Making Baltimore the Film City

A look at the new Film Centre

Taura Musgrove ’17, a member of the newly launched MFA in Filmmaking’s inaugural class, knows something about making films. The Baltimore native has spent the past several years working on the craft — as a member of a film collective based in Oakland and as a production manager and associate producer in the home entertainment documentary division at Pixar.

The first short film she co-produced, One Weekend a Month, won an honorable mention award for Best Short Film at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005. Last year at Pixar, she worked with their documentary team to create behind-the-scenes content for the movie Inside Out, several marketing videos for upcoming films, and educational videos for a museum exhibit about the math and science that go into all of the studio’s films.

When she decided she was “ready to take the leap” into graduate school, it was that depth of her experience in the industry that led her to MICA.

Musgrove knew that she had a talent for filmmaking, especially the administrative component of the process. What she wanted to concentrate on was telling stories that spoke to her on a personal level; and she knew, from her history working with a traditional movie studio, that her voice as a filmmaker would require a different model.

As Musgrove explained, “I worked with a studio, and while they were making some effort in diversifying content, I longed to see even more. Further, one of the things that struck me about MICA’s program was program director Patrick Wright’s commitment to honing in on new distribution models for film. In this digital age, filmmakers don’t have to create everything in Hollywood.”

That ‘new ways of doing things’ is the foundation the MFA in Filmmaking was built upon. Announced in August 2014, MICA’s newest MFA program doesn’t just acknowledge the technology-driven changes in the film and media industry, it embraces them.

“Technology has changed how films are made and delivered. Understanding and learning to take advantage of how these changes impact the business of filmmaking is what makes our program different,” explained Wright. “Our students learn the whole package of making a film, from pre- to post-production, but they are also learning how to sustain an independent production using new tools-using social media to build an audience, using new digital devices to distribute their work. They don’t have to be based out of Los Angeles or New York to make films. They can work anywhere.”

Including Baltimore. Especially Baltimore now.

The launch of the graduate filmmaking program is part of a larger initiative that includes the breathtaking renovation of the building that housed the historic Centre Theatre in Baltimore’s Station North Arts and Entertainment District and unique partnerships with both Johns Hopkins University (JHU) and the Maryland Film Festival. The entire effort illustrates that MICA is not thinking small. Instead, the College is committed to creating an international film hub in Baltimore by helping bring the region’s best resources together.

One of the most important steps in turning Baltimore into a filmmaking center is the JHU-MICA Film Centre, which was a moss-covered shell whose roof was riddled with holes when work began on its overhaul in 2012. Today, it is the base of a partnership between MICA and JHU, where students in film programs from both institutions share space, courses, faculty, and equipment, and form a collective network that capitalizes on each other’s complementary strengths.

The Centre also houses the Baltimore Jewelry Center and the multiplayer game company Sparkypants Studios. Restored to its original exterior elegance, it is now one of the highlights of the burgeoning Station North neighborhood. The change in its interior has been remarkable. “They were still renovating when I was looking at grad schools. When I took a tour of the Film Centre, I had to wear a hard hat. You could see the sky from inside,” Michael Smiegel ’17 recounted. “I had to use my imagination about what it would look like; but everything they said it would look like is pretty much true. I’ve studied film at two other colleges — at a community college, where we had a few classrooms in the basement, and as an undergraduate we shared a floor with other arts programs. Here, there’s space that’s just for film. You know that every single person around you has the exact same reason for being there as you.”

Musgrove added, “When I saw the new MICA/JHU Film Centre, I was excited and encouraged by this major investment in local filmmaking. This newly designed space is a one-stop shop with state-of-the-art equipment, studios, editing suites, and a brand new sound stage. In addition to the huge investment in equipment and space, the Film Centre also has a great faculty.”

