It's a film school without the film school.
Buoyed by a $20 million grant from Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment Inc., Ball State University's digital learning efforts are making way for a wave of projects worthy of attention on and off campus.
Recent graduate Jaron Henrie-McCrea rode the swell all the way to the Student Academy Awards last month, winning an Oscar for his short film, "Knock Knock."
Less than a week later, global industry group Media Communications Association-International honored three other Cardinals. Chad Cooper and Jessica Stuart each won a Gold Reel Award for their work on a documentary and interactive museum kiosk at the Minnetrista Cultural Center in Muncie. Jeff Cooney won a silver for his contributions to the "Wall of Sound" at the Muncie Children's Museum.
All the projects were sponsored by Ball State's Center for Media Design, a Lillyfunded program that now is looking for ways to boost the state's professional production efforts.
"We're in a position to actually invigorate the independent film community in Indiana," said CMD Associate Director Rodger Smith, citing the top-notch equipment-and student talent-the grant money made possible. "We have developed these capabilities ... and we're devising ways to share them."
The first step toward that goal is a summer project in progress on the Ball State campus. More than 20 telecommunications and theater students enrolled in a 10-week "immersion" class are putting together a high-definition movie, which will be submitted to film festivals and shopped around for commercial distribution.
CMD hired a professional director and a lighting expert-Steve Marra of Adrenaline Motion Pictures in Indianapolis and Derek Hammer of Hammer Motion Pictures in Fishers-to work on "Delia" alongside the students.
The pros get a film credit, a paycheck and a look at the next generation of talent. The amateurs get credit hours, the opportunity to work on a large-scale production, and an idea of what's waiting for them after graduation.
"I've learned a lot," said Jessica Keffaber, a 21-year-old senior from Wabash and the film's producer. "They've taught us how to do things, how things work out in the real world."
And let's not forget the other important lesson.
"There are job possibilities here," Keffaber said. "I don't have to go to L.A."
Indeed, technological advances have made commercial-quality movie making possible coast to coast. Members of Indiana's burgeoning production community lobbied legislators this year to authorize tax credits that would make Hoosierwood a more attractive location for filming.
The General Assembly approved some breaks, but left others on the cuttingroom floor. Even so, Ball State's efforts may address another important area, observers said.
"You need two things to nurture a film community in a state such as Indiana," said Bruce Economou, a Los Angelesbased literary and talent manager. "The first is money. ... The second is talent. You have to have the skills necessary to keep the market moving."
Economou is impressed with what he has seen develop at Ball State since tuning in at the recommendation of a friend in the mid-1990s.
"What they're doing there is unbelievable," he said. "They are equipped with tools that most film schools don't even have."
Equipment is important, but experience also matters, Ball State's Smith said-to the students and professionals.
"We're prepping kids for the marketplace," he said, describing high-definition technology as a freight train that will stop for no one. "And maybe we can contribute to it, too."
Marra, the Indianapolis-based director, agrees. In fact, he pitched the idea of just such a collaboration to Ball State last year. An Indiana University graduate who spent 14 years in L.A., he wants to raise the state's production profile.
So far, so good.
"This leaves the door open for both of us," he said of the academic and professional aspects of the summer project. "They're learning on a professional production and that's a plus for us. ... It's a start."
From left, Ball State students Kody Gibson; Sam Day, director of photography; Travis Hatfield, associate director; and Jamie Boalbey, lead actress; work on "Delia."