What You Need to Know About Going to Film School (Or Not)

Getting into the film industry is tough. Do you go to film school? Do you study film at a university? Do you just dive right in with PA work? It can be hard to choose, and after you choose it can be hard to know if you made the right call.

My Story

I’ve been out of college for about a year and a half now. I work crew jobs (mostly camera department) on small productions in North and South Carolina, but most of my work is with Vidmuze Aerial Cinema as a safety officer for multi-rotor operation. I’ve been working with Vidmuze in non-aerial productions since I interned with them in college, and I started doing aerial work in early 2013. No, you’ve probably not heard of much I’ve worked on, but I consider myself fairly successful nonetheless. At age 22, I feel like I could be doing a lot worse. Many of the people I graduated with are waiting tables or selling insurance rather than working in the film industry like they originally intended.

Like many film students, I knew early in high school that I wanted to work in the industry. The problem was I just didn’t know how to get in. I looked into a number of schools: film schools, universities with film departments, big schools, small schools, art conservatories, technical schools, liberal arts universities, all over the United States. Eventually I felt drawn to a small liberal arts university that I had previously passed over because they didn’t have a true film program. To this day, I’m not entirely sure how I rationalized going to a school that only offered a degree in Broadcast Media with a concentration in Video Production. But they did offer me a ton of scholarships, so that helped.

I showed up as a Freshman ready to conquer the world. I quickly learned, however, that Broadcast Media was not really what I wanted to learn. For a while my Freshman year, I considered transferring out and finding a program focused more on film. However, I began meeting some other like-minded students and felt that I should stick around and try to make the most of the situation.

The reality is that it was frustrating. I spent most of my time dealing with the course work for non-production classes. My production classes were mostly geared toward ENG material. I never once had an instructor guide me through the production of a short, from pre-pro to post. By Sophomore year I was doing more writing about film than I was making films. By the end of college, I had only produced half a dozen short films, and only three of them ended up as projects I would want my name attached to, even as a student. The low standards of the department kept the lazy or meek students from improving, and made the creative or driven students frustrated. I would say that less than ten percent of what I learned about film during my four years of college was actually taught to me in the classroom.

So let’s recap: I was spending more time in non-production classes. My production classes weren’t focused on film. I didn’t even set foot on a real film set until my final semester. But if I could go back to being a high school senior, I’d pick college all over again. Why? Because college made me a better version of myself, and a better person is a better filmmaker.

Now, college doesn’t work that way for everyone. I have friends who suffered all the way through graduation, friends who dropped out, and friends who never once had a thought about going to college. But for me, I believe university was the right choice.

First things first:

A college degree is not going to get you a job in film. Education doesn’t even show up on a production resume. In the film industry, it’s not about where you studied, but rather what and who you know. So how do you learn what you need to know and meet who you need to know? I believe that’s a complicated question that depends on each individual. For this reason, I’m going to pick apart the options and highlight some strengths to each. Hopefully this will help you understand what steps to take yourself.

Advantages of College

#1 – Film is about more than technical know-how.

You will learn many things in college. You’ll learn about life and who you’re going to be. You’ll (hopefully) learn about a great number of topics in an environment that is very different from high school. Everything from History to Economics will affect your filmmaking voice. I’m not saying that Environmental Science will help you light a scene, but a good Physics course will. Macro Economics will help you understand the film industry and the rest of the world better. Business classes can help you operate a production company. Psychology can help you direct your actors. Literature classes will help you with structure and motifs. The list goes on and on. The point is that a filmmaker is not just a RED manual and a back catalog of Spielberg films. Being a well-rounded individual will help you in so many ways (not to mention the work ethic that rigorous courses can instill in you). It is absolutely possible to learn about all of these things without going to university, but it is rare to be a part of the same kind of learning environment outside of school.

#2 – Intrinsic networking.

All of my current contacts were arguably obtained through my college attendance. It’s possible that I could have encountered some of them had I struck out on my own, but college provided me with tight-knit relationships with like-minded young filmmakers. There’s a certain bond once you stay up till 4 AM in the editing bay with someone working on a project that’s due in the morning. You may also be forced to work with people with whom you would not normally be in the same circles. Sometimes this leads to unexpected friendships, sometimes it just teaches you what kinds of people to avoid working with in the future. A school’s film department is like a miniature industry where you can spend four years learning about yourself and others with relatively minor consequences for missteps.

