By Justin Peterson
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- Each year, many aspiring filmmakers watch the Academy Awards in awe, wishing they could make movies for a living.
While they may think the only chance of that happening would require moving to New York or Los Angeles, for those in the Lowcountry, another path is in their own back yard.
Trident Tech offers students a unique experience to get hands-on training through their film program.
"I was kinda surprised about the equipment we got to actually use," film student Nathan Freeman said. "I mean, the first day you are here, the first class you have, you get to touch equipment."
The program offers an associates degree in film production as well as several certificates including filmmaking and non-linear film editing.
While the program's roots date back to the 1980's, according to Department Head John Wilson, the program really started to take shape when Program Coordinator, Russell Schaaf, came to Trident in 1995.
Wilson says Schaaf was the first full time faculty member devoted to the program and credits him for organizing the equipment and changing the curriculum to be relevant in the marketplace.
In fact, Trident prides itself as being the only two-year college in the country to train students on 35mm film equipment.
Wilson says the advantage of training on 35mm film, as opposed to just on digital, is that students learn the discipline required for careful setup when shooting film and to get it right the first time.
While many students may come into Trident's program dreaming of being a movie producer or director, the school's mission is slightly more down to earth.
"While we show them that it is possible, the real key to working, to making a living in the industry, particularly if they want to stay in SC, is learning the crew skills," Wilson said.
Those crew skills range from operating a camera to working on the sound and lighting of a production.
"The mission of the school is to build a work force" Program Coordinator, Russell Schaaf said.
By creating a work force of crew members they are enabling South Carolina to be competitive with other states in the film industry by offering productions the best financial circumstances.
"That was the biggest problem the state had when I first got here was there was no crew base," Shaaf said. "The crew base was not deep enough for them to attract business, so it was logical that we went toward creating crew base."
Wilson explains that state lawmakers are working on legislation for longer term incentives for productions as long as they hire South Carolina crew members. Such incentives have played a role in allowing the TV show "Army Wives" to stay based in Charleston.
While getting certification in filmmaking at Trident can lead to crew work here in South Carolina, students also have the opportunity to use their skill to work on commercials, TV shows, and major motion pictures all over the country.
Shaaf says a number of their former students have gone on to get film jobs in New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles. Local director and cinematographer John Barnhardt is also one of the program's former students.
"If someone wants to be a director, they have to understand the totality of what a production is. By coming here we certainly expose them to that," Wilson said.
Freeman says he used to work in construction, but soon he will be graduating with his associate's degree in film production this year. He says he originally wanted to be a television cameraman for the Travel Channel, but found himself drawn to film.
"I want to be a director of photography," Freeman said. "I love looking through a camera lens and making a picture look beautiful. Getting the script from words to a picture that people can understand."
He explained that the program allows students to come together to create their own productions, which can then be submitted to Charleston's very own film festivals.
Wilson emphasized that Trident's film program offers students affordable hands-on experience in the film industry, and they are gearing up for the future.
He says at the start of 2013, they will be moving into a new building on the other side of campus. The facility will offer more studios, course offerings and audio certification.
For much more on Trident's film program click here.