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Film Schools at the Millennium

Film Schools at the Millennium

Articles - Directing

Director Steve Rodriguez, Los
Angeles City College

When I began teaching film in 1976 at
Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, the key question among
students and teachers alike was: is film an art form?

By the mid-’80s, the question had become: which is
better, film or video-both in terms of the art of the moving visual
image and as a teaching mechanism?

Now, with the rise of the independent feature movement,
the leading student inquiry has become: how do I finance my film
and get it into Sundance? The key concern for most film educators
is: with all the new media and technology, how do we grow fast
enough to accomodate the throngs who now consider film to be within
their economic reach as a tool of personal expression and a means
of earning a living?

One thing is sure, with the advent of video, laser
discs, and now DVDs, anyone can study the works of the masters.
No longer is it only at the marquee schools where excellent film
history and appreciation courses are offered. In fact, even in
cities where there are no learning institutions with film programs,
there are often media arts centers which provide moviemaking equipment
to the public at a nominal cost .

Adding this new-found accessiblilty to the fact that
mainstream Hollywood has no organized training and apprenticeship
program means that the motion picture arena, both at schools and
in the industry, is perhaps more wide open than it’s ever been.

In the interest of finding out exactly what today’s
film students and instructors think are the vital issues, we decided
to conduct a survey. In my work as the Chief Consultant to the Gallup
Motion Picture Industry Research Division, I’ve learned that the
key to accurate polling is two-fold: whom do you ask, and what do
you ask them? I developed a series of questions and posed them to
dozens of current students (30 is the magic number as far as gaining
statistical reliability), graduated students, dropouts, and current
faculty members. I refined the questions after the first few interviews
in order to ensure they were addressing areas of concern other than
my own. I selected half a dozen colleges that offer film production
programs at a professional or semi-professional level. I avoided,
for this particular survey, the largest and best-known schools, chiefly
because many of their principles and policies are already known and
have been widely discussed. In the information below, I’ve summarized
any leading themes, and I’ve included some of the more interesting
and divergent responses. In this particular survey, the largest and
best-known schools (USC, UCLA and NYU), because (a) that is the subject
for another study, (b) they have each become something of a culture
unto themselves, and (c) many of their principles and policies are
already widely known and discussed.


1. What is the most important thing you got out of
film school?

The consensus here was, “I learned all the technical
aspects of how to make a film. I learned directing, writing, acting,
cinematography, lighting, editing, sound.”

Carly Caryn, recent Art Center graduate specializing
in music videos, commented, “I had worked for two years as a PA [production
assistant] before I went to film school. I learned something
about the set and what all the people did, but you couldn’t really
learn about the camera or lights unless you were in the camera or
lighting department. At school, I had the opportunity to create films
at a budget not possible in the outside world.” Armed with her three
music video reel, Carly is interviewing for jobs right now.

Marcel Langenegger from Switzerland, another recent
graduate from Art Center, said, “I learned this is really what
I wanted to do in my life. I got the technical confidence also,
which really liberated me artistically. Before film school, I was
always worried about loading the camera and getting the right exposure.” Marcel
has recently signed a commercial directing deal with Propaganda,
and has major agency representation for features.

Steve Balderson attended the Cal Arts Live Action program,
where “I came to understand perception through our scene analysis
classes-where you put the camera and why.”

And Michael Sokey reminds us, “The most important thing
I got out of film school was a big fat debt!” Sokey works now at
Disney and is marketing his scripts.

2. Was it worth it?

Unanimous “yes.”

Paul Sbrizzi, who completed his Certificate program
at Los Angeles City College, adds, “It saved my life. I found something
I was good at and feel fulfilled in spending my time on.” The short
Sbrizzi made at LACC, It Dwells in Mirrors, has been shown at 15

3. Did you finish the program?

More than half of those interviewed got their degree
or certificate. Many of the others felt they had opportunities
they couldn’t pass up.

Says Balderson, “I had the chance to actually make
a film instead of just talk about it. I figured I better go for
it. But I intend to continue education in some form or another
throughout my life.” Balderson’s first feature, Pep Squad, has
been shown at festivals around the world; at this writing the director
is in negotiations for distribution.

Art Center student Maja Zimmerman with
D.P. Chris Manley on the set of her short film 12 x 12.

4. Did the program live up to your expectations?

Most students agreed there was a lot more technical
and practical knowledge than expected, or was even necessary. Most
were surprised by the large portions of tech relative to the lesser
amounts of theory, art and aesthetics.

Says Caryn, “It was a lot harder than I thought it
would be, even though I thought it would be hard!”

Maja Zimmermann, another Swiss graduate from Art Center,
noted that “I was afraid it would be too theoretical. It wasn’t.
What I wanted was the technical, and I got it.” Zimmermann is currently
interning at Miramax.

