There are pros and cons for everything: buying a house, changing careers, rocking a mullet ironically (because eventually you’re gonna kinda like it). This also applies to going to film school.
So what are they? What should you know about film school before deciding on whether to take the plunge or not? Watch this video!
A successful film school education thus consists of two parallel learning tracks; the film school curriculum, as well as your own personal development.
When you rebel against film school it’s therefore often a sign that film school is working; an indication that you’re defining your own values and your own unique view of cinema. To do so while continually making creative work, then evaluating that work against your original intentions, all while watching your classmates do the same, is a powerful experience not to be underestimated. This specific experience is also totally unique to film school; it cannot be recreated outside of it.
There is tremendous freedom within most film schools; you generally write your own scripts or work with a writer, cast your own projects, and (hopefully) see those projects through to completion. Outside of film school you may never have the opportunity to work with so many different collaborators, or to safely make the many mistakes that are part of the process. Failure, confusion and strife cost you more in the real world, if only because they don’t have the candy shell of education around them. Though painful, failure is always the best teacher. Film school is a place where you’ll be able not only to learn from failure, but to integrate that knowledge into your next project.
The Opportunity to Relocate to a Filmmaking Center
If you do not live in New York or Los Angeles, film school can be your impetus and financing (against debt) to do so. Industries have centers for a reason; the concentration of talent and resources allow filmmaking to be done at the highest level. Filmmaking is an intensely collaborative artform, and most of the great filmmakers live, for obvious reasons, in the industry centers, where jobs and contacts flourish.
Deciding to become a filmmaker is the financial equivalent of deciding to light your parents’ house on fire, provided their house is expensive enough. Very few people who really care about you will let you make the decision lightly. Every family has a crazy artist uncle who drowned in a river in Prague, circa 1923, and your loved ones don’t want you to face a similar fate. If your family is all in the arts, maybe you will get a pass here. If they are successful filmmakers, you can probably put down this book right now.
For the rest of us, a prestigious film school can quell the overriding terror that our life choices will inevitably inflict, all while lending our decision an air of legitimacy. Being surrounded by people who share your passion can be a crucial validation for choosing a way of life, and a powerful support network for the difficult journey ahead.
The sheer commitment of going to film school can also free you from your insecurities for a time, though rest assured they will return. While attending film school, your urge to become a filmmaker will be validated and nourished in a way that the outside world simply cannot provide. Throughout your time in film school, you will learn to see yourself as a filmmaker. When you graduate, hopefully that identity will be strong enough to weather the inevitable blows to come.
Film school professors earn their living by helping you realize your vision. They have spent years watching students succeed and fail in their own course, and refining their methods of instruction based on that experience.
The filmmaking process involves many rounds of feedback, on screenplays, on cuts of films, on casting choices, all of which your professors will guide you through. The feedback process is an essential part of learning, and it is the backbone of film school.
Equally remarkable is your ability to go through this process in the company of peers, who will make both similar and different mistakes, all of which you will learn from. There’s no other experience quite like film school; it’s the magic of a practical education.
Your peers in film school will form an automatic network of intelligent, film-hungry, hardworking collaborators. Again it is difficult to construct this group of people from scratch; your peers at a top film school will be hand picked by the faculty for your perceived similarities and differences, as well as your potential to learn and collaborate together.
Even if you don’t get along with your peers, the people you meet through screenings, internships, events and shoots will become a part of your trusted support group. In film school, for a few years you will carry the brand of “someone who could make it,” which you will trade on in exchange for the opportunity to learn and grow. You will also have the time to do things like unpaid internships, which offer peeks behind the gates of power, as well as the opportunity to gain valuable contacts. Whether you take advantage of these opportunities are up to you, but they will certainly be there, and, at least in Los Angeles, are often only available to those who can gain school credit. Yes, you can enroll at a community college so you can work for free, but where are you going to hear about the best opportunities? From your network.
