A series created by students in a class in the Film and Digital Media Arts Department at The University of New Mexico recently won an award and may be on its way to the TV screen.

Drifteen - Don's place
Drifteen: Don's place

Drifteen, a short film created by FDMA students in for the class entitled The Show, just won the award for Best Cinematography at the LGBTQ+ Los Angeles Film Festival. Under the mentorship of adjunct lecturer and cinematographer Barry Kirk, student directors of photography for Drifteen were Jeanette DeDios, Ziggy Embick, and Liberty Stalnaker. Matt McDuffie, FDMA professor of Practice, is the director, writer of the pilot, and showrunner for the series.

The UNM production was accepted through the website FilmFreeway, a one-stop shop for every film festival on the planet, McDuffie said. Filmmakers download their work onto the site and check off where they’d like to submit their work. Drifteen has also been accepted into the Santa Fe Film Festival being held this month.

Drifteen - Fall
Drifteen: Fall

With the LGBTQ+ Los Angeles Film Festival win, Drifteen will now be able to display the official laurel from the film festival. Filmmakers receive one for acceptance into the event and another for winning any category. It is highly valued because it allows the marketing company to affix it to the poster, giving the film cachet, McDuffie explained.

Undergraduate Film students and candidates in the Theater department’s Dramatic Writing program joined McDuffie, and then-assistant professor Maaman Rezaee, to develop and write a season of television.

Since the initial episode was written, seven more episodes have been completed. Led by McDuffie, the writers include Rezaee, past students Barbie Robertson, Amy Yourd, Stella Perry, Charlotte Casey, Diego Gomez, and Leticia Chadwick.

The hope is to take the series to market, with the help of More/Medavoy Management in Los Angeles, McDuffie said, adding that if the show is picked up by a studio, writers will be retroactively paid for their work, be able to join the Writers Guild, and, most importantly, be on their way to professional careers in Hollywood.

The series is set in the 1990s, with two queer teenage girls running away from their troubled homes in search of love and adventure and freedom and find much more than they bargained for on the highways of the American West, McDuffie explained. 

Voice of experience
Film & Digital Arts Professor of Practice Matt McDuffie

“This is the story of a pair of young hitchhikers – two teenaged girls – runaways with two completely different upbringings, and everyone who gives them a lift, or lets them sleep on their couch – or their bed, or loves them or breaks them, or buys them breakfast, or uses them as a shrink, or a goddess, or a piece of trash,” McDuffie said. “This is the story of two young women finding their way in the world, discovering what they’re made of, and what the world is made of. But really, this is a love story. A story of friendship and infatuation – the kind of fiery fever you feel when you’re young – like you’re caught in a riptide, electrified in a pounding surf of emotions – the kind of relationship that makes you want to crawl up inside the other person – to become them, to be them, to absorb them inside you. The kind of love that feels more like panic.”

In The Show class every year, the department shoots either a pilot or a 30-minute short film crewed entirely by students. For Drifteen, students were the heads of every department, from the production office, to camera, art department, props, costumes, hair/makeup, lighting, sound, and post – and the two lead actors were a student and a recent graduate of UNM.

“Students learned everything from how to write and develop a series, how to run a movie or TV set as a business, how to work with actors in performance and blocking, how to light and photograph the scene, how to record sound and dress sets. They even learned practical special effects. In the post-production phase, students mastered sound and picture editing, color grading and ADR — looping of actors’ voices over tracks. Even now, students are using the marketing skills to promote the project,” McDuffie explained.

Liberty Stalnaker graduated from UNM in 2021 with a degree in Communications with a focus in Mass Media and minor in Film. She is currently based in Chicago working in indie film and music and in the audiovisual field. 

“The FDMA program is fantastic at guiding students toward technical and aesthetic competence, an ability afforded by its brilliant professors and relatively small class sizes. Special shoutout to Barry Kirk, who was very patient with me during my ridiculous experimental video phase,” Stalnaker said. “I was glad to hear Drifteen got some recognition — what a success story! We were a bunch of undergrad students at varying points in our education and managed to put together an entire TV pilot.”

Stalnaker had some advice for upcoming FDMA graduates: “Don't move to LA! It's a desolate wasteland!”

Ziggy Embick was ecstatic when he heard about the award.

Embick graduated in 2022 with a BFA in film and Digital Media Arts. He plans to get a degree in education and pass on his film knowledge and experience to young filmmakers.

“I had a fantastic experience in the FDMA program. They've tailored the program to fit students pursuing the many facets of film. Students, I feel, have a lot of options for classes to explore their interests and delve deeper into their passions. Professors and instructors quickly become mentors and are always willing to assist with out-of-class projects and I have had a lot of opportunities through them,” Embick said.

“The UNM Film Department created a very artistically conducive space and is a great place to grow in FDMA. The Drifteen experience was tough but so rewarding. I'm grateful for the opportunity to be able to get a taste of a big production in a safe and supportive environment,” he remarked.

“We’re so proud of the students and all they’ve accomplished – and even more excited about where this class can go,” McDuffie enthused. “Last summer’s production is in the final phases of post and will be ready to go out to festivals next month, and we’re gearing up for a June production in 2023. So, anybody – anyone interested in any department from the production office to camera, sound, lighting, costumes, hair, and makeup – you name it, stay tuned for our first general meeting in the next few weeks. What other university program allows film students to get real-life on-set experience as the head of a department?”

Related article

UNM students prepare for growing film industry: Movie companies expanding to, spending big money in NM