The Film School Way


For much of 2009, recession-focused stories stole the headlines for many media outlets. But increased unemployment rates and a failing housing market aren’t the only side effects of a falling economy. With less money to go around for loans or scholarships—not to mention a lack of employment opportunities upon graduation—students have been some of the hardest hit by the current economic situation. With the additional costs of equipment and film production, how have film students in particular fared? MM assembled a roundtable of a half-dozen of the world’s top film educators to ask this question and more.

Participants include: Eduardo A. Rufeisen, director of the School Motion Pictures & Television at Academy of Art University (AAU); Keith Sensing, executive director of the International Academy of Film and Television (IAFT); David Shulman, director of the Seattle Film Institute (SFI); Bill Smith, vice president of education at the Los Angeles Film School (LAFS); Duncan Thompson, CEO of International Film School Sydney (IFFS); and Jordan Kerner, dean of the School of Filmmaking at University of North Carolina School of the Arts—and Film Producer (UNCSA).

Jennifer Wood (MM): How do you think film education itself is changing and how is your program adapting to the constant changes that occur within the film industry?

UNCSA: The film industry is in a constant state of ebb and flow. One year new technology is the enemy, the next it is the bedrock. One year films are all sequels the next they must all be original. One year the sky is falling and the next the sky is the limit. To have graduates who can succeed in any market, or an ever changing one, we need to teach good old fashion storytelling. If the story is a compelling path and the characters evolve as a result of the story, you will always have a good chance of a great film. Just add comedy and tears with enough surprise and momentum. We need to expose each student to cutting edge technology; help them to make at least one film or more each year; and ultimately help them to be as good a thinker as they are a shooter and we will have done our jobs. Finally, UNCSA also requires that thought be given to the value and worth of the story. Is it the best execution possible? Will it stand the test of time. That is a goal for me with our students as much as it is a goal in my own films.

IFFS: Film education is leaving behind it’s academic obsession with film noir, its elevation of art cinema above all others, and is on the forefront of adoption of the creative potential of new technologies. Our program is making technically self-sufficient filmmakers, with a profound understand of filmic storytelling and the need to elevate, exhilarate, edify and entertain its audiences. Our graduates are capable of finding high production values whilst working cheap, and of making courageous and engaging films that speak to the needs of audiences dissatisfied but entrenched in mainstream movie going. Above all, our students are trained in maximizing value from available resources (time, money, people), high artistic achievement, the use of cutting edge technology, and maximising the emotional journey of audiences through profoundly unique and engaging characters, and narrative audacity.

AAU: The whole film industry is changing fast. Technology is constantly improving the production tools and making them more reasonably priced. Today an independent filmmaker has HD cameras and editing equipment at his/her disposable purchased at affordable prices. These new circumstances create a democratization of the filmmaking process. The distribution is also going through a revolution with the Internet and websites like YouTube providing content. Soon the average household will be getting their programming off of the Internet tailor made for their taste.

Network channels, cable, DVD and movie theaters are reevaluating their distribution process and opening doors on the Internet. ITunes certainly found a great model for the music industry.
All of these trends impact education, and Academy of Art University is evolving in real-time. Instructors here are successful, industry professionals. They are passionate about change and bring with them the latest in technology, creative thinking, and hands-on learning. Students are inspired by this environment and gain the experience to create art designed for a fast-paced industry.

IAFT: Although the film industry is always changing, there is one constant that has consisted throughout the past 100+ years of filmmaking: People want to be entertained with interesting stories and characters. That is at the heart of everything we do at IAFT. Our primary goal is to inspire students to convey visual stories in unique and personal ways that will capture an audience’s attention no matter how it’s delivered – be it the movie theatre, the Internet, TV, etc. We train students to explore and use all varieties of traditional and new media, but the underlying emphasis is on developing and telling compelling narratives.

SFI: As the industry becomes more diverse, students have more opportunity. It’s our job to translate those changes into a mind-set that everyone including faculty understand. Our faculty are constantly using the energy and vitality of the changes in the industry to motivate the students and to make them aware that the world they will soon enter is full of possibility.

LAFS: I don’t think that the core principles are changing—at the heart of it all, the important thing is telling a story and telling it well. The change is coming in the form of the tools we use to capture and deliver that story: students with a camera, a laptop, and some editing software can get hands-on experience like never before. It allows us to set our expectations much higher.

Because technology is becoming more accessible, there is a lot more interest in independent films. There’s a do-it-yourself mentality among a lot of young filmmakers. It’s exciting to see how passionately they’re pursuing filmmaking with a DIY attitude.