MICA and JHU share the second floor of the Film Centre, and it is stunning, with a contemporary design that juxtaposes bold colors with a spare, elegant use of space. More important than the visual impact of the space are the physical tools, and those are state of the art. They include: a 49-seat screening room, which can present both digital video and 16mm films; a 600-square-foot sound recording studio, and a smaller recording booth for vocal dubbing and foley mixing; a 2,000-square-foot cyclorama green room sound stage, which is large enough to accommodate set building and studio shooting; a film room, which houses a 16mm Steenbeck film editing table; dedicated individual high-definition editing suites; a computer room with 20 Macs; and classroom and lounge space that facilitates deeper interaction among students from both institutions. There is also an equipment cage to house gear that supports the Centre’s academic programming. Students have access to lights, microphones, tripods, dollies, and more than 40 camera packages, which range from Super 16mm to the latest 4K High Definition format; cameras include Arri Amira, Sony FS7, Sony NEX 700, Canon 300, Canon 100, and Canon 5D.

MICA’s students are already taking note of the benefits the partnership with JHU brings, listing among the advantages the chance to work with students with a wide array of viewpoints and expertise — including the unique ability to work with music students from JHU’s Peabody Institute on scoring films.

“It’s great that the programs are together,” Janique Robillard ’17 explained. “It augments our resources, such as our physical space and equipment, but perspectives and experience, as well. I don’t notice the presence of the JHU students because we are all in the program together, so it is also a seamless relationship.”

Wright added that filmmaking students also benefit from the program’s strong ties to the Maryland Film Festival, which is currently renovating the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Film Center. The Parkway, which will have three screens and around 600 seats, is located steps away from the JHU-MICA Film Centre. “The partnership with the Maryland Film Festival along with the curricular integration with JHU are key to the MFA program,” Wright said. “With the opening of the Film Centre and the restoration of the Parkway Theatre, we’re reinvigorating the area, bringing cinema back to this location, and making it an international hub.”

MICA is currently hosting a number of public screenings as part of their year-round collaboration with the festival, with filmmakers conducting master classes with MFA students. Some of those filmmakers include: Britni West, whose film, Tired Moonlight, took home the jury award for narrative feature at Slamdance 2015; Michael Nichols and Christopher Walker, whose 2015 documentary, Welcome to Leith, chronicles the white supremacist takeover of a small North Dakota town; and Alex Ross Perry, a noted independent narrative filmmaker who was recently hired by Walt Disney Studios to write a live-action adaptation of the Winnie the Pooh franchise.

Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival, is passionate about the convergence of film-centered activity happening in Station North. “The creation of the Film Centre and our location in the Parkway Film Center fits each organization’s mission so beautifully. The timing is so perfect, because the art form is really in flux,” he said. “The piece of the puzzle that is happening is that technology is getting better at connecting people to films. Filmmaking is exploding. The audience being able to find new films is broadening and increasing. The three institutions — MICA, JHU, the Maryland Film Festival — get it. It’s a big deal, what’s happening in the industry and what’s happening here. It’s going to change everyone involved, and it’s going to change Baltimore,” Dietz said.

Wright points out that there are huge benefits to being based in Baltimore. The city’s diversity offers a wealth of filming locations and material to inspire both fiction and non-fiction stories; and it is not as crowded with film crews as some other cities known for filmmaking such as New York.

Robillard, who left a thriving independent filmmaking practice in Portland, Oregon, to come to MICA, finds the city’s environment stimulating. “Baltimore is a city in a state of flux. There’s space to make and create. I know that things are not perfect here. It faces the same issues that many urban areas face,” she said. “At the same time, people are talking about things here and are actively involved in creating art that reflects this state of flux. It makes for a more interesting atmosphere to work in as a filmmaker,” she said.

Musgrove said that she believes that in a world increasingly dominated by moving images, people of all backgrounds need to see their reflection in this visual culture. “Visual validation can help create understanding and empowerment in individuals and communities,” she said. “That visual validation further benefits us by reminding us of the universality of our stories. I’m excited about working and collaborating with the students and faculty here at MICA.”

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