How underdeveloped degree design and budget cuts impact CMA students

Film students express their need for more resources and collaboration with other art programs.


Courtesy of Unsplash

CMA largely lacks interconnectivity with other programs at Biola.

Amelia Schuhler, Opinions Editor

Without collaboration across the art programs at Biola, individual departments miss out on opportunities for growth, especially Biola’s cinema and media arts program, which lacks the interconnectivity it needs in order to prepare students to thrive in the multi-faceted world of filmmaking.

Performing the miracle of building a believable world on screen requires every aspect of the arts: so, it is only natural that a film school would offer students an education that is not only multidisciplinary in and of itself but engages with other disciplines outside of film and video, such as music and fine arts. 


Josiah Wombacher, graduating senior and CMA major, shared his experience as a student who wishes to go into production design, a department of filmmaking that he considers underappreciated.

Wombacher’s time at Biola has been spent building both life-sized and miniature sets for films, knitting hats for costumes, rigging squibs to simulate gunshot wounds and much more that his classes have not equipped him to do. These are all skills that, once honed, help to build the worlds within films that impact culture and garner awards. Students like Wombacher who specialize in production design are responsible for their own education in a way that other students are not. 

“As a film major pursuing a career in production design, I have substituted a few of my core CMA courses with art courses in order to gain some pertinent skills for my field,” Wombacher said. “However, I was not aware I was able to do this until my junior year of college.” 

Biola does not offer a production design emphasis, so students are left to curate their own courses without much-needed guidance from academic advisors and preconceived degree plans. Wombacher also tends to take on more projects than fellow CMA majors because there is a high demand for production design and very few students who have those skills. 

“For most of my time at Biola I have been a double art and Bible minor just so that I could have access to the art building and so that I could take certain art classes,” Wombacher said. “Frustratingly, this still didn’t allow me to work as a lab technician in the wood shop, darkroom and ceramics studio, barring me from career building work experience.”

Although Biola is in league with other top film schools in the nation, it does not necessarily provide students with comparable programs in all areas. For instance, Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman offers a minor in production design for film. Should Biola continue to aspire to set itself apart from other film schools, it should consider investing more deeply in all aspects of the medium.  


Compared to programs at schools the likes of CalArts or UCLA, Biola is still in its infancy when it comes to the fine and digital arts. Is it reasonable to expect what originated as a non-denominational school for fundamentalist preachers to compete? 

Biola’s department of art graduated its first class of students in 1972, but the school did not receive university accreditation until 1981. One can imagine that the arts would not have been a central part of life and culture at Biola until the present, seeing as how up until 1977, all films were banned on campus. Here in 2023, Biola still places some conservative limitations on its artists in the name of modesty. Despite only recently warming to more mainstream forms of art and media, Biola’s school of Cinema and Media Arts (CMA) is ranked by Variety in the nation’s top 30 schools to study film in 2022. This marks exponential growth, as it was not until 2018 that CMA carved out an enduring space for itself as its own school within Biola.


For many prospective film students, there are three things about Biola that stand out: the required Bible minor, the invitation to use expensive equipment and the promise of a beautiful new building

Andrew Etzweiler, graduating senior and CMA major, reflected on his own thought process as a first year student. 

“What drew me to Biola was its Christian education, as well as the whole thing that they advertise about being in Variety’s top 30 film schools,” Etzweiler said. “And there was a promise of there being a new building. They advertised that, like, ‘Oh, you guys are gonna have an entire building by your junior year,’ and they still haven’t even broken ground.”

Etzweiler went on to specify that one of the most appealing aspects of Biola CMA was being able to access valuable camera and lighting equipment as soon as students began school. “But since COVID, gear has been harder and harder to get,” Etzweiler said. 

There are areas that the CMA department can improve in order to truly be as competent as it presents itself to be.

“I think what’s really lacking in our CMA department is an industry mentorship program, because over the past few years, there’s only been a peer to peer mentorship program, which really hasn’t gone anywhere,” Etzweiler said.

Although there are ample opportunities for students to be a part of other student projects, experience with industry professionals is not an inherent part of the degree program. The industry resources that Biola does offer CMA students are limited to the currently employed staff and faculty, who are already spread thin, as the positions that former CMA professors such as Lisa Swain or Abel Vang used to hold remain unfilled because of university-wide budget cuts

“I just would hope that in the future Biola would bring in actual people who are doing things in the industry, to have us sign up with that mentor and continually meet with them rather than bringing us in just to have us fend for ourselves. We pay $50,000 a year to come to the school to have connections and meet new people. But I don’t feel like we get that opportunity,” Etzweiler said. 


