Did you go to film school?
June 13, 2020 6:06 PM   Subscribe

A character in the novel I'm writing (set in the early 90s) is a recent film school MFA graduate. Either UCLA or USC. She went in thinking she wanted to make fictional films, but switched to documentaries. I'm looking for stories, anecdotes, tidbits, about the film school experience/culture, if there is such a thing. Anything would be helpful! Thanks.
posted by swheatie to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Everything I write below is absolutely true. Nobody knows anything.

1. Physical film and its accessories are very expensive. A lot of it comes out of the students' pockets. This means most students are upper class with 2 parents and they do not work part time. The richer students can afford to fetch coffee in unpaid film internships. They will use money to solve problems in a way very few majors do. The really big film schools are the among the most expensive schools in their state. For the first time, I met multiple people with maids at home and who received new cars when they turned 16.

Also, they brought their cars to school.

2. Working class students will have to decide between paying bills or finishing their film homework! They will probably be sleep deprived and stressed about the cost of everything. They can only take paid internships. They probably have no cars.

3. Movies starring angry men with weird philosophies or who are loners are fascinating to the male students. They think rebelliousness is the same as being important or smart or interesting.

4. Some students will see using racial slurs and graphic sex scenes on no budget /amateur projects as a fun challenge. The result will usually be cringeworthy.

5. Most people are hardworking and the best people will share resources, tips, or be supportive of others having a hard time with editing or other technical issues.

6. Screenwriting professors tell you that professional readers assume all characters are white guys and anyone else's characteristics must be described to avoid confusion by readers. Most will seem embarrassed by this, but this is the way Western fiction describes characters.

7. After graduation, some people will assume that having a film degree means you wanted to be an actor. They don't understand the amount of labor it takes to light a set, create music/edit music, and hire different departments that have nothing to do with acting.

8. Students' family members assume new grads can immediately start working for Disney and other big companies with no connections. They don't hire young people because too many of them want to work for free in this glamorous industry. I heard it is different for chemical engineering.

9. Sometimes people get on a pretentious streak and refuse to praise more mainstream films. They can sound surprisingly bitter for 21 year olds from the suburbs. They may drain the fun out of seeing something like CATS.

10. Students will gain a new appreciation for how much work goes into garbage films.

11. Some people are angry that CGI exists. They don't acknowledge how dumb costume dramas would look with Priuses parked near castles.

The smart students know it is a just tool, like digital editing, Kevin Spacey, and wigs.

12. Some students are surprised how many wigs are in movies.

13. Most students don't understand the Best Sound Mixing/Sound Editing Oscars either.
posted by Freecola at 7:10 PM on June 13, 2020 [10 favorites]

I went to film school in Toronto, starting in 1990. I hated it. Like most film students, I went because of the access to equipment and the connections (friends) you'd make.

On the first day we had to stand up and introduce ourselves and name the movies that made us want to be filmmakers. The number of people who said Star Wars was enough to make you want to kill yourself or immediately switch majors. Very dispiriting. I'm sure these days or a few years from now people will be saying Iron Man or other Marvel films.

The worst thing for me about film school is that you have a department (your teachers) who are deciding your fate based on their taste instead of your talents or abilities. In third year film (of 4), we made two films over the year. Anyone who wanted to direct would submit a script or idea and the Prof would choose their favorite. By this time, I had a "crew" of people I liked and regularly worked with. Our first submission was chosen and made. But our second (which I'd written and planned to produce and direct) was not, even though I had a full crew who liked the script and wanted to pay for it. The Prof did not like my script and didn't choose it (there's only so much equipment and time). As a result, me and 4 other students each had to work on and pay for films we hated. I spent two grand of my own money and 4 months on a piece of shit movie working in a position (sound) that I had no talent or interest in. Infuriating.

I did such a shit job at it and the movie was so fucking dreadful that I ended up getting kicked out of film school. However, the first film we'd made (which I produced and was Production Manager on), which the same prof loathed and gave me a D on, got into the Toronto International Film Festival (then called The Festival of Festivals) in the summer between 3rd and 4th year and was featured on the front page of the Toronto Star's entertainment section as a "must-see movie". All 3 screenings sold out.

Tail between their legs, the film school allowed me to return to 4th year and finish my degree. Emboldened, I submitted a feature length script I wanted to write/direct/produce. It was chosen and made -- and we were the first of my year to complete shooting even though the 4 other chosen films were shorts between 5 and 20 minutes long. But, admittedly, it wasn't a great film, and, though I received an A grade and had made the only feature film in the school's history, I never worked in film again*, having realized I hated most everything about the industry and process.

