I made a special page for students on my website just so that I can share all of the amazing educational resources that I’ve found online. I arrived in film school eager to learn the secrets behind the scenes shortly after YouTube arrived on the web.
Today there has been an incredible amount of peer-to-peer learning going on in the form of video tutorials, filmmaker vlogs and do-it-yourself success stories that anyone with a web browser can access. Digital technology and the proliferation of easy-to-share content has given us nothing less than a mass media renaissance that has redefined what it means to be a filmmaker, and more importantly, who gets to be a filmmaker.
As a teacher I’m always looking for a better animated graphic of how lenses work or a really great video essay that summarizes an important filmmaking concept. I’ve collected the best of those videos in a series of YouTube playlists that I’ve organized into a curriculum that I like to think of as a “video textbook” which can be viewed as an online film school.
Vol. 1 Cinema Technica – How to produce your own films and videos.
Vol. 2 Cinema Esoterica – How to analyze, interpret and understand film form.
Vol. 3 Cinema Politica – How to be an aware, critical and skeptical media consumer.
Vol. 4 Movies About Movies – Documentaries about filmmakers, filmmaking and media.
With so much free educational material available, one may even stop to ask if something as archaic and analog as a film school is even necessary anymore. The question of whether or not to go to film school is a complicated one that every individual must answer for themselves, but whatever you choose you can rest assured that a film school degree is not a requirement for a career in filmmaking and much of what you need to know is at your fingertips. It’s a very exciting time to be a filmmaker.
If you’re thinking about film school I highly recommend the book Film School: A Practical Guide to an Impractical Decision by Jason B. Kohl. Put simply, there are plenty of good reasons to go to film school, but lack of access to the mere information and instructions required to make films is not one of them.
I can only speak for myself. I know that my film school experience has been incredible, invaluable and could never be replicated by a series of videos, but the availability of such a library of study materials greatly enhanced my experience as a student. After spending years studying filmmaking I noticed that I spent as much of that time learning my craft from vloggers, podcasts and how-to videos as I have from my school lectures, required readings and classroom assignments.
Now don’t get me wrong. Nothing can compare to the educational experience of actually making and finishing things together. But for the mere information and instructions required to get started, I’d say it’s about 50% classroom lectures and 50% resources that I found online, including recordings of other lectures from educators who’s perspectives and insight can be just as valuable and enlightening.
I don’t say that to criticize the classroom experience. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have some incredible teachers over the years, but I’ve been equally fortunate that some of those teachers have committed their lessons to the formal conventions of sharable, online videos as an expression of an open-source pedagogy that I truly admire. If making and understanding media is important to a free and open society, then the free availability of these lessons is an investment in our future and a collective win for democracy in media.
More to the point, it means more people making more media in more different ways for more diverse audiences than ever before and I think that’s pretty cool. Put another way, if you want to be a filmmaker and you have a passion for telling stories, you now have a lot fewer excuses for not getting started. So what are you waiting for?
But if you’re still thinking about film school, read on.
Below is one of the best responses to the film school question. It’s an transcript from the final episode of the Indie Film Weekly podcast where Charles Haine answers the question “Should I go to film school?”
“It entirely depends upon who you are. First off, my bias. I both went to and enjoyed film school and I teach in a film school, the Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema, which is a public and affordable film school here in Brooklyn. So everything I say is biased by the fact that I enjoyed my experience and I learned a lot from it and I currently work in one, but here’s my thoughts of film school.
There is so much knowledge online and on the internet that the purpose of film school has changed in the last twenty years. There’s all this stuff that you used to have to go to the facility to learn, but now you can learn exposure and workflow and storytelling and film history and all sorts of other stuff in articles on platforms like No Film School or on our podcast like Indie Film Weekly or you can go to YouTube or Wolf Crow. There’s so many other places where you can learn so much.
