From the Summer issue of Film Ireland, this article investigates the merits of studying film and embarking upon a career in the notoriously difficult industry.
So you’ve decided your future lies in film. But where to begin? Film Ireland’s Charlene Lydon advises on how to choose the course that’s right for you and talks to some up-and-coming Irish talent about where they went to college and what they learned there…
There are many schools of thought on the pros and cons of studying film. Some of the greatest filmmakers of our time, such as David Fincher, Peter Jackson and Steven Soderbergh never went to film school. Many are of the opinion that you can’t teach art – you either have it or you don’t. Modern technology has become so compact and so cheap that the ‘learn by doing’ philosophy is more feasible than ever before. Anybody can pick up a camera and shoot some footage, anyone can use a simple editing programme on their laptop and anybody can upload a video to YouTube.
In the past, many people went to film school simply because there was no other way to access equipment. With that no longer being the case, what are the benefits of going to film school? If nothing else, an education in film will help you decide where your strengths lie. Without actually trying it, it can be hard to know if you’re actually suited to directing. Or what about producing? Or screenwriting? You get to try out a variety of roles, gaining insight into how a crew fits together, the importance of each crew member’s role and, most importantly, the job that best suits your skills.
And apart from finding out which way you incline, if you’re interested in certain filmmaking skills like editing or cinematography you can absolutely reap benefits from formal training. You might be full of interesting ideas but without the knowledge of your tools, there are no guarantees you’ll ever reach your full potential. Training in a college gives you the chance to get familiar with the industry’s rapidly changing technologies.
A wise lecturer once said that you can learn as much from watching a bad film as you can from watching a good one. Studying film is all about watching films, giving you the skills to learn more every time you go to the cinema. There is an old myth that the study of film will impede your ability to enjoy films. Not true. It improves your ability to enjoy films by adding depth to the experience. The language of film is deeply embedded in all of us whether we know it or not, but an understanding of this language, how it works, and why it exists is fundamental to your filmmaking.
And now, the other benefit of studying film in a structured way. One of the secrets to succeeding in film is getting to know people. Word of mouth is an essential part of getting jobs in film and building a reputation is hugely important. Film courses are a great place to meet the future filmmakers of Ireland and start a New Wave together. Students often find themselves forming production companies together after college or working on each other’s films. It’s always good to have a pool of talented, dependable crewmembers for future projects and college is a very, very handy way to do this.
How to Choose the Right Course for You
There is a vast array of courses on offer in Ireland, both technical and academic. Technical courses are best suited to those interested in working as crew or in directing their own films. The focus is on practical work and while there will usually be some written work, a large part of your mark will be for project work. The academic study of film will suit you if you’re interested in becoming a film lecturer, a cinema programmer or a film critic. These courses focus on the history and theory of cinema. If you enjoy watching and discussing films, but are not so keen on making them, then this is the direction you should take.
Some courses contain elements of both technical and academic studies. These combination courses are quite broad and will allow you find the areas that suit you. If you know you love film but you’re not sure what you want to focus on then this is the option for you.
Film education comes in all shapes and sizes. Most degree courses are available as either full-time or part-time and postgraduate courses are often research-based, meaning you are not required to attend many lectures. If time is of the essence, evening courses are offered in various aspects of film. Many organisations also offer weekend or day-long workshops that are designed to cover just a specific area of filmmaking.
Filmbase is one place to find this kind of film training. The film and video training courses are for new and emerging filmmakers as well as practising film professionals. Course lengths vary from one-day to five-day, weekend courses and evening courses ranging from 6 to 10 weeks. This means they’re open to those in full-time work who want to explore a particular area or to film professionals who want to update their qualifications without having to take too much time off. It’s also an opportunity to find out where your strengths lie before you commit to a degree or a diploma or before embarking on a career in filmmaking. Filmbase is an Apple Authorized Training Centre, and all tutors who teach Filmbase courses are film professionals themselves, which brings an authenticity and practicality to the courses. For a full list of the training available at Filmbase, visit www.filmbase.ie/training.
