An Artist’s Statement About Teaching Film
The following is a condensed and edited version of
A Thesis Presented to NSCAD University
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the
Degree of Master of Fine Arts in Media Arts
The context in which films are made is in need of renovation, primarily because of two significant problems. The first problem is that the range of films being made has become increasingly narrow. Audiences hunger for real meaning in the films they consume, and the Hollywood model too often misses the mark. Innovation rarely occurs when profit is prioritized, a fact that is sadly obvious at the multiplex. There is an increasing demand for films that provoke real change in the viewer and the world. As film critic Richard Brody writes:
It isn’t with well-meaning films that Hollywood can help; it’s with wide-ranging attention to good, boldly original, and challenging films—including ones that confront the unquestioned and enfeebled assumptions of artistic merit on which Hollywood itself currently runs. (Brody)
In addition to squashing innovation, the corporate context in which so many English-language films are made has led to a second problem, which is the marginalization of diverse voices, including the voices of women. In the USA, 9% of film directors are female, (Lauzon) and Canada is no better. (Ahsan) In North America, white men make most films. Women, especially those with families, are at a distinct disadvantage in filmmaking. (Akass and Duthie)
The “tricky part,” Mr. Elwes said, is that foreign sales companies provide the presale estimates for the value of a movie in territories outside the United States. Producers are able to borrow money against those estimates to help finance the movie. “And the moment that you mention that it’s a female director” to foreign sales companies, Mr. Elwes said, “you can see the eyes start to roll.” It is, he said, “a male-dominated world.” He added: “The buyers want action films and they don’t see women as action directors. That’s where the whole thing kind of blows up.” (Dargis, 2014.)
Gender parity would go a long way towards resolving some of these problems, for the cast, the crew, and the audience. More women and underrepresented groups in film jobs will mean more diverse characters on screen, which ultimately means that more diverse kinds of people will want to watch those films. Diversification in the power structure will result in films that appeal to female audiences as well as male ones, and audiences filled with representatives of every race, interest, and background.
However, equality is not the goal. As Timothy Leary once said, “Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.” (Cash) My goal is much larger than simple parity: I propose to change the way films are made by renovating the way filmmakers are taught.
It is logical to say that the way in which students learn to make films will shape the way films are made in the future. A film school education can address both systemic inequality AND the dearth of meaningful stories in many ways, and these should be explored. My thesis contends that, wherever possible, a film school education should explore alternatives to the Hollywood model.
Let me be clear: unlike so much of film theory, this thesis is not about the politics of representation on-screen or behind the camera, but about the training of filmmakers in technique, group work, and story telling; in other words, the pedagogy of film.
There is no denying that filmmaking is a male-dominated, profit-driven, youth-oriented, and image-based art form. How can we possibly change this while we’re still re-affirming patriarchal structures? We can’t. The way people make films needs to be renovated so that more can be accomplished with limited dollars and so that women and under-represented groups are not continually being disadvantaged.
“Let’s ground their studies in exploring the world and their own preoccupations, to develop their own authentic voice and camera sensibility. Shouldn’t we try to develop what is special about our students? … There’s room for all kinds of voices. There’s also room for what’s missing. And all too often what’s missing is the human, the intimate, which you get with engagement.” (Rabiger)
For two years, I was embedded in the film program at NSCAD University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. I am using NSCAD’s program as a case study for some of the ideas I have developed over the course of my career. Clearly this is only a cursory exploration, since I haven’t experienced all four years of the BFA program as they unfold. I have, however, conducted many hours of interviews with students in the program as well as their teachers. My reflections here take into account these views.
At the conclusion of this document I will outline some suggestions for improving the NSCAD program, but they are meant to be helpful in any school. My goal is to coax the medium in a direction that is less commercial and less auteur-driven, towards a more collaborative, craft-based approach.
The Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, or NSCAD, is a venerable art college located in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Founded in 1887, the school rose to prominence in the 1970s, when it was on the leading edge of conceptual art. NSCAD is well known for taking a conceptual, inter-disciplinary, craft-based approach to both teaching and studio practices.
In 2003 NSCAD began a film production program. It is housed in a heritage building, a former high school, which is referred to as NSCAD’s Academy Campus. All new students in the Bachelor of Fine Arts program must do a year of Foundation Studies, during which students can try any of the art and craft forms in the school. Foundation Moving Image is the first year film and video class, which stretches over two terms.
In second year, students can enrol in Media Toolbox and/or Intro to Filmmaking, Intro to Animation, and Screenwriting. By third year, students can declare their intention to specialize in Film by enrolling in the first of the four Film Production classes, beginning with Film 1 and proceeding over the final two academic years through Films 2, 3, and 4. These courses are worth 6 credits each, which is only 40% of a term’s full time (15 credit) course load, yet can be extremely demanding of a student’s time.
Filmmaking is a popular career objective these days, in all age groups, and there are several ways to get into the field. For people who decide to pursue formal training in filmmaking, there are several choices, even in Nova Scotia. The following is a rough list of the possible choices:
- Do a four-year BFA at NSCAD at a cost of $6920 per year for tuition, if you’re a NS student doing 15 credits each for two semesters (using Winter 2016/17 fees)
- Attend the 2 year Nova Scotia Community College “Screen Arts” program; at a cost of $3,130 per year
- Combine the two above methods under the terms of a 2014 articulation agreement
- Attend the 16 month DaVinci Institute “Digital Filmmaking” program, at a cost of $38,000
- Volunteer and take courses at The Atlantic Filmmakers Co-Operative & The Centre for Art Tapes for less than $300 per year, both of which also require a time commitment
- Apply to the Canadian Film Centre, the National Screen Institute, or The Banff Centre, to name a few.
(Residents of Southern Ontario can refer to this list of academic options.)
Or you can work your way up in the industry, the old-fashioned way. Since there is no industry standard qualification for entry-level positions, people from a multitude of backgrounds, and with degrees from every field, can achieve success in film production.
