Students to work on WWII documentary production crew in France

Grady College students will work side by side with documentarians in the field under an exciting new experiential learning partnership with the World War II Foundation.

Five Grady College students and Sanghoon Lee of the MFA Film, Television and Digital Media faculty will travel to France this summer to serve as production assistants for a World War II documentary that will be filmed for PBS.

The opportunity was introduced to Grady College by Bryan Harris (MA ’03), a part-time faculty member in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations, and his friend, Glen Jackson, co-founder of Jackson Spalding Public Relations, who serves on the Board of Directors for the World War II Foundation.

“This is a stellar opportunity for our students to not only gain first-hand experience with an unbelievably high production value, but also to travel and learn history at the same time,” said Charles N. Davis, dean of Grady College. “We are grateful for the opportunity and our hope is to continue this for years to come as a study away experience.”

Jackson serves on the board of the WWII Foundation in honor of his father and Grady College alumnus, Ed Jackson, whose 70th Tank Battalion landed on Utah Beach on June 6, 1944. Edward Jackson (ABJ ’47) was a journalism major at UGA. Glen and his brother, Clay, have provided part of the funding for this opportunity for the students and Lee.

The students will travel to several cities in France including Paris, Limoges and Lyon, as well as Geneva, Switzerland, in early July to work on a documentary about the French Resistance. While there, they will serve as production assistants for the film crew. They will have some time to work on their own projects while there.

For one of the students, Emani Saucier, who is in his first year in the MFA Film program, this trip holds special significance since he is a junior officer in the US Army.

“It’s a thrill to adapt my civilian skills to my role in our armed forces,” Saucier said. “Battle lessons from WWII have been used throughout my training and the opportunity to visit some of the war’s campaign locations is more than I can ask for. I’m looking forward to sobering moments as I try to imagine the conflicts that warriors my age and rank faced all those years ago.”

A similar program is offered to students of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at  Syracuse University. The documentary film their students helped produce last summer, “The Tuskegee Airmen: Return to Ramitelli,” recently aired on PBS.

This documentary and the one that will be produced this summer are part of a series of educational films produced by the WWII Foundation, several of which are aired on PBS.

MFA Film thesis film to premiere at Atlanta Film Festival

“Black Butterfly,” a thesis film written, directed, produced and edited by Kelvin Summerhill (MFA ’22), has been selected as one of the narrative short films to premiere at the 47th Annual Atlanta Film Festival.

“This is a huge accomplishment since more than 10,000 of filmmakers submitted films to the festival and only 40 or so narrative shorts have been selected,” said Neil Landau, executive director of the MFA Film, Television and Digital Media program at the University of Georgia. “This is a big milestone for Kelvin and our program.”

Kelvin Summerhill talks with Cinematographer Garland McLaurin.
Kelvin Summerhill talks with Cinematographer Garland McLaurin (back to camera), a former EMST faculty member. (Photo: courtesy of Kelvin Summerhill)

The festival runs April 20-30 at multiple venues in Atlanta and virtually.

Black Butterfly,” is a 13-minute film about an ambitious Black man experiencing a mental breakdown on the day of his dream promotion. What should be an exciting day for the main character turns into a nightmare as the code-switching mask that he wears in the world begins to crack.

Summerhill was inspired to write the film to acknowledge mental health and as a way to honor a friend whom he lost to suicide.

“My goal with this film was always to save lives,” Summerhill said. “That’s been my number one mission and vision and what got me through looking at a blank sheet of paper when you’re coming up with an idea. My hope is that by showing it on a huge platform, it will reach people who see it and realize that it’s okay to discuss mental health struggles. It’s okay to seek healing; it’s okay to recognize it. And, most importantly, the film says ‘your life matters.’”

Throughout the film, Summerhill has left numerous Easter eggs, or hidden messages, for the audience, from the title that comes from boxing legend Mohammed Ali’s mantra, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” to using the poem “We Where the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, which is used as a framework for the plot. Even the main character, Clay Frazier, is intended to be someone who could be molded as a work in progress, with nods to Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., also known as Mohammad Ali, and Joe Frazier, another boxing legend.

Summerhill, who currently works as a directing assistant for Disney’s “Decendants 4” which is wrapping up filming in Atlanta, acknowledged that it takes a village to make a film and there are many who helped him with this endeavor.

