How CNM Is Training the Next Generation of Movie Makers
Westen Graham, 29, center, uses a steady cam to film Orion Nicol, 18, right, as instructor Charlie O’Dowd provides direction during a shoot that was part of O'Dowd's Film Technician class.

How CNM Is Training the Next Generation of Movie Makers

Students come out of our Film Technician program ready to perform on New Mexico’s teeming movie and TV production sets
July 17, 2018

Here’s the bad news for anyone who wants to make movies. You might not stand much of a chance of becoming the next Brad Pitt or Jennifer Lawrence. However, if you want to be on movie sets and start working your way up through the ranks, there’s a clear path into the film industry.

For many, that pathway starts in the CNM Film Technician program. The program, which offers both a two-term certificate and two-year associate degree, teaches students all the basics—from lighting to sound, and camera work to wardrobe—so they can walk out of school and into a job with a local film crew.

“We’ve had graduates on just about every film or television program that has shot here in New Mexico over the past 10 years,” says Charlie O’Dowd, an instructor in the Film Technician program who has 35 years of experience and most recently was in charge of shooting the behind-the-scenes video for “Better Call Saul.”

In addition to movie set skills, O’Dowd says his students also get practice filming news stories, shooting commercials, and training for other film or video jobs they might like to apply for after graduating. And he tries to build in real-world experience, too. This summer, his students filmed 35 events over seven days at the Albuquerque Film and Music Experience, including interviews with big-name stars such as Marisa Tomei. As a result of their hard work, O’Dowd and the students were presented with the AFME Community Partnership Award.

“Everything we do in the program is a stepping stone to work,” says O’Dowd. “Where as other schools treat film as an intellectual process, we train our students to get jobs.”

Westen Graham, 29, right, films Orion Nicol, 18, during their Film Technician class. The duo were working on a mock TV news story about how difficult it is for pedestrians to cross Alameda Road when heading north from CNM's Advanced Technology Center

That hands-on experience is exactly why Orion Nicol, 18, enrolled in the program. He started taking classes as a high school student because he knew early on that the film industry was where he wanted to land.

“Film is the medium where I excel and can really express myself,” he says. “That plus working in film is a damn good job, especially here in New Mexico.”

Once graduates like Orion arrive on a set, there are lots of opportunities to explore different jobs, according to O’Dowd. The work is hard and fast, but if someone wanted to learn more about lighting, for example, they would be able to get access to that crew. If someone wanted to learn more about makeup, they would have access to them, too.

And the money is good. O’Dowd said that Production Assistants, the spot where newbies start, make between $100 and $200 a day. The pay is lower on long television shoots like “Breaking Bad” or “Better Call Saul,” but someone on “Better Call Saul” can expect to work for four months straight. The pay is higher for music videos or commercials, but those often just last a couple days.

Alejandro Montoya Marin, a local Albuquerque filmmaker who just shot the nationally-recognized film “Monday,” says he’s always glad to have trained workers who can step on set and go.

“Having people who are trained and eager to work, that goes a long way,” he says. “With the right crew, everyone knows their job and the producers don’t have to worry about taking up the slack.”

For Christa Valdez, a New Mexico film and talent advocate who does community outreach for the industry, the film industry is certainly one of the best things going for the state and the local community. While it’s been widely reported that New Mexico is facing a “brain drain,” the film industry is only getting more popular. For example, in 2017 the industry spent $500 million on productions in New Mexico, and Valdez says that if the state wants to offer more incentives, that spend will only go up.

“Right now the movie industry is a great path forward because there are hundreds of jobs on the set that help people make a living wage,” she says. “And if the state decides to be even friendlier to the industry down the road, the floodgates will open. Now is the time to get trained up and get ready.”

O'Dowd and his class with their AFME Community Partnership Award