An Education on Education: Taking the pulse of today’s film schools
by Jennifer M. Wood | Published October 16, 2012
As a magazine written by, for and about independent moviemakers, film education is an important part of what we do here at MovieMaker. And, as you have by now discovered with this very issue, a topic to which we devote an entire annual edition.
As a launching pad for the moviemakers of tomorrow, film schools also serve as a testing ground for new techniques, technologies and cinematic movements. As such, we’ve gathered together six notable film school professionals to share with us the state of the art of their industry. The participants include Misael Sanchez, founder/director of the International Film Institute of New York (www.nyfilmschool.com); Lee Shapiro (LS) and Keith Duncan (KD), moviemakers and instructors at MediaTech Institute; Eric Jewell (EJ), moviemaker, instructor and department chair at MediaTech Institute (www.mediatech.edu); Robert Tinnell (RT), moviemaker and director the FACTORY Digital Filmmaking Program at Douglas Education Center (www.dec.edu); and Susan Ruskin (SR), interim dean at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts School Of Filmmaking (www.uncsa.edu).
Jennifer Wood (MM): What is the biggest change affecting film education right now? And how is your program responding to it?
Misael Sanchez (MS): From my perspective the biggest change affecting film education right now is the access to film education resources. As technology becomes more and more affordable, programs are popping up everywhere. The challenge comes from the point of view of the prospective student who needs to figure out which program might be best suited for their needs and, more importantly, which program will be a solid stepping stone to getting to the next level of education. The learning process with film these days is never ending. So in order to hit the ground running, students need to make sure they take the steps that will prepare them to keep adapting. This is very true even for professionals.
Eric Jewell (EJ): One of the biggest changes affecting the world of education is the ‘DIY’ syndrome. Digital film equipment is getting less expensive, and the YouTubes of the world seem to offer lesson plans on all aspects of filmmaking. This gives some young people a false sense of knowledge when it comes to digital film. They basically think that as long as they know how to “push the right buttons,” then they are filmmakers. That is why it is so important for film schools like MediaTech to employ teachers who go beyond the “mechanical” and teach the human and business side of the equation, using their own life experiences as examples.
Robert Tinnell (RT): Clearly the biggest change affecting film education right now would be the rapid changes occurring in the technology itself. For example, everyone raves about DSLRs—they’re affordable, they lightweight, they deliver a quality image. But can they sustain the workload a busy school like ours will inflict on them? O, should we simply treat them like disposable lighters? And if the latter is the case, how do you plan for a camera going down in the middle of the night on a shoot in the middle of nowhere? We have to constantly balance the need to stay current image-wise with acquiring equipment that possesses the durability that the industry depends on. It’s a tricky balance.
Susan Ruskin (SR): The rapidly changing technology is pushing us to continuously upgrade not just our technology in the classroom and our equipment, but also the course offerings we are teaching academically to incorporate transmedia and all the new forms of distribution models.
Lee Shapiro (LS): Another change involves how the industry hires. Most companies are more interested in demo reels, recommendations and work ethic than grades and degrees. We screen our students before recommending them for gigs, provide in-class time to develop demo reels, and have people specifically focused on finding industry-related jobs for our students. One is more likely to get hired if he or she knows the technology and process of filmmaking. Our school focuses on those [things] rather than the above-the-line theory of filmmaking, which many other schools make their focus.
MM: With the widespread availability and affordability of digital moviemaking tools, aspiring moviemakers are getting their cinematic feet wet much earlier nowadays. Has the experience level of your students changed? Have you noticed any change in the type, number or quality of applicants in recent years?
MS: My program deals primarily with students who are starting to explore their lives as filmmakers. Mainly, students about to enter college or trying to figure out if this is what they want to do. So, for the most part, the experience level has always maintained a base level of beginner. But—and this is the big but—because of the abundance of filmmaking tools out there we do have to spend a little bit of time re-educating and fixing some of the habits they acquired while working on their own.
There is a language and process to filmmaking that is designed to make the process work; some get it done out of the box and some try to do it on the fly. In order to prepare them for the bigger picture, we try to impress upon our students that there is a way to get things done that is standardized, for some parts, that will help them better assimilate into the industry. This is especially true when it comes to writing and directing.
LS: Most students entering our school already have some type of background shooting digital, even if it’s just with their cell phones. They all know how to upload their productions to the Internet and understand the concept of viral marketing, even if they don’t call it that. While this is generally a good thing, it also breeds in some the notion that they are already experienced and accomplished (based on the number of hits or followers their videos have). The truly dedicated ones are open to enhancing their skills by learning additional techniques and technology.
EJ: Some of the students are very advanced when it comes to doing Internet and YouTube-type assignments. But what they still need training in is the aspect of working in a real business environment. Learning the proper process of meeting, budgeting, proposals, job acceptance, script, storyboard, production, post, revisions and client handoff is very important, not to mention invoicing and actually getting paid for their work!
RT: You certainly always attract that kid who has already played around with the technology. But honestly, that can be a hindrance as much as an asset as they can be resistant to established industry workflows. We often have to get them to “undo” their self-taught workflows because they are not only out-of-step with industry standards, but inefficient. For example, we often notice students wanting to jump around—they’ll be cutting sound or color correcting before they’ve even locked picture. It’s the whole instant gratification thing. Which is, in a sense, fine when you are playing around in your bedroom with no deadline. But in the real world, that approach is counter-productive, non-cost-effective and unprofessional.
SR: Students do bring more “field experience” to school these days, but with that they also bring bad habits and an undeveloped work ethic. This is advantageous as far as raw experience is concerned, but a disadvantage because more work has to be done to break the habits and teach them best industry practices. We are seeing better applicants because we are raising our academic requirements and because more and more students are interested in attending UNCSA.
