Columbia College Chicago students
Columbia College Chicago students gather in Hollywood

Located in the heart of downtown Chicago, the film and video department of Columbia College Chicago boasts one of the most interactive film programs in the country. The school has a simple, yet extremely effective, method of teaching: In order to understand the moviemaking process, students must make movies—and lots of them! MM spoke with Columbia College Chicago’s Film & Video Chair, Bruce Sheridan, about the program, the school’s theory on technology and the importance of taking risks in the field of film and television.

Brian Malik (MM): Among other disciplines, Columbia College Chicago students can study cinematography, directing and editing. How soon must they declare their course of study?

Bruce Sheridan (BS): Currently, we offer a Bachelor of Arts degree in Film & Video with the option of a concentration in animation, audio, cinematography, critical studies, directing, documentary, editing, producing and screenwriting. Students are able to declare a concentration at the completion of the film/video core curriculum, which typically takes approximately one year.

MM: How much overlap occurs between the different programs?

BS: Filmmaking is a collaborative effort, and our curriculum encourages students to work through all aspects of the process. As a result, many of our students do decide to pursue more than one discipline.

MM: Can you tell us about your extensive internship program and how it has helped students gain work after college?

BS: Our internship program includes collaboration with studios, independent filmmakers and the major craft guilds—directing, cinematography and editing—and we work closely with companies servicing production and post-production. Our emphasis is on student learning and appropriate academic credit for that learning, so we value the involvement of and feedback from employers and craftspeople. Current students benefit greatly from internships with past graduates such as Janusz Kaminski, who often takes cinematography students onto projects with filmmakers like Steven Spielberg. Our “Semester in LA” program at the CBS Studio City facility—the only permanent film school operation on a Hollywood lot—is also a significant component in our internship program.

MM: Can you tell us about the equipment you have, and how much of your program is hands-on?

BS: Beginning/Intermediate students have access to 16mm Bolex cameras, Lowell DP light kits, Bogen tripods and minidisc recorders. Advanced classes offer digital video cameras and an array of 16mm and 35mm film cameras, including Arriflex, Aaton and Panavision. Audio packages include Nagra 4.2 and STC models, as well as DAT recorders and Schepps and Sennheiser microphones. The ratio of cameras to students is 6:1.

We have over 100 Macintosh digital workstations running Avid, Final Cut, After Effects, Discreet Logic Edit and other industry-standard software. We have a Bosch FDL60 16 and 35mm telecine with DaVinci color corrector, and utilize a professional digital distribution network in a central machine room to provide remote access from any workstation for students at intermediate and advanced levels. We screen film on 16 and 35mm changeover and interlock projectors and video using Sony and JVC digital video projection, including Hi-Definition.

In addition, we have a complete audio post-production facility and are in the process of completing a 260-seat Cinematique-style theater.

MM: Do most of your students enroll directly out of high school or have a lot of your students come back later in life to further their education?

BS: Most enroll directly out of school; although with a department enrollment of close to 2,000 we have students from every conceivable background. That diversity is one of the key advantages of learning to be a filmmaker at Columbia College Chicago.

MM: How many films do the students in your program generally complete within their tenure?

BS: It varies greatly depending on specialization. All our students make their own film in their first production class and most will complete between three and five films while in the program, plus numerous complex projects that fall on the continuum between targeted exercises and fully realized films.

MM: What is the off-campus environment around the college like?

BS: Columbia College is located in Chicago’s South Loop amidst one of the world’s most vibrant cities. The campus is adjacent to extensive parklands as well as all the entertainment and culture Chicago has to offer. We are proud of our urban nature, which is reflected in a high proportion of the student films and videos. Columbia College Chicago, DePaul University and Roosevelt University recently collaborated to build America’s largest shared dormitory where the three campuses meet in the South Loop. As a consequence, from Fall 2005 the number of students residing close to our campus will be greatly increased.

MM: What is Columbia College Chicago’s approach to learning? Can you tell us about your “hands-on,” “minds-on” theory?

BS: “Film” and “Video” are more than terms for technologies; they describe our culture’s dominant modes of expression, discourse and inquiry. When light, sound and performance converge on the screen, we can see the world in new ways and create worlds as yet unrealized. In Columbia College Chicago’s Film & Video Department, self-discovery is at the heart of the learning process. Our students acquire skills through direct experience within a context of intellectual inquiry, and they are encouraged to be adventurous and take creative risks.

We believe the best way to learn filmmaking is to make films, so we provide as many opportunities as possible to do just that. By working collaboratively from the outset, students learn how to maintain a strong personal vision and achieve self-expression while functioning as members of complex, specialized production teams.

At present we are instituting a sophisticated incubator model that includes direct partnership with professional filmmaking in all modes from studio through independent to experimental. We see this convergence as inevitable, given technological developments and social and economic changes. We are bringing advanced film school production and professional production together while keeping the strengths of both. Students can expect to produce distributable work while at school, without giving up the very important opportunity to take creative and craft risks.