The students who wind up at NSCAD are a very special breed: their choices are many, yet they choose to come to a small, fine art college on the edge of North America. What are they looking for? And what do they learn when they get here? My idea in doing this research was to better define the answers to those questions, so that we can help more students make that same choice in the future.
MODELS OF PRODUCTION
Different kinds of projects require different production models, and filmmakers work in different ways at different times. We’re all familiar with the conventional way in which Hollywood (corporate-owned) films are made: large hierarchical crews comprised of different departments revolve around a director, who is employed by a producer. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll call this the Studio or Industrial Model of production. This is commonly used in dramatic filmmaking. It’s the model we emphasize in the third and fourth year film production classes at NSCAD.
The studio model is less ubiquitous today than it was in the past. Outside of large cities, there is a general tendency to work on a smaller scale, and outside of the corporate model. Collaborative processes are slowly replacing hierarchies. Documentary films have increased in popularity over the past twenty years, and documentary filmmaking methods have increasingly been used to make fictional films, The Blair Witch Project and Tangerine being notable examples. Documentary films typically have smaller, more versatile crews than dramatic ones. A standard Documentary Model of production would consist of a writer/director, a cameraperson, a sound person, and one or two production assistants and/or drivers.
Activists of all kinds have taken up the tools of film in an effort to spread their messages. Activist filmmakers often fill multiple roles on the crew, which brings me to the Solo Model of film production. This is what we call a person who operates the camera, records the sound, and edits the film all on his or her own, or with very little help. Thanks to web sites like Youtube, that’s how many future filmmakers today begin their careers, and many artists, as we are now seeing, stay with this model throughout their careers. Although such work is often performed on a rudimentary level, sometimes the results can be considered art.
Given such contemporary choices, it makes sense to prepare film students to work in all of these different ways. Of course they need to know how to helm a large crew, but for most of them that is unlikely to happen. What is more likely is that they will make films by themselves, or in small groups, for the bulk of their careers. Ideally, they will be employed, when they want to be, on large industrial films, and also continue to make their own work on a smaller scale.
Currently the NSCAD production classes tend to emulate the Studio Model. Allowing for a fuller exploration of the ways in which production teams can work will enhance the degree to which we can mimic a professional environment; it will also remove the disconnect that occurs when teachers try to impart methods that are absent from their own art practices.
Auteur theory, a theory that was developed to describe the filmmakers of the French New Wave in the 1950s, contains the idea that a film is the reflection of the personal creative vision of the director; a director is the author of a film in the same way that a writer is the author of a novel. The American film critic Andrew Sarris initially proposed auteur theory as a lens through which to critique the films of established directors. (Sarris) In film criticism, this theory is closely intertwined with the idea that a film’s success largely rests upon the technical skill of the director, as opposed to being the culmination of a group enterprise. Unfortunately, this emphasis on a singular creative vision has received too much attention in film schools, where it serves no useful purpose.
It would be more useful to teach filmmaking as a collaborative activity; as a space where, in a group undertaking, one needs to earn authority and expertise. Constantly paying homage to auteur theory, by teaching the same films by the same directors, is not only imbalanced, it also reinforces male privilege by foregrounding technical achievement and visual style, and downplaying collaboration. Indeed, I would argue that a bias toward auteur theory is a leading cause of the systemic misogyny in the film industry.
By emphasizing alternative models of filmmaking, in addition to the Studio Model, and by doing so from a craft-based, socially-engaged approach, NSCAD can distinguish itself in the area of film school education.
Activist filmmaking is one kind of an artisanal filmmaking practice. It fits the definition of a socially-engaged art practice provided by Pablo Helguera in his provocative book Education for Socially Engaged Art. In Helguera’s words:
Socially engaged artists can and should challenge the art market in attempts to redefine the notion of authorship, but to do so they must accept and affirm their existence in the realm of art, as artists. And the artist as social practitioner must also make peace with the common accusation that he or she is not an artist but an “amateur” anthropologist, sociologist, etc. Socially engaged art functions by attaching itself to subjects and problems that normally belong to other disciplines, moving them temporarily into a space of ambiguity. It is this temporary snatching away of subjects into the realm of art-making that brings new insights to a particular problem or condition and in turn makes it visible to other disciplines. For this reason, I believe that the best term for this kind of practice is what I have thus far been using as a generic descriptor —that is, “socially engaged art” (or SEA), a term that emerged in the mid-1970s, as it unambiguously acknowledges a connection to the practice of art. (Helguera)
These are projects that are designed to intervene in life, not just to imitate it. These are films that are intended to develop creativity and collaboration in and beyond the screening space, and often across geographic and/or cultural distances. (My own practices usually fall within this category of filmmaking, since I have made several films that can be thought of as tools for the drug policy reform movement.)
There are many NSCAD graduates whose work contains an element of social engagement. Some filmmakers, like NSCAD graduate Ann Verrall, go to rural communities to teach filmmaking skills, while at the same time creating film projects with community members. Communities who work in this way end up with a film that will help promote their interests, as well as developing filmmaking skills for the future.
Socially-engaged art making is one area in which NSCAD’s film program can benefit from other programs at the school, where other versions of such critical and social or activist undertakings are more well-established.
AN ARTISANAL APPROACH
Many people who go to an art college do so because they want to gain access to a variety of arts and crafts. NSCAD’s interdisciplinary approach makes the school an attractive choice for the kinds of filmmakers who have or wish to have an interdisciplinary practice. Removing the focus from the Studio Model will allow us to foreground such artisanal methods of filmmaking.
“Hand-Crafted Cinema” is an artisanal style of filmmaking, one typified by Nova Scotian artists James MacSwain, Andrea Dorfman (who also works in the Studio Model), Becka Barker, and the late American artist Helen Hill (who lived in Halifax for a few years). These artists work(ed) on their own or with a small number of collaborators, often spending years on each project. They also tend to use combinations of animation and live action footage to create short films with a large visual impact.
