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Future Filmmakers And Educators: What Do You Need To Know?

25/11/2016 12:54
ChristiLaLiberte via Getty Images

The current state of film education has been on my mind. I am launching a film studies course in January, based at London's historic Phoenix cinema and open to the general public. I am looking forward to teaching people who have perhaps never considered film in a systematic way. As I devise the course and choose what to teach, I find it it thrilling to take a long view of film, to take stock of where the industry is today and to consider future developments in filmmaking and education.

The traditional boundaries between film, video and television are changing, and the ways in which we engage with content via the Internet has revolutionised our consumption of media images. We are exposed to more moving-images than ever before, and they are consumed frequently and for short periods of time, often on small screens. It's so easy to make a video on a smart phone and share it with an audience on sites such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Vimeo. Yet we haven't abandoned the public spectacle of cinema which characterised its earliest incarnations.

Film studies is one academic area which has always included theorists who also make films. However, despite anyone being able to make a film these days, relatively few films come out of academia in the UK, and those which do rarely reach a wide public audience.

This is probably because, while there are British universities which include practical filmmaking as part of their courses of study, there is an academic division between theory and practice: If you want to learn how to make films, go to film school; and if you want to learn about films, pursue film studies. How tenable is this divide in the current climate? How is film education responding to the transformations in the media industry?

Academic filmmakers

Last month I moderated a Q&A following a screening of Growing Up Married with director Dr Eylem Atakav and editor Lucy Rivers. Dr Atakav, Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of East Anglia, is making waves internationally with her bold documentary about child marriage in Turkey. She credits making this film with immeasurably strengthening her understanding of the medium, which she's taught for ten years: doing something helps you to understand it better. Dr Atakav would encourage more films to be made in the academic arena, for the benefit of individuals and academic institutions: "encouraging scholarly activity that turns theory into practice helps institutions to engage with the public and policy makers more efficiently and in a way that has impact on society and culture particularly in the context of Arts and Humanities." Not only is public impact desirable, but the requirement for universities to reach beyond the ivory towers is increasing as funding is ever more scarce.

Another leading filmmaker arising from academia is Dr Joshua Oppenheimer, Reader at the University of Westminster. He is perhaps best known as the award-winning director of the stunning films The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014). These ground-breaking explorations of the perpetrators of the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide grew out of research part-funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I wrote about the impact and importance of these films in my previous blog post here.

Film Studies courses have only recently began extricating themselves from Modern Languages departments. The courses on offer are seeped in theory, with strong links to national cinema movements and languages. Consequently, they are often taught by specialists in languages and culture rather than film industry professionals. Future filmmakers may have to attain practical experience through other means.

University graduates may well be competing for media industry jobs with candidates who have qualifications from film schools, which teach practical, technical skills with a vocational purpose.

Innovative thinking

Newcomers to the filmmaking industry need skills which reach far beyond the classical methods of filmmaking: they will be making different kinds of content for different audiences and purposes, including for television, virtual reality and video games. Accordingly, educators are required to develop innovative ways of teaching.

I was invited to the Met Film School's inaugural Smart Screen Creative Awards held last week, to celebrate the past two years' BA and MA graduates. I saw how the School, based at Ealing Studios, is facing the new challenges to the media industry. The awards were held at a trendy new venue in London's West End - a far cry from the academic parties I've attended, much more the seductive Soho-media world which always feels a privilege and pleasure to enter.

Awards were presented in the categories of Audience Engagement, Entrepreneurship, Innovation, Diversity, Creative Excellence and Impact. The School's Chief Executive Jonny Persey explained that rather than awards in traditional categories such as best director, best cinematographer, etc., the chosen categories highlight the key skills needed for today's market and acknowledge the collaborative nature of filmmaking which is fostered in the School.

The awards were judged by leaders in filmmaking, television and social media, clearly inspiring students towards a practical and commercial view of their future careers, and envisaging a filmmaker's role as essential to many (perhaps all) industries.

Employment opportunities for talented content creators are rising. Twitter's Managing Director Dara Nasr, judge of the Creative Excellence award (dynamic winner: The Sprint King), told me that video content is shared on Twitter six times more than photos. He also reported that film is one of the most popular topics of tweets - and I thought it was just because of my particular selection of Following and Followers, but it would seem film is trending across the board.

Technology is driving new ways of thinking creatively about images and viewer experience. At the Met Film School, students balance their training with client work, commissioned by charities and businesses. MA Producing student Mara Manzolini is part of a student team commissioned by the charity RightsInfo to create a project commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the Nuremberg war crimes trials. The project won in the Impact category and it's been viewed about 150,000 times in its first two months online. Mara said this was the first time she'd been asked specifically to make content to be viewed on a small screen, the size of a smart phone or tablet. Future filmmakers may also have to consider creating for portrait (rather than landscape) orientation so that users don't have to flip their screens, or making them square, similar to the previous 4:3 aspect ratio of early film and television, says Steve Pinhay, the Met Film School's Head of Screen Enterprise and Graduate Opportunities.

Future prospects

Film students are at risk of missing out on knowledge of film history and theory if the focus of practical courses shifts too fully to commercial enterprise. And universities will certainly do well to accommodate more filmmaking in film studies courses, with more filmmakers teaching on their courses. My hope is that divisions between theory and practice will soften, as academia and industry see the benefits of both critical and technical know-how.

Professional filmmakers may also have no formal training or scholarship. When considering future prospects, two points of advice for future filmmakers remain clear. Employers value experience, whether it's making films, working in a local cinema, or putting on a conference or festival. And people matter: We all need good teachers, at all stages of our careers. What you really need is access to the people who can guide you and either employ you, or lead you to others who can. Somewhat reassuringly, these two points are nothing new, nor are they unique to the media industry. No technical innovations will shift the necessity for commitment to a profession and for connection to other people.

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