“I got through the process because of Neil Landau, my thesis chair,” Summerhill said. “He had a personal touch along the way looking at every draft and every cut. His insight has been invaluable.”

Summerhill also consulted with director Chuck Hayward, an executive producer for “Ted Lasso” and writer/producer of “WandaVision.” Summerhill and Hayward were paired through the UGA MFA Film’s Industry Mentor program, connecting students with industry professionals who help with project guidance, industry advice and networking.

“Chuck, he’s been amazing,” Summerhill said of the relationship that has resulted in valuable feedback. “His level of industry experience has really helped me grow. Another thing about Chuck is that representation matters, and being able to see someone who looks like me performing at such a high level has been so impactful.”

In addition to Landau and Hayward, Summerhill said he was greatly helped by Shandra McDonald of the MFA Film faculty, and former MFA film faculty member Bryan Cole. He also used many resources available to him, including much of the crew which was comprised of Georgia Film Academy students; current MFA Film student Jordyn Seever, who helped the costumes and creating the progression of the cracking mask; and Dan Cathy, owner of Trilith Studios, chairman of Chick-fil-A and supporter of the MFA Film program. Cathy and the Trilith and Chick-fil-A teams were instrumental in helping Summerhill secure film locations, including Chick-fil-a headquarters.

Kelvin Summerhill at graduation with Neil Landau
Kelvin Summerhill is congratulated by Neil Landau at the 2022 MFA Film graduation as Shandra McDonald of the MFA Film faculty looks on. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

Summerhill graduated with the inaugural class of the UGA MFA Film program, which educates students for a year in Athens on the UGA campus and at Athena Studios, and a year at UGA’s satellite campus in Trilith Village and in partnership with Georgia Film Academy, adjacent to Trilith Studios. Summerhill, who graduated from Morehouse College, discovered the new MFA Film program when he was looking for a change after living in New York pursuing an acting career. He always loved writing and was interested in exploring directing, and the location of this program near Atlanta was appealing.

“Atlanta is the gold rush for film; why would I leave this place?” Summerhill asked himself. “The rest is history.”


“Black Butterfly” premieres Saturday, April 22 at 9:30 p.m. at The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta.
A package of six short films can be purchased here.
Patrons have ten days to view the films and are eligible to vote for the best short film.

“Black Butterfly” trailer

UGA MFA Film program goes green

Film sets are hubs for creation. They are where concepts and ideas turn into visual, captivating works of art. But, unfortunately, television shows and movies aren’t the only thing created on film sets. Historically, film sets have also been notorious for creating tons of waste, pumping plastic water bottles, plates, utensils, coffee cups and more into landfills.

The UGA Master of Arts in Film, Television and Digital Media program, however, is on a mission to make sure that on its sets, waste is as minimal as possible. 

Matt Hudgins, sitting, on the set of his short film “Wokelahoma.”
Matt Hudgins, sitting, on the set of his short film “Wokelahoma.” This shoot used all natural light and rechargeable batteries, so no generator was utilized. Over 80 percent of the props, set dressing and costumes used were already owned, borrowed or thrifted, and all newly purchased costume elements were taken home for use by crew and cast members. Location scouting was done via carpool in a hybrid car. (Photo: Meg Barker)

Leading this sustainability charge is current MFA Film student Matt Hudgins, who, after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history from UGA in 2009 and before enrolling in the MFA Film program in 2022, spent years on film sets working primarily in craft services, providing food and beverages to film and television crews. 

“There are tons of sets that don’t have, in practice, a real recycling program,” said Hudgins. “They might throw some recycling bins out, but there is not enough manpower or signage to manage that or advance crew education.” 

“Tons and tons of food gets wasted on a lot of sets and goes to the landfill,” he added, “which creates methane gas. Food waste, really, is a resource. If it is treated correctly, it doesn’t become food waste. It becomes a food resource.”

Soon after enrolling in the MFA Film program, Hudgins applied for and received a UGA sustainability grant, which enabled him to serve as the program’s sustainability supervisor. In this role, Hudgins is in charge of purchasing materials needed to improve the sustainability practices of the program, contacting partners and making connections to help the program achieve its goals, and leading the charge on helping the program make it into the Green Film School Alliance (GFSA), a group of film schools across the United States committed to reducing the environmental impact of content production. 

