With hundreds of schools now competing for enrollment,
choosing the right film education program can be an exhausting
process for the ever-increasing number of young people who want
to pursue the art and business of moviemaking. Like the students
themselves, each school has its own personality, its own specialty
and its own philosophy.
Students looking for a professional
approach to moviemaking and the chance to network with seasoned
professionals might want to add San Francisco’s Academy of Art College
to their short list. Though the school was originally conceived
in 1929 as a place to teach advertising skills, the Academy has
continued to expand to include such diverse disciplines as fashion,
fine art and, in 1999, motion pictures and television. Heading up
the Motion Picture and Television department is Emmy Award-winning
Executive Director, David Pfeil. Recently Pfeil and AAC President
Elisa Stephens spoke with MM about the Academy’s program,
its impressive track record, and the benefits of being in San Francisco.
Jennifer Wood (MM): There
are a number of film schools out there. What makes the Academy of
Art experience a unique one?
David Pfeil (DP): We are unique
in that I bring an understanding of a time in the film industry
that was accessible to many creative minds. It’s more about
methods than equipment; it’s about ways of thinking; it’s about
the belief system that states: you never stop learning.
Elisa Stephens (ES): Academy
students become professionals by learning from professionals. We
have the best facilities of any art and design school in the country,
MM: When people think of
working in the film industry in this country, they of course most
often think of that 400-pound gorilla to your south, Los Angeles.
What does San Francisco have to offer budding moviemakers in general,
and particularly as compared to LA?
DP: Hollywood isn’t moving,
but regionalized film production is also a growing reality. We
have a great assembly of talent in the Bay area and, although it’s
not as big as in LA, it is equally dynamic. Many film companies
want to be here because this is not LA. Pixar, Lucas
and Saul Zaentz are all major competitors at the box office, and
they’re all right here.
MM: There is no portfolio
required to gain acceptance into the Academy of Art program. How
do you think this help or hurt the school?
DP: Equal opportunity (open
enrollment) is a right at the Academy of Art College. It
is upheld by the Academy’s mission statement. If students are devoted
to their studies and take our work ethic to heart, they will succeed. Portfolio submission is required only for those applying for
the Master’s program.
We are very proud of our students’
work as evidenced in our film festivals. The work exhibited
not only has creative savvy, but incredible production value. Relative
to how this helps us, our program is continuing to grow and students
inspire each other. As to how it hurts us, I haven’t seen
any evidence that it has.
MM: Who is your typical
DP: Our students are typically
very enthusiastic. They’re here because of their passion for movies.
Each student, however, is very unique with special abilities and
gifts and I believe they all have potential to be “in the business.”
MM: Does your curriculum
focus on the creative aspects of moviemaking or the technical?
DP: We focus on the artistic/creative
as well as the technical aspects of film. I designed the curriculum
to separate the major disciplines into nine “tracks,” or crafts. Similar to what actually happens in Hollywood, the art comes
from the interaction of these crafts.
We separate directorial skills, acting,
screenwriting, producing, cinematography, production design and
the other crafts in a way that allows for concentration on skill
development. “Filmmakers” may not find work in the industry;
but a cinematographer, gaffer, producer, or screenwriter can find
MM: You offer a number
of concentrations within the film program, from acting to special
effects. What sort of facilities does the school offer students?
How is the acting student just as well attended to as the special
DP: We have one of the most
extensive equipment facilities, educational or otherwise, in California
including one and three-chip digital video cameras, 16mm and 35mm
film cameras (Bolex, Aaton, Arriflex and Mitchell), lighting, grip
and sound recording equipment. Our editing facilities include
flatbed and linear suites along with non-linear Final Cut
Pro, Media 100, Avid Xpress and Avid Composer. Sound post-production
is accomplished on 24-track DigiDesign pro-tools software, with
seven pro-tools workstations for projects.
Screenwriters have labs composed
of computers with appropriate software, producers have budgeting
and scheduling software and acting students have special rehearsal
stages. Some course structure must de done on location. We offer special effects instruction with live action mechanical
effects and model making on site at production facilities in both
LA and San Francisco. The acting curriculum offers instruction in
basic exercises through advanced techniques in movement, monologue,
voice and speech, agents and auditions and three-camera television
MM: Obviously, a school’s
program is only as strong as its teachers. Your faculty is made
up primarily of working members of the film and/or entertainment
community. How do you recruit professors? Who are some of the people
teaching at the Academy of Art today?
