Film School Confidential: Reflections on the first year

As I write this, I am putting the finishing touches on my final project for the semester. Two days from now, I will have completed my first year of film school, and will officially be a sophomore. Thinking back to those times just over a year ago when I was still filling out applications, only dreaming of the seemingly impossible scenario of getting into NYU, the top film school in the world, and comparing those thoughts to the reality of completing my first year at that very film school, and having it be everything I could have possibly wanted and more… it’s just incredibly humbling.

So what have I learned in a year? The first year of film school is like a buffet: you get a taste of everything, and everyone will tell you that their food is the best. But ultimately, you can’t have it all, and you know that sometime down the line, you’re going to have to pick your favorite dish and stick with it. The sound teachers will tell you that stories cannot be told and worlds cannot be built without sound design. Camera teachers will tell you that the very nature of the cinema is the moving image. Acting teachers will tell you that the camera, the lights, and the entire set are all pointed at the actor, and that without performers, you have nothing. Writing teachers will tell you that your cinematography, sound design, and performances will all collapse if they do not have a structurally sound foundation in the script to hold them up. Film history teachers will tell you that in order to truly stand out, you must learn from the masters and stand on the shoulders of giants.

Fact of the matter is, they are all right and they are all wrong. The beauty of film is that it is the culmination of all of the above. I have said this before, but I will say it again: For me, what makes film such a lucrative and enjoyable medium is very much its collaborative nature. It is not about locking oneself in a room for X amount of time and coming out with a finished work of art. It is about teamwork, about working together, about knowing your strengths and using them, and finding people who have complementary strengths, in places where you feel weak, to work with. All aspects of filmmaking are equally important, and without any of those mentioned above – sound, cinematography, acting, script or understanding of film history and the language of film, one simply cannot make cinema. The joy of my first year of film school was dabbling in each one of the five topics mentioned above: getting a taste, an introductory stab at each and every one of those subjects. By looking at my first year as a whole, at all of the classes at once, together, I could really get a sense of how it all fits together and eventually leads one to making a movie.

Art is a notoriously difficult thing to teach. However film, probably even more so than any other art form, is equally about craft as it is creativity. It’s easy to teach a craft, and easy to learn it if one applies oneself: this semester, I learned about cinematography, camera theory, how images are captured, how digital images are captured, lighting, editing techs, Final Cut Pro, and some framing and composition theory. I learned sound recording techniques, different microphones, the science of sound, Pro Tools, recording set-ups, foley, ADR, and sound design theory. I learned story structure, script format, performance techniques, acting traditions and exercises, the actor’s process, directing techniques, film theory, film history, watched films, analyzed them, discussed them, wrote about them. All of these things and more are what make film school so fascinating, so vital, so essential. But the one thing they can’t teach you is creativity. They can’t teach how to pick shots, how to use sound design creatively, how to write dialogue, or how to pick unique, never-before-seen stories to tell. That part is a personal process, a journey that everyone must go through at some time or other.

Oren on set as a focus puller.

Another very important experience in film school is the on-set experience. Befriending upperclassmen and volunteering to crew on their intermediate and advanced projects has been the most vital part of my freshman year experience. Because despite all of the theory taught in the classroom, there is nothing quite like getting the hands-on practical experience on film set. As much as I love film school, I have no choice but to admit that one learns more in one day on a film set than one could in an entire week in the classroom. I have done dozens of sets over the past year and still learn something new every time: a little trick of the trade, a useful piece of equipment, creative use of a clothespin or a grip clamp or something like that which makes the filmmaking experience more streamlined and productive. Filmmaking is split into three parts: creative conceptualizing, in which the writer, director, cinematographer, actor, art director and everyone else involved pump their creative juices and shape the story they want to tell; production, in which the crew apply their technical craft in order to achieve the creation, and the producer applies his or her knack for organization and bureaucracy to make sure everything that is required is ready and available; and editing, in which the director and editor take all of the pieces of the puzzle and put them together to create a whole. Some will find solace only in one of the three stages. But in my opinion, mastering all three is the key to becoming a truly successful filmmaker.

So what lies ahead in the future? Next year I will be taking my first film production class, in which we shoot and edit 16mm film footage and create 5 short films over the course of the semester. I am extremely excited for that class and cannot wait to begin fully exploring the cinematic expression. I am also signed up for an intermediate writing class in which we will be further honing our writing skills but also improving through sheer practice alone, and hopefully finishing the semester with a solid short film script ready for production the following year. In addition, opportunities are now open for taking a variety of even more specific and focused classes. Many of my friends have already found their focus: music for film, art direction, children’s television, feature documentary. Many will only find their passion later on. Personally, I intend on taking the “camera track” and focusing on cinematography. But for now, everything is still open. And I can’t wait to see what else is in store.