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Film School in the Digital Age

Film School in the Digital Age

Articles - Education

Students from Center for Digital Imaging Arts
Students from the Center for Digital Imaging Arts at Boston University.  

Some film schools have to struggle to keep up with the current pace of technology—but not CDIA. The Center for Digital Imaging at Boston University gives its students that extra boost in a fickle film education marketplace by utilizing cutting-edge technology… while never losing touch with traditional film craft. MM spoke with CDIA’s program director David Tamés about Boston, the importance of a creative community and the digital age.

Alexis Buryk (MM): With the rapid influx of digital technology into the moviemaking industry, approaches to teaching film are constantly changing. Many of the classes offered at CDIA, such as Camera and Lighting, Editing I and Production Sound, have traditional titles but stress the use of technologically advanced tools, such as Avid and digital audio mixing. What is the teaching philosophy at CDIA and how have the school’s instructors worked to bridge the gap between the traditions of moviemaking and the increasing the various technologies to which today’s students have access?

David Tamés (DT): Our teaching philosophy is based on several principles. Our modules are taught by working professionals with a passion for teaching. We help students refine moviemaking craft through hands-on demonstration, exercises and projects. Students generalize what they learn and connect their work to communication and artistic intent through analysis and critique of exercises and projects by students and instructors. We use objective-based training methodologies to maintain quality and consistency across instructors, teaching techniques and learning styles. State-of-the-art tools and techniques are integrated into classes in order to provide students both a practical education and an edge in the marketplace. We build confidence in students by providing them with real-world experience through the Production Practicum program. Continuous improvement is part of our process and changes are based on feedback from course evaluations and comments from instructors and curriculum developers.

Using instructors who are working professionals who apply the latest tools in their work and whose experience is grounded in traditional film craft is the only way you can really bridge the gap between tradition and the latest tools. You need to work with people whose experience comes directly from the crucible of the real-world, who have worked with both the old and the new ways.

For example, John Garrett, C.A.S, one of our Production Sound instructors, rose to the top of his field in the days when the analog Nagra was the cat’s meow, but he’s totally up on the latest tools and techniques and often writes about them in DV Magazine and gives seminars at DV Expo. Another example is Tom Robotham—an accomplished cinematographer in the Guild who has shot many projects in 35mm and 16mm film and is well-versed in the latest HD and SD digital video cameras. For example, he just finished shooting a feature using Panasonic’s SDX900 2/3-inch 24P camcorder and knows the Panasonic DVX100A cameras we currently use in classes. Our associate director, Howard Phillips, is both a cameraperson and editor and knows the DVX100A better than anyone I know. He worked at Avid and ran his own post-production facility for many years that was the first beta site for Avid’s Film Composer. I could go down the list of our instructors and say similar things about each and every one of them, but I’m sure we’ve got a column-inch constraint here.

MM: What sorts of exercises and projects can a student expect to complete in their time at CDIA and how will these experiences prepare them for their future careers?

DT: Modules alternate between lecture/demonstration and hands-on exercises. Students apply and refine new techniques working on a variety of hands-on exercises in each class. Several project-oriented modules allow students to express themselves creatively beyond the work they do in their formal classes. At the end of the first term, students spend two weeks on a creative project in “Film Project II.” In the second term, students work as a group on planning, shooting and editing a 20-page script in the Pre-Production, Shooting on Location and Editing Laboratory II sequence of modules. At the end of their studies, students spend six weeks shooting and editing their final projects.

But the experience does not end with two terms of intensive instruction. After completing their coursework, students participate in a four-week production practicum. This provides students with the opportunity to experience a wide variety of real-world challenges from vérité-style documentary shooting to compositing 3D elements with live action to working with clients on a tight schedule. There is no better way to prepare our students for their future careers than to bridge the gap between education and practice by offering them their first real gig working on a real project, with real creative demands, for a real client, with a real deadline and on a real budget.

MM: What are some common goals that your students share? Where do you think they reflect diversity?

DT: All of our students want to make films, express themselves, live the creative life and make a difference. Our students are very diverse both in terms of their background and age group, as well as their personal objectives in terms of making films. Such a diversity leads to a diversity in the range of creative work, as was reflected in our recent public screening of final film projects. Every film had its own voice, was unique and bore the imprint of its creator. I think it’s really hard to generalize people’s personal goals, each of our students are unique and forging their own path. What I do see in common is they have things to say and are using film as their means of expression.

MM: Boston is not a city that one immediately thinks of when discussing moviemaking. What are some of the challenges that CDIA has had to face in light of this fact, and also, what are some ways in which the city’s rich culture has positively impacted students’ experiences?

DT: I’ve lived and worked in four of the top film centers in the United States: New York, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and I think each city provides a unique environment for making films, each with an established community and support structure. Let me tell you about Boston, and more generally, New England.

