The first graduating class of the Interdisciplinary Film and Digital Media Program is creating the University of New Mexico's largest student film production ever. In "Haley," a father searches for his daughter in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
The film industry has exploded in New Mexico, and the use of digital media has expanded in research, education, business and entertainment. The University of New Mexico’s Interdisciplinary Film & Digital Media Program is training the next generation of digital media leaders for careers in many fields.
IFDM student Jason Ponic said students in the program study “anything from animation to actual film production. It’s very broad, but it gives the students an opportunity to branch out on their own and test the waters and see what they like.”
IFDM allows students interested in gaming, engineering, film, video, animation, music, computer science, art, design, photography, writing, communication, journalism, multimedia and business to study in an interdisciplinary environment. Students can pursue IFDM bachelor’s degrees through four UNM Colleges: Anderson School of Management, College of Arts and Sciences, College of Fine Arts and School of Engineering.
The first graduating class of the IFDM program is hard at work on “Haley,” a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film showcasing students’ talents and expertise. In a dystopia constructed from the ruins of modern Albuquerque and the vision of IFDM students, a man desperately seeks to rescue his 11 year old daughter from a ruthless gang of thugs.
This capstone project is the culmination of the IFDM program and demonstrates how UNM is building a homegrown film industry in New Mexico. Students created their own production company, Enchanted Sky Entertainment. The film is scheduled to be released in May.
“It is the largest scale undergraduate film production, and that’s not an exaggeration at all,” Ponic said.
From Student to Professional
Students working on “Haley” will have experience playing a variety of roles on a professional quality film. Pre-production began in the summer, with students taking charge of every aspect of the film from concept to marketing. Shooting was completed this semester. Students are working now on post-production – like special effects and editing – using IFDM’s state-of-the-art computer facilities.
IFDM student Michael Blaisdell is the producer of “Haley.” “Being a producer is probably the most stressful job working with the film. The producer is there from the very start when the film’s in its infancy all the way through to when it’s being distributed,” he said.
Negotiating with Albuquerque Studios to shoot at the Albuquerque Railyards is a telling example of the challenges of a producer’s job. “Haley” got to use the facility free thanks to a savvy trade.
Blaisdell said that when Terminator Salvation shot there, “they left a whole bunch of fake concrete, Styrofoam concrete.” Albuquerque Studios needed to get the props off the property, and “Haley” needed them for scenes shot at another location.
“Part of that is getting it removed from the property, because they’ve been trying to get rid of it, and it would cost them a lot of money to just remove this stuff themselves, so we said that we would take it off their hands, and they were a little more on board with letting us use the rail yard,” he said.
While Blaisdell focuses on the big picture of making “Haley,” Ponic, as the film’s director, is responsible for the vision of the film itself.
“As director I’m basically the overseer of what the actual film’s going to look like, who the actors are going to be, what the locations are going to be, the props. Basically he’s the one that makes sure that the vision is unified and everything flows,” Ponic said.
Evan Bobrick, assistant director and film editor, is among IFDM students drawing on the expertise of industry professionals.
“Charlie our teacher was an A.D., and he’s been teaching me a lot, like how to not lose your head because you’re part of the moral boosting factor. If the A.D. is happy, when he’s controlling things and keeping things working and steady, smooth, then people can feel comfortable and happy with what they’re doing. But if I’m constantly freaking out – which sometimes I am, unfortunately – then people tend to lose their heads as well,” he said.
Bobrick said the editing is where he can put his individual stamp on the film. “I think everyone working on the project in the first cohort has something that they can feel like they were the hand in,” he said.
Other students worked or are working on the writing, camera, visual effects, sound editing, marketing and other roles. The actors come from the class of Sheryl Roberts, local producer and casting director.
In addition to the capstone project, IFDM students gain professional experience through internships and collaboration with UNM’s industry partners, such as Sony Imageworks, Industrial Light and Magic, Sandia National Labs, New Mexico Health Equity Group, Disney and others.
