Film School Tips: How to Get the Most Out of Film School

By Camdolly

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A recent film school graduate enters the industry with wide eyes, big dreams and so many stories to tell he can’t wait to get started.

Six months later he’s living above a garage in Culver City, working as a day player wielding a boom mic when he’s lucky, and sweating over how to divide the $75 he’ll make today between rent, ramen and student debt that’s half the size of the production budget. The salt in the kid’s wound? The guy working the camera is his age but skipped film school and now has four more years of industry experience.

There’s a reason this story is so familiar. Ranging from $15,000-45,000 a year—plus opaque opportunity costs and living expenses— film school, whether undergraduate or post-graduate, is a serious investment. Like all investments, it’s something of a gamble, and as in all gambles, some play smart and get a lucky win, and many more don’t. But without stakes, what’s the point? Provided you play your cards right, there’s no substitute for the artistic incubation a formal education in film can provide.

Like the medium it studies, film school is in a period of disruption. New institutional models have risen to challenge the establishment. For-profit schools have surged forward, joining smaller liberal arts programs in meeting the demand for film education left unsatisfied by the “four horsemen,” USC, NYU, Columbia and UCLA. This diversity in selection is echoed by the myriad paths which present themselves behind each ivied gate. It’s a little like The Breakfast Club: Are you the straight-A teacher’s pet, the one who skipped all classes before noon, the one who was everyone’s best friend, or the one who was so afraid to strike out that he never took a big swing?

This we know: There’s no definitive “right” way to do film school, especially since every student goes in with a different goal. But, given that for every future festival darling in a graduating class there are several other would-be moviemakers who will be forced to hang up their dreams, some paths must necessarily be more right than others. Our annual roundtable discussion involving experts from an array of institutions provides insightful guidance on how to arrive prepared, how best to capitalize on your time and how to graduate into the industry with a truly competitive edge.

This year’s participating educators are:

Art Helterbran, Jr. and David Newman, Chair and Associate Chair of Filmmaking at New York Film Academy, Los Angeles (NYFA)

F. Miguel Valenti, Founder and Director, Quinnipiac University in Los Angeles (Quinnipiac)

Robert Tinnell, Director, The Factory Digital Filmmaking Program at Douglas (Douglas)

Matthew Irvine, Associate Professor and Director, The School of Cinematic Arts at DePaul University (DePaul)

Jeffrey Marsh and Charmarie Burke, Undergraduate Advisor and Graduate Coordinator, Department of Radio Television Film, Moody College of Communication, The University of Texas at Austin (UTA)

Susan Ruskin and Renata Jackson, Dean and Assistant Dean of Academics, School of Filmmaking, University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA)
Deepak Chetty’s UT Austin graduate thesis film, Hard Reset, was shot in stereoscopic 3D. Photo by Patrick Rusk

Kerry O’Conor, Moviemaker Magazine (MM): What should a student do before the first day of class?

DePaul: Watch as many movies as you can! Students should look for films outside of their usual taste. With the unprecedented access provided by streaming services, there’s no excuse for students not to expose themselves to classic Hollywood films, French New Wave, Hong Kong action films, and everything in between.

Douglas: Develop the proper mindset about what they’re about to do. Filmmaking is an odd hybrid of white and blue collars; it requires a lot of critical thinking, but also can be physically demanding. The workload—if you are doing it “right”—can be extremely demanding. We tell prospective students all the time: “If you are looking for a great party school, you might want to keep looking.”

Quinnipiac: One of the most important things about the film school experience is meeting people and creating a network, so I suggest students set up their own system for keeping track of the people they meet, so that relevant details can be recorded. Ideally, they should also work on at least one film project before starting classes.

NYFA: Maintain a healthy curiosity about the world around them. Ultimately, filmmakers are storytellers, and having that curiosity, as well as developing insight into how and why people act as they do, will allow you to create relatable stories and rich characters.

MM: What classes should a student enroll in first if they have zero film making experience, or a lot of prior experience?

DePaul: At most film schools, there is no getting around the old Filmmaking 101. But the experienced student should look at introductory classes as an opportunity to strengthen what he or she already knows. Even the most prolific filmmakers in the world will attest that they are always learning.

NYFA: Whether you have a lot of filmmaking experience or none at all, you should probably start with a course that addresses the art and craft of filmmaking from an historical perspective. Understanding how the language of film began and developed is essential. If a student has experience within the industry, chances are that experience is more practical, and should be supplemented with the study of the greatest films of the past.

Quinnipiac: Students with little filmmaking experience should consider a production survey course—wherein they take an idea, create a script, then shoot and edit the script into a screen-ready film. And a film history course. For a student who has more prior filmmaking experience, I suggest a course in producing. It will give them insight into what goes into making a truly professional film. Even if they hate it, they should spend a semester learning to think like a producer.

Douglas: We have a set curriculum here, so students don’t really have a choice. We opt to get them going on fundamentals—basic camera, grip and lighting techniques, introduction to the processes of editing, directing, and so forth—and then build on those skill sets through subsequent semesters.

MM: Should students work on multiple projects or just dedicate their time to one finished film by the time they graduate?

UTA: If a student’s goal is to write or direct their own films, then they should put as much time and energy into one project as possible; one good, festival-worthy film is better than five mediocre films. However, if their goal is to work as a specialist (editor, sound mixer, cinematographer, etc.), then collaborating on as many fellow students’ projects as possible should be a priority.

DePaul: Try for a balance of both. Repetition is a great way to learn. It reduces the fear of failure (There’s always the next time to get it right!) and allows students to play with different approaches and techniques.

