The Magazine of The University of Montana
Blending Cutting-Edge Technology and Traditional Storytelling Techniques, UM’s School of Media Arts Prepares Students for Digital World
Story by Chad Dundas Photos by Todd Goodrich
Associate Professor Mark Shogren poses with his impressive collection of masks from horror movies of the past. Shogren, who served as interim director of UM’s School of Media Arts during autumn semester, says one of his favorite movies is The Bride of Frankenstein.
Shogren had spent the better part of the past twenty years living on the East Coast, building a career in television and film.
After pit stops to earn degrees from the University of Washington and Ohio University, he made his home in Washington, D.C., and New York City, crewing on the sets of motion pictures and critically acclaimed television shows such as The Wire and West Wing. His own projects had been featured at independent film festivals in the U.S. and Europe. Life was good, and since leaving Missoula after graduating from high school in 1987, he essentially never looked back.
“I had no intention of ever coming back here, really,” Shogren says. “Missoula was a great place to grow up, but I had New York in my sights. I wanted to do filmmaking, and there was no filmmaking going on here. That just was not a thing.”
Shogren says he applied for the job at UM mostly out of sheer curiosity, a way to “check out what was going on” with the fledging digital filmmaking school. Shogren was surprised when he was offered the position, but may have been even more shocked when he realized he wanted to accept it, abandon his current life, and move back to Montana.
Today, Shogren is still there, ensconced in a second-floor office in McGill Hall, where during the past half-dozen years he’s helped build one of the University’s fastest-growing programs.
“It was a pretty big odyssey,” admits Shogren, who served as the School of Media Arts interim director this past autumn semester. “The cool thing about it was just realizing that because of the way technology had developed, it was possible to have a film program here and do it at a very high level. Now, we’re able to look at the student work that comes out of this place and say, ‘This is as good as any you’ll see from anywhere.’”
The media arts department was the brainchild of longtime Professors Rick Hughes and Michael Murphy, who laid the groundwork when they started teaching courses on digital design, video production, and acting in the late 1990s. Beginning with about twenty students majoring in integrated digital media in 2006, the program now boasts more than 200 enrolled in its four different degree programs. Those numbers put media arts on par with other schools within the College of Visual and Performing Arts, Shogren says, and so far the only limiting factors are the usual suspects—funding, staff, and an ever-evolving curriculum.
“In a short period of time we’ve seen major growth,” Shogren says. “We still feel like we’re running to keep up with what’s going on. People are just knocking on our doors trying to get in.”
Despite its rapid advancement, UM’s School of Media Arts remains something of a work-in-progress in terms of outreach and campuswide awareness. Such is the way with a program that is still so new and relatively low-profile.
“I still get people who say, ‘Oh, you’re over there in graphic arts,’” says Greg Twigg, who heads up the school’s integrated digital media [IDM] major, focusing on motion design, animation, and interactive media. “I have to be like, ‘No, that’s in Bozeman, actually.’”
Associate Professor Greg Twigg offers feedback on a student project in his 3-D Motion Design class. The classroom is in McGill Hall, which was renovated in 2004 to house the School of Media Arts. The updates were made possible by a generous donation from Palmer West, a Hollywood film producer and 1998 graduate of UM.
As presently constituted, the term “media arts” refers to an eclectic array of subject areas encompassing all aspects of digital filmmaking, design, audio production, and animation. The school’s umbrella Bachelor of Arts degree gives students a taste of everything, while those wishing to specialize can opt for one of three B.F.A. programs in digital filmmaking, IDM,
and sonic arts—the production of music and sound for motion pictures. There also are master’s degree programs in digital filmmaking and IDM.
The program now occupies its own wing on the second floor of McGill Hall and, though it still shares the building with the health and human performance and education schools, media arts’ speedy expansion is obvious. The old basketball gym that used to dominate most of McGill’s first floor has been remodeled into a sprawling production area, which features enough room to serve as a workable soundstage for sets, a large green screen, and a smallish animation bay. Just about everywhere you look in this building, erected in the early 1950s, there are signs of media arts’ future—rooms full of production equipment, classrooms featuring wall-mounted flat-screen TVs, computer workstations with high stools and stand-up desks.
Beginning next year, the department will expand yet again, this time to offer a major in animation, which quickly is becoming a booming industry in its own right. Heading up that tract will be Heejoo Gwen Kim, an animator who, like Shogren, ditched the hustle and bustle of the big city for the chance to build a program from the ground up. After spending some time teaching at Columbia College and The Art Institute of Chicago, Kim decided that UM’s media arts school was the place for her after talking with current faculty and viewing student work when she came to Missoula for the first time.
“I realized that the faculty here is very enthusiastic and excited about launching the new program,” Kim says. “The students are talented. I was really surprised by the quality of student work I saw when I came here. That made me feel like I wanted to be here to encourage them to continue to improve.”
