Colorado has a long history of film production, whether that is existing to serve the Western locales of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or the understated comedy of About Schmidt. It is a tradition and community that continues to be served today through the classes at the Colorado Film School. An offspring of the Community College of Aurora and the University of Colorado Denver, the school offers students a rounded curriculum in the way of both theory and production, explains school director Frederic Lahey.
“Working in isolation, an aspiring filmmaker doesn’t know what they don’t know until they run into it,” Lahey says. “At the Colorado Film School, through a curriculum of hands-on production, our faculty makes sure that students will encounter the issues they will need to succeed in their professional careers.” Lahey recently took the time to clarify a few other things for MM, including what sets his school and state apart from the others, how cooperation is key and why it’s often easier for people who are essentially strangers to ignite a student’s flame.
Mallory Potosky (MM): Let’s start with a bit of a daunting question: Arts and entertainment have been the #1 United States export in recent years, which is probably reason enough to have as many art and film schools as possible in this country. But what separates those quality schools from the larger quantity of them?
Frederic Lahey (FL): The quality film schools separate from the rest of the pack by the way in which curriculum intersects with faculty and facilities. There are some vocational schools out there that appear to have good facilities but they fall down in curriculum, and frequently in faculty. There are a number of Universities that have solid academic programs, but little access to production or post equipment and facilities. These programs are great at teaching film appreciation and criticism, but fall short on delivery and professional preparation. It’s a rare school that’s able to marry academic excellence with vocational focus. The finest schools are able to put professional gear in their student’s hands, and teach the deep fundamentals of story and character and communication with an audience.
MM: So then, what is the one thing that sets Colorado Film School apart from others of its size?
FL: The Colorado Film School is a merger of the Community College of Aurora, which has a hands-on vocational focus, and the University of Colorado Denver, which is a world-class research university. We have a tremendous facility with over 80 edit stations, 50TB of storage, drive-in studios, gigE intranet, full HD and film support and we make over 1,000 films per year. Our BFA graduates will be hard-pressed to find a graduate program that challenges them in the way they have been challenged as undergraduates. So what really distinguishes us from the field is that we are uniquely set up to deliver the complete package of what students need to succeed in the industry.
MM: The John and Anna Sie Foundation Visiting Artists program offers Colorado Film School students the opportunity to hear from and interact with experienced professionals. But what do these programs bring to the table that other professors at the school—who are also working professionals—cannot?
FL: Students need to hear from as many perspectives as possible. One can never tell what will set off the light bulb in a student’s head. Many of our faculty have noted that a student was blown away by something a Visiting Artist said, when the faculty had been pressing the same point repeatedly all semester. But it is not important who gets the credit for student learning, as long as the student learns.
MM: Do students get opportunities to produce their own films before graduation?
FL: A typical writing/directing major will shoot several exercises and two productions in their first semester. They’ll shoot a class project and many exercises in “Intro to Film” if they opt to take it. They will shoot four exercises and a larger project in Video Production II, and make from four to eight class films in a section of 16mm Production. They will write and direct a major short film in Film/Video Production III and another one in Film/Video Production IV. Writing/Directing students will also shoot their projects in their Directing class and can opt to take Documentary Production and Documentary Post classes, where they work with nonprofit clients from the local community.
MM: How accessible are the school’s production facilities?
FL: We have custom-written software where students upload their scripts for faculty evaluation. Once they have script approval from their professor, their project is forwarded to our equipment cage. Crew members [can then] reserve and schedule equipment 24/7 electronically. Students can then see all the available equipment for their production level and upload their shot lists, crew list, talent list, location approvals, schedules, budgets and scripts. Once that is done, faculty give shoot approval and the equipment can be checked out.
Students are given equipment budgets based on their level of production and script score. The budgets are based on local rental rates for the same equipment. Naturally, there is no real charge for the equipment, but students learn how to budget, and what real world rates are like.
Our camera package to student project ratio is one to five. This gives a theoretical access of 17 days per semester, though crunch time empties the equipment cage in any film school.
MM: Obviously, working at a film school you feel that an education in film is an important step toward furthering a career in the industry, but why do you believe that’s so? Why do you believe this is the right step for some students—instead of just educating themselves with the myriad books and materials available to them?
FL: A good film school can greatly accelerate learning because it should include a solid, professional support structure, immediate access to experienced industry professionals and both supportive and critical feedback that may be missing from friends and family. The other key component to a film education is a sense of community and collaboration with other film students. Our students often learn as much on their shoots from each other as they do from our faculty. It is the cross-fertilization of ideas and skills, and the atmosphere of a specialized collaborative environment that creates the exciting atmosphere of a good film school.