The UC Santa Cruz Film and Digital Media Department celebrates 25 years

student filming a subject
Professor Sharon Daniel’s two-quarter undergrad course

The Film and Digital Media Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz proudly marks 25 years, celebrating a legacy of success and innovation. The department was created in 1998, growing out of a small film and video program that was part of the Theater Arts Department (now known as the Department of Performance, Play, and Design).

Emeriti professors Chip Lord, Eli Hollander, and the late Margaret Morse were instrumental in that fledgling program becoming a department and as the years went by, Film and Digital Media (FDM) committed to hiring faculty who specialized in both the production of film, video, and media and in history, theory, and critical study. This combination of theory and practice is the greatest strength of the department.

UC Santa Cruz celebrates this achievement and all of FDM’s successes over the past quarter century. Whether making their mark in Hollywood, film preservation, academia, social media, or documentary production, Film and Digital Media graduates are changing the world around them with creative and critical innovation.

UC Santa Cruz has always championed diversity and inclusion, a decades-long effort that is reflected in the department. “We're really proud of the diversity of our student body,” says Professor Peter Limbrick, the department chair who has worked at the campus for 20 years. “We've got a really high number of first generation college students in our major. We're proud that we get the chance to work with them on this really life-changing experience for them and their families and for us–because we also learn so much from them.”

FDM’s  diversity is reflected not only in the student body, but also in the faculty and courses offered. Classes focus not only on film and television history, theory, and production but also cover digital media, sound, installation work, games and more. Some classes outside of the typical film experience include History of New Media, Video Games as Visual Culture, and Immersive Media. 

Faculty members come from all different areas of study and practice, like Professor Warren Sack who specializes in software arts, or Susana Ruiz, whose immersive and interactive public memorial “The Last Chinatown” won Ruiz and her collaborators the 2023 Chancellor’s Innovation Award. Professor Sharon Daniel teaches a collaborative course called “Making an Exoneree” which allows students at UCSC and Georgetown University to create documentary projects, websites and social media campaigns that make the case for the innocence of a wrongfully convicted person. Last year, her course generated an undergraduate project that won a 2024 Chancellor’s Award. Professor Daniel specializes in interactive art and is currently a Guggenheim Fellow. Sound artist and theorist Anna Friz also won a Guggenheim this year, bringing the total number of FDM faculty to have held this prestigious fellowship to four.

Around a decade after its inception the department created Master’s and Ph.D. programs. The PhD in Film and Digital Media, inaugurated in 2010, is one of the only doctoral programs in the country to require both theory and practice–students combine rigorous critical study and writing with creative work. The program has a proud record of job placement and its graduates are in high demand as faculty at universities all over the world. The innovative Social Documentary (SocDoc) MA program moved from Community Studies into Film and Digital Media in 2011 and became an MFA in 2014. Alumna Brenda Avila-Hanna was one of the first people to graduate from SocDoc after it merged with FDM. Her work has been a part of film festivals across the country and she is on the board of directors for the Watsonville Film Festival.

As an immigrant and parent at the time she attended UC Santa Cruz, Avila-Hanna is thankful for all the help she received from the university, not just academically.  “We were such a small cohort and everyone was so nice and understanding, and I remember taking my kid to the class,” says Avila-Hanna. She also notes that “if the department had not offered the TA-ship and the tuition support, there's no way I would have been able to join the program.”

While in SocDoc, Avila-Hanna made her first full length film, Vida Diferida, which focuses on a girl growing up before, during and after DACA. “We were really invited to go deeper into the issues intellectually, personally and anthropologically,” she says, comparing UC Santa Cruz’s program to other universities which encourage students to make as many films as possible, instead of focusing deeply on one.

Though many Film and Digital Media undergraduate alums go into film production, some pursue other career options. Alice Leppert decided to get her Ph.D. and work as a professor of media. She currently teaches at Ursinus College near Philadelphia. “I'm so nostalgic for my Santa Cruz experience,” says Leppert. “I owe all of those professors a huge debt, because they completely changed my career path.”

When Leppert joined the department, after switching from music, she was one of a few students at the time who preferred film studies to production classes. “I basically just loved going to class every single day,” she says. “I still have all of my course readers and all of my notebooks.”

Her work at UC Santa Cruz paid off in her career in academia. Her first book, TV Family Values: Gender, Domestic Labor, and 1980s Sitcoms, started off as a paper in one of Associate Professor L.S. Kim’s classes. 

Twenty years after graduating, Leppert still stays in contact with her professors including Limbrick and Professor Shelley Stamp, an expert on silent film history and feminist media. She recalls Stamp being pregnant with twins and still finding time to advise and guide her on her senior thesis. 

While celebrating its 25th year, Film and Digital Media is also thinking about its future. Thanks to a major gift from an anonymous donor, construction is underway on a Social Documentation Lab, set to open in Fall 2024, which will feature state-of-the art facilities for editing, color grading, audio mixing and recording, and immersive media, and will be open to all FDM graduate students. Also in Fall, FDM will welcome two new faculty: an artist-scholar of Black media practices and a scholar of documentary. It’s just one more way that Film and Digital Media is preparing for the next 25 years.