And let’s remember, it’s not about the equipment anymore. In the eighties or nineties you were going to film school because that was the only place you could get your hands on a great camera, but honestly the camera in the cell phone in your pocket is better than the camera that I did ninety percent of my film school assignments with. So those old arguments for going to film school I think are irrelevant. And I think if a film school is still trying to cater to ‘we have secret special knowledge and we have special equipment’ is missing the point a little bit.
There is really expensive equipment and it’s nice to go to film school so that you can get your hands on it so the first time you have a professional job and someone’s like ‘Have you ever worked with a RED or Alexa?’ you can honestly say ‘Yes I have.’ That’s a nice part of a film school. I’m not going to say equipment is not part of the package, but I don’t actually think that’s the key.
For me, the things that a film school offers that you can’t get anywhere else starts with a dedicated time in your life to focus on getting better at making movies. I’ve gotten a lot of breaks in my career, a lot of opportunities, a lot of chances, some of them through film school and the relationships and the people I met there, a lot of them not. But I was better prepared when those breaks came to me because I had spent three years in grad school worrying only about being a better filmmaker. That was it.
I needed that time to grow and develop, and if I’d had those same breaks without three years of learning I would have made a lot of the mistakes that I made on film school projects were it didn’t matter on professional projects where I would have then not progressed as far in the industry because on those professional jobs I didn’t deliver. For me, I really needed that time and a lot of people need that time before they actually get to their first client commercial, their first client music video or their first feature. I personally was better prepared for them because I’d spent that time.
And that time isn’t something you can get easily in life. It’s really hard to carve out big chunks of time. There are things you can keep doing while you have a full time job. For me, you can write everyday with a job. Wake up an hour early. Write a little bit every morning. You can totally do that while working. But it’s really hard to practice filmmaking, big team filmmaking, with a day job. And film school is an opportunity to have a lot of big team filmmaking experiences in a compact amount of time.
Second, and this matters way more for some than others, the structure and deadlines of a film program are helpful. You know you’re going to have a thesis in your third year. You know that’s coming. You’re working on writing that. You have script deadlines. You have edit deadlines. There’s all of this structure throughout to help you get there.
Yes there’s infinite knowledge online but sometimes what you need more than all the information in the world is to know that someone is going to read your script on this date and critique it and then you’re going to go shoot it and then you’re going to edit it and someone’s going to look at your edit and give you notes and then there’s going to be a screening and your parents are going to be there and you know that that date is coming and you can’t move it.
Some need this, others don’t. There are totally super self-disciplined people out there who don’t need it. Total respect. I also have a ton of friends who spent a decade trying to make a short film and just couldn’t and then they went to film school and made a dozen short films in three years and a thesis they’re really proud of and their career’s moving in a different way now. So I think that structure is useful to some.
The last thing, and this is actually for me in 2019 I think the most important thing, that you can get out of a film school is a community. Film school is a magic time to be surrounded by a class full of other film nerds who all just want to get better. There’s a lot of support. There’s a lot of helping each other out on shoots. There’s a lot of going to see movies together and sitting in a bar afterwards and arguing about that movie.
There’s a lot of ‘I’ll do sound for you if you do sound for me.’ There’s all of that knowledge and growth that you get out of a community. Even a little gentle competition where you watch someone and you’re like ‘Oh my god, they’re getting better. Am I getting better?’ and you work a little harder and you grow and you’ve got that group energy together. And there’s something special about that.
And the reason why I mention it in 2019 is that community is getting harder and harder to find. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for big group communities. In addition, the film industry is exceptionally freelance in nature. It’s a very hard place to find community. You might go out and work on a film shoot with people where you spend five weeks in the Panamanian jungle together and it’s like summer camp and you’re all best friends. And then all the sudden you’re in Los Angeles and you don’t see them again for a decade. That’s very common in the film industry. But I still see a lot of my film school friends to this day. I still regularly stay in touch with a lot of them. There’s a longer-term continuity there because of that long shared crucible of the film school experience when you first go through it.
