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Learning the Biz

Learning the Biz

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By now we’ve all heard the adage about film school
being to the 90s what business school was to the 80s, but few imagined
the extent to which film education would boom in the U.S., or the
effect it would have in producing and promoting a major movement
in American independent filmmaking. Indeed, the aspiring filmmaker
was up until recently faced with the prospect of "The Papeichase"
absent admittance to one of the Four Horsemen: USG, UCLA, NYU or
AFI. That same filmmaker can now choose from among hundreds of first-rate
programs nationwide, and the result has been not only more filimnakers,
but also, more idiosyncratic American films. No one can make Last
Action Hero like Hollywood can, but one need no longer look to Europe
for something more.

The success of independent films like Sex, Lies
and Videotape
and, more recently, Laws of Gravity, is
helping to shift the focus of the film industry itself away from
the merely commercial and toward the development of more personalized
visions, in much the same way that the success of the alternative
music scene is reshaping the music industry. The explosion in the
smaller film education programs in recent years both fuels that
shift and, like a fission reaction, is in turn fueled by it:

And the shift couldn’t be happening at a more opportune
moment. What are those 500 cable channels going to be airing, anyway?
What follows is a cursory look at some of the better film education
options right here in the Northwest. In future issues, MovieMaker
will feature other degree and nondegree programs, as well as the
more nuts-and-bolts-oriented roving seminars and workshops.

University of Washington Extension Certificate
Program in Film and Video

The Film and Video Certificate Program at UW Extension
offers a nine-month evening course of study in the fundamentals
of film and video production. Approved by the College of Education
and developed by industry professionals and University faculty,
the program is designed to provide a basic working knowledge of
moving-image media and a foundation for subsequent experience.

Recognized as the strongest and most comprehensive
film study program here in Seattle, the UW Extension makes an effort
to attract and cater to students who have already earned a degree.
"We offer a specialized program that requires a minimum two
years, preferably four years, of undergraduate liberal arts study,"
comments Laszlo Pal, Emmy Awardwinning director (The Journey
to Spirit Island
; Everest, North Wall) and member of
the UW Extension advisory board. "All the instructors here
are working in the business, which sets us apart from other programs.
We’re not teachers, really. We’re filmmakers who understand the
plight of the student and who have decided to share what we’ve learned."

Pal doesn’t mince words when it comes to pointing
out the limitations of his and other film certificate programs.
"I think that earning an MFA or bachelors degree in film is
still the only viable option for anybody who seriously wants to
break into theatrical filmmaking," he says. "Even though
our program is nine months long and involves considerable handson
film work, it still covers only five courses. How can four hours
two nights a week for nine months compare with spending 40 hours
a week for two years working toward a degree?"

First term classes at the UW Extension introduce participants
to the process of film and video production, scriptwriting, production
management and the operation of cameras, lights and sound equipment.
In the second tern, classes divide into groups of 20 students, all
of whom rotate through the various crew positions while shooting
three dramatic projects on the sound stage. They finish the projects
in small-group post production classes during the third term. Tuition
fees for the first, second and third terms are $777, $899 and $699,
respectively, payable on a term-by-term basis.

Vancouver Film School

Canada’s first and only independent film school, Vancouver
opened in the fall of 1987 as a response to the need for technically-based
education in BC’s booming, government subsidized film industry.
Considering itself more of a boot camp than an art school, VFS has
acquired a reputation for being relentless in its efforts to immerse
students in the production process and push them to their limits.
The 45week certificate course encourages participants to specialize
in a specific area – for example three-D computer animation – and
avoid wasting time studying unrelated subjects.

In the first eight months, students work on nine productions:
four documentaries, four 10-minute sync-sound dramas and an instructor-led
shoot in which they rotate through the various positions on a professional
film set and learn the nuances of set etiquette. Donna Lee Howes,
speaking for program coordinator James Griffin, boasts that VFS
offers "more hands-on filmmaking than you’d find in a traditional
three to four year university program. Many students come here with
strong independent filmmaking backgrounds but little experience
working on a professional set," she explains. "They’ve
worn all the hats themselves as writer, director and cinematographer
for their own films, but have no idea how a professional film is
put together. So we put them through that process nine times."

Also unique to the VFS program is the 10-week project
development or "bridging" program following graduation
that puts students in contact with local directors and producers
who advise and assist them in making the transition from classroom
to workplace. Business fundamentals such as resume writing, applying
for government grants, exploring financing and distribution options,
and fine-tuning scripts or documentary proposals are reinforced,
and connections are made that often have lasting value.

The $12,500 (U.S.) tuition, Howes points out, includes
equipment, film stock and processing, an arrangement many other
schools do not offer.

Northwest Film Center

Ellen Thomas, education director of the Northwest
Film Center at the Portland Art Museum, perceives her program as
combining all the best elements of the degree, certificate and workshop
formats. "Technically we’re a continuing education program,
she comments, even though most of our classes are available for
transferrable undergraduate credits.

The core of what the Northwest Film Center provides
is a certificate program in film which, like the UW Extension, caters
primarily to individuals who have already earned an undergraduate
liberal arts degree. More sensitive to individual student needs
and less rigid than the others structurally, the program allows
participants to proceed through the curriculum at their own pace
and take up to four years to complete the required coursework.

"It’s about three quarters hands-on shooting,
editing, production management and screenwriting, and one quarter
attending seminars by visiting artists from around the country,"
Thomas explains. The highly popular seminar-workshops the film center
has hosted include those by Hollywood actor/director Barry Primus,
who returns in June to conduct a three-day Directing the Actor workshop;
Drew Takahashi, president and CEO of Colossal Pictures in San Francisco,
which did the animation for Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before
Christmas
and Frederick Elms, David Lynch’s cinematographer,
who lectures on lighting and camera.

The curriculum includes 14 courses and culminates
with each student making his or her own film, which must meet the
approval of a faculty advisor and outside film community members
brought in to jury them. The , entire certificate program can be
completed for under $10,000, which includes tuition, fees, film
stock and development. The 18-month old program expects to double
to 64 students next year. (Direct all inquiries to Chris Slusarenko,
registrar.)

Evergreen State College

Matt Groening of Simpsons fame and claymation pioneer
Craig Bartlett both emerged from the decidedly offbeat bachelors
program at Evergreen State College in which film study exists underneath
the umbrella of more general liberal arts study. At Evergreen, the
students themselves design their major and determine the path that
will lead them to their BA.

Program administrator Doug Scrima is proud of Evergreen’s
unique approach to developing a student’s technical skills within
the context of a more liberal arts framework. "Film is a component
of a wider curriculum," he says. "Many of the students
who come in tend to fancy themselves as `techies’ or `media jocks.’   But
I invariably have to explain that we’re a liberal arts college,
and that even though one can use the film equipment we have in our
facilities, it will be to develop projects inspired by a broader
liberal arts focus.

Judging by the equipment at the school’s media production
facilities, one would think Evergreen is a full-fledged state-of-the-art
film school. The facilities house four, eight and 16track recording
decks, a complete digital animation deck, a computer graphics imaging
lab and a brand new television studio, in addition to all other
film and video equipment. Direct inquiries to Doug Scrima. MM

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