If you want to try film but are afraid of taking the plunge with college fees, why not check with your local VEC. They offer a range of lower cost certificate and diploma courses around the country that can lead to further education and will, at the very least, provide you with a substantial portfolio of work.
So, whether you on the post-Leaving Cert precipice, you feel like a career change, or you just fancy a new hobby, there is something there for you.
What was the most important thing you learned during your time studying film? I studied animation in Ballyfermot, where we did a lot of life-drawing and sketching out on location. It taught me the importance of observation – seeing what gives an expression or gesture its meaning, what elements of someone’s physicality tell you about their personality in terms of movement and presentation. All the details that go into making a set feel real and relevant to the world you are trying to create – observation and attention to detail, I suppose, two important lessons.
What was your first project and how did it go? The first film as such I made in college was a group project, made on paper with pastel illustrations. We were happy with how it turned out, but I haven’t seen it in a long time!
What have you learned that college couldn’t teach you? Lots of things. Experience is the best place to learn. I think something that comes with time is realising that to make something feel really emotional, it helps to bring your own personal experience to it. It’s sort of intuitive anyway, but it is an important question to ask yourself in terms of relating to your characters and world. You have to look at your story, characters and the world you are creating, and bring your own memories or experiences to them in some way. It all translates to an audience. I also did an amazing course through Screen Training Ireland with Bruce Block on visual storytelling, which was incredibly helpful and is something that I still refer to.
If you could tell students one thing, what would it be? That while it’s a tough industry to get into, if it’s what you want to do, keep at it. Make films on your computer at home, do whatever, and keep at it. The more you put into the work, the more you’ll get out of it. If it starts to feel too much like hard work, you should probably do something else.
What would you change about film education in Ireland? It might have changed by now, but in Ballyfermot I think we could have benefitted from a mentoring system – some way in which those working in the industry mentor students. I think having access to people with the technical know-how and experience would help the students improve production values and increase their chances of reaching wider audiences.
Do you think academic film study can inform technical ability? Yes, to a certain degree, but there’s nothing like experience to inform technical ability.
Dublin City University Eimear O’Kane – producer, Satellites & Meteorites (feature, 2008), Corduroy (short, 2009).
What was the most important thing you learned during your time studying film? I think the most useful thing I learned during my time studying was essay writing and the work I put into researching and writing my thesis. Learning to put forward a convincing and well-written argument has served me well in writing applications, synopses, etc.
What do you wish they had never told you? That there weren’t many jobs out there – I found it to be untrue. You just need to be patient and keep working at it.
What was your first project and how did it go? My first job was accounts trainee on Lassie. It was terrifying, as I had no experience in accounts and the dogs kept dribbling on my petty cash forms.
What have you learned that college couldn’t teach you? Just the little things that you learn over time from working on set on a daily basis. It took me a long time to figure out what everyone’s job title really meant and how everyone fit together to form a cohesive and efficient crew.
If you could tell students one thing, what would it be? There are jobs there if you are committed and willing to work hard. You may need to work for free for a time but if you are good at what you do you will eventually get noticed and start getting offered paid work.
What would you change about film education in Ireland? I would include more work experience both on set and in production offices.
Do you think academic film study can inform technical ability? Yes, I think it’s great to have the time to explore why things are done and to discuss what options are available. By watching and analysing films from directors/producers/designers/DOPs, etc., you can understand how a look or style is achieved and learn how to replicate and improve on it.
What was the most important thing you learned during your time studying film? A thick skin. In the Huston the feedback process was always present. It was strange at first, especially for me since I had rarely ever shown my work to anyone. As a working writer, you have to get used to the notes process and the sooner you get used to it, the sooner the feedback will be constructive to your work.
What do you wish they had never told you? How difficult it is to actually get anything produced. The odds are always stacked against the writer. However, they always told us a good script will always shine through.