(*I did later own a distribution company, releasing 13 shorts and a feature, and about 6 years ago I was paid to write a short for a film to play at TIFF to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Elgin Theatre.)


To this day everyone I know who went to film school is happy about the relationships they had / have because of it, but not a lot work in film. The person who did sound on my film is now one of the top sound editors in the country; the person who shot my film lives in LA and is a writer/producer who has worked on Glee, Black-ish, and other shows; and a couple actors I used in my feature are still working 25 years later. One of my classmates won a technical Oscar and a few are heavyweights in Canadian film and television.

Overall I found film school to be a soul-sucking nightmare and I'm still trying to unlearn many of the habits they teach you which they consider "the way" to create -- which I personally find crippling and "part of the problem" with film/tv in this day and age.

If you have specific questions about film school in that era I'm happy to answer.
posted by dobbs at 9:56 PM on June 13, 2020 [6 favorites]

Oh, and I can't tell you the number of films I had to sit through that had some variation on a mystery which involved someone discovering the shadowy figure was themselves all along! That, and films about young filmmakers and the obstacles they need to overcome. Groan.
posted by dobbs at 10:09 PM on June 13, 2020

I went to film school here on the East Coast, just a little but after the time you describe, so I'm going to contribute what memories I can recall. If I pop in here again later, it's because I remembered something else.

Since you specify early 90s, that means everything will be done on film. Digital video wasn't mature enough yet. Hal Hartley would make "The Book of Life" in 1998, which wasn't the first digital video feature film but it was definitely a notable early example. (USC would actually be one of the first schools to focus on DV after getting a big endowment from George Lucas in the early 2000s to beef up their equipment.)

The camera they gave me to work on was an Arriflex 16mm. This one for sale on Ebay is a pretty good visual match with my memories. It was manufactured before I was born, an entirely solid metal construction. It was a problem to carry, because the handgrip was also metal. The handgrip plate was designed that you could unscrew it and swap sides, but whichever hand you used, if you went handheld the weight of the camera would eventually cause real lasting soreness in the webbing between your thumb and pointer finger.

Those Arri camera were tanks, though. One of the equipment people at the school told us that a student had taken their camera into the university library, which had a series of balconies on each floor looking over a courtyard, in order to get some height for a dramatic shot, but they had been jostled while rolling film and dropped the heavy-ass camera over the rail. Supposedly it tumbled at least 40 feet down and cracked the tile floor below, and not only did the camera and the film within survive, it had been rolling at the time so it captured it's own end-over-end tumble to the floor.

Because of it's age, the Arris weren't built with internal batteries. Instead, the batteries were in a belt that was plugged into the wall to be charged separately. Ours looked something like this one, only it was the same age as the camera itself and all the leather looked beat to shit. We joked that it was "Batman's utility belt". A power cable would go from the belt to the camera, and it was the only way to power, so we would always try to have another belt charging while one was in use. If you had wide hips, the belt would chafe because it too was heavy and mostly metal. Some women in the class would instead sling it across their shoulder like a bandolier. You actually could operate the Arris without power -- if you were doing stop-motion animation, you could flash one frame of film, turn the knob to advance to the next frame, etc.

OK, this is getting long. Let me step away for a bit and when I come back I'll tell you about the joys of editing 16mm film stock.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 7:31 AM on June 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

For me, editing my 16mm film meant using a Steenbeck table, which was kinda like a projector that had been flipped on it's side and opened up. Students had to reserve time on one belonging to the school. Each of them had been acquired secondhand from someplace, so the ones I used weren't as meticulous or complex as what you see in the photo. It was basically lonely work in a hot, quiet room. It was usually the first time I got to actually see how whatever I had filmed had come out. Since we shot on film with no audio track (16mm film with an audio track does exist, but it means losing the sprockets on one side so the film becomes more difficult to handle), this was also where we would sync up our audio onto a separate reel of magnetic tape.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 7:54 AM on June 14, 2020

Thanks to those who've weighed in so far!
posted by swheatie at 10:57 AM on June 14, 2020

OK, so memories of my classmates in film school:

"Betty" was a cute brunette who had already done some modeling and acting work, and wanted to learn filmmaking as part of her transition from teenage actress to grown-up director/producer/actor. I remember her being just a touch sensitive in the first semester I met her because (as she tells it) she had been on a short list for the role of Rory in Gilmore Girls. I can't recall details about any of her student films, but I do remember she was competent, and not at all a diva during the work we did together.

"Jennifer" was from New Jersey, and she wanted to make lots and lots of horror movies. She had subscription to Fangoria and knew home recipes for fake blood, and had already made some horror shorts on home video cameras in high school with her friends. She told me once that her favorite movie was "Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things" . I wound up working with her a lot, not because I was such a horror fan but because she was a better cinematographer than me.

