I went to film school in the Stone Age (before digital video) when film was physical and editors used razor blades and sticky tape. Back then if you wanted affordable access to film cameras, lights and editing equipment, your only option was film school. But now professional grade cameras and software are readily available. And you can watch free film school tutorials about cool directing tips and techniques.
So why bother with film school? Why not take that tuition money and produce indie films instead? Because film school teaches you more than cameras and software. It teaches you the professional approach for everything from lighting to editing to sound. It gets you thinking about telling stories with pictures in a different way and provides access to people and experiences you can’t get anywhere else.
Classic Hollywood Techniques
Have you ever wondered why watching even 10 minutes of someone’s home video feels longer than watching a two-hour Hollywood feature? The answer lies in the techniques professionals use when crafting a visual story. Almost everyone knows about three-point lighting, but that’s only the start.
At film school you learn the elements of a well-crafted image, from framing to color to composition. You learn how to capture the attention of viewers and guide their eyes from shot to shot. And beyond the moving image, you learn what makes a good visual story and how to write the best possible script. In short, you learn cinematic techniques honed from more than 100 years of filmmaking that are just as valid in the digital age as they were in the silent era.
Film Crew Savvy
What does a grip really do? Or a gaffer? Or a best boy? (See sidebar, Film Terms You May Not Know) At film school you’ll experience and practice many different film crew roles. You may operate a boom or pull focus. You’ll discover the many uses of an apple box and a C-stand (and how critically important gaffer’s tape is to any production).
You’ll learn the language of cutters and cukes, cookies and dead cats and film set customs like the martini shot and running a technical rehearsal. Knowing how a film set runs is vital if you want to work on a Hollywood crew, but that knowledge is equally important if you’re wrestling with the inexperienced crew of an indie film shoot.
Other People’s Mistakes
A key part of learning to direct (and edit and write) is making mistakes. When you do something wrong (and try to fix it in post-production), you learn the importance of a cardinal rule like never crossing the stageline. In film school, not only can you make mistakes in a supportive, low threat environment, but you can also learn from other people’s mistakes.
Watching another crew suffer with bad production sound is far less painful than making that mistake yourself. And the more you watch other people make mistakes, the more likely you are to catch your own goofs before they happen.
Visual stories are unlike any other art form. To succeed, a video project must engage an audience and hold its attention. But it’s easy for a director (or editor, or writer) to get so close to their material that they lose perspective on if the story works. That’s when getting feedback from other filmmakers is crucial.
And listening to feedback is an acquired skill, because you’re rarely going to agree with people who say your project isn’t working (even when you know the story has problems.) Learning to accept feedback (and give critical feedback to others) is one of the most important skills film school teaches, and it’s vital to the success of any visual project.
Nobody makes a movie alone. Even a no-budget production needs actors and a minimal number of crewmembers. While friends and family can fill these roles, production is much easier if your crew has studied moviemaking and is comfortable with their jobs. Film school is the ideal place to meet and network with people who are passionate about making movies. A core group of film school friends often work on several projects together.
And some graduates from every class end up working professionally in the movie industry as everything from directors to writers to cinematographers to editors. These are good people to know. I’ve had the help of people I met at film school on each of the features I’ve directed.
You probably have access to a video camera and some basic editing software, but odds are you don’t have a five-ton truck of lighting gear or a soundstage at your disposal. Film schools give you access to professional tools most people can’t afford, such as sound equipment or multi-track mixing studio.
Film schools give you access to professional tools most people can’t afford, such as sound equipment or multi-track mixing studio.
And film school gives you another important benefit as well: student status. Most equipment rental houses have special student rates and waive expensive insurance requirements. Some cities even waive the need for a shooting permit if you’re working on a student project. Permissible stock media is much easier to find for a school project than for commercial purposes. Being a film student has some very real advantages.
Movies need an audience. And while posting a video online and racking up a huge number of hits is satisfying, nothing beats watching your work on the big screen in a darkened theater. Most film schools have a screening program at the end of each semester where they showcase student work. Some of the bigger film schools even invite agents and industry professionals to these screenings.
