“we don’t need no education”…or do we?

14 May

since graduating three years ago, I’ve often wondered whether I did the right thing in studying film at university.  although I’ve generally come to the conclusion I did, I don’t think going to film school is the be-all-and-end-all that people tend to make out, particularly if you already know you are more interested in the production side of filmmaking.

if your school or college didn’t offer media or film studies courses at GCSE and A-Level, or if they did but you never took them, then film school gives you a basic understanding of the industry.  this understanding isn’t necessary to get your first (unpaid runner) job,  but it IS necessary for you to work out what part of the industry you want to specialise in.   there are so many different departments involved with making a film, some at completely opposite ends of the spectrum to others, that it can be daunting trying to figure out which is for you without being able to try them out.  apart from this, when I was 18, I barely knew the difference between a producer and a director’s job description anyway.  going to film school allows you to try on all the different department hats, and see which suits you best. sometimes, the results can be surprising.

I’m not saying you can’t figure out the above through working on a set…but once you’ve started down one career road, it’s difficult to turn round and begin on another.

then there’s the issue of being creative vs being a dogs body.  as a complete newbie on a film set or in a production office, you’ll be doing all the soul destroying jobs that nobody else wants to do: making tea, photocopying, driving, making coffee, sorting stationary cupboard, more photocopying, a bit more driving, and, um…a last round of tea.  although a savvy runner / production assistant will learn heaps by keeping their eyes and ears open and observing what’s going on around them (and why), you still won’t actually be making your own stuff, and moving forward creatively.  

whereas at film school, being creative is basically all you do, and after three years of doing it you’ll look back at your first year projects and cringe.  this is a good thing.  film school intensely teaches you how to be a skilled filmmaker, through trial and error, and by explaining why some things work and some things don’t.  it opens your eyes to the history of film rather than just the current listings at Odeon, so lessons can be learnt from the great (and not so great) filmmakers of the past.  this helps the next generation of filmmakers to move the art form forward, rather than making the same mistakes as their predecessors.

you also have access to a lot of free equipment, and are surrounded by others who want, and have nothing better to do than, make films.

if you’re still reading then: 1. congratulations, and apologies that this is turning into a bit of a long one, and 2. you’ll realise that last paragraph was about the artistic side of film.  so, the pro-film school train of thought applies to those wanting to be involved creatively in filmmaking – directing and DOPing, for example.  

in my opinion, if you know you want to produce, then it doesn’t apply as much. sure, producers have a creative hold on a project, and need to make sure that the tone of the film stays on track from development through to post-production.  they need to have a nose for a good script, and be able to make decisions that will move it towards being a commercial and creative success.  but this isn’t a practical skill that has to be developed, you could argue it is more of an instinct, or that you can learn it through other backgrounds (for example, if you have grown up being exposed to a lot of different films).

instead, a producer needs to learn hands on how a film is made.  logistically.  generally, the best way to do this is to be in a production office, or on a film set.  there’s less theory to producing than there is to directing.

I’ve recently been attaching a sales agent to my film, and have had various companies mention that, although they like to support inexperienced directors, they don’t deal with inexperienced producers (unless they have an experienced exec producer on board, which luckily I have).

this is because in order to learn, for example, which sales model best suits a certain film, or what funding is available for it, or how and why you should be co-producing with a company in Germany, a producer needs to have had experience working on a full-blown commercial film before, not just a student film project.  they normally need to have gone from production assisting to production secretarying, to production coordinating, to assistant producing, to producing.

hence the reason you hear about young, just-out-of-film-school first-time directors more than young first-time producers; a lot of money is at stake if a producer cannot budget effectively, hasn’t developed good negotiating skills, or isn’t self assured enough to put their foot down when the production starts going off-track.

so, to summerise, I would cautiously say that film school IS for you, if you:

are young and need to mature a little / have never done a film or media course, so know absolutely nothing about the different jobs available in the industry / feel intimidated by the thought of a film set / know you want to direct or be a cinematographer.

and might NOT be necessarily be for you, if you:

are older or more mature than the average uni student / are confident and capeable enough to pick up an industry from scratch, on the job / have prior experience in a different media field / know you want to produce, and already have some knowledge about media or film / are the type of person who will actively seek to learn while they work, and are not afraid to ask questions.

a film production degree will eat up three years of your life, and leave you in debt.  sometimes, an apprenticeship for a production company is more suitable.

what are other people’s points of view?

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4 Responses to ““we don’t need no education”…or do we?”

  1. oohilovehattie May 14, 2010 at 5:07 pm #

    This doesnt necessarily apply to film school directly (something which I have no experience in!!) but I hope to work in fashion. Ive made the decision NOT to go to university which was a risky and controversial one (as i am one of the first not to go from my school and my grades were very good!) – not meaning to brag but i made a choice not to go. the reason was that i felt i could learn more living in and around the creative process, ive been doing internships in different types of places and meeting new and exciting people. most of the time they lead to nothing, but when they do its somehting great. I’ve learnt a lot, and im happy with my decision. my friends will be starting university in september, and whilst they will spend three years partying and having fun, and hopefully learning a little too, i will have learnt about what i love and will hopefully be in a good job. i think it totally depends on the type of person you are, and what suits you. but i genuinely believe that if theres a creative industry that youre passionate about – you’ve just gotta go for it. hope this helps!!

    • theproducerexperiment May 14, 2010 at 5:14 pm #

      great response, and I completely agree…I was in exactly the same situation as you after I finished A-levels, and went to work for a production company in a full time, stable job. it was only after a year of doing it that I realised I still didn’t understand the production process as a whole. this was probably because I was quite reserved at the time, and didn’t push to ask questions or be in situations where I wasn’t invited. I’d kind of missed out the basics…plus, having a 9-5 job began to lose its appeal when all my friends were partying! I had a lot of growing up to do, so yes you’re right, it does depend on you as a person. good luck with your career, it sounds like you’re doing a lot of things right

  2. scarletsculturegarden May 15, 2010 at 11:16 am #

    As a student now I’m doing film studies, which is just really watching films, but I do media studies and English alongside it (sounds like a lot, it’s really not) – I kind of admire anyone who wants to get involved with the technical side because it takes a certain kind of person, and luckily I know that I’m NOT that kind of person. Probably creative experience is the easiest way to get in there, though.

    • theproducerexperiment May 19, 2010 at 3:09 pm #

      I think it is perhaps easier for crew involved in the technical side to land first-time roles, and regular freelancing work, because they have a skill to bargain with. for every one graduate wanting a camera assistant placement, there’s 5 graduates wanting a production assistant placement, probably because anyone who has initiative and drive can production assist without any prior experience, whereas you have to know your way around a camera to camera assist.

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