This area has a rich and legendary film history, including some of the best-know pioneers of cinéma vérité in America: Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies, High School), John Marshall (The Hunters, The Pittsburg Police Series) and Richard Leacock (Crisis, Happy Mother’s Day). In the 1960s and through the early ’80s the MIT Film/Video Section (later merged into the MIT Media Lab) and Harvard’s Film Studies Center (Robert Gardner’s Dead Birds and Forest of Bliss among its prodigious output) through the present have made significant contributions to the field and have helped to launch numerous careers.

Yet we don’t rest on our laurels. New England continues to be a place many notable moviemakers call home. For example, Ken Burns (Baseball, The Civil War), Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) and Ross McElwee (Sherman’s March, Bright Leaves). Dorothy Aufiero, Michael Williams and David Collins worked in the Boston film community for many years, first as location and production managers and later as producers on several feature film projects, before launching their hit television series, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”.

I’ll make no bones about it: Boston is a documentary town with the epicenter of the community at WGBH. They produce more of the PBS prime-time lineup than any other source, including “American Experience,” “Frontline,” “Zoom” and “Nova,” the most watched science television series in the world. WGBH is also a leading supplier of Web content for pbs.org. In the area you’ll find a vibrant community of production companies producing both fiction and nonfiction films, producers, directors, writers, camera persons, sound persons, editors, production staff, vendors, etc. The area is also home to a number of support organizations offering a range of services for independent moviemakers, among which are: Center for Independent Documentary (http://www.documentaries.org), The Color of Film Collaborative (http://www.coloroffilm.com), Documentary Educational Resources (http://www.der.org), Moviemakers Collaborative (http://www.moviemakerscollab.org), Women in Film & Video New England (http://www.womeninfilmvideo.org) and the Boston Educational Film & Video Association (http://www.befva.org). Students who study in Boston become part of a very exciting and supportive milieu.

In addition to documentary moviemakers, you’ll find a small yet productive fiction moviemaking community. Many notable independent films have originated in the area, some of them launching successful careers for their writers, directors and producers. For example, in 1996 writer-director Robert Patton-Spruill sold his film Squeeze (a brilliant urban tale and unique product of the Boston community) to Miramax for the indie record-breaking sum of $1 million. That same year The Darien Gap put Brad Anderson on the map and, two years later, Next Stop Wonderland made his career as a director; both films were produced in Boston.

Stephen Kijak directed Never Met Picasso, his award-winning debut film, in Boston shortly after graduating from Boston University and since then has directed television and produced several documentaries and co-directed Cinemania with Angela Christlieb. Maureen Foley has written, directed and produced two critically-praised feature films in the area, Home Before Dark and American Wake, with her third feature film currently in development. Producer-director Ziad Hamzeh (Shadow Glories, Eternal Embrace) works in the area and is among our instructors. All of these moviemakers are products of the Boston film community. Some moviemakers chose to relocate to New York or Los Angeles, while others like Patton-Spruill, Foley and Hamzeh choose to live and work in New England. Like any healthy ecosystem, there is a vibrant flow of talent in and out of the area, creating opportunities for new moviemakers who want to start their journey here.

New England offers moviemakers numerous locations for shooting, excellent libraries and universities for conducting research, friendly and supportive vendors providing cameras, audio, lighting, supplies, and a talented labor pool that ranges from eager students to seasoned professionals in every job category. Los Angeles clearly has the critical mass when it comes to big-budget Hollywood-style moviemaking, New York thrives on its gritty reputation as an indie moviemaking center and Boston quietly and without much fanfare thrives as a hotbed of documentary moviemaking with a respectable output of fiction films to boot. Each city offers a unique environment for making any kind of film, and the Boston area can easily claim its place as a great place to be a student, given the number of schools, libraries and museums in the area.

MM: What is the future for CDIA?

DT: The future looks bright, both for us as a school and in terms of the improved tools available to make films. As more small and affordable HD cameras enter the marketplace, we’ll work them into the curriculum so our students continue to graduate with knowledge of the latest tools. Bob Daniels, our founder and executive director, expects to see our school “grow to other locations in the United States and the E.U.” and we’ll be here to provide our alumni with “lifelong support” as we grow and they pursue their careers. Daniels, ever since his days as an undergraduate student in Photojournalism, dreamed of a school that would put the latest tools in the hands of students with instruction by working professionals who emphasize craft and storytelling over book learning and theory. I think Bob has realized his vision with CDIA, offering a range of programs in 3D animation, digital photography and Web design, in addition to digital moviemaking. As he said to me recently, “we’re building a supportive community for the digital imaging arts.”

For more information, visit www.cdiabu.com.

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