WILL SHORTZ, crossword puzzle editor for The New York Times, spoke at my commencement on the frequent disconnect between one’s university major and eventual career choice. While that’s not what I wanted to hear after four years and tens of thousands of dollars, I find myself today being an example of this trend. I did not study film in college, and now my work revolves around self-teaching principles of cinematography and related technology to be innovative and marketable in the media industry.
Without belittling the certain perks of attending film school (or formally studying any specialty for that matter), I believe if you’re motivated, there’s a way to teach yourself enough to obtain a great job, gain work experience, and prosper with continued self-improvements. As many advocates for the self-taught film path cite, it’s likely your favorite filmmaker didn’t study his craft at school either.
So how is it possible to reap the benefits of a film school education without actually going?
Get schooled for free at your own pace.
The internet has an ample supply of up-to-date and often free resources for those desiring enhanced film skills. An inherent perk is the incredible amount of video tutorials on new technology and filming techniques. In December of 2010, Vimeo launched its Video School, a section of the video-sharing site dedicated to both in-house and user-generated tutorials for the absolute beginner and the advanced.
First, Video 101 provides advice in picking a camera, shooting, and learning how to edit, followed by a challenge to produce ‘5 vignettes‘ and submit it to a group of peers that supply commentary and critique. Once you’re blown away by your own potential for movie-making or if you’re further along with your skills, the featured lessons give in-depth information on all film aspects from technical to creative.
Today, there is a trending aesthetic for the DSLR video look, and for this Vimeo enlisted the help of self-taught DSLR cinematographer Philip Bloom to create a series of tutorials for this specific niche. Bloom is an accomplished filmmaker and a “leading world evangelists for the low budget film look.” Regardless of his low budget appeal, he’s worked for major news organizations and the likes of George Lucas.
Get fluent in the ever-changing tools
Creative education doesn’t always include instruction on how to use the medium’s tools. I attended university for studio art, and rarely did one of my professors walk me through the functionality of the computer programs or equipment required for assignments. It’s assumed you learn it on your own. Because film is so tech-based, taking notice of the continuous evolution of gear, techniques, and vocabulary is a necessity.
Zacuto develops custom camera accessories for independent filmmakers, and they have publicly produced over 200 short videos covering more than just their product line. I thought a pixel was a dot of color until I watched their video, “What do all the numbers mean?,” which explains the difference between real resolution descriptions and marketing lingo. Their video on ergonomics shows how camera accessories can make the act of filming more in tune with the body’s natural movement. Unless you get work experience that exposes you to these new ideas and tools, it’s up to you to be conscious of the ever-changing tool kit.
NoFilmSchool.com offers a technical, comprehensive DSLR cinematography guide for free, which compiles information from forums, manuals, and tutorials in an easily-read format. This is not only useful for fledgling DSLR filmmakers but practitioners who don’t understand the technical details.
I do enjoy though that the art of video can always be accomplished by the basic tools, no matter how outdated from the current camera manifestations. Unless you’re made of money or a contract worker for the New York Times, you won’t have access to $10,000 lenses, nor will knowledge of this technology even determine your marketability.
Position yourself for the current job market.
Alexander Fox of CrewOfOne.com says he doesn’t regret being a SCAD film graduate of 1999, but if he were approaching the industry today, he wouldn’t make the same decision.
These days, if you shoot a kick-ass music video on a Canon 60D that got two million views, you’re going to be in a stronger bargaining position than a person who graduated film school with an only moderately entertaining short film shot on a RED…Nobody gives a crap what you’ve learned. They only care what you’ve done. You know what film school grads are qualified to do? Work as camera assistants.
Today, Alexander’s function is reflected in his web domain; he operates autonomously on his video projects, even labor-intensive ones such as TV commercials and corporate marketing. This isn’t out of initial preference and workflow but market necessity. In the current media climate, it has become increasingly important for one to know all aspects of the work: light, sound, shooting, editing, etc. Companies commonly have just enough in the budget for crews of one – video ninjas as we like to call them. Therefore, if you’re hoping to get any exposure while also sustaining your existence until that big break, consider how far your money will take you.
Today, you can buy a book on filmmaking, and a DSLR or EVIL camera that captures high definition footage with a quality the casual viewer would have trouble differentiating from a feature film onto inexpensive memory cards, and a computer to edit it on, all for less than the price of one semester of a four-year film program. You can distribute your work for free on the internet, and promote it worldwide at no cost using social media. -Alexander Fox, CrewOfOne.com
Get constructive feedback on your work.
A grade alone on a film project doesn’t result in skill development, but the humbling (and often empowering) occurrence of the critique is the element that informs and inspires future work. This is the experience for which creative education is worth paying, assuming it’s not replicable online. Well, actually it can be.
Aside from befriending filmmakers and encouraging commentary on each others’ Facebook videos, there are websites that facilitate dialogue and critique through forums, like IndieTalk.com and CreativeCow.net. If you’re seeking something more formal, critiques are for sale, or you can try imploring a critic with your trailer.
It’s not only beneficial to hear your work dissected but that of your peers, too. Zacuto’s director Steve Weiss and Philip Bloom co-host an un-censored web series where they view three short films and provide their honest feedback. As helpful as this may be to some, I imagine a physical meet-up of like-minded people discussing their own work would be more applicable and educative. Connect with filmmakers in your area on Twitter or through local activity groups. This can be an emotionally invasive aspect of filmmaking but proves to be a sharpening tool.
Connect with people that help you grow.
Submitting your films to festivals and contests is another way to receive feedback and potentially gain targeted exposure to the people with whom you need to connected. And since connections tend to define career success today better than talent or drive alone, this should be a priority for anyone hoping to sustain themselves with video work.
“My goal was to get myself to New York and start a film career – without any connections, and without going to film school,” says Ryan Bilsborrow-Koo, the mind behind the NoFilmSchool.com. Koo curates a content-rich blog with posts like ‘How to get a job in New York,’ which feels remarkably similar to my first work connection scenario (facilitated by Matador). He’s also strongly opinionated on the power of the filmmaker in an evolving industry.
Having powerful connections whose names are recognized in decisive circles is the goal, because isn’t that how movies get made? Script to screen, movies can take average of five years to produce going the traditional route of appealing to studios, and that’s if all the stars align for funding, cast, crew, and relevancy of the storyline. Koo gives merit to the route of Kickstarter or IndieGoGo projects, prosumer DSLR camera shooting, and DIY movies where the creator maintains the intellectual property.
Clarify your thoughts on higher education.
“…just make sure you go with a progressive film school, one that uses DSLRs and doesn’t turn their nose up at them in favour of shooting on film. Do I wish I went to film school? Yes and no. I would have LOVED the experience, but I would not be where I am today if I had gone that route. I was lucky and got a job and worked my way up.” -Philip Bloom
Once I hit the road post-university, I began to suspect a future decline in the importance of tertiary education, even though I valued my own college experience. The price tag involved, the quantitative assessment, and the apprehension of theoretical knowledge don’t seem to outweigh what can be developed with work experience and personal experimentation. Information and inspiration is shed freely and frequently.
“I believe that the lowered cost of digital production tools, measured against a graduate film school’s costly tuition, means that many folks are better off living life and figuring out what they want to say about the world, rather than sitting in a classroom being told which films are important and where to put the camera.” -Koo
I’d also be thrilled to participate in projects with brilliant classmates, be in the proximity of accomplished professors, and receive the implied merit of completing a formal education. I’m just not sure it’s as fiscally or professionally beneficial as it used to be.
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