It’s important to understand that filmmaking opportunities and knowledge are dispersed through an endless private network of people. I cannot tell you how many times I have emailed somebody to ask about a particular piece of equipment, or talent program, or festival, or potential collaborator. The people you meet in film school will ideally read your screenplays, watch rough cuts of your films, relish your triumphs and endure your defeats. There is no force more powerful than a group of people with a shared goal. Again, these people can and will be cobbled together over the years, but film school is often a massive head start.
Today almost anyone has access to a high quality, high definition camera. This does not mean that film schools have nothing to offer in this department. Most major schools have equipment packages (and the classmates to crew them) far in excess of what you would be able to come up with on your own. Film school will also teach you that the people behind the camera are far more important than the camera itself, but a good camera never hurts either.
No, this will not offset the debt that you will accrue through film school. It will however not only offer you the equipment you need to make professional quality films, but teach you how to properly use that equipment, as well as how to collaborate with the people who operate it.
The hard truth in life is that most people need to earn a living. An M.F.A. from a prestigious film school is a permanent brand that you can then use to teach others. Many people frown upon teaching, citing the old “those who can’t do teach,” but this is mere hubris. Some of the greatest filmmakers in history, including Martin Scorsese, taught for several years after they got out of film school.
Not only can teaching earn you a living (and help pay off your debt), it will hopefully allow you to articulate your own philosophy of filmmaking. It will also allow you to repeat the learning process from the other side of the table.
Tens of thousands of hours. To achieve mastery in the flute, architecture, athletics, coding, neuropsychology, you name it. Even famous composers like Mozart and Renaissance painters like Leonardo da Vinci spent decades refining their craft. And guess what? Mozart had many, many piano teachers. The bad news is that geniuses do exist, the good news is that they get there through very hard work.
Film school is the essential place to write, shoot, edit, weep, repeat. This is what you are paying for, and there is no better way to learn. Think of it like learning the scales on a piano; Mozart famously practiced until his fingers were crooked. The only way to greatness is to get your fingers on the keys.
DISADVANTAGES OF JOINING A FILM SCHOOL
Some film schools allow you to start shooting from the very beginning, but they don’t actually train you in the art and craft of film direction: there is no professional development. By “training” I mean proper, solid, practical training of the type that you might receive as a doctor or airline pilot. There is quite simply no institution out there that trains film directors in the same way that airline pilots are trained.
Film schools vary enormously in reputation, but they all have two things in common: they are scandalously expensive and they all break down the course into units, each one taught by an instructor who gave up on filmmaking a long time ago.
Why do people go to film school?
I cannot help wondering why people choose to go to film school in the face of abundant evidence that the most talented and successful filmmakers in history made their own destiny by eschewing film school and building a reel instead.
In my opinion people go to film school as a means of shifting responsibility to someone else and delaying the day of judgement. It is essentially a manifestation of “magic pill” thinking, whereby they throw themselves into a film school and just hope against hope that when they get out of it three or four years later they have miraculously turned into filmmakers.
“Magic pill” thinking is the same thought process that lures people into the deluded hope that they can improve their physique by taking pills when the reality of being physically fit is that you must eat a sensible diet and exercise regularly and correctly.
Those who hope that film schools will somehow turn them into filmmakers are no better than those who seek to avoid physical exercise and a healthy diet by taking magic pills instead. None of these folks will ever get the results they hope for, because they are not willing to take right action. They are lazy and afraid.
The truth about learning to be a film director is that you will have to take responsibility for your own training. There are plenty of free resources out there to help you, and some very useful books that you can buy for a few bucks. Ultimately, however, if you want to become a highly skilled filmmaker, you must accept that there is a lot to learn and that only regular practice will aid the transition from the mediocrity of beginners to the smooth professionalism of mature work.
The right path to “becoming” a filmmaker entails improving your skills and building your reel consistently and systematically rather than placing your hopes in film schools.
Let’s take a look at some of my favorite film directors and consider whether they went to film school or not:
* James Cameron – Did not go to film school
* Steven Spielberg – Did not go to film school (he dropped out after being hired to direct episodic TV at Universal on the strength of a short film he made: glory!)