Emphasizing an artisanal approach to capitalizes on the NSCADian value of interdisciplinarity. It also hearkens back to the beginning of film as an art form, when filmmakers were expected to have some knowledge of the film crafts, as well as art and art history. Many painters have become filmmakers, and vice versa.
NSCAD’S FILM PROGRAM
Generally speaking, there are two kinds of students who enter the NSCAD film program. The first group considers themselves to be artists who choose to work with film as a medium; perhaps film is one of several media that they experiment with during foundation year and focus on to a greater or lesser extent throughout their period of study.
The other group clearly wishes to become filmmakers – writers and directors, primarily — from the outset. These students enter NSCAD with the sole intent of majoring in film, and often resent being forced to try other things during first and second year. Students from this second group tend to end up the third and fourth year film production classes, although both groups are equally represented in other film classes. This is largely because of the time commitment required, as well as the intimidating effect of the technology; but it can also have elitist overtones. Like all humans, film students tend to form cliques, which does not always work out to be in their best interest.
We need to foster an appreciation of how different kinds of art and craft practices may inform a filmmaking practice. In this way, NSCAD film can grow towards a more artisanal culture and shed the profit-driven Studio Model and auteur theory. We can help such an evolution along by making connections between the film program and the existing relationships that NSCAD has with art, craft, social engagement and other conceptual practices.
In future, it may be useful to think about dividing NSCAD’s film students into two programs: BFA’s with minor in filmmaking, and an alternative degree that focuses exclusively on filmmaking, in which one doesn’t have to learn drawing or ceramics as well.
Students learn by doing. As Marvin Bartel argues in his paper “Teaching Creativity,”
When we show an end product in order to help explain something, we risk bypassing creativity. We may want students to be creative, but by our actions they believe we care more about the product than whether they learn how to think creatively. Why should students be creative when we are showing answers rather than presenting problems? There are ways to present problems without showing answers. (Bartel)
A student film production is the epitome of experiential learning. The classroom is identical to the professional equivalent in almost every way, so the experience of making a student film should – and could – mimic a professional one.
An assignment-based curriculum, as opposed to one in which the students are constantly creating all their stories from scratch, may affect a student more experientially than a competitive one. An assignment-based approach would allow students to experience each aspect of the film production process separately, and to contextualize it for themselves.
For example, in an assignment-based editing project, students can learn a great deal by seeing what it looks like when ten editors cut the same scene together out of the same footage. Such an approach circumvents the problems that arise when students are making all of the materials that are working with at once. Working with footage that has been made by entry-level writers, directors, and/or camera and sound operators complicates the editor’s job immensely.
If, in an assignment-based approach, we separate out teaching editing (for instance) from all the other skills, and make use of the footage that was shot by more senior students – or, better yet, by professionals– then it becomes much easier to see the result of the editor’s choices comparatively. Classes can then talk the decisions they made, and students can learn from each other’s experiences. This approach can be employed in all the film departments: writing, directing, editing, shooting, sound and production design; as well as in all genres of filmmaking.
Alexander MacKendrick was an American-Scottish film director and teacher. He began making television commercials before moving into post-production editing and directing films, most notably at Ealing Studios where he made ‘Whisky Galore!’ (1949), ‘The Man in the White Suit’ (1951), and ‘The Ladykillers’ (1955). After his first American film ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ (1957), he decided that he was temperamentally ill suited to the job of directing in Hollywood, so instead he became a teacher of film at the California Institute for the Arts. (Mackendrick and Cronin) MacKendrick had some interesting ideas about the pedagogy of film.
MacKendrick made a deal with some television producers so that his school could have all the rushes from the TV series “Gunsmoke.” For years afterwards, first year students at CalArts learned to edit on the Gunsmoke footage, cutting together the same simple scenes, and then varying them. The professional quality of the footage meant that amateurish editing moves were easy to spot, and senior students could easily coach junior ones, since the terrain was so familiar. It might be interesting to conduct a similar experiment elsewhere and see what results.
A large number of applicants to university film programs, in particular those who identify as future filmmakers, hope to graduate with a ‘calling card’ film. This is usually a short film, typically created with the intent of providing the filmmaker with a way in to the film industry after graduation. Such a film can be useful as a way of gaining admittance to film festivals, and hopefully will attract the attention of industry players, such as funders, producers, and broadcasters, who may be able to help the novice filmmaker gain entry to the next level of work.
In my interviews with film students at NSCAD, the opportunity to make a calling card film is the number one result student’s want from the program. It is more important to them than good grades. This poses a problem because the students who do not get a chance to make their own film sometimes feel as if they have been cheated by the system.
There is no doubt that the production of a short film is a useful exercise, but there is some question, to my mind, about the value of a ‘calling card’ film. The idea of using a film as a ‘calling card’ is derived from auteur theory. It supposedly serves to introduce the viewer to the credentials and style of the originator. This is an important concept when evaluating the work of an established artist with a mature filmmaking style, but it is foolish to apply such ideas to beginners. It can also be argued that the ability to write and direct a short film has little or no bearing on whether one can write and direct anything else – but, nevertheless, the ‘calling card’ film is an industry standard. (Petrie and Stoneman) As such, it is high on the list of student expectations.
(If nothing else, a good short film can offset some of the costs of festival attendance, which can be considerable.)
For many film schools, including NSCAD, providing the opportunity for every student to make a calling card film is seen as an economic impossibility. What this means is that some students will graduate with a completed production of their own (usually meaning they get writer and director credits), while others will not. This creates a disparity, which puts some students on the defensive and gives others the impression that they are somehow superior. It establishes a power imbalance which contributes to stress on productions and can limit creative potential.
To decide which films will get made, in some years of the program, a pitch competition event has been staged early in the first semester. The winning students get the chance to write and direct their own original work.
Every student can pitch, but they are not required to do so. They are all required to work on each of the resulting films. The jury is made up of the professor and two or three others, usually other faculty members or filmmakers from the community. The budget is divided between the winners. Whoever makes the winning pitch gets to write and direct the films that the entire class will work on for the term. The productions are scheduled to spread across the two semesters of the program year.
