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Engineering-produced films open doors for students, gain widespread attention

Ben Poland and Destinee Day are working this semester on editing the film “Vampyras.” Poland is a junior studying information technology, and Day is a junior in film studies. The film “Vampyras,” is being produced in the information technology program within the computer science department.

In addition to the screenings at film festivals, films produced by the University of Missouri College of Engineering projects have created opportunities for students across campus to learn new skills and take those skills to bigger industries.

When junior Ben Poland began information technology classes his freshman year, he thought he primarily would learn about the post-production aspect of films.

“I’ve always been a behind-the-scenes kind of guy,” he said, adding that he spent a lot of time working backstage for theater productions in his hometown, Quincy, Ill.

However, after hearing about films created through the IT program within computer science, Poland, with a minor in film studies, signed up to participate.

“I was slightly aware of the films made in computer science,” he said. “I didn’t know there was a production side to it.”
Poland said he found himself and other students working alongside industry professionals who also were working on the film.

“We basically signed up for what we wanted to do,” Poland said. He became an assistant director, maintaining daily production reports and helping direct people to where they needed to be.

Jeff Uhlmann, an associate professor within the Department of Computer Science who wrote the four films produced by the department, stands with the poster for “Mil Mascaras vs. the Aztec Mummy” and one of the film’s co-producers, Kannappan Palaniappan, also an associate professor in the computer science. Uhlmann says the films extend beyond engineering to benefit students from all disciplines who work on them, from the film and engineering students who work in post-production to the theater students who work on-set.

Other students worked with lighting, cameras, makeup and more. And they weren’t just engineering students, according to Associate Professor Jeff Uhlmann, who wrote the scripts for four films that have been produced by the department. Initially, engineering students made up the bulk of participants during the making of the first few films. Faculty then focused their efforts on creating a better balance among disciplines across campus that were involved in the films.

“Students come in, and they tell their friends, who also come in, so that class fills up,” Uhlmann said.

This became evident in the production class for “Vampyras.” Majors from that class included film studies, English, business administration, communication, history, textile and apparel management and more.

The classes are cross-promoted between the computer science and film studies departments. Film projects typically begin in Film Pre-Planning and Production — a class that was originally developed through computer science and is now solely offered through the film studies department — and are finished in the entertainment engineering IT courses, Film Editing and Post Production and Digital Effects I and II, are where students add the visual effects to the films.

Even with the broad range of majors in participating in the production stages, the projects haven’t lost their engineering roots. Computer science and IT students make up the majority of the population in the post-production classes.

Poland, who was in the editing class last semester, has spent his time working on the current film project, “Vampyras,” a story about a roller derby-playing vampire hunter. He and film studies junior Destinee Day are spearheading the editing process.

With the film since its conception, Poland said he’s learned not only more about post-production and also what it’s like coming up with a film idea and working on a production set.

“My interest in special effects is amped by knowing the production side,” he said.

Poland said the project “opened up a whole new world of jobs and a network of people.”

Journalism graduate Doc Crotzer knows very well how the films can benefit current students. He participated in the production of the film, “Academy of Doom,” and is now living in Los Angeles, working as an editor for the TV show, “Glee.”

Crotzer he said he tried his hand at a variety of positions.

“It was a lot of PA (production assistant) work, and a lot of grip work,” he said. “There were the teachers and professionals working, and we (students) filled in all the other positions. I was really interested in lighting and grip work.”

But more importantly, he said his time spent working on a film project in Missouri gave him experience and exposure to working on a fully functioning movie set.

“When you do something like short films, you are doing everything yourself,” he said. “This was so much of a bigger scale. Everyone had different roles and jobs. It showed me how a true film set really functioned.

“Being on a set, I wasn’t as intimidated coming out to California as people who hadn’t been on a set before,” he added.

Even if he hadn’t continued onto Hollywood, Crotzer said the skills he gained from creating a film while at Mizzou could’ve carried over into any profession.

“Working on a set, you learn problem-solving skills. There’s a lot of thinking on your feet, a lot of adjusting. The more experience you have, the more experience you have adapting to your surroundings,” he said.

Widespread recognition

“Mil Mascaras vs. the Aztec Mummy” was the first film that came out of the Department of Computer Science. It has gained coverage in magazines such as Filmfax and Screem.

The four films haven’t simply been student projects. “Mil Mascaras vs. the Aztec Mummy,” “Academy of Doom,” and the yet-to-be-released films “Aztec Revenge” and “Vampyras” have received attention from nationally circulated magazines and film festivals. “Aztec Mummy” was featured at the 2010 Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal, Canada. Uhlmann, who appeared in the film as the Aztec Mummy, said festival organizers have extended an invitation to screen the department’s next two films.