Movie Mondays

I’m starting a new initiative to get this website rolling!

Welcome to MOVIE MONDAYS!  I will also be having WRITING WEDNESDAYS and PHOTO FRIDAYS.  Check in each week to see new posts regarding these topics.

So for my inaugural Movie Monday post, I want to focus on learning to make movies at film school versus on the job.

Today, August 5th, is the first day of a Teen Filmmaking Camp run by the organization I work for Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP) which is a great resource for indie filmmakers and people who want to see independent films and support indie filmmaking.  It’s a 5 day intensive program for kids ages 13-17 where Day 1 the kids learn the basics of story and come up with their script, Day 2 they break down the script into what they need to shoot the project and who will do what,  Days 3 and 4 are production, and Day 5 is post.  They screen the films for family and friends at the end of Day 5.  Phew!

On top of all this, my alma mater, USC, was just ranked the #1 Film School in the country by The Hollywood Reporter, a Los Angeles “trade” publication.

This all got me thinking, what is the “best” way to learn how to make movies?  Ultimately, there is no best because what’s best for me might be the worst for you or impossible to do because of money or family or whatever.  But people still argue the point and I’m sure with this list of film schools, there is further argument as to why USC is “the best” and the others are somewhere else on the top 25 list, or not on it at all.

Every school seems to be known for something.  I have heard that Columbia University is strong in its writing program, NYU Tisch is strong in its technical development, Cal Arts is strong in its animation, UCLA is strong in its documentary program.  And USC?  USC is strong in its industry ties, most notably because people who didn’t even go there put their names (and money) on the buildings!  Cough, Steven Spielberg.  Those are not bad qualities, but I’m sure that all of these stereotypes of the schools have both a kernel of truth and are mostly wrong.

If you are thinking about going to film school know that I recently heard a parent of a college student say that “being a Film major is the new English major,” meaning it’s the new way to get a college degree doing something cool and interesting without an employable skill and with no hopes of getting a job after graduation.  And this came of a father of a daughter majoring in film at my other alma mater Oberlin College where I was an English major!

Still, I bet you want to go to film school, be a filmmaker, and join the many ranks of us that aspire to reach the world through video and film.  So know there are many many many people out there with the same aspiration.  It helps to not feel so alone, but it’s also terrifying to know there’s just so much competition.  And USC, especially, is a factory.  Every SEMESTER 50 students begin the graduate program.  Every semester!  And that’s just the graduate program!  There are undergrads as well.  I found an extremely strong documentary program at USC that really taught students to branch out from the sitting interview Ken Burns style to following the subjects in action and really thinking of docs as narratives that need their own story arcs just like any fictional film.  All of the equipment and resources are mind-blowing.  And it’s in LA, home of the film industry, and if you want a job on a studio lot or in the film industry at large, LA is where you need to be so you can intern and work your way up.

Other than that, and I can’t know for sure having only gone to USC, I bet the quality of the students, the teachers, the projects that come out of the program range from good to bad to interesting and are on par with probably most film schools.  Because everything is what YOU make of it!

If you decide just to learn by doing, there are many different ways to go about that.  You can believe in your own natural raw talent and hone it by chipping away and chipping away until you have a lean filmmaking machine by reading and homaging, trying and failing.  You can also (or in addition) work your way up production sets from the bottom and learn by watching.  My best advice for working on set is to try to work under people who are professionals and immensely talented.  You don’t want to learn bad habits and repeat them on your own projects.

For any filmmaker, here’s what I think you need to understand when making a movie:

  • Story.  Remember that film that looked so promising and then the story was just awful?  Well, that happens all the time.  There are lots of formulas about plot points or sequences, ways that retroactively break a story down into parts that mathematically fit together into perfection.  But that’s not really how it works.  You start with an idea, but an idea is not a story, no matter how great.  A story requires a beginning, middle, and end.  I don’t want to hear any revolutionary comments on how that’s not true.  Evolution tells us it’s true.  We are born to expect a beginning, middle, and end.  Our lifespan has a beginning, middle, and an end.  Your end and your beginning should not be the same, unless it’s for very very good reasons and your audience will love the journey they just went on.  The middle is how you get from point A to B.  And there’s a climax before point B where everything in the middle comes together all at once.
  • Visual Aesthetic.  One of the BEST BEST BEST things about USC is that it has Bruce Block on staff to teach you visual aesthetics.  This is telling your STORY VISUALLY!  There’s deep space, flat space, limited space, color, contrast and affinity, line and shape, tone, movement, rhythm, structure!  It sounds like a lot of boring theory but it is MIND BLOWING!!!!!  And all completely practical and applicable and necessary to making a good movie.
  • Producing.  There are always people with skills – camera, acting, directing, writing, editing – that want jobs but can’t find them.  Being a producer means you CREATE JOBS, you create YOUR own job and get your movie going.  Producing is understanding budget.  Producing allows you to oversee all departments and get an understanding of all of them.  Producing requires diplomacy and working your people skills.  A movie is like a human body and you are the BRAIN!  You make sure everything functions.

Everything else is just logistics.

But if you still want to spend up to $100K to go to film school, what is it that film school should provide if you decide to go?

  • A student community to collaborate on projects.  Go talk to the students, ask them about their projects.  Are these people you want to work 12 hours a day with under hot lights and bad food?  Are their projects ones you would be excited to show up at a 6am call time or work overnight on?
  • Reliable equipment that you can rent out or use for long periods of experimentation.  The equipment doesn’t have to be the newest, the latest, or even the greatest, although those can make things more fun.  But you need to experiment, and you don’t want your camera or your computer to die on you, regularly.
  • A well-rounded curriculum that teaches you writing, directing, PRODUCING (often lacking), cinematography, lighting, production sound, post sound, and editing.  That way you can get a solid foundation and understanding of all the areas that work together to make a movie.
  • A connection to the larger film community for future job placement.  The only program that really does job-placement at USC is the Peter Stark program.  But USC is in LA and it’s fairly easy to put yourself out there.  If you’re not in a major city, think about where you are going to take these skills you are learning and find employment.
  • An abundance of classes on really interesting topics and subtopics, niche filmmaking techniques.  So much of the basics you can learn on YouTube, or just by watching others, but going to school allows you to think outside the box, explore different weird things.  You will not have this opportunity again!  (usually).
  • A place where you feel like you can find YOUR VOICE, YOUR VISION, and the confidence to use that voice and continue developing it no matter how many rejections your film gets, how many jobs you get fired from, how many drafts your script goes through, how many days of unemployment you receive.

It’s madness, but would you have it any other way?  I wouldn’t.