The increasing prevalence of animation in films, video games, and television commercials makes it one of the industry’s fastest growing crafts, Kim says. Students who are able to master it also will leave the program with a highly marketable skill—an important bonus for anyone studying the fine arts.
“Video game companies are huge now compared to ten years ago,” Kim says. “Back in the day, we used to play games like Pac-Man that were very simple two- or three-color games. Now, the characters look real. Those fields are growing fast, and they need a lot of 3-D animators.”
The department expects the animation major to be popular among current students, and it could prove to be attractive to new ones as well.
“The potential for the animation side to grow and become a pretty powerful program is there,” Twigg says. “I think in five years we might have an animation program that rivals some of the other bigger programs that you’ll find around the country.”
Roughly two-and-a-half decades after Shogren left Montana to make movies, Whitefish native Parker Nitopi did the same. He just headed west instead of east.
Nitopi suspended his studies at the University of Washington and moved to Los Angeles when he realized his true passion was for filmmaking. He signed on at a commercial production house and started working entry-level jobs on the sets he hopes to run as a director one day. The major difference between Nitopi’s story and Shogren’s is that once Nitopi felt ready to go back to school, he had more options. He was able to do it on his own terms, in an environment of his own choosing.
“It was a tough decision, leaving a job and leaving the industry to sort of go outside of it,” says Nitopi, now a first-year graduate student in media arts. “But for me it’s always been about inspiration. It’s about where you are. Sometimes if you’re stuck in a sixteen-hour-a-day job in L.A., you start to lose your own personal inspiration.”
While it might seem counterintuitive for a guy who already was working in the film industry to go back to Montana to further his career, it was the right move for Nitopi. The reason he was able to do it—the reason a media arts program is even able to exist at a place like UM—is that advances in digital technology during the past twenty years have made the tools necessary for making movies more available and affordable than ever. That meant Nitopi could go to film school anywhere.
These days, aspiring filmmakers can turn out movies without the virtue of big budgets or overpriced equipment and without the stigma of coming from a small school. The negative connotations once associated with digital video—that it was cheap and disposable and that “true artists” only worked with film—are disappearing, effectively leveling the playing field between traditional filmmaking powerhouses such as the American Film Institute or UCLA and upstarts like Montana.
“It’s cool that the technology is so accessible and so immediate,” says Twigg. “But I tell you what, we have to continually change and figure out what is new and how this or that new thing works. We have to be looking ahead to see what’s better than what we have now, what’s moving through the pipeline that we can get the jump on in order to make sure we’re not falling behind.”
Assistant Professor Heejoo Gwen Kim, left, helps student Megan Toenyes with her final project for a Techniques of Animation class.
In a school where the technology constantly shifts, the curriculum also must continue to grow and change. Part of that is coming up with new ways to engage with students, including adding online resources to supplement traditional classrooms and allow for dialogue on message boards, using laptops, smartphones, or tablet devices. Shogren explains it’s all part of creating an interactive learning experience that better responds to the needs of students.
“When I first came here, even I was a little irritated with the number of students in class who were looking at their text messages, using their phones, or chatting on the computer,” he says. “But when you realize that’s really where their world is, you have to give in a little bit to that kind of thing. You have to say, ‘We’re going to get in there with them.’”
Technology is only half the battle, however. Shogren says to simply teach students how to handle a camera or use the latest software isn’t enough. Anyone can do that. The core of the media arts department’s pedagogy really is more about the tried-and-true basics of traditional storytelling than about the latest gadgetry.
That’s why, even as the school pushes into the future offering classes in 3-D animation, cellphone cinema, and designing applications for smartphones and tablets, the principles remain the same. Media arts faculty stress collaboration among students, striving to create a community of artists who can use their individual talents to inspire and elevate one another’s work. Faculty provide vital training in the latest computer programs and hardware, but the real focus is more on the fundamentals of the craft: developing stories, writing good material, and getting hands-on experience working in all aspects of the emerging digital world.
“This is a great opportunity for Montana kids,” Shogren says. “I had to move away. I had to leave my family behind and say, ‘In order to do this, I’m going to make this big sacrifice, take this huge risk, and go to the city.’ That’s not necessarily the case now.”
Hands-on experience was instrumental in convincing a student like Nitopi to leave the spot he’d already carved out for himself in the film industry and come back home. For him, the opportunity to live in a stimulating environment and work alongside like-minded artists while getting practical training was just too good to pass up. Administrators hope that unique package will make the School of Media Arts a draw for students and faculty, from both in and out of state, as the department continues to mature.
“Obviously, this is a younger program compared to other film schools. It’s not quite as prestigious yet,” Nitopi says. “But the faculty is great. You get a lot of different perspectives. The program is small, so you get a lot of one-on-one time. You get to talk to other students a lot, and you’re in Missoula, so it’s pretty cool.”