“We intend to join The Green Film School Alliance, in good company with all top-tier film schools in the nation, with full compliance of environmentally sustainable set practices: no single-use plastic bottles; all trash must be separated for maximal recycling, and food waste must be composted,” said Neil Landau, executive director for the MFA Film program.

Hudgins has been weighing and tracking the MFA Film program’s waste and practices throughout the year in preparation to submit a GFSA application by the end of the spring 2023 semester. 

“The sets I’ve been on that do it well, they have a dedicated sustainability team that will handle all of the waste on set,” said Hudgins. “They have lots of signage. They have people who are dedicated to being there, at the high traffic areas to make sure things go to the right bin, whether that’s compost, recycling or landfill.”

“Even just the attention and commitment to educate and emphasize putting things in the right bin can make a huge difference,” he added. “Our program is eliminating single-use plastics as much as possible. We’re focusing on reusables.”

Landau explained that additional sustainability efforts include encouraging carpooling to and from locations, using reusable canvas bags, and using recyclable cardboard and/or reusable containers for transporting craft services and catering for cast and crew. 

The program has already purchased reusable water bottles, which can be filled at water stations both on campus and at Athena Studios, a state-of-the-art learning center and studio space used by the program.   

“This is not only good for the planet, but will also save student filmmakers from purchasing bulk water bottles for single use,” said Landau. “It’s win-win for everybody, especially for Mother Nature.”

Inside UGA’s burgeoning MFA in Film, Television and Digital Media program, with Neil Landau

Listen to Grady Research Radio
Apple Podcasts/Spotify/Stitcher


Applications for the MFA in Film, Television and Digital Media program are due by February 15, 2023. Apply today.

Adamma Ebo and her sister, Adanne Ebo, creators of "Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul," visit with Neil Landau and students in the MFA Film and EMST program.
Adamma Ebo and her sister, Adanne Ebo, creators of “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul,” visit with Neil Landau and students in the MFA Film and EMST program. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

The film industry in Georgia is flourishing. Generating $4.4 billion for the state last fiscal year, productions made in Georgia include a long list of box office top-earning feature films, streaming programming, commercials, music videos and independent films. “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Black Panther,” “Stranger Things,” and “Loki” are just several of the hundreds of productions made in Georgia in recent years. 

So, it only makes sense for the University of Georgia to have a top-of-the-line MFA film program, capable of pumping highly trained filmmakers into the marketplace. In this episode, we speak with Neil Landau, the executive director of the Master of Fine Arts in Film, Television and Digital Media program, about what the program has to offer. Landau explains the growth of the program, the new partnership with Athena Studios, which includes a 14,600-square-foot student studio space, the advantage for students provided by Georgia’s bustling film industry, the impact that the program’s many mentors, who are legendary producers, A-list screenwriters and award-winning show runners, have on students enrolled in the program, and more.

Grady College co-sponsors the MFA Film program along with Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

Listen to the podcast episode on Anchor, or your preferred audio streaming platform, by clicking here or following the links above.

2022 in Review: College Headlines

Editor’s Note: This is part of our six-part series highlighting stories produced by Grady College in 2022. The features include stories in each of the following subjects:

  • Student Successes
  • Faculty Honors
  • College Headlines
  • Research & Expertise
  • Service & Partnerships
  • Alumni Spotlight

This is not intended to be a comprehensive list, but instead highlight a sample of just a few of the hundreds of stories about accomplishments by our students, faculty/staff and alumni. We invite you to visit our Grady College News page for a full list of features posted in 2022.


  • Cox Institute launched a new Certificate in News Literacy
 

Grady College is constantly growing and improving to better serve our students and greater Grady College community. Here are a few college headlines of note from 2022: 

Cox Institute launched a new Certificate in News Literacy: In fall of 2022, the Cox Institute for Journalism Innovation, Management and Leadership at Grady College started a new academic certificate program in news literacy. The four-course certificate program, which is open to all majors at the University of Georgia, is designed to teach students the functions of the news media, journalistic responsibility and ethics and prepare them with insights and tools for identifying misinformation and falsehoods increasingly found in our media marketplace. Grady College also published a podcast episode that further explains the Certificate in News Literacy. 

