Why studying film in college is still a good idea after all
I wrote this post originally for OMM! – the Open Media Magazine, a new iOS publication by talented young filmmaker/designer Daniel Freytag, who asked me to contribute to his first issue. It’s definitely worth checking out, it’s absolutely free for your iPhone and iPad, and the design and interface is very innovative and fitting to an iOS device. There are many other great articles included, among them one by my friend Mario Feil, who actually talks about why film schools were unnecessary for him 🙂
I love the community that has sprung up around the revolution of DSLRs in recent years. The accessibility of cameras delivering a cinematic quality for low budgets has opened up opportunities to almost anyone interested in becoming a filmmaker. People who used to feel excluded from what used to be an elitist profession now have a better chance of making it simple because the gear is cheaper and quickly becoming ubiquitous.
As a result, a huge amount of short films are being made – obviously a lot of bad stuff as well, but the simple fact of more people doing films means more interesting films resulting from that as well.
This emergence of the previously under-privileged has resulted in a sentiment that film schools are largely irrelevant to learn the craft properly. As with many things, I find this is not a “yes or no” issue. Film and media schools are still invaluable in helping talented people realize their visions.
Cheap cameras alone don’t cut it. Yes, friends and other motivated people can help out to be your crew, but you will have a very hard time finding a good person for every job. Simply because you are most likely to be in contact with many other aspiring camera people if you are into cameras yourself. Or how many real script writers do you know? Line producers? You get my point.
A film or media school will get you together with people from other fields in filmmaking that you are unlikely to meet otherwise. It will also bring you together with more experienced people (tutors, teachers) that are unlikely to be available as online mentors as well as people who are in a very similar life situation to yours (same age, same aspirations). This is a perfect mixture for success, because the chances to personally work with people that have the same ambitions are much larger in film school than through online socializing. And it’s about the actual working together when you learn most, and much faster than through constant back-and-forth emailing and tweeting.
When I prepare a shoot, the first people I think of as crew are the people I can trust, the people I have worked with before – and in most of these cases the first ones I call are people I studied with. I know what they are good at, I know what they are bad at – we were able to get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses in a “non-danger” environment, that is non-commercial shoots as part of our classes.
Many short films online that were shot on DSLRs have one thing in common: They are a succession of pretty shots with underlying music. I mean no disregard by saying this, I myself have shot a number of such films purely for my own pleasure, “because we can” with DSLRs and without a crew. However, most people agree by now that it is getting somewhat boring. Doing a narrative or documentary short with a real story is much harder to do – crew, actors and interviews are needed, as well as a script.
An increasing number of new shooters realizes now that pretty shots alone won’t cut it anymore. When a huge number of people are able to produce pretty pictures due to the combination of talent and affordable gear, they become increasingly meaningless. You will get most exposure and attention if you manage to be part of a crew shooting a narrative or documentary with a decent script – people always prefer to watch stories and characters they can identify with, but I feel it needs this more than ever before to stick out of the crowd.
If you try hard and pull a lot of favors, you can make a great short film without ever having seen a film school from inside. It will most likely take you longer, the process will be more rough, and you will most likely also have to fill roles in your crew that you don’t really want to fill. In film school, you are (ideally, depending on the school) fostered in an environment that lets you create as a director / DP / script writer / producer, depending on your main focus of study. You have to make films in order to be able to continue and finish your studies. You don’t need to worry about where to get the gear you need, it will be provided by the loan department of your film school – lights, cameras, and so on. You have tutors that guide you through the entire process to help you make most out of your vision. In short, you are not left out there alone. And you will learn to be a team player from the very start, preparing you to work on a professional set with other departments, actors and sometimes even clients.
Good film schools (and there aren’t that many) will also help you create a network not only with colleagues, but also your teachers, who are acclaimed filmmakers themselves in the best film schools. You will have a tremendous head start over anyone not part of this system. Unfortunately this wasn’t too much the case in the media/film school I attended, but I still thrive on the network of colleagues as mentioned above. To be perfectly honest, there is a lot of VETTERNWIRTSCHAFT in our industry simply because it is so small, and what you see is often not what you get – it’s all built on trust.
In conclusion, if you are planning to become a professional filmmaker I would definitely suggest going through film school which gives you a chance to screw up, make mistakes, get to know people like (and unlike) yourself and exposing yourself to knowledge you might otherwise never acquire – the best preparation for a successful career in filmmaking. It’s mostly very tough to get in, but ultimately it pays off if you make it right.
Last but not least, you will also find yourself making more films that mean something.
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