Located in the heart of the Bay Area, six-year-old San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking (SFSDF) has quickly emerged as a hands-on moviemaking mecca. At SFSDF, students have the always-valuable opportunity of crewing on a professional feature film produced by the school’s sister company, Fog City Pictures. Working directly under professional moviemakers, students gain the imperative, hands-on experience they’ll need to succeed in the real world. To give people a taste of this hands-on atmosphere, every few months the school invites prospective students to their “Free Day of Film School,” where visitors get to see what’s in store if they decide to attend SFSDF.

MM recently caught up with Stephen Kopels, founder and director of education, and Jeremiah Birnbaum, founder and director of production, to discuss how this small film school is making big waves.

Kyle Rupprecht (MM): What makes San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking stand out from the vast number of other film schools currently available to aspiring moviemakers?

Stephen Kopels (SK): SFSDF was created with one guiding principle: Learn filmmaking by making films. Our unique production-based curriculum combines classroom study and theory with hundreds of hours of hands-on filmmaking. We’re a small school by design, have a high teacher to student ratio and use the latest professional equipment. Perhaps our greatest strength is our focus on the craft of filmmaking. Additionally, we have a strong film acting program that is tightly integrated into the overall filmmaking program, giving our filmmakers the valuable opportunity of working with trained actors.

Jeremiah Birnbaum (JB): Larger schools often suffer from crowded facilities, equipment scarcity and a lack of one-on-one attention—all issues we avoid. We’ve developed a personal and accommodating environment that puts the student first and we feel strongly that this is the best way to create a quality filmmaker. From day one we make sure our students have the tools and guidance critical to succeeding in the film industry. Every graduate of our One-Year Filmmaking Program leaves with three essential tools to help launch their career: A high-quality reel of their work, IMDb credit on a feature film and strong contacts in the industry.

MM: What can you tell us about the “Free Day of Film School” that takes place every few months? How can it benefit those considering pursuing a career in moviemaking?

SK: We developed the SFSDF Free Day of Film School because we wanted to give people the opportunity to experience our school and see how a real movie is made. Most of us have watched those “behind-the-scenes” extras on DVDs, but nothing compares to being on set, watching creative decisions being made and seeing the cast and crew interact.

JB: Our Free Day of Film School has two parts. In the first, we build a set on one of our sound stages, bring in real actors and shoot a scene. Guests get to see firsthand the process of making a movie. A few days later, we upload the edited scene so attendees can see the final result of all that work. In the second half of the day, we teach our students basic movie lighting and give them the opportunity to get their hands dirty and light a scene. This experience lets people really get a feel for how lighting works and hints at the amount of hard work that goes into every scene.

MM: Past events have included a series of intensive workshops featuring successful producer Brian Benson (Howl) and an SFSDF mixer with prolific character actor Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite). For a relatively small school, how are you able to attract high-profile guests?

SK: We’re a small school with big connections. Our instructors, filmmakers and alumni have been in the business for years and have made friends from coast to coast. And as our graduates go out and do great work, our name and reputation goes with them.

JB: And we’ve found that many film industry figures prefer speaking in a setting like ours as opposed to a large lecture hall or something of that nature. There’s a certain appeal to speaking in a smaller, more intimate setting like the one at SFSDF. It’s more comfortable and accessible and feels more like talking to a large group of friends rather than making a formal presentation to a giant crowd.

MM: SFSDF also owns its own production company, Fog City Pictures, which has released four feature films in five years. How does the production company relate to the film school? Do students get to work on the features in production?

SK: Fog City Pictures is a sister company to SFSDF and independently develops, finances and produces feature films for theatrical distribution. We’re very proud to run a full-service production company that has strong connections with our school. Because of this strong connection, all of the students in our One-Year Filmmaking Program have the opportunity to crew with professionals on a real feature film.

Here’s how it works: A Fog City Pictures production has a mixed crew of film professionals and students. For all of the above-the-line positions and department heads—writer, producer, director, cinematographer, 1st AD, production designer, editor, etc.—we hire top-level pros from L.A., New York and San Francisco. SFSDF students then work as crew directly under these professionals filling such key positions as associate producer, 2nd AD, assistant camera, set decorator, wardrobe, capture tech, grip, assistant editor, etc.

JB: We don’t believe in the traditional internship-type arrangement where we have little to no control of the learning experience of our students. We instead have developed these more active apprenticeship positions that give our students the front-line filmmaking exposure that will serve them far better as they go out into the world.

Having a real, professional-grade filmmaking experience is invaluable to our students. We see them transform from students into professionals, brimming with confidence in their abilities. This experience also allows them to make important contacts with industry pros and gives them a feature film credit.

MM: Ultimately, why do you believe SFSDF to be the best film school in the Bay Area?

SK: We believe SFSDF is the best film school in the Bay Area because of our unique and powerful approach to teaching the art and craft of filmmaking. Small classes, taught by award-winning faculty and using the latest digital filmmaking equipment, give our students the honest and immediate experience they need to become the best filmmakers possible.

JB: And we offer more than filmmaking. We have a strong film acting program, as well. Hundreds of film acting students learn their craft at our school, and we are constantly bringing our filmmakers and actors together. Throughout the year, we host numerous auditions. Our filmmakers have a large group of trained actors from which to source their talent, and because over 250 short films are produced at SFSDF every year, our acting students have lots of opportunities to be cast.

MM: Anything else to add?

SK: We’re a film school and so our primary goal is to teach people to become talented filmmakers. But people leave SFSDF with something more. The creative process is a frustrating and challenging journey with all sorts of highs, lows and uncomfortable middles. But at the end of it, you emerge a new person.

JB: SFSDF empowers people to challenge themselves, to take risks and to get outside their comfort zones. We put them in unfamiliar situations with new tools and new people and see what they can do. Students learn as much about themselves as they do about filmmaking. An SFSDF community is formed, bound by a shared vision and a group experience. You won’t see this mentioned in other school’s marketing materials, but it is something of which we are very proud.

For more information on SFSDF, visit www.sfdigifilm.com.