Let’s start out by exploring the standard academic pathways when seeking to become a working filmmaker. Assuming you will, or want to attend an accredited institution for film-related studies, you should consider the following points:
1. Film schools clearly vary in style and content, but you can generally assume a program to last anywhere from 1-3 years with additional training available at University-level (MAs). The program might concentrate on film theory and history specifically (e.i. Film Studies), or more likely a straightforward film production package that will include the items above as well as technical training in the writing, producing, and editing of films.
At the conclusion of these studies you may expect a Bachelor’s Degree or equivalent academic credit that will qualify you as a film “generalist”, capable of undertaking any production role on set and off.
If you live in a country with professional orders and labour unions you might use such a degree to enter the filmmaking business as a card-carrying member, and as such begin working your way up the traditional latter-system in whatever specific field you choose to pursue (sound, lighting, camera, etc).
The downside here is that you should expect to be working on other people’s ideas and projects for many years to come before getting a chance to fly your own colours (assuming you want to pursue filmmaking as an auteur).
2. The quality of a film school should not be based on its level of “academic prestige”, but rather on what material is covered throughout the study periods, and also who is teaching the material and what techniques are used to convey this knowledge.
Many schools pride themselves on housing almuni that have acquired some level of fame or acclaim in the business, (having an Oscar-nominated instructor does have some real advantages), but it is a mistake to sign-up to a program simply because of its faculty star power or cool factor.
Remember that you will be devoting a lot of hours of study and resources to complete this degree and it should mean something more than just a fancy piece of paper and name-dropping.
Do your research, read up on the classes (compulsories and electives) beforehand and look up the professors online to see if you can find any feedback on what they are teaching. Look at their list of graduates and don’t be afraid to write to them to get their perspective on the time they spent there.
If and when you do attend, remember that these classes and experiences will only truly enrich you if you take full advantage of them. Too many eager hopefuls attend film schools expecting the institution to launch their careers or to teach them how to make good films.
Good films are a rarity no matter the level of expertise or pedigree; what a school can do for you is to give you the technical knowledge to speak the language and understand the industry standards. You’ll learn how films are fabricated, but not necessarily how to make them shine.
The more abstract and artistic parts of it are up to you. You must develop your own training regiment and decide how you are going to implement the lessons taught to you.
3. Despite the growing success of unaccredited filmmakers and enterprising amateurs that now populate the industry, there can be a very real value to having academic or professional training in film production for the simple fact that it will force you to experiment and tinker with film and media for a concentrated period of time.
You will be surrounded by like-minded individuals, people with experience and perspective who will test you, collaborate with you, and debate the finer points of the material in a way that will broaden your horizons.
At the very least you will become keenly aware of where filmmaking has been, and where it has evolved over the 100+ years of its brief existence. This is precious knowledge, even if you want to break every filmmaking rule on the planet, because now you’ll actually know what you are subverting and where you can hit traditional filmmaking the hardest.
– An investment of anywhere from 10k-50k (most likely in the form of a school debt)
– Little-to-no opportunity to create wealth or savings for the period of education (unless you get lucky or find a part-time job that pays big for few hrs). Your social life may take a hit too, but not necessarily for the worse.
– Some films schools suffer from a love-affair with cinema’s glorious past and may not actively update their material and classes for the rapidly-evolving industry realities. Do your research and make sure they are preparing you for the present and future of cinema, not film archeology.
– Going to school can accidentally delude you into thinking that there are no alternative paths or methods to making films, or it might push you to look down immediately upon “indie” filmmaking, so be careful not to let your ego slip out of control.
School is a precious opportunity to learn and collaborate with others, to question the craft and begin looking for your voice, not a talent show. Aim high but take your time and allow yourself to falter occasionally.
– The films you make during this period will be likely very flawed and limited in scope, so don’t expect to be the next Scorsese or Aronofsky out of the gate. Open your mind rather than your mouth.
These are the very broad lines of what you should expect when attending film school and this list is naturally neither complete nor explicit. This primer should however give you a healthy point of departure if you are considering running the academic gauntlet toward filmmaking.
Please don’t hesitate to give us your perspectives or additions as well.
(Next time on The Reverse Angle: The Path of the Guerrilla Filmmaker)