An inside look at Ivan Allen’s Cinema@Tech

Photo by Beatrice Domingo Student Publications

With tax credits up to 30% and the productions of major films, including Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther and the Madea series, the city of Atlanta has served an increasingly pivotal role in the film industry. 

The over 15  commercial production houses within walking distance of campus signal that Tech’s role in the film industry has also been on the rise. 

The School of Literature, Media, and Communication’s Cinema@Tech offers insight into this industry to give interested students an in to one of the most competitive and fast-growing markets in Atlanta. The program offers both classes on film theory and film production. 

The Technique sat down with Cinema faculty John Thornton to gain more insight into the program. Thorton works on the hands-on production side to help students hone practical filmmaking skills through academic classes, student clubs and experience on professional projects that he oversees. He teaches courses related to film production, instructing students on all phases of production from script writing to post-production.

“At Cinema@Tech, we try to provide students the opportunity to learn the art of filmmaking and then showcase work on and off campus,” Thorton explained.

Within the program, Thorton currently teaches Advanced Video Production. Students in the class must complete three major projects over the semester. The projects include producing a commercial, working on a short film that students write the script for and finally producing a “Bill Nye-esque” educational video to showcase the School of Nuclear
Energy at Tech.

“Their objectives are to rethink the model,” Thornton said when describing the process of creating science videos about Nuclear energy projects. “They are going to try to develop videos that incoming freshmen would be
interested in watching.”

Thornton also discussed his own career with filmmaking. He shared that although he always had a passion for film, his career path was both circuitous and challenging.

“Initially my interest was in secondary education,” he shared. “I had a passion for film and theater, and I had an opportunity to pursue theater in a couple of graduate schools for free… but I wasn’t at a point in my life where I was prepared to pack up and leave.” 

After graduation, Thornton spent five years teaching middle and high school. The film industry never left his horizon, and he eventually went back to school at the Savannah College of Art and Design to get his Masters in Fine Arts in film.

Thorton noted the differences between the film industry of today with the scene he eventually entered into upon graduation. 

“At the time, Atlanta wasn’t booming like it is now. I didn’t know anybody. Very few people could break in without background training.”  

And train he did: Thornton studied all kinds of film from episodic television to features and even reality television. To break into the film industry, Thornton explained the process of starting out as a production assistant until eventually specializing and committing to one department. 

“I thrive better when I am in control over what my days look like,” he said. “In the film industry it’s a fantastic place to be, but a lot of times if you’re not a content creator, if you’re not producing or directing, you are one of many people in an army who are trying to achieve a vision.”  

He described the feeling of working in the industry as being trapped in a machine, not using his creative skills to their full potential. 

“I made a decision. I really want to be a Content Creator, and being on a machine isn’t going to get me there any faster.” 

He took the risk to leave the film industry and join the world of academia when he joined the faculty at Tech in 2011. Alongside the demands of teaching, Thorton is also currently producing a documentary series called Spaceships &Dope Shit.

“That title arose because I was watching a bunch of futuristic shows and television series, and I didn’t really see a lot of people of color contributing to the future, and it bothered me,” he said. 

“I’m not a scholar in the way we are portrayed in the future, but I am very interested in science and technology and time travel. It did take some time to identify who’s writing this kind of stuff, who are the key players contributing to the conversation.” 

Thorton explained the lengthy process of his research into any topic surrounding people of color who are actively contributing towards the future. 

Most of the initial footage for Spaceships ended up coming from cosplay conventions, which Thorton championed for the visual interest of the conventions and sometimes even the controversy that surrounds them. 

“The reason I moved into the documentary space is because it made more sense time-wise and money-wise. I would love to shoot a feature or film, but that requires more time and more people. It just makes sense instead of waiting to use what I have and seeing if that opens doors.” 

The quirky documentary series will follow several individuals from these conventions across the Southeast, as the cast includes gamers and cosplayers, comic book creators and even a customized tennis shoe artist. Thorton is currently working on condensing between 100 and 150 hours of footage into  short episodes.