MM: Though the official report is that the recession is over, it’s hard to ignore the impact that today’s economy has had on educational institutions. How has it most affected your institution?

LAFS: Across the country, a number of applicants have had a more difficult time securing the finances to attend college. That’s been a problem for all colleges, but hopefully the economy will improve, allowing students more options to fund their educations. What has remained consistent is that the driven, passionate students who want to be in the film industry find a way to make it happen.

SFI: Students are putting more time and effort into deciding whether they should go to film school. They want to make sure there is a viable “return” on their educational investment.

MM: With the widespread availability and affordability of digital moviemaking tools, aspiring moviemakers are getting their cinematic feet wet much earlier. Have you noticed any change in the number or quality of applicants in recent years?

UNCSA: We have had many applicants and entering freshmen who have had a camera in their hands since they were seven years old or younger. They know how to shoot—they have often shot a lot. It is our job to teach them how to execute the stories that are important to them on a professional level.

IFSS: Students approach our school with a sense of self-selecting excellence. They are more informed, more adventurous and creatively ambitious. When they read our school’s philosophy, they understand the impact of the approach we take and its potential effect on their careers and creative longevity. Film students are becoming more and more discerning about what a good program can offer them, and how it can expand, focus and furnish their ambitions.

AAU: Students have become more technology-savvy over the years, but the understanding of the human aspects of the filmmaking process is still a challenge. Does the affordability of a great sports car make you a better driver? Not really. Eventually, through education, one will become better…
A young director has to understand story, how to direct actors, how to motivate the crew to keep working hard and give their best. They also have to understand the story aspects present in filming and editing the picture. Filmmaking is heavily dependent on technology, but it is still a people business.

MM: Digital technology has also led to the sprouting of newly energized film communities in areas outside of L.A. and NYC. How has this “backyard moviemaking” affected your institution?
UNCSA: This “outside status” is part of our history… We are the school of David Gordon Green, Jody Hill, Will Files, Atli Örvarsson, Craig Zobel, Ben Best and, at the same time—with no actors other than their classmates—we are the school of Danny McBride and Paul Schneider. They had to be especially creative with little. They had to write their hearts out. They had to act in each other’s movies and improvise.

IFSS: It provides more informed, inspired, experienced and capable students. Having said that, we are also seeing people untouched by this revolution, people who are touched by the proliferation of distribution means, who have great film knowledge courtesy of the Web and probably some illegal means of accessing a wide depth and variety of cinematic greats.
IAFT: One of IAFT’s basic foundations is the idea of the world as a network of filmmaking communities, so this expansion benefits us greatly. Since IAFT is located in the Philippines and our students are from all over the world, we have essentially established our own film community “enclave” here in Cebu, and more student films shot here are getting exposure via film festivals and online outlets.

SFI: Since we’re not in the “front yard,” we’ve been in the forefront of this change for our entire history. Over time, it’s become even more natural for students to come here as a destination.

MM: It’s being said that 3-D films are the wave of the future, but 3-D films are all-around more expensive than their 2-D counterparts. Do you plan on teaching 3-D moviemaking? Do you think it is here to stay, or is it a phase that will pass?

UNCSA: 3-D, as James Cameron will no doubt observe in his brilliant Avatar, is a deeper and truer window into a story. Rather than perceiving it as a passing fad or an element of cinematic surprise, it can also be seen as a technology which frames the world of the filmmaker’s creation. Cameron uses it as an aquarium into the human condition. We see people and objects which must be given an emotional or comedic charge and then watch the story play out. It curiously becomes more real and if it does not violate the plane of the screen more intriguing. It is not a hand reaching for your nose, but it can place you in an environment never previously seen. I think we need to teach any element of technology that can illuminate stories for certain types of films. It is not right for all, but for some, it can fill an audience’s imagination and sneak into its heart.

IFFS: It is evidently something that provides great excitement, and the refinements to the medium and the experience is finally taking great strides. Although some students are starting to build their own 3-D rigs, we are watching and waiting, and thinking ahead for the possibilities of 3-D if they take root in the long run.

AAU: 3-D is a strong trend at the moment so movie theaters can attract the audiences and pull them away from their big screen TVs at home. We are actively exploring the new 3-D technology and watching if it becomes a standard to deliver a picture in the movie theatres. As the movie business and technology change, we evolve too. By focusing on art for industry’s sake, Academy of Art University continues to be on the cutting-edge.