What was your first project and how did it go? For the Masters in Screenwriting we had to write a feature-length screenplay as our thesis. From the first week we had to start working on the ideas and I set about writing this Irish gothic black comedy set around the moving-statue craze in the eighties. It was a mad script with too many characters and I now describe it as a plot monster. While writing this script I knew I wanted to write something really simple and character-driven, something that was from the gut and felt ‘real.’ That was when My Brothers was born.
What have you learned that college couldn’t teach you? You have to find your own voice. You can know everything about the three-act structure and film analysis but at the end of the day it’s only your voice as a writer that will make a script come alive. You have to go into yourself and find stories there and not try to stick successful film ‘A’ with successful film ‘B’ and hope a story forms. I’m sure they told us this in the Huston but I had to figure it out for myself.
If you could tell students one thing, what would it be? Write one page every day. Just you, a pen and a piece of paper. Write something completely for yourself. This exercise has saved me on so many occasions. I might be stuck figuring out a plot or writing a scene but every morning I start with the ‘One Page’ idea. I force myself to create something new on that page, it’s usually rubbish but I always walk away feeling better, feeling ‘I made something.’ I don’t feel so bogged down with whatever I’m stuck on. Plus, sometimes these pages become the seeds for future stories.
What would you change about film education in Ireland? It’s already changed a lot even from when I was in secondary school. Recently, I was giving a talk to a group of transition year students and I was delighted to learn that they were doing a film program where they actually made their own short films. In my day, films were something you wasted your time on at the weekends. I think film education needs to happen in the community as youth projects. I look at Kilkenny where they have a group called The Young Irish Filmmakers. From what I know, this was an after-school group. A number of the kids involved went on to form Cartoon Saloon, who were nominated for an Oscar® this year with the The Secret of Kells. The learning is in the doing.
Do you think academic film study can inform technical ability? Definitely. At the Huston I was exposed to so many different pockets of film movements that it blew my mind. It was liberating. Through analysis you obtain a clearer understanding of how and why great films are great. Also, learning basic screenwriting tools is vital – like the three-act structure – and will save hopeful writers weeks or months of trying to figure out how to write a script for themselves (which I’ve done in the past). But then, as a writer, you have to let that analytical side go and allow yourself to be creative and instinctive. It’s a bit of a balancing act – it isn’t easy.
What was the most important thing you learned during your time studying film? As I was pretty new to the film world I found it great to be given the time to find out what you’re most interested in and where your strengths lie. During the first two years you’d do sound on one project, and then produce, direct, edit or do camera on others. Maybe the most important thing for me was being able to shoot on 16 mm. Being in film school allows you to experiment, make mistakes and to develop your own style without the pressure that you have in the ‘real world’, as lecturers used to call working in the industry.
What was your last project and how did it go? With my film Aunt, I wanted to limit myself to the power of images and rely as little as possible on dialogue to convey the story. Aunt is set in the 1970s in the West of Ireland. It is about a family that hides the fact that their youngest daughter had a baby out of wedlock by giving the baby to the older sister who is already married and has a child.
My producer David Lester Mooney and I are both pleased with the film and are developing a follow-up project together.
What have you learned that college couldn’t teach you? There’s a lot that film school can’t teach you. College is a playground where you meet people who have the same interests as you do. It’s up to you how much you put into it and how many working relationships you build up.
If you could tell students one thing what would it be? If you haven’t already, take up photography. It’s surprising how few film students take photographs. For me film and photography are very similar. Not only do you get a feel for composition and the technicalities of exposing a proper image, but it also makes you a better storyteller.
What would you change about film education in Ireland. I’d introduce intense workshops with industry professionals, not just with directors but also lighting/camera, sound and editing workshops. I’d also give the students more opportunities to work with a wider range of equipment that is used in the industry, such as 35 mm cameras, bigger lighting units, etc. Most importantly, I’d get all the different departments (set design, make-up, animation, etc.) to work together on projects. The importance of set design is something that we had to realise ourselves.
Do you think academic film study can inform technical ability? People work in different ways. I’ve always been more comfortable with the practical approach. Reading books on photography and technical books on cinematography certainly helped me a lot, but ultimately I am the kind of person who learns by doing and trying things. Sometimes you fail, but what’s most important is the ‘doing’ bit.
