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.