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Film School 101: The Principals’ Office

Film School 101: The Principals’ Office

Articles - Education

We know you have questions about whether or not film school is

the right choice. So we went to the experts. In part one of our

roundtable discussion, New York Film Academy’s Jerry Sherlock and

Michael Young, Vancouver Film School’s Marty Hasselbach, AFI’s JJ

Jackman, UCLA’s Stephanie Moore, Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Charlie

Humphrey and Digital Media Education Center’s Jaime Fowler give

some insight into whether a career in film is right for you.

Students at the New York Film Academy
Students at the New York Film Academy

Jennifer Wood (MM): There’s been such a

long debate between moviemakers about whether or not film school

is a necessary step to success in the film industry. In a sentence,

why do you think film school is necessary?

Jerry Sherlock & Michael Young (NYFA): Film

school is not necessary to success in the film industry. However,

it can inspire and nurture you as you make your first movies, develop

confidence in the craft and work with challenging instructors and


Marty Hasselbach (MH): Film school gives people

the unique opportunity to learn, under the guidance of industry

experts, the filmmaking process from the inside out in a nurturing,

collaborative environment—one that cannot be synthesized or bettered

by the do-it-yourself school of filmmaking.

JJ Jackman (JJ): A film program can provide

a safe environment in which a filmmaker can stretch their creative

legs, and also provides access to resources (equipment, insurance,

etc.) that a young filmmaker might not otherwise have access to.

In addition, the contacts made at a film program can be invaluable

to future work as a filmmaker. The people sitting next to you and

the people teaching you are also filmmakers, and hopefully will

be working in the profession too.

Stephanie Moore (SM): It isn’t necessary, but

if you don’t have access to everything a film school can provide,

it’s highly recommended as a way to success in the film industry.

Charlie Humphrey (CH): Film school provides

vocabulary and history. Both are important. It also helps a young

filmmaker avoid the cliché, and helps them to understand

what a film community actually feels like. Filmmaking is a communal

activity, the most collaborative of all the contemporary art forms.

It helps to know how to work in this kind of an environment.

Jaime Fowler (JF): It isn’t always necessary,

but for most, it provides you with enough background and rudimentary

knowledge to determine a path in your film career.

MM: Of those filmmakers who have found success

without a film education background, people like Richard Linklater

and Quentin Tarantino, to what do you attribute their success?

NYFA: Successful filmmakers who did not go

to film school and successful filmmakers who did go to film school

share the same source of success: their own drive, talent, luck

and perseverance (not necessarily in that order).

MH: These people succeed because they not only

have an intuitive understanding of what makes great film, but because

they bring a passion for learning, a fearless attitude and a healthy

array of street smarts to the table. It’s a uniquely successful

combination reserved for certain personalities. Others with equal

or greater potential most often need expert guidance to fully develop

their skill sets.

JJ: Filmmaking is a tumultuous mix of creative

vision, artistic ability and business savvy. Excelling in one of

these areas can give a filmmaker that needed “boost” to get a career

off the ground, and the other elements are then learned through

experience. Like any art form, success at filmmaking has a huge

amount to do with luck, preparedness and the unavoidable “right

place, right time” variable.

SM: Passion, persistence and luck.

CH: They are still students of the form. They

consumed media voraciously. And they surrounded themselves with

people smarter than themselves.

JF: Certainly people can learn film by watching

film, so long as they’re analytical enough to dissect it. Watching

and dissecting film is a form of reverse engineering for filmmakers.

Still, you have to read the books or watch enough interviews with

directors to learn some of the secrets—and not all of the secrets

are told. I remember when I cut “Behind the Scenes” specials for

HBO that directors would ask me to pull out certain segments featuring

effects or gadgets that they didn’t want anyone to see.

I think of filmmaking as continuing education. You

don’t just learn how to do it, then stop. Directors are constantly

learning on the set through experimentation and on the spot decision

making. So once film school is over, you’re just starting.

MM: Even the best film school cannot teach

somebody how to behave in the various scenarios s/he will encounter

when working in the film industry. How can a film school prepare

a student for these inevitable occurrences?

NYFA: At the New York Film Academy, students

write, produce, direct, shoot and edit their own short films with

professional equipment. In addition, they work in all the principal

crew positions on their classmates’ films. This intensive production

experience prepares them to handle many of the same situations,

obstacles and creative choices they will face on professional productions.

MH: At the Vancouver Film School, we try to

prepare students in two key ways: First, we directly immerse them

in the filmmaking process and give them a great deal of autonomy

over their projects. As students deal directly with the problems

inherent in creating films, they come away with more than a set

of rules or procedures that should be followed; they also develop

a powerful set of problem-solving tools that be can applied to future


Second, we provide students with a holistic experience

of the filmmaking process. No matter their specialization, students

rotate through each set discipline. So when students get into the

workplace, they not only understand the impact their decisions have

on their work, but they also comprehend how their decisions will

affect others. This is critical to making sound decisions in a highly

collaborative environment.

JJ: AFI prepares its Fellows for the professional

filmmaking environment by mirroring that environment in its curriculum.

Fellows in the AFI Conservatory find themselves collaborating with

a wide variety of artistic styles, personalities and temperaments

as they work on several short films over the course of the program.

The Conservatory is designed to try to let them work out obstacles

they encounter on their own, in a professional manner.

SM: Film schools prepare students to work in

the film industry by giving them a solid foundation and the opportunity

to interact with their peers, the school’s faculty and with industry


CH: It really can’t. School is, by definition,

a nurturing atmosphere. The film industry is, by nature, vicious.

But a good film school will help a young artist to see past their

own narcissistic ideals and recognize the value of collaboration.

JF: Well, you can’t “teach” behavior in any

form. But we certainly try to suggest some strategies in working

with the director when the students cut their films at Film Camp.

The premise behind it was what I learned when I first came to Hollywood:

editing is 15 percent technical and creative and 85 percent diplomatic.

Being diplomatic can make or break a film career. People are always

updating technical and creative knowledge.

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