By Nathan Nazario
Time and money. Two challenges that both the aspiring director and veteran filmmaker share. Whether you’ve never shot a frame of film and are exploring film programs or you’re an old pro deciding whether you really need a crane to cover that climactic car chase sequence, the constant battle you face is getting the most for the least — the biggest bang for your buck. For those of us who are not trust fund babies, but are serious about learning the craft of directing, this question quickly becomes an inescapable concern.
With a host of film schools and workshops to choose from in New York, the independent film capital of the world, how do you choose what’s best for you? If your goal is to learn cinematography, lighting, sound or editing there seems to be quite a few choices. However, if you have set your sights on taking a no-nonsense, practical film course exclusively on directing that will enable you to experience filmmaking on a professional level, the field is narrowed to perhaps one.
One of the newest entries into the film school market is Motion Picture Pro. The course is designed to have you direct, produce, and edit your own 16 millimeter short film using a professional cast and crew in just two weeks. Initially, I was quite skeptical, but based on my own recent experience in the course I would not only attest that their claims are true, but would also add that I was overjoyed with the results.
The course, slightly over a year old, is designed and instructed by Ralph Toporoff, based on his thirty years of experience as a director, cinematographer and producer in the film and video industry. Toporoff, who has worked with such greats as Arthur Penn and John Cassavetes, has also taught at Vassar College and the School of Visual Arts. He directed and produced “American Blue Note,” an independent feature that was both a critical and financial success and is currently in pre-production with his next feature, “Suckers,” slated to begin shooting later this year.
Toporoff’s motivation for creating such a program was simple. “I sincerely started to believe that people going to film school were getting the shaft instead of the gold mine. There are a lot of students who, after four years of study and thousands in tuition, couldn’t go out and just make a movie. I was feeling that there was a void that needed to be addressed,” Toporoff observed. “My education came from working in the business and I can honestly say a few days on a film set was worth a year in any film school.”
Similar to Toporoff’s refreshingly candid attitude on filmmaker training, what Motion Picture Pro offers is a realistic, step-by-step approach that takes the mystery and guesswork out of filmmaking. This approach includes guidance on writing a short in script form, using standard budgeting and scheduling skills, casting the film using working actors, instruction in “set etiquette,” directorial experience using a professional crew including a DP, 1st AC, electrician, and grip on a fully equipped sound stage, editing with a professional editor using state-of-the-art digital equipment and developing a “financial package” for investors. Throughout the process, Toporoff personally oversees the progress of your project, even serving as 1st AD on your shoot to tackle any problems or challenges that arise.
The outcome? A completed sync-sound film with titles, music and effects on Beta SP tape as well as a copy on VHS. Your film negative, which you keep, could be made into a final film print (at extra cost) if there is a demand for it (i.e., a festival). At $4,995 with no hidden costs, the price of the course is a bargain compared to the much less inclusive and much longer film immersion courses such as the New York Film Academy which costs $4,000 in tuition plus another roughly $2,250 for equipment film and processing fees and offers your classmates as your crew.
Which brings me to my next point. Many first-time directors use their first film as a calling card to the industry. After investing your hard-earned money and valuable time, would you want to leave the technical quality of your film in the hands of other students who may know less than you do? As a victim and unhappy survivor of student crewing, my personal answer is no!
Motion Picture Pro classes conveniently run the first two weeks of every month. Class size varies from a few students to no more than ten per session, making for a personal and informative learning environment. Under Toporoff’s instruction, questions were not answered with dull, theoretical textbook jargon, but with colorful and memorable anecdotes from his many years of filmmaking experience.
The first week of the class serves as the pre-production phase of your film. It begins with getting the concept on paper. With the assistance of Toporoff and through class discussion, you zero in on a “do-able” idea. Then a reading was held for each script which assisted in shaping our respective visions and sharpening our dialogue.
Also covered in the first week are the less sexy, but necessary evils of basic budgeting techniques, including cost-saving techniques for independent filmmaking. Effective methods for time management and scheduling are also highlighted. The fine art of casting actors via videotaped sessions is experienced first-hand; a facet of pre-production which, as any filmmaker will attest, becomes increasingly unglamorous by the hour. Finally, the week is rounded out by selection and subsequent meeting with a cinematographer you choose from the active library of sample reels Toporoff maintains. This affords the student ample options in selecting a DP who best serves the vision of your film. By the end of week one, you will have completed a short script, budgeted it through post-production and cast it with professional actors. You will also have prepared a shooting script in collaboration with the cinematographer and editor.
The second week of the class is devoted to the final steps of pre-production such as rehearsing, propping, costuming and all the tiny details leading up to your shoot day. When the scheduled day of production arrives, each student directs his/her project on a fully-equipped soundstage with the help of a professional crew. Three rolls of 400 foot stock are made available for your single 10-hour shooting day. Toporoff, acting as Assistant Director, carefully monitors each shoot, providing assistance as needed along the way. Speaking as someone who has had the experience of working on sets in the capacity of a unit publicist, my shoot at Motion Picture Pro ran just as smoothly and professionally as films I’ve worked on with million dollar budgets. Upon wrapping the film and getting the print back from the lab, each student works one-on-one with a professional editor using the program’s state-of-the-art digital editing equipment. Under the students’ direction, the editor takes the production to completion. Most of the projects ran around 7 minutes in length.
I was amazed at how “Total’d,” my finished short, matched the initial vision in my head when I first sat down with pen in hand. As much as I’d like to attribute this wonderful phenomenon to my innate directorial talent, the reality is that the design and execution of the course under Toporoff’s instruction was largely responsible for the results.
Motion Picture Pro has emerged as the only comprehensive program that not only conveys a thorough working knowledge of indie filmmaking, but delivers professional results that the aspiring director can be proud of. An exciting alternative to such acclaimed New York student filmmaking institutions such as New York University, The School of Visual Arts and the New York Film Academy, Motion Picture Pro may very well be the brightest and best value for your money and your time.
Motion Picture Pro is located at 122 West 26th Street and can be reached at 212.691.7791. Website at http://www.pipeline.com/~rrdirect
[Nathan Nazario is V.P., Film Publicity at mPRm Public Relations.]