What was the most important thing you learned during your time studying film? I think the most important thing I learned was how important it is to organise and plan ahead, no matter how big or small your production. If you organise everything that you can during pre-production, then your production will run so much smoother.
What do you wish they had never told you? That you’re only as good as your last job… It haunts me!!!
What was your first project and how did it go? God, I can’t remember my first college project. I think it was shooting a one-minute linear piece on the theme of freedom. There were four of us in the group and I remember that we had to keep going from location to location as we were shooting linearly and couldn’t edit the footage. I suppose it was a good exercise, though, as it taught us about shooting ratio and not to do the same shot over and over when there was no need.
What have you learned that college couldn’t teach you? I don’t think it is really a case of what college couldn’t teach me but you definitely can’t beat real experience – meeting new colleagues and seeing firsthand the different ways people work and how everyone’s roles combine in a successful production.
If you could tell students one thing, what would it be? To get as much work experience as you can while you are at college and to make use of the equipment and facilities. Make projects on the side that you can add to your showreel.
What would you change about film education in Ireland? I think I would have courses with more practical, hands-on elements. During the 4th year of the course I did in DkIT there was a six-week work experience placement. I found it extremely beneficial, so I would definitely suggest more work placements. They’re a great opportunity for students to get an insight into the industry and also to make themselves known to possible future employers.
Do you think academic film study can inform technical ability? Yes, I think that academic study gives you the basis that you need to understand the technical side of film. During the BA in video and film course in DkIT we had a mixed learning experience with academic and practical study and this actually gave me a better understanding when I began working in a technical area.
What was the most important thing you learned during your time studying film? To be always willing to learn and to always keep your mind open to new ways of thinking and doing things. Even after picking up the paperwork that proved I could do that, it’s a way of thinking that’s as important to me today as it was then.
What was your first project and how did it go? The first professional project I worked on was a satirical four-part series called ‘The State of Us’ shot for RTÉ back in April 2007. I joined the crew as camera trainee and was delighted because I had always focused my attention on shooting the college productions. I spent my time during this project learning how to fulfil my position in a way that could help those around me as opposed to getting in the way and being a hindrance. I also made sure I didn’t drop the camera.
What have you learned that college couldn’t teach you? How to make a great coffee.
If you could tell students one thing, what would it be? All that stands between the student and the top of the ladder is the ladder.
What would you change about film education in Ireland? I think film courses need to forge stronger relationships with working professional productions and crew members throughout the country. It would help if there were direct points of contact with the industry as well as a competent level of work experience in various professional environments. With the emergence of so many easily accessible formats for displaying work and the development of affordably priced ‘high-end’ technology, I think there is a real opportunity to develop these links.
Do you think academic film study can inform technical ability? Definitely. I always feel there are two streams of thought processes that steer decision-making in filmmaking. First off, you need to have a high level of technical ability. Since graduating, my education in the technical aspects of camera and lighting continues on a daily basis. However, what turns this knowledge into a powerful story-making tool is your academic background in film studies. It’s as vital to your thinking as the technical knowledge and helps steer the production of a story down new avenues.
University Of Ulster Jolene Mairs – craft service: second unit, A Shine of Rainbows (feature, 2009), studying for a PhD by practice.
What was the most important thing you learned during your time studying film? There are no rules about filmmaking, only what works for your story.
What was your first project and how did it go? My first project was a five-minute documentary about a toilet attendant in my town centre. I was terrified at the prospect of completing a project on my own, but it went better than expected and I managed to produce a decent little film that wasn’t too bad for a first effort.
What have you learned that college couldn’t teach you? I’m technically still in college! I’m now working on a PhD by Practice so I have not yet had the opportunity to learn outside of a college environment.
If you could tell students one thing, what would it be? The best way to learn about filmmaking is to make a film.
Do you think academic film study can inform technical ability? Definitely. Studying and thinking critically about films is a great way to get to know what kind of films you want to make.