"John" was a heavyset guy from Florida who had also done some professional acting. I think he was going to college after spending some time after high school working, so he was a few years older than us, but I could be misremembering that on the account of how he had already grown a goatee. He was great at physical comedy, and wound up being cast in things even by students outside of the class. I used him once myself in a short comedy piece. The project was about using close-ups and zooms for drama purposes, and I cast him as a man being stalked buy a malicious trashcan that eventually cornered him in an alley and pulled him in.

"Grant" was a try-hard, probably the person I remember who most closely fits the stereotype someone mentioned above, the film student who disdains everything "mainstream" and wants to strike his own path. Every student using the 16mm cameras was given an allotment of film to use through the semester from their student fees, but Grant had gone way overboard and purchased many more reels because he planned much bigger. To be fair, he was clearly more technically proficient than most of the class, just that he was also a weird guy to work with.

He's the source of one of my favorite film-school anecdotes: On that same close-up project I mentioned, the film I had done about the sentient trashcan was about four minutes long. But Grant had done his close-up project as a psychodrama of a woman who pined to have a baby. The close-up scenes consisted of the woman and her significant other seated across along table set out for a banquet, and after the dramatic close-ups they both climbed onto the table and crawled towards each other, meeting in the middle and engaging in passionate and fairly R-rated activities. It was about seven minutes long. When it screened in the class auditorium the professor asked him "were those two actors already a couple?" No, they were not. So how he had gotten such an emotional performance from the actors? "Oh, I gave them Ecstasy before the shoot."
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 11:29 AM on June 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

I no longer have my copy of it so I can't say for sure how useful it will be for you, but the book What I Really Want to Do Is Direct: Seven Film School Graduates Go to Hollywood would probably be useful for you.
posted by Dr. Wu at 2:36 PM on June 14, 2020

If your character is going to be an “auteur” that thinks they are going to be the next Spielberg/De Palma/Lucas/etc, have them go to USC. If they are trying to be more work-a-day and someone trying to have a career, you might want to have them go somewhere like Cal State Northridge.
posted by sideshow at 6:19 PM on June 14, 2020

Before being allowed to book out equipment we had a one-on-one test with the piece in front of the folks who worked in the booking cage. This even went so far as extension cords. We were tested on how to properly roll them up when you're striking the set. Rolling them along your forearm using your elbow and wrist is not the correct way.

I had classmates who fell behind in their projects because they passed the Bolex and Nagra tests but couldn't pass the extension cord test.

Regarding text books for film studies, we used Film Art by Bordwell and Thompson (whatever edition came out the year you studied). There were other books but that one was consistent across all 1st year classes the 4 years I was there (90 to 94). There was another book that had a solid yellow cover with black writing but for the life of me I can't remember what it was called or who wrote it. For Screenwriting they used the absolutely dreadful Syd Field book Screenplay and "serious students" would attend weekend seminars by Robert McKee (who hadn't yet published his book, Story). (Brian Cox absolutely nails him in Adaptation.)

Another piece of equipment that hasn't been mentioned yet in the thread is the Moviola, which our ancient Czech prof said was called "the green whore to those in the know".

Also, when I was there we started 1st year by taking still photos for the first projects, then Super 8, then Super 8 with sound, then 16mm on a hand-cranked Bolex. We recorded sound with a Nagra (first a III (mono) and later a IV (stereo)).

For screenwriting, some students would use Final Draft and others Movie Magic Screenwriter, but they were exorbitantly expensive for students and had "lock discs" so you "couldn't" pirate them. I actually paid my way through film school and paid for my 4th year feature film by developing my own software, which was called ScriptRighter, which I sold for $100, a third or fourth of what those big guys sold for. I managed to get it into TheatreBooks in Toronto and The Writers' Store, which I believe was in Burbank.
posted by dobbs at 4:58 AM on June 15, 2020

I went to USC film school (Cinema-Television Production, to be precise) in the early 1990s.

At the time USC was the Hollywood networker's kind of film school; if you wanted to make art you went to NYU instead. One of my fellow students immediately went out and bought a cell phone -- an ostentatious luxury at the time -- so he could handle all the "deals" he'd surely be getting soon.