#3 – Everyone knows you’re learning.

The phrase “student film” doesn’t inspire confidence when most people hear it. That’s because people expect students to be learning. Learning means making mistakes, experimenting, and generally getting all of your bad work out before you graduate. It’s basically a four-year grace period before you step into the real world and get thrown to the wolves. If you make a mistake in film school, you may fail a project. If you make a mistake in the real world, you may waste thousands of dollars or lose professional relationships. If you coil a cable incorrectly on a school project, you’ll just be told what you’re doing wrong and what to do next time. On a real set, you could get fired. If you’re still new at working in the real world, hopefully your superiors will recognize it and have a little mercy, but that’s not always the case.

Advantages of Film School

#1 – Intensive learning.

Film school is a lot like swimming lessons. The first day, you’ll probably learn the basics without dipping a toe in the pool. But from the second day onward, you’ll be spending most of your time in the water, and most of the instruction you receive will be in the midst of swimming. In film school, you will delve into the deeper stuff: the theories and concepts that inform the practical production. Another aspect of this is that if you have any other classes, they will be very minor and most of your time will still be available for film projects. Some film schools assign students a short film every semester, building up to a half-hour short in the final semester. You will get lots of experience (relatively), but there is a caveat. Film school is a bubble. You will have notable experience… on a student film set. Sometimes film school students end up being egotistical or elitist because they were high up in the hierarchy of film school production. Then, in the real world, they may bite off more than they can chew or feel insulted when they start out at the bottom all over again.

#2 – Intrinsic networking, intensified.

Much like university, film school is a breeding ground for great relationships. This is intensified by the fact that the talent pool at film schools is usually dilluted less by those who are uncommitted or unskilled. Many great professional relationships in the film industry have been forged at film school. It can be easier for writers to find writing partners, directors to find collaborating cinematographers, and so on, when constantly surrounded by so many people who are all working toward the same goal. However, be cautioned that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Being constantly surrounded by film students can put you in a closed headspace with limited perspective, so it’s important to branch out in your relationships. Having friends and collaborators from the other arts and outside the arts is important for a well-rounded filmmaker.

#3 – The budget is focused on you.

The arts are notorious for receiving the least amount of funding in educational budgets. The advantage of technical schools or art conservatories is that film is often one of the biggest parts of the school, and as such gets a decent-sized piece of the budgetary pie. Schools that teach film exclusively are even better percentage-wise, but they often bring in less money overall. The point is that the program probably won’t be broke like those at many universities. This translates to newer and better gear for you to learn with, and possibly even an allowance for the budget of a student film. However, do remember that you’re contributing to this, as film schools are known for being quite pricey.

Advantages of Skipping School

 #1 – The Internet.

It’s vast and terrifying and extremely informative. There are a plethora of websites, including this one, that are designed to help fellow aspiring filmmakers learn. They range from general overviews and tech news (NoFilmSchool), to articles designed like film courses (Filmmaker IQ), to in-depth tips for specific positions like camera assistants (The Black and Blue Blog). Why pay to learn in a classroom when you could learn for free and at your own pace on your computer? If you’re already in school, I highly recommend supplementing your classroom learning with a healthy dose of online material from multiple sources.

#2 – You can skip the paying money part and get to the making money part.

Okay, to be fair, chances are good that you’re going to start out working for free (or close to it) to get experience. But many graduates are in the same boat, except they may be dealing with student loans while working for crumbs. For many people, the prospect of jumping right in sounds more appealing than spending four years and many thousands of dollars on an education that may not even prepare them for work. In my case, I was fortunate enough to receive some major scholarships and other support that helped me to graduate debt-free. If, however, I had been on track to end up $25,000 in debt from student loans, I would’ve had to take a very serious look at whether or not school would have actually been a worthy investment for me.

#3 – Four years (or even two) is a long time.

I had friends who were owning their own businesses while I was writing papers. I know you’re not a psychic, but ask yourself whether you think you would advance your career more by going at it on your own for four years or receiving instruction for four years. This question is crucial, and only you know yourself well enough to answer it. Some people know they need the guiding force and the inherent networking that school provides. Others have the specific goals and the spirit of aggressive networking that it takes to make it on one’s own.

