Why Go to Film School? (Part 1)

If you look around on the internet, there are some pretty convincing arguments against the idea of going to school to learn about filmmaking, mostly revolving around the cost or the time and effort it takes to earn a degree. Also, I will admit that there can be some real hazards for students nowadays, like having your school decide to suspend their film major/degree or rarely offering the courses you need. I’ve experienced both of these and I can tell you it isn’t fun. Additionally, for a rare few, maybe going to school wouldn’t really help that much. Some people can insinuate themselves into any job with the aid of a silver tongue and learn the business through osmosis in the first month or so (I always think of Tony Curtis’ character in The Great Impostor when I run into these types of people). As for me, I’ve decided to take the film school route. Hopefully some of you will find it helpful to know a few of the reasons why.

Firstly, there are some habits and pieces of information that you will likely learn more quickly and easily than if you just try to fake the knowledge and pick them up on the fly during some job you weaseled your way into. Some of the advantages to taking production classes include. . .

The voice of experience is payed to improve your filmmaking skills:

The first thing I noticed about my earliest efforts with a video camera was that my movies looked a little “off.” This, as I now know, was due to abominable production values (they were about the same quality as the amateur home movies of my childhood birthday parties). One of the great parts about taking a production class is that the teacher can look at your video, tell you why it looks so bad, and tell you exactly how to fix the problem. After the first couple of times, you start to correct yourself before even making the mistake. Sometimes it’s something as simple as the position of the camera, sometimes it’s more involved. For example, it’s not always the best solution, but sometimes you’d be surprised what a difference a clip-on lanyard microphone makes in a talking-head interview segment. Then, there’s more stylistic things like shot composition, framing, etc. If you try to get your work critiqued during an actual production, you’ll probably just end up wasting somebody’s money and getting replaced. Also, apprenticeships have pretty much gone the way of the horse and cart in lieu of interns (aka film students).

Classes provide the opportunity to learn the exact skills you need and instantly practice by applying them:

The most important aspect of ANY production is pre-production planning. I can’t tell you how much pain you will experience if you go to a chosen location with nothing but a screenplay and a few storyboards, especially if you hope to shoot every shot in the order in which it was written. One of the most useful things I’m still learning in my film/video classes is how to use production sheets, shot diagrams/lists, storyboards, etc. to make a production go smoothly. Take shot diagrams, for example. If you shoot two people talking at a table, and you’re silly enough to shoot each person talking, the waiter writing notes and so forth, in the written sequence you could end up setting up the camera, lights, etc. on the same location and/or angle several times. If you use tools like shot  diagrams/lists, you will save time by getting all the shots that use a particular set up at the same time. This is the example my Intro to Film/Video teacher used in my first production class.

A willing cast and crew comes with the class:

You can only hide in the room above the garage making stop-motion movies by yourself before you try to make movies with real people in them. And making short movies using only heavily coerced family members can get old pretty fast. Working with other film students in a production class can provide a “transitional phase” (euphemism for practice) between trying to make your mom play a convincing corpse and getting a complete stranger to give you an Oscar-winning performance.

Easy access to a small artists’ community

Most places that have anything close to an actual film program also come with a performance venue of some kind. There are usually student film festivals, opportunities to get one’s written play performed, and galleries to display one’s work. If not, you can get together with a few other students (and maybe a teacher) and get something started. Being recognized in some manner as the best filmmaker or screenwriter on campus can make you a big fish in your small pond. That can really pay off later on.

So, how are the non-production film classes (e.g. film history, media studies) helpful for a wannabe director/producer/screenwriter? I’ll talk a little about that in my next post.

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