Alumni trailblazers of Georgia’s film, TV industry

By Candace Morrow
Photos by Suhyoon Cho

It’s 7 a.m. — sharp.

Columbus State University graduate Ginger Steele, ’17, is already running off extra copies of call sheets, responding to last-minute email requests and answering cast and crew questions before the day’s shoot for a feature film begins.

She air traffic controls the production office of the new movie
project through the Georgia Film Academy’s (GFA) Pinewoods Studio
in Fayetteville, Georgia. Extensive training in GFA’s film and TV certificate program has prepared her to juggle production team needs. If cast and crew ask for hotel accommodations, request a simple haircut or require hospital attention, Steele can accommodate them with professional ease.

“Whatever the cast and crew need, I make sure they get it,” said Steele, who serves as a production assistant for the 2017 spring semester as part of her GFA internship experience. “It’s my job that they have what they need so filming goes smoothly and on schedule.”

Steele also fills a high-demand workforce of what’s a $7 billion film and TV industry in Georgia — now dubbed the “Hollywood of the South.”

“Ultimately, I want to become a director and make films that inspire people,” the 47-year-old Columbus native said. “I started my career editing commercial logs in radio, so this internship has been a good transition for me. I’m also getting my associate’s degree in film production from CSU. The point: I’m never giving up on my dreams.”

Ginger Steele, a CSU film production graduate and Georgia Film Academy intern, handles the daily operations of a production assistant at Fayetteville's Pinewoods Studio.

The Academic Story

Steele learned about GFA on CSU’s website and took the opportunity to advance her career.

GFA is a statewide collaborative effort of the University System of Georgia and Technical College System of Georgia to equip Georgians for in-demand careers in film and TV.

The challenge: Entertainment production companies were ready to do business, but the state lacked a well-trained workforce of production and camera assistants; hair, makeup and wardrobe stylists; mixer, boom and electric operators; and location managers.

CSU became the first of nine Georgia institutions to become a GFA partner and contribute to the solution.

The other schools include Clayton State University, Georgia College, Georgia Piedmont Technical College, Gwinnett Technical College, Kennesaw State University, Savannah Technical College, Southern Crescent Technical College and the University of West Georgia.

“We also became the first university to offer GFA’s certificate program as part of our academic curriculum,” said Danna Gibson, chair of CSU’s Department of Communication and GFA liaison. “Our faculty knew this opportunity for our students was one we couldn’t let pass us by. We created a rigorous program — one that meets industry demands, provides students with the necessary skills to make them employable and adds value to today’s workforce.”

During January 2016, CSU’s Department of Communication partnered
with the historic Springer Opera House to offer a GFA on-set film production certificate that would equip students for film and digital entertainment jobs locally and across the globe — in a market where the average earnings a year reach $84,000.

Designed by Hollywood insiders, the certificate program requires students to enroll in only three classes (18 credit hours) to gain industry knowledge; develop production and equipment skills; and intern on a film or TV project in Georgia.

By November 2016, CSU had graduated its first class of GFA graduates, which included 13 students from traditional educational and career tracks to those whose jobs had gone away in a technology-driven economy.

“Columbus is a city of firsts,” said Richard Baxter, dean of CSU’s College of the Arts. “We earned the designation of becoming one of the first camera-ready and film-friendly communities in 2010. Now we have student pioneers of Columbus and Columbus’ film and TV industry — students who have helped launch an important program.”

In addition to meeting CSU’s primary goal of training the next generation of onset professionals, Baxter also aims to help make Georgia’s second-largest city the third prominent film hub in the state.

“Like Atlanta and Savannah, we want Columbus to attract producers on a regular basis,” he said. “We’re steadily creating a workforce and building an infrastructure to bring more motion pictures here. It’s also crucial for us to keep in mind that a decade from now our students’ names may not be remembered, but the impact they had on our residents will be unparalleled.”

CSU theatre students develop wardrobe design techniques at the university's fully equipped costume shop.

The Classroom Cast

Thus far, the CSU student experience in the certificate program has opened independent film and Marvel Comics movie doors.

GFA graduate Benjamin Truitt, 23, spent fall 2016 working as a camera production assistant on indie film “Moon Shine Still” directed by Takashi Doscher.

Shot on 100-acre historic property Sweet Home Plantation off Interstate 185 west of Pine Mountain, the suspense drama follows a Georgia couple who takes in a hiker at their farm.

“The work was long and constantly kept me on my feet,” said the senior communications major, “but I loved every minute of it.”

His responsibilities ranged from documenting information about each camera shot to changing camera batteries and lenses.

“I generally helped the first assistant cameraman with anything, whether that was grabbing any equipment or tools he needed,” Truitt said. “I spent about 12 hours on set — some days longer.”

The Newnan native followed up that film project with another indie film as a second assistant camera in January that held production in South Atlanta. By summer, he hopes to continue work in Atlanta to gain more experience and one day bring his expertise back to Columbus for creative projects.

“You have to be passionate about this line of work,” Truitt said. “I’ve been interested in film for a long time. I already learned a lot before I took the program, but GFA seemed to refine my knowledge more than anything. What ‘wows’ me about film is being able to tell the story just through images, taking away dialog and sound to see how the story is
told by the camera.”

GFA graduate Ben Truitt (wearing the camouflage hat and kneeling) serves as a camera production assistant for indie film “Moon Shine Still” during fall 2016. Photo by Hannah Pniewski.

The Industrial Crew

Like Truitt, at least three other CSU students are currently working behind the scenes of blockbuster productions — hush-hush stuff — throughout the state.

And GFA Executive Director Jeffrey Stepakoff says the creation of movie and TV shows in Georgia are here to stay.

“Georgia is now among the top three production centers in the country to produce films and TV series,” said Stepakoff. “We filmed 245 productions in 2016 and will reach up to 300 this year. We’re beyond Georgia being the ‘Hollywood of the South.’ We’re Georgia’s film and TV industry, and we’re not messing around.”

The three factors sustaining the state’s lucrative entertainment industry:

  • An effective, competitive tax credit;
  • A strong studio infrastructure with diverse locations; and
  • A supportive, professional crew.

“Having each of these elements makes us a world-class production location and has been our secret sauce,” Stepakoff said. “Key factors to continuing our success have been Columbus and CSU. Both are serious about our communities — more specifically our art communities — and have created an environment that is leading and training students to contribute to a permanent entertainment industry.”

Major motion pictures started to flood Georgia in the 1970s, but the first film for Columbus was shot during the summer of 1967 for 1968’s “The Green Berets.” The war film starred John Wayne, David Janssen and Jim Hutton.

Today, a new crop of industry professionals is forging an innovative pathway to develop classic films for years to come. With a workforce of more than 100,000 people in Georgia, industry growth in the next three to five years is projected to generate 3,000 to 5,000 new jobs in the state — mostly on sets, according to GFA.

“With the establishment of the Georgia Film Academy at Columbus State University, those receiving their certification to work in film provide a ready-to-work workforce that keeps those jobs local,” said Peter Bowden, president and CEO of the Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Columbus can offer courthouses; farms and crops; lakes and rivers; Old South; scenic roads; and sports and entertainment. Columbus can be anything to a film project.”

Did You Know? Gilda Diolosa (pictured), who is the mother of CSU’s GFA graduate Ginger Steele, served as an extra in the 1968 film “The Green Berets” at Fort Benning in Columbus. Diolosa was 31 years old in 1967 when filming started and actually met Hollywood star John Wayne on set.