Quinnipiac: Regardless of where you went to film school, almost no one will hire you without seeing a sample of what you can do. Students hoping to direct or produce should aim to graduate with films of different lengths, genres and styles in their portfolios. For writers, it is also useful to have a piece of written work that has actually been shot, demonstrating the translation from page to screen.

MM: What other fields of study, or new skills, should students explore while studying film?

Douglas: Art, literature, music, human behavior—studying those things serves anyone well in terms of quality of life, but they are particularly useful for filmmakers. We stress critical thinking, problem solving and project management—the sort of transferrable skills all industries value.

UNCSA: A film degree should be thought of as a fine arts degree with a solid grounding in the liberal arts. Also, a film student will ultimately seek a career in the entertainment business, so developing business acumen is crucial.

DePaul: Film students should study anything that inspires them and gets their minds working. The important thing is to develop your own way of looking at the world, which informs your vision and voice as a filmmaker. That voice can’t really be developed by studying only film. Film is the tool; you have to have your own plan for what to do with it!

Quinnipiac: First, a film student should have a solid grounding in narrative techniques and traditions. A basic knowledge of art is also very valuable, both as a viewer and as an artist. Art history courses, in conjunction with courses in painting, sculpture, drawing or sketching, give students the capacity to better communicate their ideas. A knowledge of at least basic math can also help students in many ways, from camera placement to budget work.

MM: How do students at your school find collaborators and decide who is the best fit for a certain position on a project?

UTA: In most cases, we allow this to happen naturally amongst our students. Small, orientation-like seminars during a student’s freshman year are designed to foster relationships that oftentimes result in full-scale partnerships later on. Some senior-level production classes screen students beforehand to determine interests and skill sets.

Quinnipiac: We let students choose their own crews and positions, only intervening in cases where a student is not included in a crew and needs to be, or if a key position is left vacant. This way, each student wants to contribute, in part because they know they will get to perform a job they want to do.

UNCSA: We have a close mentor-mentee relationship with our students wherein faculty mentors advise and guide students from pre-production through post. Our small student-teacher ratio enables our faculty to get to know our students well enough individually that we can facilitate the most productive collaborations. Still, students may also team themselves based on common disciplines or personal relationships.

MM: How does a student create lasting collaborative relationships with instructors or classmates?

Quinnipiac: Nothing builds friendships stronger than the late-night toil, bad food and shared exhaustion of working together on a film. It’s important that you realize that not everyone will initially be as experienced or competent in everything as you may be. As for instructors, make the effort to introduce yourself. Take advantage of opportunities for engagement like office hours, even if you don’t have anything specific to speak to your instructor about. Just ask if the instructor has seen a recent film, read a certain article, heard the news this morning—whatever.
Douglas: When I first started teaching I might have said, “Be innately talented.” But now I can see it’s work ethic and dependability that really make the difference. Over the course of my career I’ve encountered many self-proclaimed “geniuses.” The funny thing is that most of those geniuses are long gone, whereas people who break their backs working and hone their professionalism thrive in the industry. Filmmaking is an intense profession; you throw large groups of people together under intimate, hyper-focused conditions. You don’t want to spend that time with people who are lazy, incompetent or just plain jerks.

MM: Should students be looking to specialize in a particular aspect of filmmaking during their program, or not?

NYFA: It is of the utmost importance that students have a thorough understanding of what each production position entails—not just to enhance communication and collaboration, but because before you settle into your desired position within the industry, you will likely be thrust into other roles. Still, if you have a passion for a below-the-line discipline like lighting, sound, or production design, you may well have more employment opportunities than if you choose to pursue the more “glamorous” above-the-line disciplines like writing or directing.
Quinnipiac: A decade ago, I would have agreed that nothing beats a well-rounded education. However, marketplace realities have changed drastically: The number of film school graduates has risen, while the number of jobs in the industry that pay a living wage has dropped. Schools must give students the tools required to get that all-important first job. That means, for example, that students must graduate with significant work samples, which in turn means specialization during school in order to create those work samples.
Douglas: Given the nature of the industry at the moment, even if you do choose to focus on one aspect, I think it’s very short-sighted to not become at least nominally-proficient in everything your school offers. It flat-out makes you more valuable.

MM: Equipment and facilities—how should students make the most of it?

Douglas: Our students have 24-hour access, seven days a week, to the facilities. Given the demands of deadlines, homework and so on, it would be difficult for them to get anything done if they didn’t!DePaul: Ideally, students should have cameras in their hands at all times. That’s logistically impossible, of course, but we do our best to make sure that students get as much hands-on time with the equipment as possible, and encourage them to make films outside of class.UNCSA: Treat the equipment provided with respect and the understanding that the equipment must be shared and used by others. This allows us to trust our students with the best equipment available in the industry today.

MM: Should students be looking for internship positions or other external jobs while at school?

NYFA: Absolutely. This is where alumni services and industry outreach departments can assist the most. Of course, like film production, film school can be quite time consuming, so internships should be carefully planned around school schedules. Typically our internships occur later in the program so the student, already equipped with a certain level of knowledge, can make the most of the opportunity.

UNCSA: Ideally, though, students should take internship positions or external jobs only between semesters or over the summers, so as not to interfere with classroom instruction.

Douglas: In our case, we feel our curriculum is designed to deliver meaningful training, so we don’t like students to miss much, if any. But occasionally, an opportunity arises wherein we feel students may benefit from a few days on a professional set and we try to accommodate that. It not only benefits the student, but they end up bringing some of that culture back here to campus.

Quinnipiac: The skills that can be learned through a properly run internship are incalculable. There are the hard skills, of course—coverage, shooting, editing, mixing, whatever the position entails. But there are also the less tangible, but equally vital, soft skills—presentation and handling of yourself in a professional environment, learning how the industry really works from the inside, learning to leaven aspiration with reality and make the best of both.

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