Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What are (film) schools for?

Fascinating post by Mike Jones over at Digital Basin about the relationship between film schools and the film industry.

Should Film Schools service the 'industry'? Cater to its demands and provide it with what the school perceives the industry needs...? Or Should Film Schools lead the industry? Challenge it, change it, reshape and guide it...? In other words, Should Film Schools be the forward scouts leading the industry or the rear-guard supporting the industry.
Of course, I never went to film school. I'm completely self-taught, so I have no direct experience of either the professional or educational side of the film world. However, it's a very similar debate to how universities should teach games, which I have been involved with. On the one side, they are under pressure to turn out graduates ready to go into the games industry, but on the other they want to teach people to break new ground and help drive the industry forward. It's much the same with other arts subjects: should art schools be teaching graphic designers to create cornflakes packets or to be challenging, independent, and original, even if this makes them unemployable?

There are serious problems with both these approaches. I've been grappling with them for about five years now, ever since getting peripherally involved in some aspects of higher education, and it's become more and more important to me, professionally and personally, as we start getting Moviestorm into schools, universities, and film schools. What should we be teaching our kids?

The dilemma is this:

If you try and churn out industry-ready junior staff, you risk stifling their talent and originality, and you have a real problem knowing what to teach them in a fast-moving technical world. When I worked on the games course at NSAD, the hardware and software that is now standard in the industry didn't even exist at the start of the first year: there was no PS3, and no Wii. As a result, they'd trained on platforms and with techniques that were obsolescent by the time they were sending out CVs. In my view, you learn on the job far more, and far faster, than you learn by studying for three years. Compare that to the hot-house training establishments in India and China where they give you seriously intensive training for six months for one very specific role - using Maya to create faces, for example - and then you're ready to go straight into the industry as a character artist, totally up to speed with current generation tools and techniques. Imagination isn't important - just the ability to deliver good quality product on time to a tight brief and fit in with a team.

On the other hand, if we do teach people to design amazing new game concepts or direct controversial movies or design immense public buildings, we may well be wasting their time and giving them false hope. When they go into the real world, they'll probably find that their actual job is to load a camera on a reality TV show, build part of the map for the fourth mission of a low-budget FPS, or do the plans for my loft conversion. And frankly, as an employer, I don't necessarily want to hire a visionary to work on my project - I want to hire someone who will fall in with my vision of what we're building and just do the job I need them to do. There can be nothing more dispiriting than coming out of three years' training with the verve and the desire to change the world and then realise that you're never going to get that chance.

As a teacher, I want to expand my students' horizons and help them reach their potential.
As an employer, I want schools to provide me with the staff I need.
As a parent, I want my kids to get an education and a job and be happy.

Those aren't necessarily compatible.

The only answer I can come up with - for the UK, at least - is to scrap the current philosophy of treating all education the same. We don't need to turn every poly or art school into a university or A levels in how to sell beds. Bring back apprenticeships, and expect employers to take on some of the burden of training staff rather than expecting the state and the individual to furnish them with ready-made employees. (We might even revive some notion of loyalty to one's staff then, if we actually invest in them.)

Why not make a distinction between places where you learn a trade and places where you learn a craft? Make it clear from the start - to students and industry alike - whether you are training for a job or learning to think. Let some places lead, and others follow.

The world needs both.


anaglyph said...

I actually did go to film school, The Australian Film, Television & Radio School, way back in 1976. It was great.

But over the years it has degenerated into a real travesty of 'education', in my opinion. When I started, it was a scholarship - they actually paid you to learn. But it was damn difficult to get in. Now, it's still hard to get in, but it's all about being some kind of commercial prospect. The course lengths have been cut from three years to two, the numbers of courses have been increased (and been modified for what I call 'the glamour jobs') and the educational qualifications have been 'upgraded' in a fashion that smacks of commercialism (you get a 'degree' now, when you graduate - to my horror, I see kids straight out of high school spending two short years there and walking out with Masters in Sound Design! I've been in the business for 30 years and I still have trouble speaking of myself as a 'Sound Designer', even if I'm one of the few people in Australia that could rightfully use that appellation).

I tutor at the AFTRS from time to time and I'm really saddened by these attitudes. It's not an environment that encourages creativity. But then I guess that's a sign of our times generally.

In my opinion, the one valuable thing about these places is that they put young people in touch with the creative minds that might just get them orbiting in the right systems. But the frustration level is high for anyone teaching in such an institution - I have a friend who is trying to jolt the academia of a certain Centre of Learning into the 21st Century and all he gets is grief. But the kids love him.

I downloaded Moviestorm and have been playing with it a bit (my Mac doesn't really like it BTW) and the thing that strikes me most about it is how much you can actually teach yourself about how to tell a story. I saw that you're impressed by the sci fi stuff you're seeing at the moment - how many of those creators are doing the work in institutions, do you think? I'm just curious - I suspect that the next generation of Creators are going to be largely self-taught.

Because the tools are there, and cool.

We'll see, I guess.

Matt "The Mongoose" Kelland said...

I don't think any of the Moviestorm movies I've seen recently have come from institutions. They're all made by individuals or tiny teams, and nearly all have been self-taught amateurs. I'll post some time about how I used machinima to teach myself.

Go squawk on our forums about your Mac woes. We know some Macs have issues (though, strangely, our CTO's Mac works fine!) and either we'll be able to help you out, or we'll pump you for info so we can diagnose the problem a bit better.

anaglyph said...

>>I don't think any of the Moviestorm movies I've seen recently have come from institutions

Yes, I figured as much.

I was thinking about all this last night -the role of institutions and so forth - and I remembered one thing about my early years at film school was that it was all very unstructured. They didn't know what they were doing (How the hell do you teach film?) We didn't know what we were doing and the whole shebang had a sort of slightly nailed-together chaos about it. But that was good!

I think that because the emphasis was on examining the craft itself, it made a lot of people think about how things worked, and that meant a sort of 'working it out together' mentality.

Now there is a culture of 'experts' and 'learners' and a lot of expectations that have nothing, really, to do with the creation of new, innovative, competent filmmakers.

We need more chaos!

(Oh, and yeah, I was onto the forum thing - will do when I get some spare time, thanks)