IAFT: 3-D has definitely been garnering a lot of attention over the past few years, and we are seeing more and more big studio films being released in which 3-D plays a major marketing role. If this trajectory continues, 3-D training could be something that IAFT offers in the future. At this point, IAFT is continuing to monitor this aspect of the industry carefully.

SFI: The challenge is to find ways of teaching areas like 3-D without sacrificing or gutting areas that are equally important. We’ve been careful to do that. That being said, the way that we integrate 3-D into the program is not by just writing a big check for more equipment.

LAFS: 3-D is an exciting trend, and it appears that 3-D is the future of filmmaking. At the present time there does not seem to be enough of a standardized technology, workflow, and delivery system to teach it adequately. Once the industry has fully embraced 3-D and established the appropriate standards, we’ll definitely add it to the curriculum.

MM: What is your first priority: Getting the highest quality equipment and resources available to the students or putting together the strongest, most knowledgeable faculty possible?

UNCSA: They must go hand in hand. Programs and faculty qualified and motivated to teach them must come hand in hand. We have moved slowly (remember I am a film producer as well and slow for me is measured in days and weeks, not years) but deliberately in a quest to start these unique programs and at the same time we have sought full time and adjunct faculty.
IFFS: You can’t separate the two. They go hand in hand. The highest quality equipment and resources only take on magic under the hands of those stimulated, challenged, nurtured and supported by an inspired and inspiring skilfully knowledgeable faculty.

AAU: I can certainly say that at Academy of Art University, we go for both. There is no sense in having one and not having the other.

IAFT: IAFT’s first priority is recruiting knowledgeable mentors from all over the world. At its heart, great filmmaking is not about the “latest and greatest” gear, it’s about teaching students to explore and communicate their own voices in ways that resonate and move an audience. While we are fortunate to offer state-of-the-art facilities and believe hands-on experience is critical, without the guidance of experienced and skilled teachers to develop those talents, the equipment is meaningless.

SFI: I believe it all starts with faculty. These are the ones who are really getting the students to understand both the conceptual and practical side of filmmaking. Of course, it’s important for students to work with equipment that they will see in the real world but the numbers game can be deceptive. If you compare the specs of a super 8 camera with many HD cameras, I think many students would be surprised at the results.

LAFS: Both. One without the other doesn’t serve much purpose. Having an experienced mentor guide a student in learning to use the technology is the best approach, and that’s what we do.

MM: How have your recent graduates fared in the current job market?

IFSS: With the maturation of our school, and the increased breadth of excellence manifest in our graduates, recent graduates are finding that the cream rises to the top, and in harsher times employers are more discerning.

AAU: I would say better. AAU’s focus on art for the industry guides students to create outstanding demo reels that are in step with current trends. Besides opening doors in Hollywood, we’ve had students create their own production companies and get hired by faculty.

IAFT: Because all of our students come from many different countries and have begun to build an international network while at IAFT, some recent alumni have found great opportunities in places all over the world.

SFI: The current job market for our students is better. There is much more diversity in the marketplace—especially with Web-based work.

LAFS: Our graduates are faring very well. Even in the best of times, it’s always been tough to break into the entertainment industry. But by the same token, there is always a demand for people with a positive attitude, a great work ethic and technical competency.

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?

UNCSA: Quentin Tarantino’s advice is not to go to film school. That is compelling coming from Mr. Tarantino. Then my mind wandered to Martin Scorsese, David Gordon Green and George Lucas—all film school grads. To learn from film masters on world-class equipment is pretty great; I wish it had been around when I was a student. However, school is not for everyone; some may need to find their voice through hard knocks or a series of relationships. In school, a student will learn to think.

AAU: Filmmaking is a collective process of creative individuals working together. It is not impossible to learn all aspects of filmmaking on your own, but it takes time because of all the mistakes one goes through. It is definitely hard to master all aspects of filmmaking on your own.

IAFT: In any given creative field—art, music, dance, etc.— you will always find the exception of untrained (and often lucky) success stories that people will glorify. However, the vast majority of undeveloped talent will not want to spend the time and money on “trial and error” methods of learning filmmaking.

LAFS: Going to a school provides you with an understanding of the language, workflow, technology and culture of filmmaking in a concise manner. While in school, you’re encouraged to experiment and make mistakes. You can learn through trial and error, with guidance of experienced instructors and with ready access to technology. That’s a bit tough to do when working on a professional production.

SFI: “Only” is a pretty big word, but there are certainly areas where a film school education jump-starts the learning curve. I think developing an understanding of the total filmmaking process not only gives students an overall set of skills, but also allows them to find their own passions. As a student’s interests and opportunities change over time, they can continually draw on their film school education to propel them forward.

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