“I had an undergraduate degree in anthropology, so
I was interested in the theoretical. There really wasn’t enough
pure art for me,” says another Art Center film student, who recently
finished his thesis film and is working as assistant to the department
chairman at Art Center.

Adds Sokey, “It wasn’t tough enough. They should have
forced more of us out of the program if we weren’t cutting it.
Fortunately, I went to film school when I was older, so I already
knew what I wanted to do.”

5. What was the biggest weakness in your program?

Everyone from every school (which had departments ranging
in size from 100 to 1,000 students) said there wasn’t enough equipment
to go around. (I have been hearing this since I started teaching!)

Langenegger notes, “Sometimes I thought the films were
too professional-looking. I think the students should spend more
time on the creative development of their ideas-and not shoot until
they’re ready. That would also lighten the demands on the equipment.
I’ve noticed that my jobs have come because my ideas are good.
I really think people (i.e., employers) are looking for artistic
differences and excellence.”

6. Has your school experience helped you get a job?

The majority say yes. Several commented on the “pure
nepotism” of the arrangement. It works like this: Instructor affiliated
with Studio X gets you a position there, and if you’re any good,
you rise up the ranks.

Andrew George, with an undergraduate degree from Bard
College in New York and a graduate degree from Art Center, says
a film degree only goes so far. “It’s not like a law degree or
a medical degree where people are waiting to recruit you. You hold
your fate more in your own hands. The film degree is just a symbol
of the experience you’ve had. And whether or not you get work is
based on how you exploit that experience.” George made an award-winning
narrative film-a western-for his master’s degree. He’s currently
financing his own projects and is learning about grantsmanship.

Sbrizzi echoes George’s opinion. “LACC gave me the
tools. Now it’s up to me whether I do it professionally or whether
it remains a personal passion.”

7. How would you characterize your instructors?

This question brought about perhaps the greatest divergence
of opinions amongst the students. Generally they were pleased with
their instructors, though they all stated there was quite a range
of acceptability. When faulted, the instructors were called “dusty,” “out
of the loop too long,” “too technical,” “too theoretical,” “too
critical,” “not critical enough.” When praised, the most common
theme was “caring.” There were also high marks for “wanting to
improve the quality of our work,” “generous with their time,” “respectful,” “overall
willing to help.” Caryn said, “Their joy touched me the most.” And
Langenegger observed, “My Art Center instructors may not have been
professional teachers, but they were teaching professionals. I
got the sense they were talking about things they were doing right
now in the industry.”

This diversity of response suggests an age-old truth
about student-teacher relationships-if you find one or two instructors
in your school career who reach you and really hit home, you’re
doing well. From the others, get what you can and move on.

8. What advice do you have for future film students?

Almost exclusively differing answers. Here are a few:

George-get another degree first, in some liberal art.
Otherwise, you may become obsessed with the technology but not
really have anything to make films about.

Langenegger-film school is very expensive. Get the
most out of it. Find the school’s strength and use it. Get up a
little bit earlier than anyone else.

Zimmermann-get a job first. Learn something about the
way the business actually works. Then you’ll know what you really
want to study once you get to school.

Balderson-think for yourself; learn to find your own

Sokey-write, write, write.

Caryn-it may be overwhelming at first, but stick with
it. This business is all about creating your own opportunities.


I asked a completely different set of questions to
faculty members from the six different film schools. I chose the
widest range of programs I could in order to determine the relationship
between curriculum and instructing philosophy.

Migration of Clouds, Cal Arts

1. Why do you think there’s been such a growth
in film schools and classes around the U.S.?

Absolute consensus: it’s overdue. For better or worse,
we live in a visual culture now. People don’t read anymore. They’ve
grown up with movies, television and videos. Naturally, they want
to learn how to make them.

Stan Brakhage, distinguished professor at the University
of Colorado/Boulder, says, “The major form in which most people
receive their culture is through the medium of motion pictures
and television. If film is an art form, it’s unquestionably the
major art form of the 20th century. That it’s taken this long for
most people to have a place to go and study film shows the kind
of all-too-human sluggardly attention paid to what’s really happening
in your immediate environment.”

Adds Thom Andersen, Director of the Live Action Program
at Cal Arts and Acting Dean of the School of Film/Video, “When
I decided to go to film school in 1962, there was only USC and
UCLA. Maybe now is the first time in history that filmmaking seems
like a vocation or profession to someone who isn’t born into the
business. And the ‘Sundance Syndrome’ makes people think you can
just scrape together some money, go to a festival, and become a
star filmmaker overnight. It’s true in a certain way. The only
unfortunate aspect is that the American independent film is becoming
as formulaic as the Hollywood studio production. But I actually
think the whole movement is just beginning. The technological revolution
is making it easier to make movies-so there will be more movies
made, and more and more people will go to film schools to learn
the basics.”

