UNCSA Magazine Summer 2014 cover feature. Click link to view publication.
UNCSA’s School of Filmmaking turns 20
By Lauren Whitaker
When Susan Ruskin looks out her office window, she can see the future. As
dean of the School of Filmmaking she has presided over a very successful
20th year for the film school, and has enjoyed her front row, center stage
view of the new film production design facility under construction.
During the 2013-14 school year, the film school made The Hollywood
Reporter and Variety’s lists of top 25 film schools in the world. UNCSA
filmmakers won two Independent Spirit Awards, three Directors Guild of
America awards, 2 Cine Golden Eagle awards, six film festival best of
category awards, and a Society of Camera Operators award. Fifteen second-,
third-, and fourth-year films screened at 15 festivals. More than 30 alumni
had their work screened in 10 films at Sundance. Alumni worked on three
films that were nominated for Academy Awards. And the school’s newest
building has risen from the ground.
Ruskin sees the construction site outside her window as a beacon for the
future of the film school and as a testament to the brief but impressive
history of UNCSA’s fifth arts school.
“To think that none of this was here 20 years ago, not the buildings, or the
faculty or the students, it boggles the mind,” said Ruskin, who became dean
in May 2013 after serving for a year as interim dean and teaching producing
at UNCSA since 2009. “It is truly remarkable how far this program has
Chancellor Emeritus Alex C. Ewing agrees. He led the School of the Arts from
1990 to 2000, and oversaw the creation of the School of Filmmaking. ACE
Exhibition complex, which includes three state-of-the-art motion picture
theatres and BB&T Lobby, was named in his honor.
“The idea (of creating a film school) had been around for a while,” said
Ewing. “It was not revolutionary.”
But while others had only dreamed of the possibilities, Ewing set out to
make the film school a reality. “I thought it was imperative to complement
the training of the students, particularly those in Drama and Design &
Production,” Ewing said. “And there was a strong possibility of students
getting jobs in film.”
Ewing embarked on his pet project in the spring of 1991 by consulting
renowned author and School of the Arts founder John Ehle, who referred him
to film producer Borden Mace. A North Carolina native, Mace had produced
the film based on Ehle’s novel “The Journey of August King.” He had also
founded the North Carolina School of Science and Math in Durham. Ewing
coaxed Mace out of retirement to lead the creation of the film school.
In 1992, the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina
approved the idea of the School of Filmmaking. “They said we could plan it,
but we weren’t authorized to actually create it,” Ewing said.
Ewing, Mace and their quickly assembled board of advisors began looking for
a dean to lead their school, and they advertised for students. Those actions
earned them a scolding from C.D. Spangler, who was president of the UNC
system and Ewing’s boss. “He told us we were on a short leash,” Ewing
But they persevered, hiring Sam Grogg as the first dean. Grogg had been
president and chief operating officer of Apogee Productions and Magic
Pictures Inc. and had produced films including KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN
and THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL.
“Sam was amazing. He is the founding father of the film school,” Ewing said.
“We had no money, no space, no model. We had a concept, and we had
Sam’s vision. He got us off the ground.”
In September 1993, the School of Filmmaking opened in the barely
renovated, sparsely equipped Pearce Building, a one-time diaper laundry
that had most recently housed elements of the School of Design and
Production. Five faculty members were on board to teach 58 students.
In 1993, the N.C. General Assembly appropriated $7.9 million for
construction of sound stages, production facilities and exhibition spaces.
Another $7 million was approved by taxpayers that year as part of the
state’s largest-ever bond package. The school broke ground on the Film
Studio Village in October 1995, and the new buildings were dedicated in
April 1998. Meanwhile, in May of 1997, the school graduated its first class.
Grogg left in 1998, and Dale Pollock became dean from 1999 until 2006,
when he stepped into a faculty role, teaching directing and cinema studies.
“Dale Pollock was just the person we needed at that time,” Ewing said. “He
provided a more structured approach that was important for the school to
Pollock has produced 13 feature films, including SET IT OFF, MRS.
WINTERBOURNE, A MIDNIGHT CLEAR, THE BEAST and BLAZE. His films
have received four Academy Award nominations. He was chief film reviewer
for Daily Variety, and chief film reporter for the Los Angeles Times, where he
was a Pulitzer Prize nominee.
The third dean, Jordan Kerner, served from 2007 to 2012. A veteran
Hollywood producer (THE SMURFS 1 and 2, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, and FRIED
GREEN TOMATOES), he reimagined the manner in which film, animation,
gaming and other new media are taught at UNCSA. He also advocated for
the funding of the film production facility as part of a $46.74 million bond
package that includes construction of a new library, central storage facility,
and police operations building.