Things to Look for in a College/Film School

If you are leaning toward attending some sort of school, here’s some key things to look for. These three things are easy to find out during a visit to a prospective school, and they’ll provide you a fairly accurate indicator of how worthwhile a film department is.

#1 – Instructors who are still working or have recently worked in the industry.

Yes, there are many aspects of film that are timeless. However, an instructor who is still active in the industry tells you several things:

  • They are still surrounded by and will likely be knowledgeable in at least the basic current technological advancements;
  • They know enough about what they’re talking about that they are actually employable;
  • They will have current industry contacts.

I recall being in a class with a professor (who hadn’t been on a real production in probably a decade) who was telling us about resolution and mentioned that 1920×1080 was the highest resolution available. This was in 2010, before 5K, 6K, and 8K rolled out, but I raised my hand and asked, “What about 4K?” He dismissed the question, saying “No, no one is using that.” After class, I had other students come up to me asking me about 4K. Within the year, our local theater was running all 4K projectors. You want to receive an education from someone who knows enough about where the industry is and where it is heading that you can be up to date when you graduate and hopefully still when you pay off your student loans.

#2 – Equipment that is available and at least somewhat up to date.

It was 2011 before my school’s broadcast department finally shifted to HD. In 2012, we finally got our first DSLR for students to check out. This was mostly the fault of budgetary restrictions, but it was nonetheless a handicap for students, many of whom didn’t touch a Canon 7D until they were seniors. On the flip side, I have heard of some schools that brag to prospective students that they have a RED Epic or an Arri Alexa in the department, but fail to mention that no one gets to touch it until one project in the final semester. The newest gear does you no good if you can’t get a decent amount of use in on it. To assess the available equipment at a school, I recommend asking simple questions such as:

  • “What cameras will be available to me and with what restrictions?” (Don’t be worried if Freshmen are restricted from checking out higher-end cameras, but do be cautious if some equipment is reserved for Seniors only.)
  • “What lenses are available?” (They may have an Epic, but only a photo zoom to throw on it. A department that has invested in even a basic set of cinema primes is likely a good indicator.)
  • “Is there a boom mic rig available?” (Any department that expects you to produce work should have a simple boom setup. This is also a good way to tell if they spent all their money on cameras to impress incoming students, but don’t have the other 90% of gear to fill out a set.)

#3 – Alumni who are actually working in the industry.

When I was looking at colleges, I was thinking more along the lines of “alumni who are making things you’ve actually heard of.” The problem with this thought is that many film programs are still relatively young and rapidly evolving. Chances are the people you’ve actually heard of came out of UCLA and NYU, and those who came out of other schools have probably been working for 10+ years to get where they are, so the program they were a part of was likely quite different from the current program. Instead, you should be asking instructors what alumni from the past five years are doing. You don’t need to recognize their names or the projects they’re on, you just need to know that they are working in the industry. This tells you that the program can turn out graduates who are employable. Plus, working alumni are another set of possible industry contacts.

Bottom Line

When it comes down to it, these are the questions you should ask yourself when trying to decide on your path toward your glorious entry into the film industry.

  • Can you afford school?
  • Do you want to go to school?
  • Do you need the career guidance and/or networking that school can provide?
  • Can you get more experience working (even for free) outside of school?

I’ll close by encouraging anyone who may be reading this, whether high school students surveying their options, current film students who may or may not be happy where they’re at, those working in the industry who want to get ahead, or anyone else: Learning is what you make of it. Some people need the guidance of teachers or the on-set education of PA work, but either way you will only succeed if you want to learn. Make an effort to learn what you can wherever you are. If you’re at school, pester your professors to push you. If you’re on set, find somebody who doesn’t look too busy to chat for a minute and ask them about their job. If you’re at home, read articles and use social networking to connect with other aspiring filmmakers. Enrolling in courses or getting on set of a big production doesn’t automatically make you a better filmmaker, but if you approach everything with a humble attitude and a willingness to put your all into learning, you will find yourself making progress.

Categories: Career Building

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