Grady lawn was renovated and renamed Schnitzer Family Media Lawn: Over the summer, Grady College’s lawn was improved, expanded upon and renamed, thanks to a generous donation from the Schnitzer family, celebrating Lauren Schnitzer (AB ’21), who graduated last year with a bachelor’s degree in public relations. The new lawn, which features an ADA accessible pathway, an outdoor classroom and much more, was celebrated on Friday, September 23.  

UGA MFA Film program enriches its story: Over the summer, the first cohort of MFA Film students graduated. Just a few months later, the program partnered with the new Athena Studios and gained a 14,600-square-foot, state-of-the-art student studio and production space less than five miles from the UGA campus.

UGA MFA Film program gains momentum in year three

Like any good script, the plot of the UGA MFA Film program is continuously adding developments and enriching its story.

The Master of Fine Arts in Film, Television and Digital Media is accepting applications for its fourth cohort with some exciting plot developments including a partnership with the new Athena Studios, less than five miles from the UGA campus; growth of the Distinguished Industry Mentor program that includes professionals like Chuck Hayward (“WandaVision”), Davita Scarlett (“The Good Fight”) and Damon Lindelof (“Watchmen”); and the ongoing partnership with Georgia Film Academy at the program’s second-year homebase, Trilith Studios.


January 15, 2023 is the deadline to apply for the Fall 2023 MFA Film cohort, educating students in skills to become above-the line writers, directors and producers in Georgia’s burgeoning film industry. The UGA MFA program remains rich in resources and one of the most affordable of its kind.

“We are on the cusp of our program blossoming into a world-class film school, blazing a trail with our exceptionally dedicated faculty, customized curriculum, and setting up the infrastructure to operate our program on a studio pipeline model,” said Neil Landau, executive director for the UGA MFA Film program.

Landau, an award-winning screenwriter, creative producer, author, and professor, was named executive director of the program in September, but has been directing its screenwriting classes since the inaugural classes in 2020.

Landau continued: “From development to green light, we’re ready to serve the needs of uniquely talented, diverse, emerging filmmakers and storytellers not only from the South, but also from the greater U.S. and around the world.”

Athena Studios

Joel Harber (third from left) cuts the ribbon at the new space at Athena Studios dedicated to use by EMST and MFA Film students for five years. The studios will help students forge a “path to create and work in Athens and Georgia,” Harber said.

The MFA Film program is rich in studio space and technology resources, including the new addition of a learning center and studio space at Athena Studios in Athens. The MFA’s two-year curriculum also allows students to take advantage of renovated studio space and state-of-the-art camera equipment at Grady College during the first year of the program, and Georgia Film Academy space at Trilith Studios during the second year.

“When we designed our state-of-the-art production space, it was important to include a dedicated soundstage to educate and train the next generation of TV and film production professionals,” said Joel Harber, CEO of Athena Studios. “Studio space minutes from UGA’s campus is a powerful combination that will help power the Georgia film industry’s pool of talent and resources in the years to come.”

Ribbon cutting ceremonies for the 14,600-square-foot student studio space were held Nov. 4, 2022. Undergraduate and MFA Film production classes will begin there in January. Additionally, the Athena Studios space includes offices, room to build multiple sets and a learning center to conduct classes.

Athena Studios is a massive complex currently committed to build 350,000 square feet of space to serve what is now a $4.4 billion film industry in Georgia, according to latest reports from the Georgia Film Industry. The first phase of nearly 200,000 square feet of studio space will be complete by January.

Distinguished Industry Mentors

Also key to the UGA MFA Film program is the impressive roster of industry professionals connected through the Distinguished Industry Mentor experience, including Chuck Hayward who will serve as the program’s artist-in-residence in Spring 2023.

The Distinguished Industry Mentor program enlists more than 40 of the industry’s most prominent screenwriters, directors, and TV showrunners — including David Koepp (“Jurassic Park”), Allison Liddi-Brown (“Friday Night Lights”), and Peabody Award-winner Steven Canals (“Pose”) — to share their expertise with students via master classes, mentoring sessions, and networking.