Animation is an area of the arts at Biola that suffers especially from a lack of interconnectivity. Biola’s student portfolio of animated films is growing, not because of university-led programming, but because of the students creating animated content independently of their classes. 

Nicolas Bieber, a graduating senior from the CMA department, shared his observations as someone who has been increasingly involved in animated projects. 

“While there is not much of a department wide effort, as of right now, to foster a kind of animation community within CMA, a good side of that is those who are interested in making a community for themselves do it,” Bieber said. “We find very small but dedicated communities that are very interested in innovation, whether or not the department focuses on or invites innovation. The students just do it. We start from the ground.” 

While Biola does have an animation department, it is quite small, understaffed, under-resourced and almost entirely disconnected from CMA, according to Bieber. 

“There are screenwriters who write for animation, and there’s actually quite a few of them; and then there are animators who are in the digital art program,” Bieber said. “But they never get connected because they just don’t have the same circles and they don’t have the same classes and such. I think some classes that focused on this sort of connection, or maybe a class that focused on the workflow of animation within the film program or within the arts program [that multiple majors were encouraged to take] could foster an animation community between CMA and art.”

Bieber’s experience with animation includes his work as a co-director of animated sequences that were featured in one of the Biola Film productions, “Ever-flowing,”  which was completed in the fall semester of 2022. (Full disclosure: I worked on “Ever-flowing” as the art director of the animated sequences.) Biola Film is a required course for CMA students, but utilizing animation in the film was a creative decision made by the director of the film and Chimes staff writer Lauren Good. 

Bieber worked closely on the production with his co-director Richie Gunasekera, a fellow graduating senior in the CMA program. The directing duo had difficulty finding animators for the ambitious project.

“When we had to do Biola film, we just had to make do with what we had and we reached out on social media, we reached out to people’s friends [to find animators],” Gunasekera said. “I also think it’s worth mentioning that our actual two animators were not Biola students. We could not find dedicated animators here at Biola, or at least any that were interested in Biola film. So I think that’s somewhat indicative of where Biola animation is at right now.” 


Animation and the fine arts are not the only areas wherein Biola needs to foster partnership. Senior CMA student Nathaniel Bannister believes that the departments of music and film need to work together in order for each department to be enriched. 

“I think the biggest missed opportunity between art programs at Biola is there not being enough collaboration between CMA and the music school,” Bannister said. “Because in film, music carries such a weight to it, and if you don’t have a good composer then you can’t get good music. So I think that the schools being so separated is just kind of weird.”

This collaboration that Bannister emphasizes the importance of does happen, and exists in classes such as Advanced Audio Recording, which both film and music students are encouraged to take. But this course is considered supplemental, not an essential aspect of the degree. 

“We got to see their thought process and how their workflow is much different than ours,” Bannister said in regard to his time in the class. “But with our collaboration, it was just more clear to see that there are different processes, and I think it’d be really cool if both music and film students could work together more and see how they can take their film or even their music to the next level. Because it shouldn’t be separate, film is both picture and sound and I think that it’s appropriate for them to be together.”


Tom Haleen, dean of Biola’s School of Cinema and Media Arts, validated the importance of intersectionality across the arts. 

In an email statement, Haleen listed current efforts to further integrate the arts at Biola, which include holding mixing opportunities with CMA and SOFAC to open up communication between their respective students, or hosting the media fair which took place this past week, which was not an opportunity for students to collaborate with one another so much as it was a place to meet potential employers. Haleen also mentioned that there are discussions underway with regard to cross-listing certain courses. 

“CMA has stepped up with outreach into other areas of the university in an effort to improve integration, as we don’t view Biola as nine distinct schools but as one university. I’m a big proponent of knocking down perceived walls in an effort to find logical integrations, as we already have been doing,” Haleen said. “We love hearing from students as the more we get to know them, the more we can help. I encourage students to let us know where they feel there might be opportunity for further integration between schools. My door is always open.”

Each CMA student has their own perspective of what the department could do to improve, but most of them can agree that integration across the arts as a whole is essential to their own development as artists and implore the university to cultivate a more interdisciplinary approach to teaching film in the very structure of the degree.

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