Such a situation in no way reflects the workings of the film industry. In the professional world, pitching, writing, and directing are considered to be three distinct skill sets, and are often carried out by three different team members. (Pitching is usually considered a producer’s job primarily, although of course many directors and writers do it well.) More concerning is that, the films that get made this way are produced using the Studio Model of production, so filmmakers with Solo or Documentary-type scripts are discouraged from pitching.
For someone – especially a beginner – to imagine that they are capable of writing and directing a film, just because they can deliver a winning pitch, would be laughable in any professional context. If we award a directing job to someone because they deliver a winning pitch, that de-values the job of the director, which has its own very important and specific skill set. It’s because we’ve lost sight of the director’s true function that the pitch competitions have become so common.
It is important to note that the pitch competition is not linked to any studio-style production model. Apparently, the pitch/jury model came about in the program in order to mimic the arts council system, since independent films were often funded through co-op and art council systems in Canada. The pitch/jury method was not designed to be an agonistic spectacle, but to give students experience with writing and talking about their proposals. It was meant to help them figure out what criteria involving “artistic merit” means. It was also a way of bringing in people from the outside, so that students might figure out how to make films the community respects. Of course, it is also entertaining, and provides an action-packed event. There is usually a – more or less – democratic outcome. Unfortunately, there are also social and emotional ramifications.
So, to sum up: I am dubious about the use of the calling card film; I question the usefulness of the pitch exercise; and I think every fourth year film student should get the chance to make a film, if they want to. Especially at art school.
THE DIRECTOR’S JOB
These days, the job of directing has become increasingly vague and un-definable; it is entirely context-dependent. In the words of director Lexi Alexander, “I wish they would do a thing where they say, ‘everybody has to do this thing and then they can become a TV director.’ For somebody like me, who was a former athlete, going from white belt to black belt to qualify in small tournaments to get to the big tournaments… I thrive on actual rules. This fucking bullshit here is the wild wild west.” (Miller)
What does a director do? Good question. Too often inexperienced people are given the reins of a production before they are ready, and that’s because even broadcasters and funders are unclear about what it takes to direct a film.
First and foremost, a director needs to have a vision of how a particular film will play. Having a working knowledge of writing, shooting, acting and editing are all part of the director’s toolkit. Directing also means functioning as a leader, and knowing how to control a group process.
A director needs to figure out how to get the very best out of everyone working on the film. On film sets where the director has expertise and authority gained as the result of a solid history in production, crew members can relax and place their faith in the director’s authority and vision. Experienced directors have worked on many film shoots, and are familiar with the roles of all team members, so they know what to expect and how best to guide their team towards their shared goal, which is the final film. To give that job to a beginner can undermine the entire process.
On student films such as those generated by the third and fourth year production courses at NSCAD, experienced leadership does not exist, yet the writer/director who has won the pitch competition is still led to believe that they are the authority on set. This often leads to exaggerated egos for the artists at the helm, and hurt feelings for the other crew members. For example, students I interviewed from the Film 2 class in Spring of 2015 at NSCAD reported that:
My experience of the three-week production schedule was exhausting, negatively affected my morale and made me question continuing with the program and film in general. (Jane Doe)
I feel that if the Directors and Directors of Photography would have stopped and listened to our suggestions, the crews and cast wouldn’t have felt so abandoned at times, and the films could of benefitted. There was an unwelcome authority from each Director and Director of Photography and it was not a good experience working with most. I understand the position is overwhelming but those positions are fellow classmates, not professionals. (Jake Doe)
There was a lack of respect on set for others… though the roles are difficult and can be very stressful at times, the lack of respect for others definitely dampened the mood on set and created an uncomfortable environment for everyone else. (Joan Doe)
It seems that gender is an important factor in these perceptions. Male students are often experienced with the technology and heavy lifting involved in film, and can be more comfortable assuming a leadership role on the crew. Female, queer, or gender ambiguous students may have had different experiences of authority in the past, and some need moral support when taking on the job of directing. As Anne Orwin and Adrianne Carageorge detail in their 2001 article, “The Education of Women in Film Production:”
To take on the role of directing a production requires not only competence but also confidence. While women are generally good at building personal relationships with others, they have been less successful in building working relationships with men that require the woman to be in a position of trust and responsibility. Women who look to others for their validation have a difficult time taking on the role of Producer/Director. While some women are able to take charge, others are not as comfortable at this age in leadership roles over their peers.
The counterpart to this is that some male students are not as comfortable working under a woman. Although students would not admit this directly, women’s projects, in general, tend to be staffed by other women. (Orwin and Carageorge)
Ideally, every student who makes it to fourth year should be given a chance to write and direct his or her own short film, so as to eliminate the most competitive aspect of the program. It may not seem financially feasible to offer each fourth year student a calling card film, but with certain modifications– for instance, the use of smaller crews and by offering animated, experimental, and documentary options – such a goal becomes possible. If film schools could let go of the auteur-based, Studio Model of production, they could more easily afford every student the opportunity to create a short film and eliminate a good deal of acrimony in the process.
Prior to the fourth year, an amiable classroom environment can be maintained using an assignment-based curriculum, and eliminating the creation of original stories altogether outside of screenwriting class. If each student was assured that they will get a chance to make their own film in fourth year, then the pressure to produce one before that will dissolve, and a sense of camaraderie can be restored. As Paolo Friere argues in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,”
Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people–they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress. (Friere)
Removing the competitive aspect of the program could result in more students enjoying their time in the classroom – and learning more. It will also better mimic the reality of the film world, in which newcomers have to earn the right to fill creative roles. My next section will explain exactly how this idealistic-sounding process might work.