Hayward is a screenwriter and producer earning two Emmy nominations for “WandaVision” and “Ted Lasso.” Hayward is currently writer-producer on “Life and Beth” starring Amy Schumer. As an artist-in-residence, Hayward will lend his insights and expertise to the MFA students, as well as providing personalized mentorship. Hayward was introduced to the program by Landau, and went on to mentor recent MFA Film graduate Kelvin Summerhill (MFA ’22) providing direction and generous funding for Summerhill’s thesis project.

UGA MFA program

The UGA MFA program taps into faculty members experienced in the industry of film production from Grady College of Journalism Mass Communication and Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

Landau describes the MFA Film program as interdisciplinary, providing students with the opportunity to find and hone their unique voices as visual storytellers. They not only write original, feature-length screenplays and TV pilots, but also direct at least three short films. Landau continues, “We’re training them to be hyphenates in the industry; whether that’s as writer/director or writer/producer, we’re preparing them to be innovators and trailblazers.”

The intensive program is designed so that the first year is spent on UGA’s campus in Athens, Georgia, taking core classes and learning production basics including writing, storytelling and filming, among many other skills. The students produce their first film in the Fall semester, telling a story in roughly four minutes, using only natural sound or music and no dialogue, and their second short film (8 minutes, incorporating lighting and sync sound) in the Spring semester.

The second year is devoted to students completing their thesis film projects while residing in the town of Trilith, located next to the studios where Marvel movies are filmed. Classes are conducted in a custom-built suite featuring theater-quality A/V projection and sound system, editing bays and collaboration space. Studio space for additional training and productions is available across the street through another MFA program partner, the Georgia Film Academy.


The MFA Film program will host a virtual open house on Tuesday, Dec. 6 from 7 to 8 p.m. EST.
Register for the virtual Open House here.

 

Neil Landau named executive director of MFA Film Program

Neil Landau (MFA ’18), an award-winning screenwriter, creative producer, author, and educator has been named Executive Director of the University of Georgia Master of Fine Arts in Film, Television and Digital Media.

“Professor Landau brings a vast amount of experience not only in the film industry, but in the MFA space, as well,” said Charles N. Davis, dean of Grady College of Mass Communication and Journalism, which co-sponsors the MFA Film program along with Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “He’s been an amazing addition to the Entertainment & Media Studies department, and he has vision and energy commensurate to the task. Our MFA program in Film, TV and Digital Media truly is one-of-a-kind, and he’s the leader it needs.”

Landau addresses the third cohort of the MFA Film, Television and Digital Media program during orientation at Grady College on Aug. 12, 2022. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

Prior to assuming the Executive Director title, Landau served as Director of UGA’s screenwriting curriculum, where he created the Distinguished Industry Mentor program. The Distinguished Industry Mentor program enlists some of the industry’s most prominent screenwriters, directors, and TV showrunners — including David Koepp (“Jurassic Park”), Allison Liddi-Brown (“Friday Night Lights”), and Peabody Award-winner Steven Canals (“Pose”) — to share their expertise with students via master classes, mentoring sessions, and networking.

Of his new role, Landau says “I’m genuinely excited to be part of building and leading our MFA film, television, and digital media program, based on a production company/active studio model, to meet the rapidly expanding Georgia film and TV production ecosystem.”

Landau describes the MFA Film program as interdisciplinary, providing students with the opportunity to find and hone their unique voices as visual storytellers. They not only write original, feature-length screenplays and TV pilots, but also direct at least three short films. Landau continues, “We’re training them to be hyphenates in the Industry; whether that’s as writer/director or writer/producer, we’re preparing them to be innovators and trailblazers.”

“Neil Landau is instrumental to this program and for its success going forward,” said Nalani Dowling (MFA ’22), a recent graduate. “He makes each student feel like he really cares about our success and genuinely wants to understand our work and where we are coming from.”

Mr. Landau is a graduate of the UGA Narrative Nonfiction Media Writing program in Screenwriting and brings years of academic experience to the job, including more than two decades as a screenwriting instructor at University of California, Los Angeles School of Theater, Film & Television, and several years as Assistant Dean of Special Projects and co-Director of the UCLA MFA Screenwriting program.  He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Film/Television from UCLA.

