Is Film School the Way to Go?

Every summer, Docs In Progress gives an opportunity for our summer intern to write an article of interest to the Docs In Progress community.  This year, Fay Gartenberg examined the question of how one can best educate themselves in documentary filmmaking. 



To attend film school or not to attend film school, that is the question.  This phrase has been playing on repeat in my mind for the last year as I have come ever closer to completing my undergraduate degree in film studies.  As a Program Intern for Docs In Progress this past summer, I began to think more deeply about the advantages and disadvantages of film school.  I met individuals from many different professional backgrounds who had used their first video cameras in a Docs In Progress production course. I also spoke with filmmakers, some of whom had received degrees from film school while others were entirely self-taught. Their perspectives on film school as well as the additional perspectives I received from the Docs In Progress staff provided me with a better sense of what film school has to offer and where it falls short.

The question of whether or not to attend film school is more a question of whether film school is truly worth the significant amount of effort, time and money that is required.  Why not just purchase a couple of filmmaking books or watch YouTube video tutorials to make your own film, learning as you go along and developing your own process? I received many opinions on whether a formal film school education is necessary given the technologies people have access to now, the changing times in the filmmaking world in general, and the possibility that an aspiring filmmaker can still dodge a formal technical degree and jump right in.

For the most part, film school is costly, but it offers a well-rounded understanding of a particular film industry or practice, whether it is documentary, independent, commercial, or even experimental. If tuition is a concern or you are interested in using a film school education to teach others, some film programs offer teaching positions to students.  Some schools will also offer film studies courses in addition to production, such as film theory, genres and history. A student is also likely to learn filmmaking in the context of its evolving technologies.  Students who earn film degrees are likely to have learned several skills in multiple areas such as producing, directing, editing and cinematography.  It is typically an environment where one can learn alongside peers and make mistakes safely -- where you are never alone or isolated while working on a project.  Some say that learning how to make film in an institution provides more structure and makes one a more disciplined practitioner.

Networking is also said to be another advantage to film school. Individuals in a position to do so may assist, recommend or hire former classmates, students or mentees before hiring someone they don’t know.  Many film programs offer good internships and it is likely that continual support is available from a program’s alumni network.

A film degree may very well provide an excellent learning experience, especially if you attend a program that is well-suited to your film interests and aspirations. While attending a specific program may enable you to make better connections more easily or understand more about the craft, it’s not a guarantee by any stretch.  You may have a lot of talent, you may be proficient in several skills and you might have already created many well-received films, but without access to equipment, guidance and a built-in support system, the world of filmmaking can be difficult to break into, especially if you want to enter an industry.  And as much as film students might think they know more about the craft after completing one or two larger film projects as assignments, a real level of expertise can only be attained by way of repeated practical experience which extends beyond one’s education.

So what about those who never attended film school?  These people generally work in the industry on productions rather than other jobs, such as teaching film, but there are always exceptions. Some people don’t attend school because of expense or because they have an itch to start filming right away and decide to learn as they go. While film school might offer a well-rounded education and a deep exposure to aspects of a particular film industry or practice, there are always opportunities to continue learning.  Extension and short-term courses like the ones offered at Docs In Progress, seminars and books are abundantly available to anyone who is interested, no matter how experienced or inexperienced they are.  In both cases, the best film education is in the constant making of film and of living a rich life full of stories and statements to share on the screen.

One of my film professors once told me that if you wish to become a filmmaker, the best training is not through formal film study, but rather through the study of disciplines, specifically within the social sciences and humanities. These disciplines are ones in which a student can learn about the elements of storytelling and about observation and critical thinking and reflection. In order to make high-quality films, you must explore and observe the nuances and subtleties of life and allow what you witness to advise every frame of your film work. Whether or not you choose to pursue film school, having a full life beyond a school campus is what genuinely gives you stories to tell and things to say. All you need is access to the tools to do so.

The filmmakers and film educators I spoke with gave me wise advice, such as the belief that one cannot teach an individual any specific thing, but that one can only guide a student towards locating his or her knowledge from within. I noticed an overall caution that, while film school can likely develop your filmmaking technique, focus and ability to communicate your message effectively, do not assume that it will actually hand you the message itself or a message that fits with who you are.

If you wish to educate, inspire, entertain and challenge viewers using the powerful storytelling tool of film, you must dedicate yourself to the larger study of life. You should explore many literatures and histories. Experience different cultures. Walk down different paths of life.  Doing so presents challenges that are essential to constructing your stories and creative visions. There’s quite a difference between the “business” of making film and the “art” of making film. If the latter appeals to you more, it is crucial that you have a continuous thirst for building a strong foundation of experiences before attempting to excel at the craft of filmmaking.

Fay Gartenberg is completing her senior year in the Film Studies Program at Mount Holyoke College in Western Massachusetts. She has made three short documentaries while at school and one of them, Prior To/ Travel, was screened last year in the 2010 Five College Student Film Festival in Amherst, MA. She is currently working as an editor for a full-feature documentary made by a University of Massachusetts Amherst Graduate Film Certificate student. She is also currently making two short found footage films for a film production thesis. She is interested in pursuing a career in International NGO program development, specifically media and film literacy education.


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