Alexis Krasilovsky, professor in the Radio, Television,
and Film Department at Cal State University at Northridge, notes
that “Children are born, bred and raised around television sets
and movies. These passively raised kids live in a global village.
From Harvard on down, fewer people read. But Hollywood is glamourous,
and the kids are attracted to that, even though film school tells
them they’re statistically more likely to win a lottery than to
sell a film script to a studio.”

2. What’s the most commonly asked question by your

Consensus: Am I going to survive? How do I get the
money to make films? How do I get a job?

Bob Peterson, Film Department Chairman at Art Center
College of Design, says it this way, “Before they arrive, they
ask, ‘Am I really gonna get anything out of film school?’ I tell
them that since the industry has no stepping stones that are known
and revealed, you’ll only go as far as your current mentor. Therefore,
to achieve your goals, you’ll have to step away from your mentor
at some point. Once they’re going through the program, they ask,
‘Am I gonna get hired when I get out of here?’ Then I tell them
that if they’re willing to be responsible for their condition,
they will get work. But they’ve got to get away from the misperceptions
perpetrated by the press and the gossip magazines.”

Vaughn Obern, department chairman of the Cinema-Television
program at Los Angeles City College, adds, “I answer their question
about getting work like this: it’s a combination of your skills,
what you know, your work ethic, your ability to show up on time,
and your ability to work both independently and as a team.”

3. What’s the success rate of your students getting
jobs when they finish the program?

Surprisingly, all the instructors interviewed said
it’s very high. Figures ranged from 80 to 98 percent. If this is
accurate, it’s an extraordinary achievement for such a new field
of study. Most of the teachers, however, noted that the major variable
is yourself. How aggressively do you promote yourself, and what
are you willing to accept?

Stan Brakhage advises, “Your chance of making a living
in motion pictures is not predictable. Therefore, I recommend learning
a good trade, too-like being a plumber or auto mechanic, something
people will always need. I tell my mainstream-oriented students,
whose highest aspiration usually is to be Martin Scorsese, to go
to UCLA or USC after they’re done in Colorado so they can make
a logical segue into the Hollywood system. If they’re oriented
to the more poetic side of cinema, I insist they get a good trade,
so they’ll always be able to eat.”

4. Do you advise your students to work their way up
in the industry or to hold out for their dream?

This question elicited the most divergent responses
in the teacher survey, split about evenly between the two choices
I gave them.

Dar Reid, production instructor at Columbia College
in Tarzana, California, says, “I tell them to just get on a set,
even if they have to work for free. Take any job you’re offered.
There’s no other way to get the know-how. If you’re good, you won’t
get stuck at the entry level.”

Andersen notes, “It depends on what you want to do.
There are no stepping stones to being a director. You just have
to have good scripts or story ideas, and a good film coming out
of college. But if you want to work as an editor or sound or camera
person, there are routes to follow.”

Bob Peterson concurs. “If your desire is to be in a
leading creative position, there’s no real way to work yourself
up-unless you have a mentor who’s going to treat you like a son
or daughter.”

In the end, most interviewees agreed it depends more
on you than on the route you choose.

5. In your program, how important is the technical
training as compared with aesthetics and film history?

Unanimous answer: they’re all equally important.

Says Bob Peterson, “You can’t be a great filmmaker
without all of them. Occasionally, if you’re gregarious and a good
leader, you’ll get lucky-an opportunity will present itself. But
what about your second film?”

Dar Reid notes, “Most people don’t know that all the
production methods we use today came out of the Triangle Film Company
in 1915-scheduling boards, breakdown sheets, the whole thing. So
I teach them some history so they have an appreciation of what
the workers are doing.”

Stan Brakhage adds, “You can’t be a hotshot shooter
without being aesthetically informed. When I teach moviemaking,
I also teach history. How can you do it otherwise?”

And Thom Andersen, whose Cal Arts department is known
to be one of the more aesthetically sophisticated, observes, “Technical
training is essential. Today you have to be the complete filmmaker.
It’s too late in the day for the naive filmmaker to think he can
produce an excellent product without a knowledge of the tradition
of the art form he’s working in. Interestingly, the schools that
are considered ‘arty’ are often the most technically rigorous.
Maybe because we’re trying to equip students to be independent.”

Obern summarizes, “You need a history and theory background
to understand the technology and why you do what you do. But the
bottom line is, without some technical training, you can’t do anything.”

6. Does your school offer any classes on the business
of film?

Consensus: some, but not enough.

Brakhage observes, “Every film faculty should have
someone on it who’s a retired grant getter, and at least one retired
Salvation Army cook who can show you 500 ways to live on spaghetti.”

