Reel World Application

Under the tutelage of a former Hollywood sound mixer, students are creating films that tackle social justice issues or simply entertain – minus the ‘cheese’ factor

By Sean Patterson

Inspired by the $600 million generated by 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood has been busy cranking out films intended to tap into the “Christian” market. There’s only one problem: “Most of them are cheesy,” says Matt Meyer.

As a professor in the university’s Cinema and Media Communication (CMCO) program, Meyer and his students are doing their best to change that. Together, they’re grappling a twofold question: How should Christians engage popular culture using a medium dominated by secular filmmakers, and how do they communicate their messages without coming across as predictable or campy?

“With the digital revolution, we have access to this incredibly powerful medium,” Meyer says. “Now, we just have to figure out how to use that medium to further the kingdom.”

Although most “Christian” films are made with good intentions, they’re not particularly effective, either as entertainment or ministry tools, Meyer says.

“(The creators) don’t want to offend anyone, so they sanitize their stories,” he says. “They often reduce the world into very simplistic, black-and-white stories, so the very people the filmmakers are trying to reach – those outside the church – are turned off.”

So what’s a Christian filmmaker to do? It’s a question that winds through many of Meyer’s classes. For some students, the answer is to make documentaries about social issues like sex trafficking or poverty. Others make thought-provoking short films that deal with thorny issues in an engaging, entertaining way. Others just want to be a Christian witness in a predominantly secular industry. “I think all those are good answers,” says Meyer, who worked in Hollywood as a sound editor or mixer on more than 200 movies and TV shows before coming to George Fox.

An emphasis on “being real” and avoiding the “cheese factor” has resulted in a wealth of quality film projects, ranging from high-tech adventure movies and documentaries to thoughtful dramas on stem cell research and life on death row. The quality and reputation of the CMCO program is spreading, having grown from 20 students to 70 in the last five years. Most importantly, students are taking their skills to the job market after graduation (see sidebar).

“We’re kind of this undiscovered gem of a program,” Meyer says. “Although we’re small, our students get some amazing opportunities they couldn’t get at a bigger institution. And it isn’t just in film: We have graduates who are working in TV news, in Christian radio and as record producers.”

On The Job

Following are some recent graduates working in the film and entertainment industry.

Bethany Bylsma (G07) is regional manager for Invisible Children (invisiblechildren.com), a nonprofit that uses film and other media worldwide to help end the use of child soldiers in Africa.

Lia Elliott (G10) is the director of Unsilenced Pictures (unsilencedpictures.com) and is working on Underneath the Surface: Modern-Day Slavery from Phnom Penh to Portland, a feature-length documentary on sex trafficking.

Mark Williams (G06) is a machine room operator and Pro Tools specialist at Larson Sound Studios, where he helps create soundtracks for episodic TV shows and feature films.

Elizabeth Wallace (G10) is the media coordinator at St. Luke Productions (stlukeproductions.com), a Washington-based nonprofit organization “dedicated to evangelizing and renewing the culture through theater and the media.” Elizabeth is currently editing Vianney Speaks, a television pilot scheduled to air internationally on the Eternal Word Television Network later this year.

Ian Becker (G09) is shooting his thesis film this summer for USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. The film, set in the forests of Washington, deals with life lessons between father, son and a mountain lion.

Alex Post (G10) recorded three CDs in the CMCO recording studio during his senior year and now has a record label to market his own hip hop recordings.