Zaki Gordon Center has gained recognition as one of the country's top Christian film schools. The highly demanding, two-year cohort program extends beyond the traditional model of film education, making it one of the most unique options for aspiring filmmakers today.
The center celebrated its first graduating class on May 10, as 28 graduates earned B.S. degrees in Cinematic Arts. With the opportunities to learn from professionals, work with the latest technology, and meet actors, directors, and producers who have earned acclaim on the big screen, these graduates already hold impressive resumes.
Cinematic arts graduate Sharon Chimere-Dan arrived at Liberty at just the right time, and with a big dream. The international student from South Africa came by faith, praying that a film program would launch in time for her to earn a degree.
"My interest in movie-making had grown, and I knew it was what I wanted to study. I questioned the decision to go to a school that did not have that program," she said. "However, the Lord made it abundantly clear that Liberty was where He wanted me to go. Then, two years into my time here — and just in time — He brought the cinematic arts program."
Chimere-Dan said she wanted to learn to make movies in a Christian environment because she wasn’t interested in "the corrupted mindset" that often accompanies the visual arts.
"What I want to produce will be for the body of Christ, so it made sense to me to spend my schooling years in a place that would help me in figuring out how to do that in interesting and clever ways," she said.
Chimere-Dan will start her M.B.A. at Liberty soon, hoping to gain the knowledge to eventually become an executive producer. She has already worked on two feature films while at Liberty, learning every step of the filmmaking process.
"Liberty's cinematic arts program has brought me up to speed in what it takes to actually get a movie made and distributed, from both the creative side and the business side," she said. "It has also gotten me in contact with so many people that I would never have otherwise imagined interacting with. I have gotten to network with industry professionals and my peers alike. That will pay off many times over as my career progresses."
The cinematic arts program, part of the School of Communication & Creative Arts, saturates students in the filmmaking process during their junior and senior years. Students formally apply to the program in their sophomore year, having completed three core classes in screenwriting, motion picture directing, and cinematography before being accepted.
This fall, the program will have close to 70 cinematic arts majors, with the number expected to grow to 120 by 2015. About 100 students have chosen to minor in cinematic arts. The staff is also working with other academic departments to offer cognates. History students, for example, could take a cinematic arts course to help them produce historical documentaries, and worship and religion majors could learn how to use the latest in media technology to communicate the Gospel.
The hallmark of the program is its "learn-by-doing" philosophy.
"It's about getting out of the classroom and into the environment — cameras, scripts, and lights in hand, working sometimes around the clock," said Stephan Schultze, the program's executive director. "It's hands-on in every aspect. It's real movie-making on sets with professional actors and directors."
Not unlike Hollywood, the program operates on a tight schedule. It isn't unusual for students to begin their days before the sun rises and end them long after it sets behind the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains.
"Our students know this is a rigorous program," Schultze said, "but they are dedicated to making the most of their time here, and they start to see the benefits very quickly."
Recent graduate Wes Reed said he doesn't think he'll ever be more busy in his life than he was this past year.
"The learning experience is fast-paced, and it's extraordinary how much you learn so quickly," he said. "With the desire and passion everyone here has, you can tell people want to do this and make it as good as they can."
Visit the department's production office on the first floor in Marie F. Green Hall while a feature film is underway (one is produced each academic year) and you will see this intense training environment firsthand. A location list is being modified over and over on a white board. Production assistants are on telephones following up on casting calls. Directors are going in and out of doors with scripts in tow.
When actor/producer Kirk Cameron toured Liberty's facilities for the first time, just shortly after the program launched, he noted that its unique approach to film education was working. Students followed Cameron on a tour of the cinematic arts facilities and filmed an interview with him and President Jerry Falwell. Cameron and his personal film crew were impressed that the students — some only months into the program — were handling the project on their own.
"Learning by doing is the best way to learn how to make a film, write a script, act, and direct," Cameron said. "These students are learning on the equipment that is being used today, on real sets, for films that will get real distribution. So there's real skin in the game. These students are learning much more quickly because they're not just learning theory and taking tests, they're actually doing this and making movies."
Knowing that the work they produce won't just receive a grade and remain on a professor's hard drive, students are empowered to make the most of their opportunities at Liberty.
Graduates leave with much more than just a degree. They also will have a completed screenplay, a business plan to market and fund it, a short film they wrote and directed, and real-world career training, including feature film credit and experience working with industry veterans like Cameron. Liberty students also worked on the bonus features for Cameron’s DVD, "Unstoppable," a film that premiered on Liberty's campus last year.
It won't be long before film students and alumni can read their names among the scrolling credits.
The department's first feature film, "77 Chances," is in editing now, and plans are being made for national distribution. The second film, "Altar Egos," ended production just before graduation. It stars former "Saturday Night Live" cast member Victoria Jackson and actor Robert Amaya ("Moms' Night Out," "Courageous") and is produced by Justin Tolley (producer of "October Baby" and production coordinator for TV’s "Lost"). Both were filmed in Lynchburg.
In between semesters, students are also making the most of their summer breaks. Last summer, students showcased their skills as interns on the sets of "Moms' Night Out" (released in May and starring Patricia Heaton and Sean Astin) and "Like a Country Song" (released in June and starring Billy Ray Cyrus). Many of the interns were offered paid positions by the middle of production.
