Let’s start our list of the best film schools in the U.S. and Canada with an anecdote about the importance of film school.
Auteur extraordinaire Christopher Nolan’s first day at university set the firm foundations of his storytelling career. Interested in film since he was knee-high to a grasshopper or indeed a Doodlebug, he got to grips with his dad’s Super 8 camera as a kid.
But it was stepping through the doors of University College London, where he studied English Literature that cemented his path to cinematic splendor. It’s where he met his future wife, mother of his four children, and longtime film producing partner Emma Thomas on his first day there. As president of the school’s film society, he spent his spare hours making short films in UCL’s Bloomsbury Theatre. And his course informed his writing process, detailing the literary ideas and methods that underscore film criticism.
Later, his alma mater became the backdrop in a number of his movies, including Inception and Batman Begins. Kindred collaborators, equipment to run wild with, and courses to expand your movie-focused mind… these are all things that are offered at film school.
Nolan, whose movies are both cerebrally captivating and commercially successful, has been dubbed the greatest living director of the 21st century. He’s a Kubrick, a Scott, and a Spielberg when it comes to delivering an onscreen story that engages body, mind, and spirit.
The post-graduate made his first feature using reliable friends as actors, filmed in black and white, and only shot on weekends when he and his cast and crew were free of their jobs. The result was the unnerving noir Following, which was a hit on the festival circuit and scored Nolan his first big-time directing gig with Memento, a unique time-reverse tale he penned based on a short story his brother Jonathan had written.
In our list of 2019’s 40 best film schools in the United States and Canada, we take the Nolan method—non-linear, a little abstract, a bit erudite, with plenty of moxie. Keep in mind that doing your own research on programs, talking to staff, and visiting the institutions you’re considering always yields the best results.
That said, this article hones in on not just the courses on offer at traditional film schools but also the additional opportunities that abound at more unconventional programs that can also provide momentum toward your film future.
Very soon you could be like Nolan’s Inception hero, Cobb. It might feel like you’re waiting for a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but it doesn’t matter… for you’ll be on the right track for storytelling.
U.S. West and Northwest
AFI Conservatory (Los Angeles, CA) – Extensive Exceptional Training
Set in the Hollywood Hills, the AFI Conservatory expects its students to learn the art of film on the job using their initiative and the school’s state-of-the-art equipment and facilities.
With accomplished industry mentors and a Senior Filmmaker-in-Residence, the faculty keeps its class sizes small and respects the intelligence and passion that drives its storytellers-in-training.
Using a hands-on approach to learning the nuts and bolts of film, the Conservatory puts its focus into getting films made, producing more than 120 short narrative productions every year.
AFI has six MFAs available in Cinematography, Directing, Editing, Producing, Production Design, and Screenwriting.
And if you don’t already have an undergraduate degree, you will be considered for acceptance as an Associate Fellow.
One of AFI’s leading lights is Oscar-winning British filmmaker Andrea Arnold. Formerly a children’s television host and actress in the U.K., she studied directing at AFI and later garnered an Academy Award for her 2003 short film “Wasp.” She’s gone on to direct acclaimed features such as Red Road, Fish Tank, and American Honey, which have all won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Alumna Rachel Morrison was the first woman to be nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar for her work on 2017’s Mudbound.
Other award-winning alumni include director David Lynch, writer-directors Darren Aronofsky, Amy Heckerling, and Patty Jenkins, and cinematographers Wally Pfister, Robert Richardson, and Janusz Kamiński.
AFI Directing Discipline Head Adam Salky says, “Everything that happens at the AFI Conservatory is driven by the enormous amount of production that goes on here. AFI Fellows direct between five to 10 films in two years. It’s a breakneck pace. The films they make are so full of passion and experimentation, but the best thing about their time here is watching the amount of personal growth that occurs within each Fellow. The faculty is second to none. Also, AFI is a melting pot of diversity, both in terms of people—nearly 50 percent of Fellows are female—and narrative points of view.”
Screenwriting class of 1994 alumnus Brad Falchuk, who co-created the TV show Glee, says, “At AFI, you’ll meet with collaborators you’ll work with for your entire career. I’ve worked with alumni from AFI on every one of my projects. The AFI Conservatory is for artists who are serious about finding their voice and have stories to tell. It’s an amazing experience, and it will change your life.”
University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts (Los Angeles, CA) – Extensive Exceptional Training
A stone’s throw from the film industry, USC’s School of Cinematic Arts gets more than just your foot in the door. Rated as one of the top schools for film in the world, it prides itself on getting its students doing while backing it all up with theorizing. Its heritage is outstanding. Established in 1929 in collaboration with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, it’s the oldest and largest film school in the United States.
Facilities and equipment are gold standard. The new main complex features sound stages, animation facilities, post-production suites, mixing theaters, digital classrooms, and screening rooms that seat up to 200 people. The Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts provides even more production space, as well as advanced technologies such as motion capture suites and the university’s own television service that provides daily programming to millions in the city as well as to certain national and international outlets.
The school offers five BAs and two BFAs featuring 128 diverse units including Motion Picture Script Analysis, Lateral Thinking for Filmmaking Practice, Non-Fiction Film and Television, Writing for Animation and The Production and Post-Production Assistant. All bases are covered.
It has a raft of famous graduates, including Ron Howard, John Carpenter, and George Lucas. The Force is strong here.
Writers’ Program at the University of California, Los Angeles (Los Angeles, CA) – Page-Turning Screenwriting Training
The Writers’ Program is a structured way for writers to get their film script, TV pilot or even novel started and finished. It offers 400 writing courses each year, both on its campus and online, taught by 200 working writers.
It also offers a Writers Studio, a writing retreat, certificate programs, specializations, screenplay and literary competitions, one-on-one mentorship, consultations, and scholarships.
Some of the films and television shows written by alumni include Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Letters from Iwo Jima, Collateral, Game of Thrones, and The Office.
Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles, CA) – All-Encompassing Production Training
The specialized programs at LMU’s School of Film and Television provide outstanding opportunities. There are degrees in Animation, Film Studies, Screenwriting, and Recording Arts, making it ideal for budding sound editors, mixers, and designers. Its Production MFA “emphasizes experiential learning.” Students work in tandem with instructors who are accomplished in the business. There are also lectures from folks like Jack Reacher and Mission: Impossible III producer Paula Wagner.
Alumni include James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli, Francis Lawrence and David Mirkin.