Now, those are three pluses and a good film school really focuses on those attributes in my opinion. But I also think a film school should be affordable. I don’t know that film school, even with those three things that I’m saying are great, are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, honestly. I know that there was a time where that number felt like okay. I don’t know that that number makes sense anymore. I think that like UCLA, one of the oldest public institutions, and Feirstein where I teach are much more affordable public institutions. I think if you don’t get a hundred thousand dollars in debt NYU, USC, schools like that are probably worth it. I don’t know if they’re worth it if it’s a hundred and fifty thousand dollars of debt. I just don’t.
Having said that, I went to USC and walked out with a hundred and seventy thousand dollars of debt. It was 2005. We had a different attitude towards student debt then. It was before the crisis. It was the wrong attitude. It was an insane time. It’s so weird to look back at 2002. There’s this weird mass cultural delusion that the economy was always going to keep getting better and no amount of student debt was too much. It’s so crazy to look back at that.
And now to be a professor in 2019 and talking to people and like, I respect how much more conscious my students are of the burden of student debt than and how much more careful they are at keeping it low. My whole generation just didn’t treat it like that.
So I would say that if you are considering film school: A – You get out of it what you put into it. Work super hard. Give everything you possibly can. Like, absorb all of that information with all of the energy and effort you can. B – Try and find a way to do it affordably with the lowest amount of debt possible. I think there’s probably a reasonable amount of debt. Twenty five thousand dollars in student loan debt is probably something that could be paid off in a reasonable amount of time. Again, that number is going to be based on you and where you are in your life and what you’re comfortable with. I certainly think NYU and USC can provide valuable experiences if you can find a way to do it without more debt than a house.
Everyone’s journey through the film industry is going to be different. Film is not like law or medicine where a terminal degree is a requirement. I know many people who dropped out of highschool and have had happy, successful careers. No one is ever going to check if you got an MA or an MFA or a BA before hiring you. Although they will check if you want to teach. If you’re ever like ‘Oh, maybe someday I want to teach in film school’ then you’ll almost definitely need an MFA generally. But it can be a really wonderful experience if you walk into it knowing that it’s one avenue of sort of lifelong learning.
And I will say this. I’m fourteen years out of film school at this point and I am still learning stuff about the film industry and storytelling and making movies all the time. So yea. No film school is ever going to give you all of the information on filmmaking, but hopefully a good one will help you not be saddled with so much debt but give you a chance to really grow into being the filmmaker you want to be.
But film school is still a less insane decision than it was twenty years ago. Twenty years ago there weren’t that many people working in film and it was a very small industry and there were very few things you can do. Honestly in 2019 there is so much media content getting created. But there are probably more U.S. senators than there are studio directors. So the idea that film school is going to be a path to studio directing, that is just a roll of the dice.
But there is so much work out there making social media content and making videos for institutions, there has been such an explosion in this. I would feel weird teaching in a film school if I didn’t feel like my students were mostly going to be able to get jobs. Whereas now at least there is a lot of work, in certain cities.
If you can put together a beautiful and amazing portfolio there is work out there and none of these jobs I’m talking about are going to check whether or not you went to film school. They just want to know if you can do the work. But I still look back on the fact that when I was at USC they bragged about how less than ten percent of their graduates work in film. It was like a point of pride about how hard the industry was where they were like ‘On average in ten years less than ten percent of you will be working in film.’ and I look back and I’m like ‘Then why are you charging so much money for this?’”
That’s the end of the transcript. As someone who also went to film school, took on a lot of student loan debt and then even taught at a film school, I completley agree with everything he said.
Again, that’s excerpt is from the final episode of the Indie Film Weekly podcast which was a best-of compilation and definitely worth listening to.
And if you’re still thinking about film school I recommend Film School: A Practical Guide to an Impractical Decision by Jason B. Kohl and What They Don’t Teach You at Film School by Camille Landau and Tiare White.
Good luck and happy filmmaking!