As a screenwriter, his credits include feature films “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead” and the global animated blockbuster “The Adventures of Tadeo Jones” (for which he won a Spanish Academy “Goya” Award), and the television series “Melrose Place,” “The Magnificent Seven” and “Doogie Howser, M.D.” Upcoming projects include the worldwide release of the animated feature film “Mummies” from Warner Bros. in late February, and “Little Big Boy,” an animated western, currently in production. His latest original, live-action screenplay, “Flinch,” is currently being produced by Teri Schwartz (“Sister Act,” “Beaches”), in partnership with WME Independent.

Landau is also author of six books including the 2022 second edition of “The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap: Creating Great Television in an On Demand World,” featuring interviews with 19 of the most respected showrunners in television, such as Issa Rae of “Insecure,” Chris Mundy of “Ozark,” Sam Levisnon of “Euphoria,” and Jesse Armstrong of “Succession.”

The MFA Film program is a two-year intensive program teaching students directing, screenwriting, producing and other skills needed for creative careers in Georgia’s film industry, which brought $4.4 billion to the state in fiscal year 2022.

Jeff Springston, who previously directed the MFA Film, Television and Digital Media program, continues directing the MFA Narrative Media Writing program.

Photo of MFA graduate with MFA faculty members
Landau (second from left) poses for a picture with MFA Film graduate Nalani Dowling (MFA ’22) and MFA Film faculty members Sanghoon Lee and Shandra McDonald after graduation ceremonies at Studio A of Georgia Film Academy on Aug. 13, 2022. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

 

Harika Bommana finalist for screenwriting award

Harika Bommana, a second year MFA Film, Television and Digital Media student, was selected as one of five finalists for the prestigious 2022 Carol Mendelsohn College Drama Award.

Bommana wrote the script, “When Mangoes Start to Turn Yellow,” as a love letter to her family back home in India. The storyline takes place in the 1980s focusing on four sisters and how they navigate a patriarchal society. Bommana said she is passionate about telling stories set in South Asia that focus on self and cultural identity.

“Writing this reminds me of my mom and sisters and aunt,” Bommana said. “Writing is like reconnecting with them.”

Two women in a workout facility film a scene
Harika Bommana (left) films a scene for one of her UGA MFA Film classes.

Bommana wrote the script during her Writing for Screen class taught by Neil Landau, who was recently named director of the MFA Film program. Each student was assigned to write a complete script during the semester. Each class, the students submitted 10 more pages of their script, and the time in class was spent providing feedback.

The feedback was valuable to Bommana.

“I would much rather people tell me what’s wrong with the script than what’s right,” Bommana admits. “I always value honesty.”

Bommana and others in the class were encouraged by Landau who provided encouragement to submit scripts to screenwriting festivals.

While Bommana said being named a finalist provides her a lot of encouragement, Landau sees this as special recognition.

“This is an extraordinary honor — and well deserved,” Landau said.  “Humanitas has thousands of submissions each year.”

Bommana looks forward to working on her thesis film project in the semesters remaining and graduating at the end of next summer.

The Carol Mendelsohn College Drama Award recognizes the talents of young writers with financial support, empowering them to write impactful dramas. It is presented by Humanitas, a non-profit organization dedicated to recognizing writers who explore the human experience.

Inaugural class of MFA Film students graduates

They are trailblazers and creatives…and now they are graduates of the MFA Film, Television and Digital Media program at the University of Georgia.

Elise Nation carries a large production camera.
Elise Nation shows off one the hand-held production cameras at the beginning of the MFA Film program. Nation, who appreicates a variety of film genres including animated movies like “Mulan” says, “I want to be part of making those films that inspire little girls and boys of the next generation to be able to do anything.” (Photo: courtesy of Elise Nation)

The program, which was approved in Spring 2020 and met for the first time behind masks that fall, held graduation ceremonies August 13, 2022.

“There are so many learning experiences,” said Nalani Dowling (MFA ’22), a member of the inaugural class. “There were really good mentorships, and having the time and resources to explore what it means to be a filmmaker was invaluable.”

Another graduate, Elise Nation (AB ’18, MFA ’22), was attracted to the program because it built on her undergraduate degrees in entertainment and media studies and film. She also liked the idea of having a terminal degree if she wanted to teach one day. In addition to the education, it was the connections that proved most memorable for her.

