New Kid on the Set

Can a newly minted professor bring Nevada State College’s film program into the future?

Adam Davis hopes to combine the best of digital and analog in his retooled media program. | Photo by Visionairre Studio

Adam Davis hopes to combine the best of digital and analog in his retooled media program. | Photo by Visionairre Studio

Dr. Adam Davis’ office at Nevada State College is a Where’s Waldo of legacy filmmaking technology. Every glance reveals a piece of equipment tucked or propped on bookshelves and cabinets and desktops like potsherds: a Polaroid camera, an 8mm home-movie projector in its original box, a handheld movie camera, a couple of manual typewriters and various other artifacts from a rapidly fading era.

I point out that this stuff isn’t exactly cutting edge, and Davis laughs, “I love this old technology and respect the theory, but film has changed completely. Cinema still exists in many ways, but what movies are and how they’re made and how they are received and watched has changed considerably just over the last decade.”

With a small program, Adam Davis is able to stay on top of technological and creative trends. | Photo by Visionaire Studio

With a small program, Adam Davis is able to stay on top of technological and creative trends. | Photo by Visionaire Studio

This respect for the past coupled with a drive toward the future is why NSC hired Davis—a cherubic 39-year-old with an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman University and a freshly minted Ph.D. in film and media from Southern Illinois University, to steer the college’s visual and digital media program as its first, and currently only, full-time associate professor.

Founded in 2002 and situated on Henderson’s southern frontier, NSC is known primarily for its growing nursing and education undergraduate degree programs. But its administrators have also been dreaming of making an impact in film and video production when they inaugurated its bachelor of arts in visual and digital media in 2003, just one semester after the school opened.

Davis’ boss, Dr. Gregory Robinson, who has been with the college since its founding and is now Humanities Chair, explains that there is a lot of enthusiasm for what he says is the college’s “one unique degree program [and one whose] course designations are not shared with any other college. Visual media was totally designed from scratch.”

But while there were a lot of great ideas, Robinson says that during the first 10 years, VDM curriculum slid into the comfort zones of the two English professors who worked on the program part time and away from their primary disciplines. “Before Adam arrived, our focus was more on critical studies; [students] weren’t producing nearly as much as they are now and we were trying to think about what this program looked like. We didn’t have an expert in production or in new media. Now we do.”

If the last decade has been about keeping the program manageable and finding its focus, the next decade is about expanding and making a mark.

At this point, Davis’ program is a pretty small piece of a relatively small school. The college runs 28 majors with a total enrollment of approximately 2,600. The VDM program graduated just five students last June and currently has only 19 students in various stages of degree completion.

Davis has a big job ahead, especially given the behemoth film schools in California and a thriving film studies program at UNLV. It’s easy to wonder how NSC is going to compete.

To start, Davis says his recruiting challenge is made easier by NSC’s affordable tuition. Davis’ alma mater, Chapman University, rakes in $1,275 per credit and although UNLV is a good deal for Nevada residents at $191 per credit, NSC can lure budding Steven Spielbergs with a modest $138.25 per credit.

Still, Davis is quick to note that NSC doesn’t seek to directly compete with other programs.

“The traditional film-studies program looks at film theory and ways of understanding cinema,” he says. “We use it all of the time here, but when those programs get a little too traditional, they get a little bit stuffy and can become a bit elitist and sometimes not quite as practical. We’re trying to be a program that really is a product of its time.”

Davis looks to make the program more practical by emphasizing hands-on student production and public exposure for their projects.

“Submitting to local film festivals is something that is definitely part of our program,” he says. “We were fortunate to get into this relationship with the Las Vegas Film Festival and they said, ‘Bring it on!’ Now NSC has a dedicated slot at the festival.”

Davis has also been putting together the technology to enable VDM students to gain experience on current equipment. “We use industry-standard editing software. And DSLRs are becoming better equipped for motion pictures, like in the latest Canon models, which we use. This is giving the students a whole new tool set. ”

Despite these strides, it’s still a small program. While USC has big-name connections and a $175 million donation from George Lucas, NSC doesn’t even have studio space.

Davis has an answer for that: He plays up NSC as a place of scrappy, keeping-it-real pragmatism. “[With a studio], students have to have a budget, and a lot of short films [using soundstages] cost $25,000 or more. We have to be a little more rogue here, but there are a lot of advantages to that. You have to find your location, you have to figure out how to light practically within the location, you have to figure out how to do sound both on the set and while you’re editing in order to accommodate traffic and air conditioner hum. In a lot of ways it reflects an aesthetic and work ethic that is more typical of more lower-end production today. So if students get a job at say, a company doing promotional work or training videos, they’re probably not going to be building sets. You need to know how to work practically.”

Which brings us to the big question: “Can I get a job doing this?” Davis’ vision includes building networks and finding internships, and may well be helped by the recent passage of Nevada SB165, sometimes known as the Motion Picture Jobs Creation Act, as local video production companies take tentative steps to ramp up their talent base.

“Any job opportunities in the area will be good for our students,” Davis says. “We’re looking forward to making connections with local producers like Chris Ramirez [of Silver State Productions]. Nevada has a lot to offer in terms of landscapes and city options. Vegas is a great alternative to shooting in L.A., and you see a lot of places decamping from L.A. We anticipate having a great, willing workforce.”

“That’s one of the real advantages of having a new program,” he says. “We don’t have all of this academic tradition, we can take from that what we need. We can also look to the contemporary visual culture and prepare our students for that and then look specifically at the job market and what is going in Nevada, and locally tailor our program for that.”

Tailoring is where Davis feels NSC’s smaller size and youth will help it stay nimble. He’s eager to build a program to fit emerging markets. Computer-generated graphics and special effects take the place of physical models; video games become full-scale productions with budgets, production times and revenues rivaling Hollywood blockbusters; and mobile devices in our pockets drive the demand for video content.

“[There are] so many different ways in which this media can be produced,” Davis says. “We are expanding into animation, 3-D modeling, flash animation, after effects, digital effects, all of which can be used in anything from traditional cinematic productions to iPhone and Android apps.”

But the artifacts in Davis’ office makes it clear he isn’t throwing away the past. In fact, it is his respect for the past that, with a drop of irony, binds together his coalescing plans, his hopeful change.
“We are really looking to integrate digital cinema, everything that is changing with cinema, how its done, how it’s viewed, how it’s understood, how these older theories can be applied to contemporary media culture,” he says. “It’s not particularly hard to learn a piece of software, it’s all that other stuff [you learn in a liberal arts program] that equips you to use that software in interesting and creative ways. That’s the value of an education.”