When the SAE Institute commenced its first nine-month course in Sydney, Australia, with a four-track Sony tape recorder and a 12-channel mixing console, not even founder Tom Misner knew how much they would expand in the next three decades. Since the development of its first campus in 1976, the SAE Institute has expanded quite rapidly. With campuses on five continents, SAE now has 50 locations, in addition to online courses that can be accessed from anywhere. The largest institution in its fields, SAE promotes hands-on instruction that balances both practical and theoretical knowledge.
MM spoke with marketing manager Paul W. Hughes—who has been with SAE for 10 years, having also served as an instructor and school director—about SAE Institute’s extensive moviemaking program.
Eliza Chute (MM): You have programs all over the world. Is each program country-specific, or do you have one overall program that encompasses all the cultures you teach?
Paul Hughes (PH): One of the challenges SAE encounters as we establish diploma and degree programs in new regions is maintaining the SAE curriculum while still allowing enough local adaptation to ensure that what our students learn is applicable to the country in which they’re studying and working. Priority one is that the level of education is equal between all campuses, so that a graduate in Film from SAE Los Angeles or Miami has the same core capabilities and knowledge set as a graduate from London’s Film program. After the “SAE Core” is solidified, then the academic coordinators for each region work with employers and industry professionals in their market to best determine which aspects can be adapted so that our graduates have the best possible skill set, targeted toward the dominant needs of the region.
In the end, it is very nuanced. You can walk into any SAE Institute in the world and know you’re inside a much larger whole in environment and curriculum, but there definitely are subtle differences that make every campus unique. The “flavor” of each program reflects wherever it’s being taught.
MM: SAE Institute has 50 locations worldwide. To what do you attribute the school’s global success? What is your criteria for choosing new locations?
PH: I think SAE’s success is most definitely tied its founder, and to the amazing people who work for this school. The philosophy that Dr. Tom Misner established for SAE back in 1976, when he built the first campus in Sydney, has carried through to today: A hands-on focus with a theoretical foundation centering on creating an autonomous thinker. Doing that requires a lot of one-on-one training and a lot of lab time; accomplishing tasks over and over, students making mistakes and doing things on their own—learning how to solve problems. That core concept works best with smaller campuses, which is one reason SAE has been continually adding new locations since it began.
If we were to combine the students and resources at all our campuses into one location it would be amazingly large and impressive to look at, but then the one-on-one instruction, the fluidity to quickly change as technology changes, the ability to adapt to local markets so that SAE alumni are ready to work as soon as they graduate—all of that would be lost. We never forget that we are teaching theoretical concepts as well as skills. Skills require practice, and practice is best facilitated by keeping classes small and getting the gear into the students’ hands.
SAE’s instructors, academic board and administration teams are also a key part of SAE’s success. When we open a school in a new city, SAE always manages to find highly-committed instructors and staff who really believe in what SAE is doing. Of course, we’re able to hire locally, so our instructors and staff understand what it takes to be successful in that region, because they’ve all worked there in their respective industries.
When we look at new cities for campuses, the potential for our graduates to earn jobs is always important. Before picking a new city, SAE regional directors will often assist in the process by speaking with studios, stations, production houses and post-production facilities to get a feel for what they’re looking for when hiring new people: What equipment they use, their typical project types, etc.
Another aspect that I personally enjoy is speaking with our alumni who are already in the area. The longer SAE has been here, this year is actually our 10th anniversary in the U.S., the more and more alumni we find working around the country. The Alumni Association has become a valuable tool to SAE’s expansion and in sustaining its strong foundation.
MM: The moviemaking world is a very competitive one. Do you reflect this in your moviemaking program or do you find that your film students collaborate more often than compete?
PH: Indeed, the competitive aspects can be impressive. The majority of the larger projects our students work on are collaborative, and we require that they play different roles within those small teams as the course progresses so that they can best understand what everyone else goes through when making a film. The target, of course, is to give them some insight into the entire process and demands of each position, so that when conflict arises they have some perspective and can professionally navigate those waters.