COLLABORATION, NOT COMPETITION
The true direction of the development of thinking is not from the individual to the social, but from the social to the individual. (Vygotskiĭ, Veer and Valsiner)
The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky developed a theory of cognitive development that focused on the role of culture in the development of higher mental functions. His theories of social development laid the foundation for social constructivist learning theory, which puts forward the idea that learning is socially negotiated and more effective in the presence of positive social relationships.
If Vygotsky is correct, then success in a studio production class requires building a crew that works well together. Each member of the crew must be able to use equipment correctly and creatively in service of a film’s production. Naturally, some students have or develop affinities for one department or another: art direction, camera, editing, etc. As well, students learn who among them is responsible, who has a car, and who takes direction well. These abilities form a central part of how these students will develop as professionals; they also form a significant part of the film school experience.
Bringing a collaborative approach to the study of filmmaking can balance the auteur instinct in way that enhances the work as well as each participant’s experience of the work. Since we are in the business of educating filmmakers and not producing films, it is important that we keep the focus on the process and not the product. Citron and Seiter spell out the pedagogical value of such an approach in their article “The Woman with the Movie Camera”:
…we stress that filmmaking is not an individual activity. Crew members, friends, colleagues contribute to a film, as well as subjects or actors who give the filmmaker input. Such an emphasis on process gives students a better sense of the time element in making a film, of how the filmmaker may change her mind about certain aspects of the film, or of how production may be delayed while raising money or applying for funding. Such a pedagogical tactic gives students a more flexible approach to the filmmaking process than most production textbooks outline, and prepares them better for the amount of frustration and disappointment, which often accompanies beginning filmmaking. (Citron and Seiter)
The ability to work collaboratively can be of the utmost importance to success in the film world, and an important tool in a filmmaker’s artistic practice. Films benefit from the synergy that exists when every member of the team is valued for what they bring to the table. A good director knows that a helpful suggestion can come from anyone, so it benefits him or her to remain open to the best ideas of everyone on the crew, from the craft service person to the director of photography.
Some ways of communicating such suggestions are, of course, more acceptable than other ways, which is why there is a highly evolved system of set protocol that must be learned before one works on a professional Studio or Industrial Model set. Chaos can result when a collaborative model overtakes the ultimate authority of the director of a production and/or the professor of the classroom, so a delicate balance is required.
This is where our filmmaking careers start. This is where we learn what we are good at, what works and what doesn’t work. This is where we build a portfolio and collect ideas for films we want to make. And when a man who is in his second year of film school is pitching ideas for short films with a big, strong man and a small, annoying female at his side, and the (mostly male) production professors are singing their praises, telling them how great the idea is, they’ll continue with this mentality– the mentality that movies starring men with adoring women all around them (like the only job of a woman is the build the male character up) are the movies that need to be made and seen. And what’s sad and terrifying is, they’re mostly right. The predominantly male Hollywood system will buy these ideas from them and let them make films that’ll add to the list of movies containing meaningless female characters. They’ll be allowed to make their directing debut with millions of dollars backing them up. When the movie flops, they’ll move onto their next (guaranteed) job with no repercussions. And the cycle will go on. (Rozler)
It is important to acknowledge that working as a student filmmaker is very different from working professionally. Student filmmakers have the additional stress that comes form learning their skills at the same time as they are performing them. Learning how to trust people who are equally as unskilled as you are can be a very difficult. Teachers can help by instructing students on the finer points of set etiquette, by bringing in professional speakers, and by giving students a range of assignments that allow students to work in various capacities, sometimes choosing their own crew members, and sometimes working in pre-fabricated groups.
Removing the responsibility of creating an original film early in their filmmaking career can alleviate much of the tension, especially in the early days of filmmaking. This is more conducive to learning the necessary skills, both technical and interpersonal, that filmmaking requires. It also serves the purpose of keeping the artist’s ego out of the mix, and emphasizes the collaborative aspects of the work.
While it is true that much of what they need to learn as future directors is how to socially negotiate and manage people with different personality types, the best directors often maintain close relationships with a chosen few creative team members over the course of their career. By permitting them now and then to consciously choose their own crew members, we help students to think about what kinds of people they need to have around them in order to do their best work.
I elected to thrive away from the abuses of Hollywood. And by walking away, I learned I no longer found myself forced on my back, on top of a table locked in place and shaking. I didn’t require a desk to steady my voice. I found my own legs, my own worth and voice. (Hughes)
Experiential learning requires that the educational experience mimic as closely as possible conditions in the professional world, the world the student will inhabit once they are not a student anymore. The student experience needs to be similar to the professional experience in as many ways as possible with additional guidance if necessary. Allowing students to choose their own crew members, instead of forcing them to use ALL of their classmates in every situation would be one way to achieve this goal.
Friendships are formed in classes of any nature, but film crews require disparate skill sets: audio, video, story, technical, emotional, organizational, and people skills all come into play. Forming a team that works well together requires more than just affinity, and figuring out how to do this is an important part of a filmmaking education.
TEACHING THE QUESTIONS
During his time at CalArts, Alexander MacKendrick often said that students needed to make films before they could understand how films are made. One of his favourite aphorisms was “No information in advance of need.” He often remarked: “As an instructor the only things I can teach are what you already know.” (MacKendrick and Cronin) By this he meant that there was no point in giving students information until they realized that they needed it. You can lecture about how to operate a camera until you are blue in the face, but until the student actually puts their hands on one, you’re wasting your effort. When they come back and show you what they’ve shot, you can begin to talk about how they can improve their shooting skills. (That’s why I called this thesis “Shoot First: Ask Questions Later.”) This kind of work is entirely experiential.