From the Halloween bonfire the group enjoyed their first year in Athens, to the Friendsgiving celebration they bonded over when they were living in the town of Trilith, Nation admitted it is the friendships that develop over shared experiences that will be lasting.

“It was the summer films that we made in Athens right before we moved to Trilith that I will remember,” Nation recalls. “It was the first time doing our own work, all crewing for each other, that sticks in my mind. They were crazy and long hours, but a wonderful experience. You wanted to be the best you can be for their projects, because you wanted them to be the best they can be for your own project.”

MFA Film Foundations
Two ladies at a table and four students standing around with light in the corner, ready to film a scene.
The inaugural class started the program in fall 2020, amid masks. Their first production classes took place at the OTS film studios in Atlanta. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

The MFA Film program is a two-year intensive program teaching students directing, screenwriting, producing and other skills related to move into creative careers in Georgia’s lucrative film business, a $4.4 billion industry in fiscal year 2022.

While the focus is on above-the-line industry positions, each student is educated in a variety of fundamentals, from sound design and lighting, to acting and camera work.

“If the students learn how to do these things and learn the language, they will understand the process better and have greater insight and empathy in the long run,” said Jeff Springston, former director of the MFA programs at Grady College.

The intensive program is designed so that the first year is spent on UGA’s campus in Athens, Georgia, taking core classes and learning production basics including writing, storytelling and filming, among many other skills. The students produce their first film, telling a story in roughly four minutes, using only natural sound or music and no dialogue.

Neil Landau, who is current director of screenwriting and the new director of the MFA Film program, notes that in two years, the students create at least one TV pilot, one feature film and three films.

“It’s extremely rigorous,” Landau admits, “but that’s what works really well — students are trained to be writers and directors, or writers and producers and not trained to do just one thing — they are learning a combination of skills.”

The MFA Film program is led by faculty from both Grady College and Franklin College and blends the curriculum to benefit the students.

One of Nation’s favorite courses for instance, Art Direction for Film and Television, was taught by Julie Ray and included discussions about art in film, color theory and how to merge roles through color and costuming.

“She taught me that film is not just about shots and story, but about color and music, too,” Nation said.

The second year is spent living in the town of Trilith, located next to the studios where Marvel movies are filmed. Classes are conducted in a custom-built suite featuring theater-quality A/V projection and sound system, sophisticated editing bays and collaboration space. Studio space for additional training and productions is available across the street through another MFA program partner, the Georgia Film Academy.


Applications for the MFA Film cohort beginning Fall 2023 will be late November/early December 2022. Visit MFAFilm@uga.edu/apply for more details.

Thesis Film Projects
Two people film a girl in a tent for Elise Nation's thesis film, "Poppy."
One of the thesis films screened at graduation was “Poppy,” the story of a little girl in a pillow fort experiencing adventures in her dreams. (Photo: courtesy of Elise Nation)

Students turn to creating their thesis film projects during the second year as they choose between a writing/producing track writing full scripts and producing films their classmates are directing, or a writing/directing track, where they develop full productions that are 8 to 15 minutes in length. The thesis films were screened at graduation in front of parents bursting with pride and faculty and student colleagues who empathized with the personal investment and creative stamina needed to pull them off.

To further their education in real-world scenarios, students were encouraged to participate in real-world exercises ranging from working the backStory group to partner with composers from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance to produce original scores for their films, to pitching their project to a team of faculty and mentors for additional money to produce their films.

“Once students are in the work world, the whole game is about pitching your product,” Springston explained about the pitch competition.

Nation and Dowling were two of three students awarded additional money for their projects, and agreed that the exercise was about more than just the money.

“Pitching our films was a wonderful experience,” Nation said. “It’s a good lesson in how to pitch your own material and get other people excited about it and try to get your vision of it across.”

Nalana Dowling sits in a corner looking at a camera reviewing production footage.
Nalani Dowling takes a few minutes to review production footage on her camera during filming of her thesis film, “Breach,” about the relationship between two sisters-in-law. (Photo: courtesy of Nalani Dowling)

In a nod to the adage, “write what you know,” both Dowling and Nation directed thesis films that are personal pursuits in several ways. Dowling worked on a project called “Breach,” about the relationship between two sisters-in-law during a stressful pregnancy for one of the characters. Dowling is attracted to themes of female relationships, drawing on the relationship she has with her sister.