MM: What about online education? Is any component of your program offered in an online format? What are the pros and cons?
MS: We do not offer an online course of study yet. Because of the amount of hands-on or faculty/student contact necessary to really produce a film, I have not found a solid option to providing online classes.
LS: Production is a collaborative process. This is the main component lacking in an online format and the main con. The biggest pro is pacing. Each student can learn at his or her own pace.
ES: Many of our lesson plans, especially those concerned with graphics, are available online for our students to have access to while here at MediaTech. Graphics are tailor-made for online teaching, but other aspects of filmmaking need a “collaborative” type of teaching style. MediaTech works with the best teaching methods depending upon what is needed in order to get a specific job done.
RT: Not at this time. Production is still an intensely physical experience and the industry in general is built upon interpersonal relationships. We pride ourselves on our hands-on approach to filmmaking—the sort of goal-oriented, deadline-driven philosophy that is embraced by the industry. That would be extremely difficult to foster in an online environment. Sure, you might be able to deliver certain classes like Film History or the like—and we are exploring options there—but ultimately you need the team-building, logistically-driven atmosphere of a set. That’s pretty difficult to replicate outside of a hands-on, working environment.
SR: Not at the moment. We are just beginning to explore the possibilities of a distance learning education in filmmaking.
MM: More and more, social media—i.e. Twitter and Facebook—are becoming an essential part of the moviemaking process. And not just from a promotional standpoint when the movie is ready to be released, but really from a film’s conception. Not to mention the popularity of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. What part does social media play in your program?
MS: We use social media to promote the program as a whole. What we have found is that the students are the ones that take it to the next level with Facebook and the like.
LS: Social media is directly intertwined in parts of our curriculum. For example, one assignment is a viral video project whereby students must upload their finished product and promote it via social networking. The student with the most number of hits or views receives the highest grade. Additionally, students working on their final project are encouraged to use crowdfunding resources to raise the budget for their movies.
Keith Duncan (KD): As part of our DFP 401 class, aspects of social media (especially Facebook and YouTube) are utilized for film PR and information sharing as well as the use of Web domains for student projects. Also for fundraising, crowdfunding is actively used in class to assist in student film funding.
SR: Our Producing faculty have been teaching the use of social media and crowdfunding for several years now in the marketing and financing classes, but the school as a whole uses social media in the casting process and as a production tool for the individual projects. Social media has also allowed us to go green in the production process.
MM: In what ways is your program most different today than it was five years ago? What’s the biggest change you see on the horizon?
MS: When I started my program I wanted to be a resource for students who could not afford to attend more expensive programs. I provided top-notch instructors from universities and provided practical resources to give the full filmmaking experience. Over the years, with great success, we have slowly evolved into a program that prepares students to enter colleges and universities by really focusing our attention on the fundamentals of storytelling and good production practices.
EJ: Our program has grown leaps and bounds in the last five years. Obviously the equipment has changed for the better, but the biggest change has been the amount of time that the students collaborate and work on professional gigs and assignments. It is very important for students to actually work for professionals and not just for “class assignments.” Every student who has gone through MediaTech so far has worked on paid/invoiced work before they leave school, and we believe that this is very important for the learning process.
RT: We will continue to grapple with rapid changes in technology as well as media storage. It may not be a sexy topic, but constantly refining our methods of storing footage and retrieving it and dealing with ever larger files—these are the very real issues we will continue to deal with. Moving forward, we will continue to pursue our core mission: Training students as filmmakers by replicating real-world production and post-production environments. We’re a very demanding school. That isn’t going to change regardless of how the technological aspects play out.
SR: Our program is always evolving along with the business. We have a new building under construction that will be a state-of-the-art green building, completely wired for teaching animation/gaming/production and digital design. The two-way system of being able to conference in people from anywhere in the world will allow our students to have access to the best and the brightest in the business. We are looking to grow our masters program. We are always bringing new faculty and guest artists in to teach master classes to our students. At the heart of our program is a hands-on approach to learning the tools of the trade from experienced faculty and the art of storytelling in academic learning and self discovery.
MM: There are a number of self-taught moviemakers out there making waves in the industry. But what are the lessons one can only learn in film school?
MS: The most important lesson that comes from going to film school is collaboration and access to experienced instructors. Teamwork, critiquing work and getting your work critiqued is central to every one of my classes. Bouncing ideas off of other students and teachers helps fine-tune ideas and provides [students with] the confidence to take it to the next level. Technology is changing too fast and schools are having a hard time keeping up. Access to nurturing faculty and like-minded colleagues is what it is all about. Everything else is icing on the cake.
LS: No man is an island. Without collaboration, criticism and mentorship from experienced professionals, it’s too easy to either stagnate or believe you can do no wrong. A good film school provides more than just a grade or access to gear; it provides opportunity, insight and inspiration you might not otherwise get on your own.
EJ: I’m very fond of some of the self-taught filmmakers out there, people like Robert Rodriguez, and love to use them as examples of successful filmmakers for the students to look up to. However, Robert Rodriguez is very unique and not everyone has the kind of gumption and wherewithal to do what he does. The film process has a long history of being ‘group-driven’ and collaborative. There is a hierarchy and a tried-and-true process at work on a film shoot. That process, along with new and unique viewpoints, is what makes the curriculum work so well here at MediaTech Institute.
SR: You can learn by trial and error, or you can study under the advice of people like Michael Chapman, Tom Ackerman and Peter Bogdanovich, among many others. We are teaching our students the process that they can repeat their success over and over again. Not every movie will turn out as you might hope, but you can master the process.