Author, filmmaker, and film teacher Paul Cronin has written many books about filmmaking, including one about MacKendrick. In a Skype interview that I did with him in June of 2015, he remarked on his own experience of working with this aspect of MacKendrick’s pedagogy:
There’s no point in giving students information when they’re not ready for it, when they’re psychologically deaf to it. All the interesting stuff comes out of practical exercises. So you could draw on a blackboard everything that you can explain about the axis, and it might make some sense to someone after twenty minutes of explanation. But you get them out on the film set with two cameras and two actors, and they’ll understand axis in five seconds. At some point, they just have to be sent out, and they have to express themselves, and they have to create their own work. Then when they come back with their work, it seems to me that what follows is just one massive, long, intricate process of problem solving, and damage control, and remedial education. “You did this wrong. Why did you do this? Why did you put the camera here? What happens if we put the camera there?” …etc. etc. (Cronin, Skype chat)
MacKendrick found it useful to get students shooting something, however rudimentarily, very early in the learning experience and then to bring those pieces into the classroom, quickly and often, for a critical analysis. Thanks to such continual screenings and the reviewing of student-filmed assignments, their critical thinking skills expanded.
Why did you choose that shot? Why did you put the camera there? What is this film about? Such questions allow an instructor to introduce critical analysis to the class. As MacKendrick was fond of saying, “You can’t teach the answer, you can only teach the phrasing of questions.” (“MacKendrick: The Man Who Walked Away 6/6″)
This is an important concept, because a few simple questions can provide a springboard for many important discussions about the content of student films. MacKendrick’s method thus prioritizes process over product.
Encouraging students to work within the parameters of an assignment not only removes the ego from the process, but it encourages them to see familiar ideas in a new way. In the words of philosopher Susanne Langer, “Most new discoveries are suddenly-seen things that were always there.” (Langer) This is, after all, the role of the arts and an art school teacher: not to show students how to imitate what has already been created, but to show them how to think critically, how to stretch their own visionary capabilities, and how to discover new vistas in the process.
MacKendrick’s curriculum at Cal Arts developed an important innovation, in that it had students working backwards from post-production to conception. Students would spend a whole semester toiling on one filmmaking craft. They began with editing, which is the final stage in the filmmaking process, and worked backwards through shooting, directing, and, finally, writing. Using this method, the only students who were working with their own original material were the writers.
For the first three terms, they worked with material generated by more experienced craftspeople, so they learn from more senior students how things are supposed to unfold. MacKendrick argued that if the entire crew of a film was composed of beginners, then there was no way to tell where things went wrong: Was it the script? Was the directing at fault? Did the process break down it the edit? By learning the film process backwards, it is easier for students to recognize strengths and to find the weak spots in a production, or in their own skill sets. Students are continually learning from more advanced students in such an approach, and thus can learn from each others mistakes – hopefully avoiding the more common ones.
If film students were to approach filmmaking as a series of increasingly complex assignments: edit this footage, shoot this script, tell this story—then by the time they get to their thesis year, they would be keenly primed to tell one story very well. They would have been formulating their stories throughout all the classroom assignments and exercises. The calling card film that they will graduate with will be more meaningful and better-crafted. MacKendrick believed that this method of structuring curriculum provided students with a much stronger learning experience and exposed them to a wider range of skills than they had been getting before his arrival at CalArts.
THEORY OF LIMITATIONS
Whether it’s delivered backwards, forwards or all at once, an assignment-based curriculum can foreground the marriage of form and content, and helps create an environment in which competition is minimized and collaboration prioritized. As pedagogical theorists Michelle Citron and Ellen Seiter argue in “The Woman with the Movie Camera,” their 1981 call for a more open, accessible, and fair forum for filmmaking:
The assignments for each class, whenever possible, consist of a series of filmmaking exercises, due every few weeks, which the students screen and discuss in class. We stress the idea that these are exercises, and that each of them (four or more during a 10-week quarter) is equally important. This makes any single lengthy project impossible, and it subverts the students’ ideas about themselves as “auteur” and their films as “masterpieces.” We’ve found that the more specific the assignment for the exercise, the more interesting the students’ projects. (Citron and Seiter)
Such conceptions also bring film study and the teaching and learning of filmmaking more in line with the ways that art, craft, and design processes and outcomes are taught in a fine arts university. Students in most departments don’t expect to create masterpieces early in their programs, but instead to complete assignments designed to engage them in processes that will give them greater creative and technical range at the next level.
Likewise, Paul Cronin thinks the problem with most film schools is that they have too few restrictions and assignments. He designs his classes to overcome this defect. In his words,
I set very, very precise parameters for that film script, they’re to have no more than ten words of dialogue in the whole ten page script — and by the way, they all seem to love this! — ten words of dialogue in the whole script: no flashback, no voice over, no dream sequences. A minimum of three characters. This basically mitigates against everything that they seem to want to do, which is to tell self-expressive stories full of dialogue about people being miserable…. sitting in their room, doing voice over… I mean, it just suppresses all the tendencies. It neuters every egregious impulse in them, and you get scripts all about people doing things, which is what cinema is: it’s about action, and about characters doing things. (Cronin, Skype chat)
Cronin is responding to the fact that many students and teachers of film production are reluctant to accept an assignment-based curriculum as supposed opposed to one in which everybody gets to tell their own (supposedly) original stories.
But, as Proctor et al observe in “Woman With The Movie Camera Redux: Revisiting The Position Of Women In The Production Classroom,”
The imagery and narratives that pervade student films spring from their lifelong engagement with popular culture and media entertainment. Our students rarely arrive in the college production classroom with a critical foundation in place. And they rarely have been challenged to think critically about techniques and meanings implied by the work that inspires them to major in film. (Proctor, Branch and Kristjansson-Nelson)
Most students arrive at university with a pre-formed idea of what a good film is, and that idea is largely based on what they have been sold by the mainstream media. Assignments allow them to learn new things and to shake themselves loose from those preconceived notions.
David Franklin explores a similar idea in his article “The Professor as Censor: Creative Limitation and Film Production Pedagogy”. Franklin explains that he
… was disappointed with the pedestrian choices of subjects in my students’ films. The students seemed drawn to narrative situations taken directly from television and other films. There were armed robberies, mobsters exchanging briefcases filled with cash, glamorous couples injecting themselves with heroin, and depressed students committing suicide. (Franklin)
To counteract these tendencies, he created a set of parameters, which he imposed on all student film assignments. He outlined these as follows:
The rules are: 1. No Guns. 2. No Suicides. 3. No Drug Deals or Overdoses. 4. No Prostitution. 5. In other words: NO CLICHES!