Nation directed “Poppy,” a dream sequence following a young girl who pursues adventures like traveling in space and exploring the African wilderness…until the camera comes back to reality and she is in the hospital fighting for her life. This, too, hit close to home as Nation spent time right before the program started caring for her niece who was battling leukemia. Although the short film ends on an uncertain note, Nation’s niece is doing well and attended graduation to cheer on her aunt.

Making Connections

In the end, the film industry is about connections and that is another lesson illustrated many ways throughout the MFA program.

For instance, once the students moved to Trilith, they had to establish a pipeline to accomplish their end goals. These contacts ranged from connecting with the crew from Georgia Film Academy who helped with their thesis films to an impromptu encounter with Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A and a main investor in Trilith Studios. Cathy is also a key financial supporter of the MFA Film program at UGA.

Dowling recalls how Cathy was very helpful. He had talked with the group on a call early in the program, telling them they have been challenged to impact the world and storytelling is the most impactful way to do that. Then, he gave the students his cell number. And, the students used it.

“We were meeting at GFA and one of my classmates just texted him to let him know we were there,” Dowling recalls. “He came right over and we just piled in a van and he showed us the studios. They were filming the most recent Spider Man movie and we hadn’t signed waivers or anything, but he was showing us all around the studios.”

After the tour, he took the group out to dinner, one of a few times he did that.

The moral of the story is clear, said Dowling: “Don’t be afraid to ask, and know who to ask.”

A group of about 16 MFA Film graduates and Chick-fil-A employees gather for a picture around a table in a restaurant.
Dan Cathy (seated in light blue shirt at center of group), was a major financial supporter of the MFA Film program and helped the MFA Film students get acclimated to their second year of the program once they moved to the Town of Trilith. (Photo: courtesy of Elise Nation)

Cathy had periodic interactions with the students, including attending the graduation ceremonies.

“Here at Trilith, we are setting the stage to inspire the next generation of storytellers,” Cathy told the graduates. “It’s incredibly exciting.”

Nalani Dowling holds flowers at graduation and poses for a picture with MFA Film faculty.
Nalani Dowling (left) is congratulated after graduation by MFA Film faculty Neil Landau, Sanghoon Lee and Shandra McDonald. Dowling praised Landau for caring about the success of the students and helping to bring out their identity as filmmakers. “He genuinely wants to understand our work and where we are coming from, but also to give us creative freedom since we all come from different places with our beliefs and experiences,” Dowling said. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

The students also connected with an impressive A-list of industry professionals, serving as Distinguished Industry Mentors. Each student was paired with a mentor who shared ideas, taught lessons and helped students network in the industry.

The inaugural class also had a two-hour master class with Stephen Canals, co-creator and executive producer of “Pose.”

Next Steps

Chuck Hayward, acclaimed for his work on “WandaVision” and his co-executive producer role on “Ted Lasso,” mentored new graduate Kelvin Summerhill (MFA ’22) and has already signed on to be an Artist-in-Residence for the new class of MFA Film students. Landau said that Summerhill exceeded his modest goal raising money for his film, “Black Butterfly,” thanks to an attractive contribution by Hayward.

Dowling was paired with Davita Scarlett, writer and co-executive producer of “The Good Fight” and “Evil.”

“Being paired with Davita was awesome,” Dowling said. “Even with her busy schedule, she took the time to read the first TV pilot I wrote in the program. She gave really helpful feedback and notes on how I could improve the episode, as well as my TV writing skills overall.”

With graduation behind them, the students will start using those networks to land jobs.

Nation has taken a job to teach film at Emory, while Dowling has renewed her lease for her apartment in Trilith and will continue working part-time for a small production company she has worked with the past few months.

Most the students will also submit their final projects to film festivals, a popular avenue to garner attention from agents and representation for future projects.

“The success of this program depends 100% on the accomplishments of the students, that they leave happy and are ready to break into a really competitive business,” Landau concluded.

In the meantime, there were a few students from the new cohort of MFA Film students in the graduation audience watching the thesis films, some nervous about their turn but all excited about what’s to come.


For more about the MFA Film program, see the “Lights. Camera. Action!” feature from Georgia Magazine.
To view pictures from the MFA Film graduation, see the UGA Grady Flickr account.