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by Charles Wilkinson
March 29, 2013 11:06 AM
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The ABC's of Film School: 4 Questions to Ask and Why Student Films Often Suck

Canadian writer/director Charles Wilkinson ("Peace Out," "The Highlander") is following up the first edition of his "The Working Film Director" with an updated second edition.  The book is targeted towards just-beginning filmmakers, and covers everything having to do with what working as a filmmaker really means, from going to film school (or not) to making your first film.

Below is an excerpt from the book's chapter on film school, courtesy of its publisher Michael Weise Productions.  To see more of the book or to buy it, check out the book on Amazon.

How To Choose Your Film School

Who have they taught? Before you sign on the dotted line, ask each school for a list of their graduates who are now established or working directors. IMDb search them. Some schools have a very good record in this area. Some not so much. If directing is what you want to learn, find a school that legitimately has produced currently working directors.

Above or below the line? There are films schools that are run by former sound mixers, make-up artists, and so on. They’re often really good at teaching sound mixing, make-up, and so on.

Current faculty? Is this a school where the key faculty members are rewarded for staying current by making their own films? Schools like this pride themselves on producing award-winning, working filmmakers. Good fit for you, the aspiring director.

Learning from success — or failure? Is there a climate of penetrating critical analysis at this school? Do the instructors step in with a gentle but firm hand? Are students guided with mature artistic authority and experience? Or are students primarily expected to learn from their own and each other’s unguided failures? Surgeons, engineers, architects, airplane mechanics — all these are taught with a firm hand using success as the standard measure. In my experience, film is best taught this way. A tip: Before signing, go see their year-end show. If it’s an ambitious, well-run affair featuring noteworthy films — you’re home.

There it is. Four key questions. Next up, a few tips on what to do once you’re sitting in class.

You May Have The Need for Speed -- We Don't

Know the scene in "Top Gun" when Maverick and Goose are in their first class, where Mav boasts to Viper that he knows he's the best?  Viper responds: "That's pretty arrogant.  I like that in a pilot."

Know what?  Few instructors with any kind of background appreciate attitude like that in a directing student.  Filmmaking is a highly collaborative craft.  Arogance in a leader is just not an effective management tool.  In any event, arrogance from someone who has yet to earn a single dollar from directing is just kind of amusing.

Yes, art is subjective and the judgements you receive on your work are only your instructor's opinion.  But if they've had a good career creating content that people have paid to see, that's a pretty informed opinion, no?  Here's a tip.  If your instructor gives you a poor grade on a film -- post it to YouTube.  If it scores, say, 20,000 hits within a week -- go to your instructor.  A good one will revise your grade.

Why Do Student Films Suck?

I have seen student films that challenged my very belief system. Marv Newland’s student film Bambi Meets Godzilla remains my favorite animation of all time. Robert Boyd’s student film Labyrinth inspired me to attend the film school he did. I had a student who used her short film to come out to her very conservative parents — it was heart-wrenching. But you have to admit, many student films simply don’t work. The most common reason I see is that they’re not about anything. Teen angst is a subject, not a story. If your story is about an average guy with a goofy bro roommate whose girlfriend is unhappy with their messy apartment — who cares?

Major tip: If your story can’t convince a complete stranger to watch your movie by describing it with one 25-word sentence — they won’t.

The second most common reason I see for student films that turn out poorly is that the student’s reach exceeds their grasp. They try to tell stories that are too twisty, they use techniques that are too complex. Here’s an analogy; there’s a popular climbing mountain near where I live. Experienced climbers using pro gear scale the sheer rock face. Hikers climb the foot path. Quentin Tarantino is like an expert rock climber. He’s learned how to use complex tools like pitons, carabineers, and rock bolts that enable him to make some bold moves — tools like time-shifting, extremely obnoxious characters in lead roles, never revealing the McGuffin in the brief case. These are his pitons, carabineers, and rock bolts. The student, on the other hand, is more like a hiker on the trail. You need different tools — a water bottle, sneakers, sunglasses, a hat. If you forget who you are and make the mistake of dragging rock climbing gear up the trail with you, not only will you misuse it — there’s a good chance you won’t make it to the top with your sneaker and t-shirt-clad friends. In other words, the more complex the story, the more skill it takes to tell, and the greater likelihood that a relative beginner will mess it up.


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6 Comments

  • Jon Jost | March 31, 2013 2:21 PMReply

    Re Why Student Films Sk: it isn't because of story-telling skills (though it can be); it is because without life experiences, rich, complex, hard, one doesn't really have a grasp on something worth telling. Many film students have experienced life through films, which is a pale substitute for the real thing. Many film teachers were film junkies when young, studied, got a degree and became teachers. They don't know much about life, but either they know technique, styles or theory. This gets passed on. Academic filmmaking is usually awful - full of theory, "thinking" and too much undigested concern about style without any understanding of how such things meld with conveying something about life. Or about making a clone of the latest Hwd successful indicating creative bankruptcy right off the bat. My advice: don't go to film school. Save a bundle of $ and delusions that a degree is going to get you anything worth the money spent.

  • Jon Jost | March 30, 2013 2:28 PMReply

    This advice is perhaps good for those whose sole interest is in becoming a commercial film director, cog in the wheel of commerce, etc. It doesn't mention that your odds of actually getting a film job is slim, that it has nothing to do with art and creativity, and that it will shackle you with a student debt you will probably never pay off, and leave you on some corporate treadmill the rest of your life. In my view, minus these conditions, the advice sucks.

  • jean vigo | March 30, 2013 1:45 AMReply

    All good observations, but a key hole in logic when comparing student films to an experienced Tarantino or whomever for that matter.

    How about comparing to the student films of now well-known directors? I've seen quite a few of them, and they are head-scratchingly AWFUL (there is a veritable A-list of directors with crappy student films.)

    The point is - most student films will be ambitious and will fall short, but they are just that - a beginning. Most film students find their stride AFTER college, when they go out and make their first short outside the walls of academia. There is a period when they begin to absorb the films and filmmakers they analyzed in the film studies, not the production, courses which leads to the opening of talent.

  • Jordan | March 29, 2013 1:54 PMReply

    I wanted to add one more thing... There is certainly no substitute for experience but I heard the same thing from my professors as I am hearing from Nina and Charles: that kids just don't know. As teachers I think that mentality is counter-productive and maybe even irresponsible. You are supposed to inspire your students to find and believe in their talents, not put them down for not having trained them enough. Just because a directing student wants to assert authority over their film doesn't make them arrogant... it makes them the author.

  • Jordan | March 29, 2013 1:43 PMReply

    Interesting article that only scratches the surface of the problems inherent in choosing and participating in a film school... fortunately I have the book though. Thanks Mr. Wilkinson.

  • Nina Seavey | March 29, 2013 12:24 PMReply

    Having been a film professor for nearly 25 years and having watched hundreds of student films, I can honestly say that only a handful weren't seriously flawed. Why? Because it takes a lot of experience to become an adept storyteller. It's a journey to learn to meld technology and ideas and imagination to create something that captivates a viewer.

    But damned if I don't get several calls and e-mails a week from organizations, nonprofits, businesses, etc. wanting to know if I have students who can make films for them because "students always have such new, fresh insights!" As if experience is some kind of stifling burden on creativity.

    "No," I say, "they make the mistakes that newcomers make in all things. You wouldn't want someone cutting into your brain just because they owned a knife and knew where your head was. So similarly, you might think about whether a more seasoned approach might make for a better outcome for your organization's film?" That framing usually gives them pause if nothing else.