Franklin added a note at the end of the list, “Remember: ‘Limitation is the artist’s best friend.’”
As Franklin points out, a myriad of technical limitations routinely impede the free formulation of ideas for films, for example, the limitations imposed by shooting on ten minute rolls of film, in black and white, without sound, or using only certain kinds of lenses. He argues, writing from the US, that
Limitation, whether imposed upon the instructor by circumstance or intentionally chosen, is an inescapable part of teaching film production. … In order to understand the indignation that content restriction arouses, it is necessary to understand that beliefs about authorship and free speech tap into something more important than mere theories about artistic production. They tap into nationalistic beliefs about America, the capitalist system, and the importance of individual liberty. (Franklin)
Franklin goes on to point out that market forces restrict the content of American films in ways that few filmmakers question: such as imposing “happily-ever-after” endings, an Aristotelian formula, and stereotypical character types on film scripts. Commercial North American movies also focus on a limited number of stock story models: teenage slasher films, mob stories, and boy-meets-girl romantic comedies, to mention a few. As he suggests,
The ideology of free speech as an intrinsic good obscures the fact that the operation of the free market results in a very limited set of themes for mainstream movies. … students who have been repeatedly exposed to mainstream film adopt its models as their own preferred mode of self expression. The result is a sameness in student films which echoes the sameness of Hollywood’s product.
It is ironic that when no “creative” limitations are imposed, students tend to tell the same old boring stories over and over again. Franklin argues that
In order to jump-start innovation, a tool forceful enough to counteract free market commercialism must be found. I believe creative limitation can function as such a tool, and I am not alone in adopting this strategy.
Another example of useful limitation may be found at a website called “D.U.M.P.S.: Directing Unsuccessful Motion Picture Shorts,” in which student filmmakers themselves created a list of standard, over-used examples of student film tropes and conventions to avoid. (Filmmaker.Com) Weren’t the Dogme 95 filmmakers also giving themselves a sort of assignment, when they wrote the nine rules of their “Vow of Chastity”? (Dogme95.Dk).
All filmmakers choose standards for our films to live up to; let’s make that process explicit. As Franklin observes,
(The) limitations imposed by professors on student films that conflict with students’ own visions for these films are easily denounced as censorship, even in cases when there is a clear, pedagogically appropriate reason for their imposition. But creative limitation differs from censorship. Unlike a government decree or an economic system, it is not pervasive. It is not enforced outside the specific course or assignment to which it applies and can be deviated from in any work the student does away from that venue. It is not lasting nor is it oppressive. It is imposed only to stimulate students to take their work in new directions, and its imposition is only made necessary by the dominance of mainstream media in the imaginations of those students. (Franklin)
This paper arose from my experience of the dearth of contemporary materials on film pedagogy, and my curiosity about the roots of systemic misogyny in the film industry. There are several obvious limitations to the scope of this paper—it surveys and is based on the experiences of one class in the course of one year—and a longer, more comparative study is definitely called for. Such a paper might be structured so that a more comprehensive and comparative approach can be deployed, extending to more students, in various schools or kinds of schools.
You may recall that, in the beginning, my thesis was that film school educations would benefit from exploring alternatives to the Hollywood model wherever possible. I have found that some students are looking for an industrial studio, Hollywood-type experience; but many more are looking for artisanal ways of telling stories. In a small school like NSCAD, it doesn’t make sense to focus the bulk of the resources on a few, large-scale productions; while the pitch process in its current form seems to provide a few students with a false sense of entitlement, and erodes morale in others.
I have reversed my position on the use of assignments in film school during this period of writing this report. Once, I felt that most filmmakers were self-taught; now I see that approaching the work of filmmaking as a series of assignments may actually solve many problems in the field. Artistic freedom is an ideal to strive for, but at the same time, there are always parameters.
Filmmaking gives artists a voice, but the expression of that voice commonly occurs within rather stringent limitations. Pedagogical practices that impose limits on artistic choices are not simply academic; they prepare students for the reality of creating professional-quality films in the world they will inhabit as professionals. Among other things, rules enforce the idea that films always happen within a context.
As a practicing documentary filmmaker, thinking about film learning in terms of the student experience has been an enlightening experience for me. I feel strongly that teaching film on an experiential, assignment basis, instead of according to an industrial model, will allow the students to take what they’re learning and apply it to their own practices in whatever way they see fit. It also challenges the idea that we are being indoctrinated into the film industry, and will develop filmmakers who are interested in working beyond industrial models.
The experience of being embedded, as I was, in the film school at NSCAD restored my faith in the next generation. The students I worked with here will be top-notch filmmakers, and they will, for the most part, strive for the kinds of changes I hope to see in the film industry. Filmmaking is becoming a more caring, inclusive environment in which all kinds of people can innovate and stretch the art form.
Having faith in the next generation is what American teacher, author, and film critic bell hooks was writing about, when she said that our students deserve a progressive, holistic education – a fully engaged pedagogy. As hooks puts it:
To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the soul of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin. (hooks)
Encouraging students to work within boundaries can help them to understand the form in a way that they cannot achieve while concerning themselves with making “original” work. It elucidates the ways in which we are conditioned to see films. An assignment-based, collaborative curriculum mimics many of the realities of professional filmmaking and prepares students to enter an artistic practice that relies upon the efforts of their peers. This approach may remove many of the inter-personal barriers to success in film programs, and will help students learn methods of connecting with their own inner voices. In this way, when they finally get a chance to create original stories, they will be able to do so in truly new and innovative ways.