And while studios probably won’t offer you a three-picture deal based on a film school screening, it’s still an excellent opportunity to show off your talent. And listening to a live audience react to your movie is one of the best experiences you’ll ever have.
There’s an old joke about a tourist in New York who stops a musician on the street and asks, “Pardon me, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The musician replies, “Practice, practice, practice.” Making movies is a lot like playing a musical instrument. The more you practice, the better you get. One of the best things about film school is the structure it provides for practicing.
In the rush of everyday life, most people can’t set aside time to work on a video project just for the purpose of trying out new production techniques. But in a film class, you’re given specific projects with specific deadlines. You also get instruction, access to equipment, help from crewmembers, and feedback. It’s a great environment to acquire and practice the highly specialized skills of moviemaking.
But Who Has Time for Film School?
By now you have a good idea of the advantages film school offers, but can’t afford the time and money needed for two to four years of film school. That doesn’t mean you can’t have the film school experience, though.
Most cities have continuing education programs and community colleges that offer classes on everything from screenwriting to video production. They teach many of these classes in the evenings or on weekends and they’re generally affordable. And best of all, by enrolling in even a single class you’ll experience most of the benefits described in this article, from feedback and networking to equipment access and student status.
But what classes might you consider? What class to take overall? The sidebar What Classes Should I Take? gives a brief description of subjects every indie director needs to know.
Video production is often a singular business or hobby. Taking classes helps you network with like-minded people, and step into their shoes. Maybe you don’t want to be the lighting guy, but that guy in the seat across from you does and he needs a director to work with on his next project. Connection made.
So what are you waiting for? Find a school, pick a couple of classes and start shooting! It’s one of the easiest ways to start telling your own visual stories.
Sidebar: Film Terms You May Not Know
Apple Box: A wooden rectangular box measuring 8x12x20-inches with an infinite number of uses (which include makeshift chairs, impromptu ladders, and equipment platforms). Also available in half apple, quarter apple and pancake sizes.
Best Boy: The second in command of the grips or gaffers. Also referred to as the best boy grip.
C-Stand: (short for Century Stand) A three legged stand with an adjustable arm which holds lights, flags, cutters, or just about any piece of movie making equipment. A very useful piece of gear.
Cuke or Cookie: (short for cucoloris) A special type of cutter with random shapes cut through it in order to cast interesting shadows on the background.
Cutter: An opaque shape (usually a rectangle of thick black fabric on a wire frame) that directs (or blocks) light. Sometimes called a flag.
Dead Cat: A fur sock that covers the housing of a microphone, generally used outdoors (the housing is called a blimp or zeppelin). The dead cat helps eliminate wind noise.
Gaffer: The key crewmember in charge of placing lights and running electrical cables to power those lights.
Grip: A crewmember who lifts, moves, and places equipment on the set. Grips represent the muscles that make things happen.
Martini Shot: The last shot of any given shooting day. It’s called the martini because the next shot will be served in a glass.
Technical Rehearsal: The final on-set rehearsal before shooting a first take. It’s a last chance to check camera moves, focus changes, and microphone placement.
Three-Point Lighting: (See figure 1.)
Stageline: (See figure 2.)aka. 180-degree rule
Sidebar: What Classes Should I Take?
A successful video project is more than cool camera moves and a pop culture sensibility. The essence of moviemaking is storytelling, so take some classes in creative writing and screenplays. And since actors bring your story to life, take an acting class to learn how actors breathe life into their characters.
That’s just the beginning. Classes in videography (or photography) and editing are obvious choices, but you should also take classes in graphic design, which is a study of how the visual elements of an image (such as line, shape, and color) interact. Music theory is also a smart choice because music has such an enormous influence on any completed project.
And one subject every director should study is leadership. Technical skill with a camera or script is worthless unless you inspire the cast and crew that work with you. The better your leadership skills, the better your directing will be.
Pete Shaner has MFA in film production from USC and is a Film/Video instructor at the UCLA Extension. A motion-picture writer-director, Shaner’s credits include several independent features, award-winning short subjects, and narrative films. He has written for the TV series JAG and worked as the on-set technical advisor for A Few Good Men.