Good collaboration impacts competition. Someone who is skilled and knowledgeable about the process tends to remain positive, motivates well and is an all-around better team member. People enjoy working with them, which gives them a sort of intangible edge beyond knowing how to get good results from a particular camera or cut a great scene in FCP. On the competition side, of course, we publicly screen student projects, give grades and awards, so we like a positive sense of competition, too, because that can be a great motivator.
SAE Institute, regardless of which program our students are studying, always includes strong doses of “reality” as well. The last thing we want students to believe is that everyone will be their best friend in this business. If you work long enough (or not very long at all, sometimes), someone will eventually stab you in the back for his or her own benefit. Our instructors can share personal stories and help students understand what to expect within the politics of it all. Plan for the best, prepare for the worst, right? SAE does whatever it can to help create graduates who are positively-competitive—through use of their talent, their knowledge and their skills—it’s great to have good collaborative partnerships and it’s great to compete. We do our best to train and prepare for the positive aspects of both.
MM: Is there one particularly popular course that you’re offering right now? If so what is it and why do you think that is?
PH: I’ve noticed that our short courses have been gaining in popularity. We’ve also seen increased course enrollments through saeonline.com. I think that while going to SAE Oxford and getting a degree is a very attractive thing for someone wanting to make a career in film, it can also be intimidating to make that sort of life commitment. Maybe that’s why some of the online courses, three-day “Boot Camps” and part-time certificate courses have gained popularity this year.
Duration isn’t the only indicator we’ve seen, though. Our academic coordinators have seen that programs in which we’ve increased the level of theoretical time have done well, too. The last few years, since hardware and software have become much more accessible, there are a lot of amateur filmmakers out there—quite good ones—who have figured out a lot on their own. Those students have come to SAE more lately because they’ve done it as a hobby, and now decided that they want to do it for a living. They have a knack for it, but they need to know the “Why” behind what they’re doing along with the skills for the higher-end gear and more complex techniques. I suppose that’s another thing I’ve always liked about SAE: there are so many different levels of study offered that there’s always a good fit for someone, regardless of what they currently do or know.
MM: You offer both regular and online courses. How do the two differ? Which of the two do you think is a better experience and why?
PH: SAE’s online courses are a great solution for a lot of students. The ability to pick very specific topics is the sort of experience that many students desire. The idea of saying, “This month I want to learn about sound design so I can improve this film I’m working on” is a pretty cool thing—especially since they can learn at their own pace and schedule. They interact with the instructors online, take tests, complete projects, participate in blogs and get access to extended resources when and how they want. For students who don’t want to be tied down to a schedule, who don’t live close to an SAE campus or who just want to augment their knowledge in a few areas, SAE Online is a great experience.
Students who study at an SAE Institute campus tend to be those who want to completely immerse themselves in their program of study or prefer a fast-paced and structured schedule. Of course, there are more expansive facilities on-site for students attending a campus, because of the diploma and degree course requirements as well. I don’t think it’s a matter of one or the other being a “better” experience so much as offering different experiences based on what a students wants. That follows the general SAE philosophy, really, in that we do whatever we can to give the student the options and environments that are best for them.
MM: Any new happenings or changes on the horizon?
PH: I mentioned the 10-year anniversary for SAE Institute in the U.S., which is an exciting moment for us. When I started working for SAE in New York City it was Fall of 1999. New York was the first U.S. campus, and I believe there were a little over 30 or so campuses globally. Ten years later we have six schools in the U.S. and more than 50 campuses. We offer online classes, and in Europe students can earn up to a master’s degree. How we teach is even different; including SAE’s current partnership with Apple that allows all our diploma students to get their own Apple laptop with all software they need. It used to be we gave students a ton of textbooks—but now they get books, a computer and software. As a result, everything is much more hands-on and interactive.
On the horizon, one thing you can always count on is SAE Institute will continue to grow in many different directions. The level of study will increase as well as the number of campuses. What I look forward to is how the curriculum and teaching formats will continue to evolve. In 1976 we used chalk and tape and ditto machines; today we’re using HD projectors, computers and live global Webcasts. I can’t wait to see what the technology allow us to do tomorrow!