In conclusion, then, on the basis of my experience as a filmmaker and my two years of embedded observation in NSCAD’s film program, I would argue that films schools should try to:
- Foster an environment in every production class that supports different crew compositions and work styles, as well as different genres of creation; students should have equal access to documentary, drama, experimental and animation models. All four genres should be consistently referred to throughout the curriculum, except in specially focused classes (e.g. Documentary Filmmaking)
- Give every fourth-year student in the program the opportunity to direct a thesis year film. While the actual worth of a calling card film remains debatable (and should be debated), the fact is that it has become an industry standard requirement, so all of our filmmaking students deserve to graduate with one.
- Remove the requirement for students to work on all their classmates’ productions. It is ideal if the class members form working allegiances, but by requiring them to do so, we discourage them from using their own intuition about such matters. Personalities and work styles do not always mesh, and directors should get to choose whom to work with. People want teammates who give them confidence, so students need to develop the skills that will get them hired.
- Consciously adopt a collaborative, assignment-based approach. People absorb more information when they feel good, and are more creative when in a supportive environment. In this way, university film programs can restore the collaborative aspect to film production, and enable the filmmakers of tomorrow to innovate beyond what we can presently imagine.
Ahsan, Sadaf. “Female Directors And Screenwriters Are A Minority In Canadian Film And Television, Study Finds”. National Post. N.p., 2016. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
Bartel, Marvin. “Teaching Creativity”. (2014): n.p. Print.
Brody, Richard, Hua Hsu, and Kelefa Sanneh. “The Oscar Whiteness Machine”. The New Yorker. N.p., 2016. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.
“Cinema Statistics”. Uis.unesco.org. N.p., 2016. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.
Citron, Michelle and Ellen Seiter. “Woman With A Movie Camera“. Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 26 (1981): 61 – 62. Print.
Cronin, Paul. re: Alexander Mackendrick. 2015. E-mail correspondence.
“D.U.M.P.S.: Directing Unsuccessful Motion Picture Shorts | Filmmaker.Com“. Filmmaker.com. N.p., 2007. Web. 20 Apr. 2016 .
Franklin, David. ““The Professor As Censor: Creative Limitation And Film Production Pedagogy”“. The Journal of Film and Video. (2016): n.p. Print.
Handling, Piers, Ted Magder, and Peter Morris. “The History Of The Canadian Film Industry”. The Canadian Encyclopedia. N.p., 2001. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.
Helguera, Pablo. Education For Socially Engaged Art. New York: Jorge Pinto Books, 2011. Print.
Kael, Pauline. “Circles And Squares”. Film Quarterly 16.3 (1963): 12-26. Web.
Langer, Susanne K. Reflections On Art. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1959. Print.
Lauzon, Martha M. “The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-The-Scenes Employment Of Women On The Top 100, 250, And 500 Films Of 2015“. N.p., 2015. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.
Mackendrick, Alexander and Paul Cronin. On Film-Making. London: Faber and Faber, 2004. Print.
“Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away 6/6“. YouTube. N.p., 2016. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.
Miller, Liz. “Lexi Alexander On The Brutal Truth Behind Why Women Don’t Direct More Television”.Indiewire. N.p., 2016. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure And Narrative Cinema. 1999. Print.
Orwin, Anne and Adrianne Carageorge. “The Education Of Women In Film Production”. The Journal of Film and Video 53.1 (2001): 40 – 53. Print.
“Pablo Helguera, Blog Archive: Education For Socially Engaged Art (2011)”. Pablohelguera.net. N.p., 2016. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.
Petrie, Duncan J and Rod Stoneman. Educating Film-Makers: Past, Present, And Future. Intellect, 2014. Print.
Proctor, Jennifer, River E. Branch, and Kyja Kristjansson-Nelson. “Woman With The Movie Camera Redux: Revisiting The Position Of Women In The Production Classroom,”. Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 53 (2011): n.p. Print.
Sarris, Andrew. “The Auteur Theory And The Perils Of Pauline“. Film Quarterly 16.4 (1963): 26-33. Web.
Schnack, AJ. “Banksy (Yes, Banksy) On Thierry, EXIT Skepticism & Documentary Filmmaking As Punk”. All these wonderful things. N.p., 2010. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.
Tangerine. USA: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch, 2015. DVD.
“Tate Debate: When Is A Craft An Art?”. Tate.org.uk. N.p., 2011. Web. 23 Apr. 2016 .
“The State Of Global Media Spending”. McKinsey & Company. N.p., 2015. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.
“THE VOW OF CHASTITY | Dogme95.Dk – A Tribute To The Official Dogme95″. Dogme95.dk. N.p., 2016. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.
Vygotskiĭ, L. S, René van der Veer, and Jaan Valsiner. The Vygotsky Reader. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, n.p., 1994. Print.
As well as the preceding recoverable sources, I conducted formal interviews with the following students, faculty, and filmmakers at NSCAD and elsewhere:
- Aubé, J. (2015, February 22.) Skype interview.
- Boone, N. (2015, February 22.) Skype interview.
- Charabaty, R. (2015, February 19.) Skype interview.
- Cull, J. (2015, February 18.) Skype interview.
- Dial, L. (2015, April 18.) Skype intveriew.
- Dockerill, M. (2015, 8 February.) Skype interview.
- Fisher, S. (2015, March 3.) Skype interview.
- Havok, H. (2015, March 26.) Skype interview.
- Loepkky, G. (2015, February 25.) Skype interview.
- McLay, H. (2015, April 4.) Skype interview.
- Nagler, S. (2015, February 27.) Skype interview.
- Thomson, D. (2015, March26.) Skype Interview.
- Cronin, P. (2015, February 10.) Skype interview.
- Dorfman, A. (2015, November 11.) Skype interview.
- Boutilier, R. (2015, March 3.) Skype interview.
- Hawkwood,. J. (2015, March 5.) Skype interview.
- Paakspuu, K. (2015, September 23.) Skype interview.
- Coutanche, M. (2015, October 8.) Skype interview.
The author would like to extend her sincerest gratitude to the students, staff, and faculty of NSCAD University.
(We Will Not Make Any More Boring Films.)