* Ridley Scott – Did not go to film school (I believe he studied set design, which has absolutely nothing to do with traditional film school)
* Stanley Kubrick – Did not go to film school (the story of his first few years as a filmmaker is absolutely fascinating — Stanley Kubrick is truly the forefather of all independent filmmakers, and followed a path that was deemed unthinkable in the 1950s, when he started).
* Franco Zeffirelli – Did not go to film school
* Quentin Tarantino – Did not go to film school (his opinion on this issue: “To this day I actually think that…rather than go to film school, just get a camera and try to start making a movie.”
Two other famous film directors who did not go to film school are David Fincher(“Fight Club”) and Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings”).
Two famous film directors who did go to film school are Martin Scorsese (NYU) and George Lucas (USC). For the record, they are two film directors that I emphatically do not admire — make of this what you will.
At this point I must caution you against inferring a causal link between a successful film director’s attendance of a film school and his subsequent filmmaking success: the fact that a film director went to film school does not in any way infer that his success is due to the film school, whereas the fact that a film director did NOT go to film school shows quite clearly that it is perfectly possible to learn filmmaking without going to film school. Indeed, bright folks will learn better and more quickly away from the toxic failure and sluggish pace associated with film schools, and in any case film schools do not train film directors, but merely churn out exhausted graduates — it is worth repeating.
I find it highly significant that the two most technically gifted filmmakers who ever lived — Steven Spielberg and James Cameron — started making films completely independently and did not go to film school. Steven Spielberg attended some university classes, but he dropped out as soon as he was given a seven-year TV directing contract at Universal Studios on the strength of his 35 mm short film “Amblin’.” It is sweetly ironic that he abandoned his sanctimonious instructors at college after being hired as a professional director by Universal Studios after they watched a short film that he shot with some friends in the desert. Food for thought!
Steven Spielberg’s advice for aspiring filmmakers
Don’t take my word for it — listen to the most talented and successful filmmaker of all time, Steven Spielberg:
“If you get bitten by that bug you can make a lot of little movies and somehow those films will get seen by people hopefully that will hire you to do a music video someday, or a TV commercial, or a television show or someday a feature film.”
These few steps would surely help you, if you feel you want to explore yourself in filmmaking!
1.Immerse Yourself. Start by watching the film once, to discover the story, then watch it again, and you start seeing different things, and getting into the rhythm of the film, the video editing, other details, the climax (a bit like a symphony).
2.Live the product. Have it play in the background while you’re doing other things (working on the computer, doing emails etc). Your brain will still get used to it more, it’s far more efficient than we think.
3.Watch it without sound. Play it again now and mute the sound completely: another dimension will be revealed. It may talk to you more than with the sound actually. You will get to see more details as well, or notice other things, if it’s very still, or very fast. The style of filming and video editing will stand out more. Your brain will not be distracted by the sound (and our ears are far more sensitive than our eyes), so it frees some space for your mind to focus on the images.
4.Select the instruments / select the atmosphere. The instruments are chosen depending on the atmosphere. It might be instruments you’ve never used before. At this point, the video will dictate to you what it needs, hopefully.
5.Stick to the rhythm of the video editing. The video editing may be fast, slow, make sure you understand the “beat” of the film. It may vary a lot on the rhythm, and speed, kept changing throughout the video, and it’s important to adapt to it.
6.Stick to the story, to what’s happening on each frame.
7.Stick to the feeling of the film.Composing music for film is about emotion. Make sure you really understand the emotion the producer is trying to emulate and stick to it. This emotion may vary from one second to another. There are hundreds of emotion people go through everyday, so make sure your music invokes the right feeling – and make sure it succeeds to emulate that feeling (even if you listen to without listening to the images).
8.Do not ask Feedback. Feedback is a double edge sword. If you’re really into your creation process, somebody’s feedback might be helpful or not. You have to be confident enough to know exactly where you’re going in terms of intention and emotion, even though you don’t really have a clue what instruments will take you there. You can choose to compose surrounded by people, or really remotely. Both can be helpful.
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