The core of the film program was the following classes, always referred to just by their numbers:

* 290: Write, cast, and film one new short film on an extremely tight schedule (I think it may have been one a week? or every other week?). These were shot on 8mm film, edited by hand (with tape and razor blades); synchronous sound was not allowed (you could play audio from a cassette tape along with the movie, but the timing wasn't precise enough for dialog. This was intentional, to force the kids to think visually instead of verbally.). They'd be screened in class, and the ritual was that everyone would give feedback on the film while the filmmaker had to stay silent and listen. Casting for these tended to be friends and roommates. This was the washout class, meant to get rid of the kids who weren't going to be able to stick it out for the rest of the program.

* During the same semester as 290, there was a scriptwriting class whose number I've forgotten; it was where you'd write the script for your 310.

* 310: You needed to pair up with another student for 310, and make two films; you'd each edit one and direct the other. One would be shot on 16mm film; you'd do rough edits by hand (tape and razors again) and then pay someone to cut a clean negative to print from. The other would be shot on videotape and edited with a machine that basically rewound and fast-forwarded tape very precisely before copying. It's been a long time so I don't 100% recall but I'm pretty sure these were also dialogue-free. Cameras, film, and basic lighting were provided but if you wanted anything more elaborate you'd rent it from a local studio. Casting was done "for real", by placing classified ads in a specific industry newspaper; actors were unpaid non-students -- I gather the hope was that the student they'd be working with would someday get famous and keep casting them. I saved a stack of about a thousand headshots I was sent when casting mine, just to see if any of them ever made it. None did.

* 480: This was the big deal; students were supposed to self-organize into a full film crew and spend the semester making a single movie on (I think) 35mm film with synch sound. Anyone who wanted to direct needed to talk a bunch of other students into working for them as editor, DP, lighting, etc; these would have a significantly higher budget and shoot complexity. I did not take 480; instead I went into the animation track, where I was lucky/unlucky enough to be there for the very tail end of hand-drawn art on celluloid; just a couple years later they finally bought some computers and went digital.

There were lots of other classes available, of course: I remember one dedicated to shooting 3-camera setups (as all sitcoms and most dramas were in those days), some still photography and darkroom classes, and some other technical specialties. Film history was covered lightly if at all (that was considered more for the Critical Studies students than the production side.)
posted by ook at 8:28 AM on June 15, 2020

I garbled a description in editing above: you ended up making lots of short films in 290, that sentence started out as "one per week" before I second-guessed myself on the exact timing .
posted by ook at 8:36 AM on June 15, 2020

I was at USC film school in the 90's, so, along with ook, I can give a lot of context. Ook, I can tell you were an undergrad by the course numbers! I was in the grad program, which had a similar sequence of production classes, but different numbers.

All students had to purchase a Super8 camera their first semester. We made 5 films, one every 3 weeks. It was more-or-less, one week write, one week shoot, one week edit. They were to be black and white, no sync dialog, although voice over was allowed on some of them, and some color stock was permitted on later projects. Because of the turnaround, I remember casting undergrad USC actors and fellow students.

Second semester was 16mm, black and white, no sync dialog. So, no dialog the whole first year, no color, really.

Then the third semester was that you had to crew on an Advanced Production, either produce (which was really production managing), edit, do sound. DPs were supposed to be 4th semester, but they made exceptions. The directors had done the class the semester before as a crew member.

The program at the time had 2 film history classes as a requirement, silent film and sound film, and grad students had to take a 3rd as an elective, which included classes with the PhD Critical Studies students.

There was definitely drama and frustration about which directors got picked to direct the advanced films, since they were fully funded by USC. USC also owned all the student films, which students knew coming in, but it was still a bit frustrating.

USC students, generally, definitely had a moving into Hollywood mindset, and the program was definitely teaching that. Which is different from NYU, which had an indie mindset. UCLA was a bit more in the middle.

If you have specific questions about the USC MFA program in the 90's, feel free to MeMail me, I'd be happy to go into detail. I was a T.A., and I'm a film professor now, so I'm super familiar with the ways that film schools have changed in the last 25 years. I could talk you through the specifics of the classes and the culture.
posted by MythMaker at 11:53 AM on June 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

I went to NYU for undergrad in the early 2000's. I remember freshman year the teacher asked everyone to stand up and list the last ten movies they'd seen. I was proudly about to start listing the indie movies I'd watched on VHS tapes all summer when she cut me off and said "it only counts if it was projected."

I sank back into my seat because I couldn't afford movie tickets as an 18 year old and the only movies being projected in my home town were standard blockbuster fare.

I had little money so ended up spending more time focusing on screenwriting and documentaries, which were cheaper to do than color sync (where you had to raise an enormous amount of $.)

The other thing I remember was that all the guys were obsessed with Tarantino. There were very few women and their thoughts/opinions tended to get railroaded.
posted by egeanin at 3:13 PM on June 15, 2020

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