It may come as a surprise to many people that New Mexico has been a film capital for over a century, even before it became a state. In 1898, inventor and early motion pioneer Thomas Edison arrived in Albuquerque to capture on 50 seconds of film a group of Native American children at school and soon after New Mexico became a production hub for silent westerns.

By the 21st century, the film industry was bringing millions of dollars annually into New Mexico’s treasury as projects sprang up in communities large and small across the state. The University of New Mexico is spearheading preparing students for the careers and benefits the industry offers.

In 1972, UNM started offering the first film and television courses in its Department of Theatre Arts under the direction of Professor Ira Jaffe. Today, UNM is a powerhouse of opportunity for students looking into joining the growing film industry across the country, as well as in New Mexico with its historic legacy as a film capital.

The Mentor Series: Celebrating 30 Years of Film at UNM

James Stone, chair of Film & Digital Arts at UNM

Just over three decades ago, a film program was established at UNM. To mark this milestone Film & Digital Arts chair James Stone announced that the department will host a program called The Mentor Series: Celebrating 30 Years of Film at UNM, starting Monday, Oct. 19, at 6 p.m. via Zoom. A distinguished group of alumni and film luminaries will talk via Zoom to students and the community about how they found success doing what they love. The series will be a fabulous source of advice and useable strategies for those interested in working in the digital media fields. All events will be free and open to the public.

Among those speaking in the presentations are producer Harvey Kahn and screenwriter Judy Rothman Rofé. Kahn will talk about how to succeed as a producer, get a project off the ground, pitch a project, and gather your team. Rothman Rofé will discuss the current climate in children's and family media, including the challenges of production in the time of COVID.

For the first event featuring Harry Kahn, register in advance here

Future events will be announced on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Mentor Series: Celebrating 30 Years of Film at UNM  starting Monday, Oct. 19, at 6 p.m. via Zoom. All events will be free and open to the public. For the first event, register in advance here. Future events will be announced on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The history of film in New Mexico and UNM Film & Digital Arts

Stone reviewed the first years of what would become the Film & Digital Arts department, starting in 1972 when professor emeritus Ira Jaffe offered UNM's first Film and Television courses. In 1989, Media Arts became a program in the College of Fine Arts and then a department in 2000. In 2003, Susan Dever assumed the chair when Jaffe retired.

In 2007 the Interdisciplinary Film and Digital Media (IFDM) program was funded by the State of New Mexico. In 2016, IFDM merged into the department and three years later, the Department of Film & Digital Arts was created with new concentrations in Film Production, Gaming, Animation, and Film History and Criticism.

The British-born Stone is now an associate professor and has been chair of the department since 2015.

“Like many Europeans, I fell in love with the American West through watching movies. I knew I wanted to live among the deserts, mountains and huge skies of the southwest and I moved to New Mexico in 1994,” he said.

Stone reflected on the state’s film-making industry and the potential for UNM students. Famous films include The Man Who Fell to Earth starring David Bowie; the iconic Easy Rider starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, who lived in Taos; the action-thriller Sicario; the superheroes flick The Avengers; and the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

Today, Stone noted, Film & Digital Arts is creating highly-skilled filmmakers and game designers.

“We teach the skills that allow graduates to work as crew, build careers as creative decision-makers such as directors, producers, and cinematographers, and make an impact in the business of moviemaking,” he said. Classes include Set Design and Construction; Directing; Advanced Cinematography; Digital Media Entrepreneurship; Producing for Film and Digital Media; The Business and Law of New Media; and Virtual Reality. Students have found careers in not just the state’s film industry but also in such diverse careers as non-entertainment gaming at Sandia National Laboratories.

Among the professionals and academics teaching courses are Sally Kewayosh, who has created work for Sesame Street; Barry Kirk, director of photography at Southwest Productions; Matt McDuffie, a screenwriter with work on HBO, Showtime, CBS, Fox and Warner Bros.; and Hank Rogerson, producer and actor in productions that include Sicario and Homeland.

Working collaboratively with the city and state film offices, the department connects students and graduates with paid internships with studios, postproduction facilities and grip houses, positions on movies and TV shows shot in New Mexico, and the local film workers union.

“Our graduates are instrumental in the growth of New Mexico’s thriving film industry,” Stone emphasized. The department offers a BFA and also a BA in Film & Digital Arts, concentrations in Film Production, Gaming and Animation and Film History and Criticism.

Looking ahead

Stone admitted that 2020 has been challenging, but the department is still forging ahead utilizing COVID-era safety protocols.

This is a time of great potential, he said, noting that New Mexico’s film industry is experiencing explosive development with the arrival of Netflix and NBC Universal and the state’s ever-increasing national reputation as a filming hotspot.

“Productions are seeking unprecedented numbers of skilled New Mexico workers,” he observed. “Gov. Lujan Grisham enthusiastically endorses the development of an above-the-line workforce in New Mexico such as homegrown screenwriters, directors, producers, and actors. And UNM’s Department of Film & Digital Arts, in collaboration with a multitude of other New Mexico higher education institutions, is educating the next generation of crew and above-the-line creative personnel.”

“At present, New Mexico is known for providing excellent crews and locations to Hollywood-based productions. Let’s expand the way we talk about ourselves and the way we are perceived. Our graduates are ready to work as directors, writers, and producers, the leaders and influencers of the creative process. We can create a native New Mexico industry that is known for every aspect of the creative process,” he declared.