DP: I am most interested in
finding people who can teach. We carefully review an instructor’s
work and experience. Without the ability to communicate,
the student is left with the experience of knowing someone who was
good in his field. What students need is someone to excite
them, teach them the skills and bring them closer to the working
experience. Our current staff includes Randy Love, Don Starnes,
Ellen Sumpter, Curran Engel, Amy Spies and Steve Romanko, among
others. Their credits include Artificial Intelligence, Nash Bridges,
Matrix, Mrs. Doubtfire, Home Alone II and The Negotiator.
MM: How does a professor’s
full-time involvement in the industry help him/her teach a class?
Does the fact that your professors have other commitments keep them
“on the cutting edge” or does it make them less accessible to students?
DP: We believe the fact that
they’re active in the industry is an advantage. We work around “work”
by allowing for guest speakers, but only twice a semester. Most
people in the film business are freelance, so teaching is essentially
like working on another project.
ES: Our educational philosophy
is to teach students professionalism from day one. The only
way to learn to enter the dynamic fields of art and design is to
learn from those who are doing it. The fact that our instructors
are working professionals is the major contributing factor to the
school’s success. No other school offers students the opportunity
to work so closely with the top professionals in the business, using
the same equipment and facilities used in the industry.
MM: What sort of careers
are your students pursuing after leaving the Academy?
DP: We have students who are
working as directors, producers, production managers, cinematographers
and editors. We have screenwriters and actors who have acquired
agents prior to graduating. However, we are a freelance industry.
Once a film is completed or your portion of the work is accomplished,
hopefully you have been networking and preparing for the next job.
A number of our international students have been very successful
with their own production companies in their native countries and
some are now teaching as well.
MM: In general, do your
students tend to stay in the San Francisco area?
DP: Many of our graduates
move to LA; Hollywood is still the heartbeat. It is something
you have to do to be in the “big time.” It used to be said that
to be in advertising you had to go to New York. San Francisco
has developed a name as a “creative” ad town. I feel that
San Francisco now has a good shot at becoming a production hotspot
in the manner of Dallas and Toronto.
MM: Can you talk a bit
about the programs you offer in addition to your degree and/or certificate
programs? Tell us a bit about your Saturday and Summer Art Experience
programs, for example.
DP: These are tuition-free
courses that introduce high school students to college and the art
of filmmaking. Generally, students and their parents are
very excited about these programs, which help to ground students
in their futures. Many go on to become some of our best students. We also offer a summer grant program for continuing education
for high school teachers.
ES: Today, the Academy offers
two scholarship programs geared toward high school students the
Saturday Art Experience and Summer Art Experience, which involve
more than 1,600 students each year. The Summer Art Experience
offers scholarships to high school students each summer for six
weeks of professional-level art instruction, while the Summer Art
Experience gives students the opportunity to choose from 15 three-hour
courses taught by the Academy’s faculty over six consecutive Saturdays. The Academy also offers the Summer Study Grant, portfolio based
scholarships for high school and community college students looking
to further their arts training at the highest level. This
scholarship offers up to 100 percent tuition to attend college
classes in our summer term.
MM: San Francisco is already
an area rich in arts and culture. How does the Academy of Art reach
out to, and further enrich, this community?
DP: Set in the heart of San
Francisco, the Academy of Art College draws upon its rich urban
setting to enhance its learning environment. Students are
guaranteed housing in the city and are able to benefit from San
Francisco’s museums, libraries and artistic energy.
Most recently, the Academy has been
assisting the local chapter of the Red Cross with its fundraising
efforts through my participation as Chair of the Red Cross International
Ball. The Academy has also worked with the San Francisco
Advertising Association to keep this wonderful organization running
by offering it space within the Academy. We always look for
ways to support the San Francisco community, and these are just
a couple of examples.
MM: What are the characteristics
you think best describe a successful Academy of Art student?
DP: A successful AAC student
never believes they’ve made it. They always strive to do better
and learn more.
For more information on the Academy of Art,