Krasilovsky adds, “Some of our best students come over
from the business department. And our business school offers an
Entertainment Industry Institute.”

7. Are your students more interested in the Hollywood
mainstream or in the independent movement?

The results were divided here, and not always predictably.

Bob Peterson says, “We try to let them know that the
people who really run the industry are the artists-not the MBAs
and lawyers. The goal, if you want mainstream, is to get into a
rarefied position like Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, Barbra Streisand-where
you can do more of what you want. You can’t start with Armageddon [directed
by Michael Bay, Art Center graduate]. Most new people start
with a low-budget independent. You know, three teenagers in a Cadillac
in the desert. This is where you learn your stuff and grow. Then
you graduate to the middle budget pictures, where most of the awards
and Oscars come in.”

And Thom Andersen adds, “The independent movement covers
a lot of things these days-from Stan Brakhage to Quentin Tarantino.
But the point is, you don’t become successful or make a lot of
money by setting out to do that. You pursue your vision. An apparently
marginal or idiosyncratic vision can turn out to be central to
the culture. Look at George Lucas!”

8. How competetive are students?

If there was any agreement here, it probably was on
the point that even if they are tremendously competitive at the
beginning of the program, those who stick with it come to learn
the value of friendships and personal obligations. They see that
even if a film derives from one person’s vision, it usually takes
a group to make it.

Obern notes that, “Because the faculty doesn’t decide
who makes a film, and because most of the students do make their
own productions before they leave the program, they come to see
they need cooperation within their group if they’re all going to
get their work done.”

Krasilovsky echoes, “They can’t afford to be competitive.
Because of the limited equipment, they have to brainstorm together.”

Andersen states, “We try to make it as uncompetitive
as possible. I don’t like the philosophy at some schools where
they promote competition from the viewpoint that that’s the way
it is in the business. I think it’s a con. I think they’re trying
to discourage a lot of students from making their own films-to
keep the equipment more available. A school shouldn’t be just like
what you’ll face outside the school. For one thing, the students
are paying for this opportunity. We should be giving them a moment
of freedon so they’ll know what it’s like and will continue to
seek it.”

9. If you could change anything about your curriculum,
what would it be?

Absolute consensus: more money for more equipment and
more student support on their projects.

10. How important is the balance between narrative,
experimental, documentary, music video, etc?

Consensus is that they’re all important. However, there
was some emphasis on narrative.

Reid says, “It’s critical to get the ability to make
a mainstream film. After that, you can spin off and do anything
you want.”

Peterson comments, “We should only have classes in
narrative. It’s the core of the art form. Other stuff can become
pseudo-directing. It’s as if medical school threw away pre-med
and general medicine and put you right into specialization when
you’re 18. You have to be a great narrative filmmaker first.”

“We leave it up to the student,” Obern notes. What
they’re interested in, they’ll do well in.”

7. What makes a good film teacher? And how important
is it that they’ve made their own films?

As you might expect, there was a range of opinions
on this one. While most instructors felt it was important to have
made their own films, several consider other qualifications far
more critical.

Says Reid, “You have to be genuinely interested in
the student. You have to know how to teach without being critical.
You’re dealing with a student’s dreams and visions-that’s not to
be lightly tampered with. But you also have to get real. I do that
by using my own war stories.”

Krasilovsky concurs. “You have to have the ability
to midwife their dreams and aspirations. Some faculty flunk people
they don’t think will succeed. I don’t feel that way. They’re here
to learn how to express themselves in film.”

Obern believes, “You have to have a lot of energy and
enthusiasm. Just because you’re an expert, though, doesn’t mean
you can get the information across to the students. Some experience
in the field is necessary, but more important is getting it across
to another.”

Peterson notes, “If they’ve never been on the set and
faced those pressures, they can’t teach the leadership which, ultimately,
may be one of the most important values to learn in the school

Andersen adds, “Passion-you have to be interested in
what you’re teaching. It still must engage you. Just being good
at doing something doesn’t mean you can teach it.”

And finally, Brakhage comments, “You have to have an
almost equal love of the subject and a love of the people whom
you’re teaching-and all the necessary patience it takes to love
the people.”

So there it is. For an art form that is only 100 years
old, there is an immense amount of data and history already. Now
we see there are an immense number of opinions as well regarding
how to teach it and how to learn it. My own concluding remark is
that in the 34 years that I’ve been making films and the 23 years
I’ve been teaching, I’ve never seen the industry more wide open-more
receptive to films by and about all races, genders, socio-economic
groups, spiritual leanings, and so on. Certainly there’s a long
way to go in order to level the playing field. But while those
who believe in the art of power are struggling for ownership and
control of new methods of exhibition and distribution, let those
of us who believe in the power of art keep creating our works,
and teaching others how to do it, for the benefit of all. MM

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