The Business of Play
Many students in IFDM are focusing on the growing field of game design. Something unique about “Haley” among student films is that it’s not just a film – it’s also a geocaching app and a video game.
Sarah Gonzalez, Haile Shannon and Padraig Taggart are developing the video game.
Gonzalez said, “You choose a main character, and your objective is to save the girl, Haley. So you’re going to be wandering around essentially this post-apocalyptic world, dodging enemies, firing at enemies, while trying in time to save the girl.
Gonzalez is mainly working on programming, Shannon on modeling, animation and textures, and Taggart on modeling, textures and particle effects. However, the “Interdisciplinary” in IFDM means their skills overlap.
“All of them can do the modeling, animation and coding. It’s just that everyone has specialized tasks. So we overlap in a lot of the skill areas,” said Nick Flor, IFDM director.
Daniel Illescas is creating a geocaching app related to the film. “I like to describe it as a new way of hide and seek, like treasure hunting for adults.”
The game includes a map of New Mexico with dots marking where coins are hidden. In addition to the coins, players will find insights into the film’s story.
“Evan, he wrote some background stories on the script for the characters, kind of built more character development that they’re not going to be able to capture in a 30-minute movie,” Illescas said. He plans to plant those background stories with the coins.
It Takes a Village to Make a Movie
The making of “Haley” is bigger than the IFDM program. “We’re trying to get a really big collaboration between the various departments and the various entities around the community,” Blaisdell said.
Partners contributing equipment and expertise include the UNM’s Physical Plant Department, Capital Projects, Department of Theatre and Dance, Anderson School of Management, Department of Cinematic Arts, KNME and Central New Mexico Community College.
“We’re just pulling from everything that we can to make this the best movie it possibly can be,” Blaisdell said.
New Mexico Hollywood
Some of these students might be on their way to Hollywood, but opportunities abound right here in Chilewood. “There’s no shortage of work here with the film industry booming,” Ponic said.
At the opening of IFDM’s facility at Mesa del Sol in December, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry spoke about the economic boost the film industry has brought to the state and city.
“The film industry in New Mexico has had an economic impact of more than $3.6 billion to the state,” Richardson said.
“Albuquerque is the number one city in America to live and make movies,” Berry said. He said businesses like Albuquerque Studios are “creating work forces, taking our talent that we have here – and there’s a lot of talent in New Mexico – fostering that talent, keeping that talent here and creating opportunities in our communities and our state.”
Damming Brain Drain
The IFDM program attracted some New Mexico students who might otherwise have gone out of state for college. For others, IFDM offered the right opportunity at the right time.
Blaisdell, Bobrick, Gonzalez and Taggart all said the IFDM program played a role in bringing them to UNM.
Bobrick said, “I was not planning on staying, but when I found out there was initiative here, there was film stuff going on, things were brewing right when I got out of high school, I was like, man, it would be really stupid to miss this opportunity when so much could happen in the field that I want to work in, and I just leave and go to some other film school where everything’s the same.”
Blaisdell was working full-time in UNM’s Physical Plant Department when the IFDM program was created. “I saw that ‘film’ and it set off a light, and I was like, this is what I want to do.”
For Gonzalez, Shannon and Taggart, the IFDM program offered an opportunity to stay in New Mexico while preparing for digital media careers. Gonzalez said, “It’s so close to home that I can go see my family whenever.”
UNM’s low cost was a factor for Illescas. “It basically came down to UNM because of the price. It was the good deal I got here,” he said.
What’s Next for “Haley?”
IFDM students have high hopes for “Haley.” They plan to submit it to the Sundance Film Festival.
“I would really love to see this film gain the Sundance stamp of approval,” Blaisdell said. “I’d love to see that because that just means our names are getting out there… so that the industry can see what we can do.”
The first IFDM cohort is setting high standards for future classes. Ponic said, “It’s just a collaborative effort with all of these students that really want to see this film rise above, and it’s something the university has never actually produced before. So we are just very excited to set the bar, and set it up here” – raising his hand above his head – “so that way people have something to reach for and then ultimately surpass.”