Please welcome MultiMediaMouth’s newest contributor; Oren Soffer. Oren is currently in New York attending film school. In this new weekly series he’ll be sharing what he’s learning about filmmaking and considering how his course reflects the industry. For all you aspiring filmmakers, this should be an invaluable series.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker. Whether it was re-creating my favorite scenes from Star Wars or Jurassic Park in my backyard with toys or making short, asinine but amusing stop-motion animation videos with play-dough in middle school, I always felt driven by an undying love of cinema, and a burning desire to be a part of creating it. In high school, I was lucky enough to go to a school that offered a film studies program. It was there that I got my first hands-on, real filmmaking experience, making commercials, music videos, exercises and short films. In retrospect, they were pretty bad, but it was just the type of experience I needed to convince myself that this was what I wanted to do with my life. When the time came to apply to consider my higher education options and apply to colleges, I had to make a decision, one that many aspiring filmmakers in the past and in the present have to make: To film school, or not to film school?
So why shouldn’t I go to film school? The first and foremost disadvantage of film school is that it is expensive. Outrageously and disproportionately expensive, to be precise. Colleges in the United States already have insanely steep tuition fees as it is, and when you add the extra costs of attending an art school – equipment fees, insurance, not to mention the budget for your projects, which the school pays a part of but not nearly enough to cover the costs of a professional short film production – you are left with a figure north of $50,000 a year. European schools are a little better in terms of tuition fees but the additional costs of film production are still there. Unfortunately, the main reason not to go to film school is if you can’t afford it. However, hope should not be lost: What the United States lacks in tuition fee proportions it makes up for with its government-funded financial aid and various external grants and scholarships that can help students pay for school. Most schools pride themselves on their policy that finances should not be a reason for a gifted student to miss out on college.
However, there are a number of other reasons that would seem to be deterrents against attending film school. As a teenager, I idolized a number of directors who never went to film school and who were very vocally against doing so. Quentin Tarantino is famously quoted as saying: “When people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them ‘no, I went to films.’” Robert Rodriguez is famous for his amateur filmmaker help book “Rebel Without a Crew” and for his 10-minute film school featurettes that appear on the DVD releases of most of his films. Paul Thomas Anderson famously attended New York University film school for four days before dropping out after he was asked to write a prose sample, handed in a text that was actually written by David Mamet, and was given a C for “poor writing skills.” A number of filmmakers who actually attended and graduated film school have been vocal about not having learned much from the experience, among them George Lucas and Brian De Palma. And then you have the directors who majored in something else in school – Wes Anderson and Ethan Coen, for example, who graduated from the University of Texas and Columbia University, respectively, both with degrees in philosophy. Perhaps film school really wasn’t necessary? Should I just follow Tarantino’s, Rodriguez’s and James Cameron’s advice, save up some money, rent some film equipment and a crew and just make a film myself?
As I would later find out, the answer is a definite no. Having witnessed and been a part of a handful of these productions myself, the results usually turn out to be disastrous and the entire endeavor a colossal waste of money, resources and time. Because fact of the matter is, most aspiring filmmakers out there are not Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron or Paul Thomas Anderson. There is a reason that the club of successful filmmakers who never went to film school is so small: There are just so few people out there in the world who are genuinely talented enough to not need an education. Most of us are not those people, I think the first thing an aspiring filmmaker needs to learn is humility: not to overestimate himself or herself, or his or her abilities (then again, the polar opposite of this, self-deprecation, is equally as destructive) and realize that there is always room for improvement and more to learn. Over 10,000 feature-length movies are produced in the United States alone every year. Around 3,000 of those are screened in any sort of public venue including festivals, and out of those, only around 400 are screened in commercial movie theaters. Understanding those statistics leads to understanding that the chances of standing out from that crowd, getting noticed and getting your film seen are very, very slim. Tarantino, Anderson, Cameron and a handful of others got very lucky: tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of other aspiring filmmakers weren’t as lucky.
