Film School Roundtable: The Guide to Getting the Most Out of Film School

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A recent film school graduate enters the industry with wide eyes, big dreams and so many stories to tell he can’t wait to get started.

Six months later he’s living above a garage in Culver City, working as a day player wielding a boom mic when he’s lucky, and sweating over how to divide the $75 he’ll make today between rent, ramen and student debt that’s half the size of the production budget. The salt in the kid’s wound? The guy working the camera is his age but skipped film school and now has four more years of industry experience.

There’s a reason this story is so familiar. Ranging from $15,000-45,000 a year—plus opaque opportunity costs and living expenses— film school, whether undergraduate or post-graduate, is a serious investment. Like all investments, it’s something of a gamble, and as in all gambles, some play smart and get a lucky win, and many more don’t. But without stakes, what’s the point? Provided you play your cards right, there’s no substitute for the artistic incubation a formal education in film can provide.

Like the medium it studies, film school is in a period of disruption. New institutional models have risen to challenge the establishment. For-profit schools have surged forward, joining smaller liberal arts programs in meeting the demand for film education left unsatisfied by the “four horsemen,” USC, NYU, Columbia and UCLA. This diversity in selection is echoed by the myriad paths which present themselves behind each ivied gate. It’s a little like The Breakfast Club: Are you the straight-A teacher’s pet, the one who skipped all classes before noon, the one who was everyone’s best friend, or the one who was so afraid to strike out that he never took a big swing?

This we know: There’s no definitive “right” way to do film school, especially since every student goes in with a different goal. But, given that for every future festival darling in a graduating class there are several other would-be moviemakers who will be forced to hang up their dreams, some paths must necessarily be more right than others. Our annual roundtable discussion involving experts from an array of institutions provides insightful guidance on how to arrive prepared, how best to capitalize on your time and how to graduate into the industry with a truly competitive edge.

This year’s participating educators are:

Art Helterbran, Jr. and David Newman, Chair and Associate Chair of Filmmaking at New York Film Academy, Los Angeles (NYFA)

F. Miguel Valenti, Founder and Director, Quinnipiac University in Los Angeles (Quinnipiac)

Robert Tinnell, Director, The Factory Digital Filmmaking Program at Douglas (Douglas)

Matthew Irvine, Associate Professor and Director, The School of Cinematic Arts at DePaul University (DePaul)

Jeffrey Marsh and Charmarie Burke, Undergraduate Advisor and Graduate Coordinator, Department of Radio Television Film, Moody College of Communication, The University of Texas at Austin (UTA)

Susan Ruskin and Renata Jackson, Dean and Assistant Dean of Academics, School of Filmmaking, University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA)

Deepak Chetty's UT Austin graduate thesis film, Hard Reset, was shot in stereoscopic 3D. Photo by Patrick Rusk

Deepak Chetty’s UT Austin graduate thesis film, Hard Reset, was shot in stereoscopic 3D. Photo by Patrick Rusk

Kerry O’Conor, Moviemaker Magazine (MM): What should a student do before the first day of class?

DePaul: Watch as many movies as you can! Students should look for films outside of their usual taste. With the unprecedented access provided by streaming services, there’s no excuse for students not to expose themselves to classic Hollywood films, French New Wave, Hong Kong action films, and everything in between.

Douglas: Develop the proper mindset about what they’re about to do. Filmmaking is an odd hybrid of white and blue collars; it requires a lot of critical thinking, but also can be physically demanding. The workload—if you are doing it “right”—can be extremely demanding. We tell prospective students all the time: “If you are looking for a great party school, you might want to keep looking.”

Quinnipiac: One of the most important things about the film school experience is meeting people and creating a network, so I suggest students set up their own system for keeping track of the people they meet, so that relevant details can be recorded. Ideally, they should also work on at least one film project before starting classes.

NYFA: Maintain a healthy curiosity about the world around them. Ultimately, filmmakers are storytellers, and having that curiosity, as well as developing insight into how and why people act as they do, will allow you to create relatable stories and rich characters.

 

MM: What classes should a student enroll in first if they have zero filmmaking experience, or a lot of prior experience?

