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"MCAT was my YouTube," Ackerman says. "I started putting my stuff out there and I started getting noticed. I'd be walking down the street and somebody would say, 'Oh, you're that guy who did that one thing where the head falls off.' Or, 'You did that thing where you fell into a trash can.'"
Ackerman gravitated to the equipment at MCAT and learned it quickly. When Baird hired him as an equipment trainer in 2001, Ackerman says his on-the-job-training was editing his own movie. "I was sold," he says. "And I've never left."
Ackerman has an Ashton Kutcher look and a similar laidback confidence about his work. His movies stand out among MCAT's mixed fare. His 10 or so films, including Virtual 3000, Catastrophic Denouement and Wisconsin Project X, show an evolution in his ability to tell stories and, even more specifically, use special effects. Wisconsin Project X, released in 2011, featured a lot of computer-generated scenes—a cheap, easy and quick way to make effects, but a technique that often ends up looking fake. For his newest film, Terror Vortex, he spent more time on the effects and experimented with a combination of detailed props and Photoshop. For one scene, he used a Molly doll head, a Styrofoam skull from Kmart, eyeballs made from paper towels and wax, glue and chocolate syrup for blood. With the perfect lighting, some help from Photoshop and a little magic in the editing bay, Ackerman created a surprisingly believable shot of a man ripping off his own face while laughing. The whole scene lasted two seconds.
Ackerman sometimes misses the old days when technology wasn't so expansive. With only a few options for editing effects, he would make a film in just a few weeks. Terror Vortex took two years.
"I remember making movies faster because I could only make so many decisions," he says. "That was a good thing. There are so many choices with digital [technology]. I can tweak everything. I can do almost anything now, but I take longer. It can be a disease."
Ackerman is one of MCAT's great producer success stories. He's built a network among other producers and actors in the B-horror movie realm. Shawn C. Phillips, an actor in titles like Girls Gone Dead and Haunted High (starring Danny Trejo), contacted Ackerman out of the blue to ask if he could be in Terror Vortex. "I told him, 'I can't fly you out here. I can't pay you. I don't have a budget,'" Ackerman says. "And you could tell he was used to it. 'Tell me what I need to do,' he said. And I sent him the script."
Upcoming projects for Ackerman include playing a vegan zombie for a music video produced by his brother, Chad, whose main job in Hollywood is converting blockbuster movies into 3D. He also will appear as a zombie in a film called Breathless, made by Chad Jacobson and Richard Davenport of the local production company Root Head. He met them at MCAT. "Old-fashioned networking," Ackerman says. "That's MCAT in a nutshell right there."
Since digital equipment has become more accessible to the public, so has it for MCAT. The organization has updated its technology to DSLR cameras with full high-definition that shoot 24 frames per second. For producers like Ackerman, it's leveled the playing field. "Everything looks really good, like what I make can play alongside other shows on television."
That technological leap has pushed Ackerman to think about his future in film.
"I came from San Diego, I came from LAI've seen it," he says. "I've never really pursued it though, but I might start trying. I'm building my arsenal now."
Baird pulls a couple DVDs from MCAT's decades-old collection of television shows. One disc from the 1990s says "Fugazi Soundtrack," another is titled "The Right to Know: A public forum. September 27 1990."
"This is kind of cool," he says, pointing to the wall of DVDs. "And also an albatross! It's like a morgue. Here lie the bodies of Missoula in the '90s."
Now the morgue is disappearing entirely, as interns work to move the DVD content to computer files. So far, 700 of the 3,000 discs have been transferred onto an external hard drive—a little black box that barely takes up a corner of a desktop.
"It's almost like burning a corpse and having their hashes put into [an urn]," says Baird, smiling. "Like, 'Here's Grandpa!'"
Other sorts of changes around MCAT show that it's not letting the Internet leave it in the dust. MCAT has a YouTube channel now, and it streams its television content online. All of which means that even if you don't have cable, you can still watch it. MCAT has also started showing more content from other PEG stations and from free channels, such as those delivered by Roku or provided by universities. Station staff targets content that seems to fit the tone of Missoula, like Free Speech TV, which includes "Democracy Now!" and "Classic Arts Showcase."
Despite the diversification, MCAT is still mostly associated with television.
"From TV comes the money," Baird says. "No TV, no money. [It's] kind of our obligation." But in many ways it's becoming a media center, even offering producers training in how to get content on YouTube. MCAT is currently setting up a satellite office at Sentinel High School to help engage student producers. Baird says in the future the staff could end up providing even more mixed media classes such as Photoshop design and video compression classes.
But what MCAT offers that online sites don't is a physical place for people to gather. And for people like the producers, who don't have the means to buy their own equipment, and who may not have easy access to the Internet, the station is all the more important.
"There's still a sense of community that you don't get from just YouTube," Baird says.
That community, however, is always in flux. A week after the producers gathered for barbecue at the Savoy, they had a falling-out. MCAT was getting complaints about Eric Michael, the group's leader. He was allegedly borrowing equipment and props from places around town and not returning them. There were rumors that under another name he'd cheated a business partner out of money. As the rumors spread, it seemed as though the group of misfits was about to fade to black—as was "Eight Minutes" and all the other shows they'd created. Inevitably, a new crop of producers would show up at MCAT. Programming would go on. But the current run of stable shows would end.
Then, two days after the falling out, Michael met with the group and told them he was bowing out. Roland Fulcher, the single father, says Michael has since left town. Fulcher and Ben Bartlett agreed to step up as the production crew's leaders to continue "Eight Minutes" and the other television series. They will keep the production name E.M. Stage&Lighting.
"He told us he didn't want us to stop because of him," Fulcher says. "I don't really know what all happened. But I do know that it's because of what Eric taught us that we're able to keep doing this. Doing shows for MCAT has changed our lives. You're going to see a lot of good things come from us."