I very quickly realized that film school was the place for me, and so no less than two years ago I started the long and grueling application process. This process is the first test of one’s passion – you have to really want it to get through all of the work required to apply. American students have it easy – their high school counselors handle college applications for them. But as a foreign student living in Israel, things were slightly more complicated. I had to study for and take the SAT on my own, go back and retrieve my high school transcripts, translate them into English and have them notarized – the same for letters of recommendation from previous teachers – and of course, fill out all the forms and write all the essays requested from the various universities, each of which requested different essays and creative submissions for the applications. I applied to a number of schools, including NYU, USC, Chapman University, SVA, FSU and Emerson College. All of these schools had very highly regarded film programs, but my first choice out of them all was NYU, which is considered to be the best film school in the world. In December of 2009 I got the notification of acceptance into NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ Film/Television program, and I was over the moon. I moved to New York last August, and have recently completed my first semester there.
So why should I go to film school? The reasons are many. I think that first and foremost, film school is an important wake-up call for filmmakers. Almost all aspiring filmmakers want to write and direct their own movies. During welcome week before the school year began, the film and television faculty addressed the entire incoming film/TV class – 260 students in total – and asked for everyone who was thinking of directing to raise their hand. Almost the entire room had their hands up. However, what many aspiring filmmakers don’t realize is just how much work really goes into making a film, and what a process it is. Film school provides a wake-up call by teaching students all of the disciplines and aspects of filmmaking, it helps them understand that it’s not all about the director. I can’t speak for other film schools, but NYU’s program emphasizes the collaborative nature of filmmaking, and encourages students to take classes in all of the disciplines. In fact, during our freshman year, we are required to take an introductory class in the following fields: cinematography, sound, writing, acting, and film history/cinema studies.
We are also encouraged to volunteer as crew members on junior-year and senior-year advanced thesis film productions. On set, one realizes very quickly that directing, especially directing a good film, is probably the hardest job in filmmaking. The director wakes up earliest in the morning during productions and goes to sleep the latest. The director is constantly struggling against constraints – the producer can’t get the right permit to shoot somewhere, the assistant director is trying to prevent the shoot from veering from its tight schedule, and it is the director who has to navigate this obstacle course in order to find solutions. The director needs to keep the crew happy and motivated: an unmotivated crew leads to a lackluster end result. The director is responsible for the tone and quality of the entire production, and for the confidence in translating his or her vision to the screen. And on top of all of these things, the director is responsible for the actors and the quality of their performances. The sooner aspiring filmmakers realize that directing isn’t just about making cool shots or finding excuses to include visual effects or witty dialogue, the sooner they manage to find their footing and find out if they really have what it takes to become a film director.
Fact of the matter is, most aspiring filmmakers don’t have what it takes to direct. For those who skip film school, it can take a very long time and a large financial toll before they realize this. Those who attend film school, though, are exposed very early on to the other aspects and disciplines in filmmaking, and are told from day one that there are always alternative ways to use their talents. Students come to realize that their love for cool shots and lighting makes them great cinematographers, their love for visual effects makes them great editors and post-production engineers, and their love for witty dialogue makes them great writers. By senior year, less than half of the incoming class will end up taking the advanced film production class, and the rest will have found their own areas of interest and expertise and will usually work on thesis projects their friends and classmates are directing in their chosen fields, be it as cinematographer, set designer, editor, sound recordist, or anything else.
For me the most important benefit of film school is the people. For the first time in my life, I have found myself surrounded by people like myself, people I can relate to, who share my interests and likes and passions and desires and who are as eager and willing as I am to put in the work and the effort required to create film. The encouraging, self-supporting creative environment to be found in film school could never be re-created on any no-budget do-it-yourself film set, and it elevates everyone’s work and truly makes the experience worthwhile. In a recent Hollywood Reporter roundtable discussion, Darren Aronofsky was asked about his film school experience. He explained: “What came out of film school for me was meeting a lot of the people I ended up collaborating for years with… Film is a collaborative medium and you need other people to work with.” And that, for me, sums up the main reason why film school is important.