APU Cinematic Arts: Training Transformative Storytellers

by Nathan Foster

For students who dream of becoming filmmakers, Azusa Pacific University is the perfect place to be equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in the industry. Many factors go into this top cinematic arts program including its location next to the entertainment business, its unique opportunity for students to start making films as freshman, its industry-standard software and hardware, its industry experienced faculty, and its small class size providing individualized attention.


Located just 30 miles outside of Hollywood, APU’s proximity to the film industry offers students opportunities they couldn’t get outside of Southern California. APU Cinematic Arts students have interned at Disney, CBS Television, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Scott Free Productions, and a number of other top entertainment organizations. “Internship opportunities here are through the roof,” said Zach Cheney, PhD, assistant professor of Screen Studies. “Being plugged into the places you want to work in Hollywood is invaluable.”

Thanks to the close proximity, the Department of Cinematic Arts, along with other programs in the College of the Arts, holds an annual Industry Spotlight at Warner Bros. studios. “Our students get to premiere their films in the same place that stars like Clint Eastwood premiere theirs,” said assistant professor Jesse Negron, MFA, assistant professor. Many talent agents and recruiters attended the event, and one animation student even got a job at Disney after a representative saw his work. “That happened because of the spotlight,” said Tim Samoff, professor. “I don’t think that could happen anywhere else.”

Creating Films from Day One

While many cinema programs focus on theory in the first couple of years and students aren’t able to put their skills into practice until their junior or senior year, at APU, students have a camera in their hand and begin making films during their freshman year. During this first year, students make three films which have an inciting incident, a belly of the whale (where hope is lost), and a climactic choice—all in two minutes, similar to a Pixar short. “In these freshmen films, you do everything—you script it, you shoot it, you cut it, you do sound design, all of it. It helps you learn the ropes of filmmaking,” Cheney said.

During their sophomore year, students partner up and create 5-8 minute movies, expanding by adding character development in a shot-by-shot film. In their junior year, students decide on their specialties ranging from directing to sound design. They form a team and create a 15-minute film supported by a university-matched budget. Their education culminates in the senior thesis film with a similar team structure. “The idea is that you’re trying to create something that’s going to generate buzz for film festivals and could launch your career,” Negron said. “Students are showing the world what they’re capable of through this film.” Several APU student films such as Remedy and Saigu have won awards including the Best Student Short at the Los Angeles International Short Film Festival.

Industry Standard Software & Hardware

The Department of Cinematic Arts provides all the necessary equipment for students to make the best films possible. “We have some of the best gear and facilities around. I’ve seen them all,” Negron said. “Having a Red Weapon, an Avid S6, a sound stage, a foley stage, and labs with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of the latest gear is incredible. I used to work on the Universal Studios lot and my editing room didn’t compare to the facilities we have.” Students also have access to play their movies on a 7.1 surround system in a mixing theater that seats 78 people, letting them hear what their movie will sound like in a theater.

As part of the Department of Cinematic Arts, the Animation and Visual Effects and Games and Interactive Media programs also have access to the latest industry-standard software and hardware including Toon Boom Harmony for animation, Da Vinci editing software, and Unity and Unreal game engines. “Students aren’t just learning the skills, they’re actually learning on the programs they’ll be using in the industry,” Samoff said.

Faculty in the Industry

The most valuable resource to students is their faculty who have worked extensively and are still active in Hollywood. Professors share insight through what they’ve learned in the industry and help students build meaningful connections that will help them get jobs in the future. “We have faculty who have created television shows with Ridley and Tony Scott, who have directed action sequences in top movies like The Mummy, Van Helsing, and GI Joe, who have written scripts for popular Netflix series, and who have animated numerous characters for Disney and Pixar movies,” Negron said. “Anytime we’re not teaching or helping our students, we’re working in the industry.”

Small Class Sizes

Not only do students get to learn from world class faculty, but they get to do it in small classes. Most production classes contain 8-10 students, allowing professors to give individual attention to each student when reviewing their films. “Our faculty can pore over literally every frame of every shot and every cut and every sound and give the kind of feedback that’s unparalleled anywhere else,” Cheney said. These small class sizes allow students to experience a similar development cycle to what happens at Netflix, Warner Bros., and Amazon Studios.

Versatility of Degrees & Graduating On Time

Students in the Cinematic Arts programs have a unique opportunity to pursue other interests while in undergrad. Many choose to add a minor in disciplines like business or to double major in programs like honors humanities. “I love when our students study humanities because they read great books and develop a perspective which is informed and well rounded,” Cheney said. “When they make films, they can contextualize it, know where they’re recycling and where their story is cliché.” Studying other topics still allows students to graduate on time.

For many cinematic arts programs, graduation rates in four years are very low, sometimes even under 50 percent. APU’s Cinematic Arts students have a graduation rate of over 90 percent in four years. APU also has pathways to help transfer students graduate in two years. “What allows our students to graduate on track is faculty who are so committed to seeing them do so,” Cheney said. “We’re not just invested in that graduation, but we’re constantly dreaming about how we can continue to push that further.”

Over their time at APU, professors truly get to know their students and want to see them succeed after walking across the graduation stage. “Cinema looks glitzy from the outside, but it takes a lot of hard work. When I write letters of recommendation to anybody who’s anybody in town, I’m doing so because I know that student’s driven and has a very strong work ethic,” Negron said. “We’re preparing our students to become incredible storytellers in Hollywood, to go out and create movies that explore truth.”

Nathan Foster '20 is the public relations manager in the Division of Strategic Communication and Engagement.