DePaul: At most film schools, there is no getting around the old Filmmaking 101. But the experienced student should look at introductory classes as an opportunity to strengthen what he or she already knows. Even the most prolific filmmakers in the world will attest that they are always learning.

NYFA: Whether you have a lot of filmmaking experience or none at all, you should probably start with a course that addresses the art and craft of filmmaking from an historical perspective. Understanding how the language of film began and developed is essential. If a student has experience within the industry, chances are that experience is more practical, and should be supplemented with the study of the greatest films of the past.

Quinnipiac: Students with little filmmaking experience should consider a production survey course—wherein they take an idea, create a script, then shoot and edit the script into a screen-ready film. And a film history course. For a student who has more prior filmmaking experience, I suggest a course in producing. It will give them insight into what goes into making a truly professional film. Even if they hate it, they should spend a semester learning to think like a producer.

Douglas: We have a set curriculum here, so students don’t really have a choice. We opt to get them going on fundamentals—basic camera, grip and lighting techniques, introduction to the processes of editing, directing, and so forth—and then build on those skill sets through subsequent semesters.

 

MM: Should students work on multiple projects or just dedicate their time to one finished film by the time they graduate?

UTA: If a student’s goal is to write or direct their own films, then they should put as much time and energy into one project as possible; one good, festival-worthy film is better than five mediocre films. However, if their goal is to work as a specialist (editor, sound mixer, cinematographer, etc.), then collaborating on as many fellow students’ projects as possible should be a priority.

DePaul: Try for a balance of both. Repetition is a great way to learn. It reduces the fear of failure (There’s always the next time to get it right!) and allows students to play with different approaches and techniques.

Quinnipiac: Regardless of where you went to film school, almost no one will hire you without seeing a sample of what you can do. Students hoping to direct or produce should aim to graduate with films of different lengths, genres and styles in their portfolios. For writers, it is also useful to have a piece of written work that has actually been shot, demonstrating the translation from page to screen.

Students utilize the DePaul Cinespace Studios, a 20,000 square-foot production facility. Courtesy of  DePaul University

Students utilize the DePaul Cinespace Studios, a 20,000 square-foot production facility. Courtesy of DePaul University

MM: What other fields of study, or new skills, should students explore while studying film?

Douglas: Art, literature, music, human behavior—studying those things serves anyone well in terms of quality of life, but they are particularly useful for filmmakers. We stress critical thinking, problem solving and project management—the sort of transferrable skills all industries value.

UNCSA: A film degree should be thought of as a fine arts degree with a solid grounding in the liberal arts. Also, a film student will ultimately seek a career in the entertainment business, so developing business acumen is crucial.

DePaul: Film students should study anything that inspires them and gets their minds working. The important thing is to develop your own way of looking at the world, which informs your vision and voice as a filmmaker. That voice can’t really be developed by studying only film. Film is the tool; you have to have your own plan for what to do with it!

Quinnipiac: First, a film student should have a solid grounding in narrative techniques and traditions. A basic knowledge of art is also very valuable, both as a viewer and as an artist. Art history courses, in conjunction with courses in painting, sculpture, drawing or sketching, give students the capacity to better communicate their ideas. A knowledge of at least basic math can also help students in many ways, from camera placement to budget work.

 

MM: How do students at your school find collaborators and decide who is the best fit for a certain position on a project?

UTA: In most cases, we allow this to happen naturally amongst our students. Small, orientation-like seminars during a student’s freshman year are designed to foster relationships that oftentimes result in full-scale partnerships later on. Some senior-level production classes screen students beforehand to determine interests and skill sets.

Quinnipiac: We let students choose their own crews and positions, only intervening in cases where a student is not included in a crew and needs to be, or if a key position is left vacant. This way, each student wants to contribute, in part because they know they will get to perform a job they want to do.

UNCSA: We have a close mentor-mentee relationship with our students wherein faculty mentors advise and guide students from pre-production through post. Our small student-teacher ratio enables our faculty to get to know our students well enough individually that we can facilitate the most productive collaborations. Still, students may also team themselves based on common disciplines or personal relationships.

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