The Boston University Center for Digital Imaging Arts doesn’t just focus on classroom instruction. Lectures on film techniques are useful, but wouldn’t hands-on practice be better than a professor who turns on Casablanca and then relaxes at his desk with coffee and a blueberry muffin until the credits roll? That hands-on approach is the idea behind the CDIA: Students learn by doing, and by pairing the students with nonprofit organizations in need of a filmmaker as part of CDIA’s Practicum program, the students get real-world experience and learn what it’s like to be a moviemaker.

CDIA’s Consulting Director of Filmmaking, Tom Robotham, took the time to answer MovieMaker’s questions about the program and how it helps prepare students to build their careers.

Rebecca Pahle (MM): Tell us a bit about the CDIA’s Practicum program. What led you to introduce it as an opportunity for the students?

Tom Robotham (TR): Boston University Center for Digital Imaging Arts (BU CDIA) believes that all organizations deserve to benefit from digital media resources and that students become successful professionals when given the opportunity to gain valuable work experience. At CDIA, we believe media can make a difference. That’s why we developed the Practicum program, an opportunity for students to partner with nonprofit, socially responsible organizations and create quality digital media to further the organizations’ missions.

Practicum aims to empower students as confident and competent digital arts professionals under the direction of experienced and current professionals. It gives students practical experience working on real-world projects for actual clients, complete with a fixed time frame and well-defined deliverables. Under the direction of a faculty advisor, students work independently or in teams as they take a project from concept to completion. With its real-life production environment, Practicum delivers valuable career-building experience in managing assignments, schedules and client expectations.

Over the years, our Practicum program has become a key component of the BU CDIA experience. Hundreds of students have participated in the program, gaining valuable professional experience while providing important media services to non-profit organizations. We have cultivated partnerships with over 300 non-profit organizations expanding from Boston and DC areas, across the country and around the world.

MM: The technological aspects of the film industry is constantly changing; how do you keep up with all the new developments?

TR: All digital and computer technology is constantly changing. Every three years or so, there is a turnover on devices. We do a few things at CDIA to keep on top of this. The simplest is that we update camera equipment and editing software frequently. For example, our students use file-based HD cameras from the first week of class.

More importantly, though, our approach is not camera-specific. All imaging systems, from the human visual system, through early photography to the present, use lenses, a sensor, and some method or mechanism of processing or deciphering the detected photons to render a meaningful image. Sure, lenses are vastly better than in the past, but the functions of focal length and iris have not changed really since the 1800’s, just the sensor and image processing. The basics of the sensors, using the energy of photons to enact a chemical or electrical change is pretty consistent. It is entirely plausible to say that the practical differences between photo-chemical imaging and raster based photo-electric imaging has more to do with the receptor distribution than the net result. So, really, there are more similarities between cameras and imaging systems than differences.

We do a few things to help students learn how to effectively use these camera systems.

One is that we emphasize the significant aspects of camera control that enable solid technical usage and creative possibilities. This is a much narrower subset of available camera menu items than manufacturers might seem to indicate. These controls, and manual manipulation of them, enables solid technical execution and opens the doors to creative usage. In simple terms, what is offered through camera menus is really extensive, but what is actually used by professionals, or recommended for new users, is much more limited. Therefore, we don’t emphasize memorizing one single camera’s extensive sub-menus, we teach that which transcends camera differences. These are the controls that professionals use, and students can transfer this knowledge to the next camera system with relative ease.

We developed this approach by sharing knowledge of the range of professionals who work and teach for CDIA. All use a subset of menu items; all use the common camera controls; and all use these in different creative ways to achieve the results they want for the project at hand. These are teachable skills and approaches, and open the doors for students to apply their own creative intent, while still functioning technically.

The second thing we do at CDIA might be even more significant for students. If one is to look at a range of effective, compelling programs (docs, movies, videos, etc) what is most important goes way beyond the technical base. That is actually a given for the most part. What is exciting is the usage, the language, the application of storytelling or visually compelling elements to support the project at hand. That is a big part of our program: how to take the tools and make images that are appropriate, exciting, functional, and maybe even compelling. That “language”, if you will, is the core of the experience for the audience. And it is basically invisible to them, they just respond. So we think of image making as something that goes beyond technology. Technology is simply in the service of communications intent. Every new technical tool opens some door, and maybe closes others. What is important is knowing how to exploit the technology to communicate effectively.

MM: What level of knowledge should CDIA students have upon entering into one of the Digital Filmmaking Certificate programs? Is it better for the students to have some previous background in film technology?

TR: Students should be very intent on communicating with the tools at hand. They should want, even need, to reach audiences. That is more important than having specific technical skills going into the program. Regarding technical skill, that is something we teach. It can be great if students know something about photographic basics, but this is not necessary. Students must work hard, and absorb as much as they can. As mentioned earlier, this is a field that is changing constantly on the technical front. Therefore, fundamental knowledge that is transferable is superior to in-depth knowledge that only applies to specific technology.

On a related topic, students typically do not have clear ideas on what people actually do in the industry, or how division of labor is enacted. That’s fine. They learn that here, and may find they actually function well in a job that was totally unfamiliar to them at the start. This is, for the most part, a collaborative industry. Very much like music, it is more exciting for an audience to hear the work of a full band or even orchestra, than to hear a one-man-band. So students should go in with definite desire to excel and to explore all facets of filmmaking, and let experience influence any preconceptions.

To sum up, students can be well versed, or total beginners. Effort, desire and taking notes in class and working on exercises count for more.

MM: How does CDIA prepare students to work in the industry after graduation?

TR: CDIA provides a solid grounding in basics of the toolset and in execution of a range of project types. One thing that might be of particular interest to incoming students is that our students execute quite a number of projects. That is made possible by our “learn while doing” philosophy. Our time for lectures and explanations while students sit and listen is limited to portions of a day. The rest of the week is more likely to be in trying out and practicing what is learned, so that it becomes embedded in the student as an actual skill, not just a theoretical concept without grounding in practice.

This means that our students will do a group documentary style project, one or more small group commercial type projects, one challenging group narrative project, plus their own independent project as their final project. There are many fine schools that only provide the opportunity for the equivalent of our final project. That might work for some students, but CDIA students do more and sit less. In many ways, that is a close match to the impulses and personalities of filmmakers, who like to make projects more than talk about them. We all love to talk about them, but more projects and more execution gives our students good “reel” material, and solid grounding in the range of projects that they might encounter in the working world.

Our staff, as working professionals, knows that what counts on set or in the editing suite is the ability to execute proven skills. Therefore, we focus on those aspects. Anecdotally, we hear from professionals in the field that CDIA students enter the workplace well grounded, able to function in professional environments, and are welcome additions to a project. Since we were all beginners ourselves at one time, we know that a less-than-functional know-it-all is just a problem on set, even if we are sympathetic to their plight as “newbies”. So we try to make our students functional, and knowledgeable while realizing that they have discovered the tip of the iceberg and that they have their own journey towards deeper knowledge and capability in their own careers.

MM: Anything to add?

TR:We love filmmaking. We do it ourselves. We love to see eager faces of new students, willing to work hard and learn everything they can. We also love the idea that our students will go past our own level and become the compelling filmmakers of the future. Filmmaking is a hands-on experience. That is where we start at CDIA.

For more information on the Center for Digital Imaging Arts at Boston University, visit