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Major film

Coming soon to a campus near you

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Photos by Avery Danizger
  • Video by Mizzou students
  • Published: Feb. 23, 2010
Interior of house

Adobe Flash 7 or higher and java script are required to view the slide show.

  1. Jeff Uhlmann, an MU professor of engineering and film studies, plays the role of the mummy in the lucha libre film Mil Mascaras Versus the Aztec Mummy, for which he also wrote the script. Mizzou students have worked on the production of three Mil Mascaras films shot on and near the MU campus.
  2. Mil Mascaras takes on The Magister in a wrestling-match scene filmed at The Blue Note in Columbia.
  3. Shooting a scene with wrestler Dramatico at the MU Extension Fire and Rescue Training Institute, students work on a crew led by professionals. For their fourth Mil Mascaras film, currently in pre-production, students will take the lead.
  4. Students wield flamethrowers during the making of Academy of Doom, which was directed by computer science instructor Chip Gubera. Throughout the movie Mizzou’s “M” doubles as a symbol of the Mil Mascaras Wrestling Women’s Academy.
  5. Uhlmann, still clad in his mummy costume, takes a break in Mizzou’s Lafferre Hall, home of the College of Engineering. With support from Film Studies Program Director Roger Cook, Uhlmann developed courses in the Department of Computer Science to teach students film pre-planning and production.
  6. In an early scene of Mil Mascaras Versus the Aztec Mummy, the wrestler dines with a date at the Columbia restaurant Sophia’s, which is decorated with original paintings by local artist and MU instructor David Spear.
  7. The cast gallery in the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology stands in as the home of wrestler Mil Mascaras, an avid art collector.
  8. In this scene shot at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, the mummy rises from the dead. Students worked not only as the crew for the film but also as extras and cast members in front of the camera.
  9. Masked wrestlers rush to the aid of their colleague in a scene from Mil Mascaras Versus the Aztec Mummy, shot on the grounds of the Missouri State Penitentiary.
  10. The crew works late into the evening outside the Hearnes Center.
  11. Jesse Hall doubles as a Mexico City police station in the Mil Mascaras films. Veteran actor Willard Pugh (right), known for roles in The Color Purple and Air Force One, plays the role of a police officer.
  12. Mil Mascaras takes a break in the Missouri State Capitol building in Jefferson City.

[Cue swelling movie-trailer music.] In a world where masked men roam a university campus, renowned documentary directors invade ordinary classrooms and a couple of guys with a funky indie theater build a globally lauded film festival, one rogue group of movie buffs has staged a curricular coup. Now everything is about to change.

Thanks in part to the persistent prodding of cinephiles in the 2005-founded group Mizzou Students for Film, MU undergrads choosing their majors this semester have a brand-new option: film studies. Proposed by MU Film Studies Program Director Roger Cook and approved by the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education this month, the major offers an eight-semester program of courses focused on analyzing the social and cultural significance of film — plus a handful of screenwriting and production options.

Reel deal

Film is nothing new at Mizzou. An interdisciplinary collaboration among humanities departments established a film studies minor in 2001. The College of Engineering has taken on multiple moviemaking projects, including producing three feature films on campus. The School of Journalism launched a freshman iLife video competition that’s now a university-wide annual event. Students have organized film-viewing and filmmaking clubs as well as the Silverscreen Film Festival. Film-focused local alumni include movie-makers such as Brian Mauer and Todd Sklar. And we won’t even mention Brad Pitt.

Film savviness, it seems, is de rigueur — and not just the stuff of slick flicks. Digital online video, students point out, is the medium of choice for much modern communication, from news reports to art films.

"We live in a digital world in which film and video are exceptional means of communication,” says Jay Johnson, a second-year MU law student who helped found Mizzou Students for Film as an undergrad business major. “As MU continues to embrace this developing technology, the University of Missouri will gain a competitive advantage over other institutions. Individuals at all levels at this university realize the myriad capabilities of film and video. We are not limiting ourselves to churning out the next Steven Spielberg; rather, we are exploring new ways to engage and communicate."

Who was that masked man?

Spielbergs or not, students do have opportunities to make full-length motion pictures at Mizzou. Guided by visionary faculty Jeff Uhlmann and Kannappan Palaniappan in the Department of Computer Science, students have worked on three films in the lucha libre wrestling tradition — a genre with a built-in international cult following.

On Mil Mascaras vs. the Aztec Mummy, Academy of Doom and Aztec Revenge, experienced professionals led teams of students in pre-production as well as in following bad-guy-squelching masked wrestler Mil Mascaras around campus with lights and mics. Each internationally distributed film has been made with a successively smaller budget, fewer pros and more student involvement. For the next flick, currently in pre-production, students are completely in charge, handling everything from budgeting and casting to set design and film editing. The setup gives young filmmakers realistic experience; students work across academic disciplines — computer science, art, textile and apparel management — on big-picture problem-solving.

It’s an educational model that has attracted attention from industry insiders including Movie Maker magazine, which favorably compares Mizzou’s film program to those of top film schools such as Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Southern California.

 “What we’re doing is actually much more ambitious than anything that exists anywhere else,” says Uhlmann, who joined the MU faculty in 2000 with the goal of establishing an emphasis area in entertainment engineering. “The fact that we’re creating films that are competing successfully around the world at film festivals is pretty remarkable — especially given that we’re in mid-Missouri and have such a limited budget.”

Thriftiness and resourcefulness also helped cement approval of the film major at MU. As processes become streamlined, film production costs have plummeted, and because most film theory courses already were being taught by faculty in English, German and romance languages, the new major is budget-neutral — music to the ears of administrators.

No Mickey Mouse classes

Watch a sample reel of student-created films highlighting events held by the MU Department of Student Life and promoting the Silverscreen Film Festival, to be held April 16-17. Thanks to a student-led drive to expand film opportunities on campus, Mizzou now offers a film studies major.

Cast and crew:  Troy Guthrie, Taylor Cowan, Patrick Bauer, Jesse Garwood, John Shealy, Carl Stern, Austin McKahan, Andrew Orozco, Rachel Anderson, Alex Turner, Jay Johnson.

The bulk of coursework in the newly restructured MU Film Studies Program curriculum entails research and critical analysis of cinema history, film genres and contemporary visual culture. There are no easy-A assignments. Courses come with heavy reading, intensive writing and, in some cases, rigorous chiseling through language and cultural barriers.

“I let people know if they’re signing up because they think it’s going to be a light course, they need to drop right away,” says Joanna Hearne, an English professor who teaches multiple courses in film analysis, documentaries and indigenous media.

For the most part, faculty say, the student body is quickly becoming more sophisticated.

“The film culture has grown on campus, so the students know these are serious courses and part of a serious subject,” says Cook, whose work as the film program's director has included teaching film analysis and German film history as well as overseeing film production.

It isn’t happening just on campus. Burgeoning local independent production companies and the explosive popularity of film festivals such as True/False and Citizen Jane have both positioned Columbia as a cinematic hotspot and created resources for instructors.

“These filmmakers come to town and are willing to visit with 30 of our students and answer questions and show clips from their films and talk about how they got $2 million to make the film; that’s amazing,” says Hearne. “That’s something you would expect in New York — not necessarily in Columbia. But we get it.”

For a chance to watch documentaries and meet their creators outside an MU class, check out the upcoming True/False Film Festival. To see what cinematic genius evolves from MU’s first crop of film studies majors, stay tuned.

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012