San Juan College filmmaking program draws accolades, state funding

San Juan College's digital arts program has received $23,000 from the state film office's Give Back Program.

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FARMINGTON — Luke Renner didn't find much to work with when he joined the faculty of the digital media arts and design program at San Juan College in 2004. The selection of filmmaking gear was limited to just a few pieces, and he said most of that was either malfunctioning or had been poorly maintained.

A soda had been spilled on one piece of equipment.

A decade and a half has passed, and Renner now oversees a well-equipped, well-organized department that leaves students well positioned to move into a career in New Mexico's rapidly growing filmmaking industry.

"It's amazing," the soft-spoken Renner said Sept. 23, just a few days after a handful of his students had come home from Albuquerque toting awards from the third annual Student Filmmaker Showcase presented by the New Mexico Film Foundation at the KiMo Theater. "(The program) has come a long way. I've had a lot of equipment out in the field, and the equipment makes it back."

What goes without saying, of course, is that the equipment makes it back without having been bathed in a soft drink or any other foreign substance that might gum up its workings. Renner's program now features a room full of cameras, lenses, lights, tripods, dollies and more — all of it high quality, well maintained and in high demand.

That impressive collection is likely to grow in the months ahead as Renner figures out how to use a $23,000 check his department received in August from the New Mexico Film Office through its Give Back Program that is designed to boost workforce training.

Film production companies operating in the state and taking advantage of its aggressive tax incentives program make contributions to the Give Back Program, and those funds are disbursed periodically to programs like the one at SJC that are striving to produce workers who can fill the many technical, behind-the-camera roles those companies need.

In this case, the state received $68,000 from the producers of the most recent season of the AMC TV series "Better Call Saul," which was shot in New Mexico. More than one-third of that sum made its way to SJC, and Renner used part of that funding to take a group of his students to Albuquerque last weekend for the showcase.

The fact that three of those students came home winners — Macee Hunt for Best Documentary, Isaiah Tally for Best Direction and Gevan Claridy for Best Sound — made the trip even more beneficial than Renner had planned on.

"It was great to be in the theater and just hear the audience respond (when the films were screened)," he said.

The rest of the money will be spent on housing and meals for SJC students who serve internships with production companies in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, as well as for travel to workshops and on equipment. Renner also is applying for another grant for $75,000 for his department through the state that would be used for the same purposes.

More: A new act: San Juan County signs grant agreement for future film studio

The college offers programs designed to meet all the needs of film producers in the state, Renner said, adding that some of those extend into the nonacademic area through the Center for Workforce Development. He said most film projects employ people in "above the line" roles — that is, creative jobs that relate to the storytelling or narrative aspects of a film — as well as "below the line" roles, which often relate to the behind-the-scenes labor that goes into setting up a shot.

Renner wants to make sure that if San Juan County's push to attract filmmakers is successful, there are plenty of well-trained local residents ready to move into those jobs when they become available.

"We're trying to look at how we can go ahead and prepare the area for the studio that's going to open," he said, referring to the county's plans to use $1 million in state capital outlay funds to create a film production facility.

Renner senses that state officials are ready to make even more of an investment in New Mexico's higher education institutions to help them do that.

"I could see more of this type of funding becoming available for all the schools in New Mexico," he said.

One of the students who is benefiting from that investment is Farmington's Carl Keller, a high school junior who is enrolled in the dual credit program at the college while he is home schooled. Keller plans to obtain his associate degree in digital arts from San Juan College, and has set his sights on becoming a professional filmmaker.

"It's awesome that we get a huge head start with all the gear and opportunities here," he said.

Keller is a fan of the horror genre, and has even written a screenplay he'd like to produce someday. But that hasn't stopped him from working on the projects of other students as he learns various aspects of the filmmaking craft. He starred in a short featured called "Fading" and helped edit and shoot the film when he wasn't on camera.

Renner believes that kind of multitasking helps produce well-rounded film graduates. But he envisions turning the college into a de facto "film studio" in which his digital arts students would shoot their own features using classmates from the college's theater department as actors and enrollees at the Center for Workforce Development as crew members.

"My ultimate goal is to have San Juan County become a creative hub," he said. "There is a tremendous amount of stories here. And we should be the ones telling those stories, rather than someone coming in here and telling those stories."

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Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610, or via email at measterling@daily-times.com.

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