The newest addition to the film village is a 30,000-square-foot, $11.5 million
facility nearing completion on the northeast corner of campus. Construction
began in the fall of 2012, and Ruskin hopes they will move in this
The facility includes up-to-date hardware and software, especially for digital
design, gaming, animation and visual effects – areas that Ruskin sees as the
future of filmmaking and crucial for the training of her students.
“We are training students through the whole process of being a filmmaker,
from inception through distribution,” she said. “Students leave here and can
walk onto any film set whether it is a digital environment or not and
understand how it works. For that to continue, we must maintain state-of-
the-art facilities and equipment.”
Ruskin looks forward to bringing the building on line, but says it is the
programs that matter. “As filmmakers, we are storytellers. We use
technology to tell our stories. Our faculty are working in the industry,
utilizing the most up-to-date technology. This facility allows them to bring
that expertise to our students.”
As its fourth dean, Ruskin has big plans for the film school, including the
addition of graduate programs and the creation of a fully digital sound stage
in High Point.
Ruskin has been working with Provost David Nelson to plan Master of Fine
Arts programs to provide “in-depth training to commercial film and television
producers and screenwriters so they can launch their own companies and
become the job creators of tomorrow.”
UNCSA is coordinating with the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and
the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, who also want to create
graduate film programs. The UNC Board of Governors, which oversees all 17
UNC campuses and authorizes degree programs, has asked the three
campuses to avoid redundancies by working together.
“All three proposed programs are very different,” Ruskin said. “Our program
is not for those who want to study production – our undergraduate program
does that – but for those who want to be entrepreneurs in the filmmaking
The Board of Governors is expected to decide on the proposals next year.
Reaching further into the future, Ruskin envisions joint graduate programs –
Master of Science or Master of Business Administration degrees – offered in
conjunction with other UNC campuses.
Also on Ruskin’s agenda is turning a vacant film studio in High Point into a
turnkey, fully digital film stage. The facility would have the potential for
gaming, digital design/effects, and 3-D, and would be available for
incubating new projects and rental by the film industry.
“It would be unique in this area of the country,” Ruskin said. “It is a very
exciting project because it would potentially create jobs for our graduates,
and internship opportunities for our current students.”
Founded in 1988, Carolina Atlantic Studios was donated to UNCSA in 1999
by F.P.L. Limited Partnership, which used the 20,070-square-foot complex
for feature film, television and commercial production. Feature films such as
HOUSE OF CARDS, CHILDREN OF THE CORN II, and HELLRAISER III, as well
as commercials and industrials, were shot there.
UNCSA Interim Chancellor James Moeser, who is Chancellor Emeritus at
UNC-Chapel Hill, approached UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School about
creating a business plan for the studio’s transformation. Students from the
school’s STAR (Student Teams Achieving Results) program gave a
presentation to the UNCSA Board of Trustees in April.
For additional help with the project, Ruskin plans to bring in film director and
special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbell. His special effects credits
include 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD
KIND, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, BLADE RUNNER and THE TREE OF
LIFE. He directed SILENT RUNNING and BRAINSTORM.
“It does not get any better than exposing students to the expertise of
industry leaders like Doug Trumbell,” Ruskin said. “He is brilliant. His work
has awed generations of movie-goers and inspired countless young
Ruskin takes pride in the expertise of her faculty, which has grown from the
original five to more than 30, and includes such well-known artists as Peter
Bogdanovich (director, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, PAPER MOON, MASK),
Ron Roose (editor, THE WANDERERS, HOFFA, SEARCHING FOR BOBBY
FISCHER, STAR TREK VI and THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP), and Tom
Ackerman, A.S.C. (cinematographer, BEETLEJUICE, JUMANJI, and THE
LEGEND OF RON BURGANDY.)
The dean is also enormously proud of her students and the school’s alumni,
including such notables as David Gordon Green (director of YOUR
HIGHNESS, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS and the HBO series “Eastbound and
Down”), Jeff Nichols (writer/director of MUD and TAKE SHELTER), Martha
Stephens (writer/director of LAND HO!) and Will Files (sound designer for
THE SMURFS, TAKE SHELTER and TREE OF LIFE). “These alumni – and many
more – have found their footings in the film industry. They are making very
good films that people want to see, and they are hiring other alumni for their
crews and putting students to work as interns. That’s what we call the
UNCSA film mafia.”
Ruskin says the reputation of the faculty and alumni is what draws smart
and creative students to the program. “That is why we have come so far in
such a short period of time,” she said. “And that is why the sky is the limit.”