Recent graduate Seth Houser worked on the set of "Moms' Night Out."
"Because we had just come off of our first film set (at Liberty), my fellow film students and I had no trouble transitioning at all (to the Hollywood movie set)," he said. "We were actually able to help teach some of the other interns on set how things worked on a movie."
Houser said he felt blessed to have already worked on two feature film sets before graduation.
"Liberty's film school is doing things the way film school should be done," he added. "I now have connections in the industry that will help me get a job right out of college and that is something that not every college student gets."
This summer Houser has been invited along with three other recent cinematic arts graduates to work in Charlotte, N.C., on the set of a new film from industry veterans and brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick (creators of "Fireproof" and "Courageous").
The university has made a significant investment in facilities and equipment to ensure that the program is keeping in step with the industry. Phase II of construction was completed in the spring, more than doubling the department's space in Green Hall.
"The facilities have been designed to give students the opportunity to work with the tools they will have on the job, on the movie sets, and in the editing rooms of major film studios," Schultze said. "We have provided them with the best equipment that is out there for moviemakers."
Even Kirk Cameron remarked during his visit that "most production companies don't have the equipment Liberty has."
The center can already stake the claim to the only THX-certified sound mixing stage on the East Coast.
A recent 16,500-square-foot expansion, bringing the total square footage to close to 27,000, features state-of-the-art audio and video filming and editing technology. The center now has five editing suites, each equipped with full HDX ProTools systems, Adobe Premiere video editing software, 84-inch Ultra High-Def monitors for color grading, and Crestron integration for routing of audio and video. Two more 60-seat, surround-sound classrooms have been added, as well as a new theater-style, 24-seat DaVinci Color Timing Room, two new ADR (Additional Dialogue Recording) booths to record dialogue and narration, and a new "wet foley" room for capturing sound effects using liquids.
The center had to double the size of its computer server room to accommodate the new technology. The main equipment room, where students can check out RED cameras (considered the best on the market), lighting equipment, and other gear, quickly filled up in Green Hall and was relocated to a larger warehouse space near Candlers Station Shopping Center.
Schultze said the center is one of the most requested destinations for prospective students and their parents who visit campus.
Kirk Cameron joins a list of film professionals who are building a relationship with Liberty and the cinematic arts center.
Professionals hold workshops, guest lecture in classrooms, and participate in the center's annual premiere film festival over Labor Day Weekend. The festival is free and open to the public and features movies from major film studios prior to their national release. In addition, the audience gets to hear from the films' creators.
In January, "Son of God" and "The Bible" producers Roma Downey ("Touched By an Angel") and husband Mark Burnett (creator of "Survivor," "The Voice," and other hit reality series) toured the facilities and held a question-and-answer session with film students after speaking to the student body in Convocation. The couple also sponsored a video contest for Liberty students to create a trailer for the movie "Son of God." The winners — eight cinematic arts students and two digital media and communication arts students — traveled to Hollywood in May to meet Downey and Burnett and attend a taping of "The Voice."
Burnett told the students that they are at a perfect training ground: "The fact that you are at Liberty means that you are advantaged. Your minds are being trained for leadership and your hearts are being trained for service."
Screenwriter, director, and producer Randall Wallace ("Braveheart," "Pearl Harbor," "Secretariat") has visited campus a few times, most recently in March when he was previewing his latest project, "Heaven is for Real." After he spoke in Convocation, Wallace talked to the cinematic arts students about the art of storytelling and later joined more than 1,000 students and members of Liberty's administration at a nearby movie theater for an advance showing of his newest film, which is based on the best-selling novel of the same name.
Stars of the big screen and television actually made Liberty their home for a couple of months during the filming of "Altar Egos." Victoria Jackson described Liberty as "almost like heaven up on a hill."
"On the set, everybody is so positive," she said. "In the real world, there’s always undercurrents of tension, darkness — and it's the opposite here. I've also noticed that all of the students give 100 percent, just like the Bible verse (Ecclesiastes 9:10) that says, 'Whatsoever thy hand find to do, do it with all thy might.'"
"They're doing it," Robert Amaya agreed.
"The school's amazing," he said. "I am so impressed with the cinematic arts department and the amount of equipment that they use and the students and the level of education that they have for them. I'm thoroughly impressed with the set and how they run it with this amount of students," he said. "It blows my mind how professional everyone is. You have to make yourself remember that they're students — it's amazing."
Justin Tolley, the film’s producer, traveled from his home in Nashville, Tenn. He said that he is impressed with the program and would recommend it to any budding filmmaker.
"Liberty is committed to excellence. They're training the students on the best gear, and I don't know of another university where part of your requirement for getting a degree is to work on a feature film."
Tolley said Liberty's program couldn't have come at a better time because the scene has been set for Christian films to make a bold statement in the industry.
"This year alone, there are about 14 films targeted at a faith-based audience, which is spectacular. I've heard it said before that 'a rising tide lifts all boats,' and so I think you have to train people to serve that market," he said. "Liberty is doing that here."