You may recall that the last thing I wrote was back in September…about feeling creatively dry… I wasn’t kidding. I’ve tried to write a post so many times on why the dots weren’t connecting, but it took until now, eight weeks into the spring semester, to finally internalize a powerful lesson: you are the product of the people with whom you surround yourself.
I think that one of the reasons why I struggled in film school last semester was the way my production class (290) was designed. It was the only film class I was taking and the majority of my classmates were non-production majors. The attitude of 290, I felt, was largely, “this is a requirement and nothing more”, which completely killed its value. It felt like a Band-Aid everyone was just longing to rip off, and I’ve got my own half-assed projects to prove that I was part of the problem as well.
285- our first production class freshman year. Focused on breaking all the rules and being as creative as possible. Experimental stories. Any type of equipment can be used. Make a film almost every week. SCA wants us to fail as much as possible so we learn.
290- second production class (sophomore year). Mixed with Critical Studies and Screenwriting majors so wide-array of skill-sets and varied experience levels. Forced to use specific camera gear and editing software (AVID). Strict guidelines to projects. Film made every 2-3 weeks.
294- production class divided into thirds (three 5 week sections) in which we work within our randomly selected trios to make a web series, a documentary, and a narrative short. Specific gear and software required, tight guidelines.
295- an amalgamation of all things filmmaking: cinematography, sound, producing, and editing. All crucial, highly informative, and good work load. Buckle in tight. (Side note: in addition to these bad boys, we’re also required to take a screenwriting and a critical studies class this semester.
You could say we’re busy.)
Now that I'm back with my fellow production students, I realize that it's their genuine passion for what we’re learning and wholehearted participation that inspires the rest of us to be engaged.
But this is my experience. I don’t want to paint any “wrong” or “right” way to think about film school, so I asked a few production students if they would mind sharing their thoughts on the classes we’ve taken so far, to see if their sentiments were the same.
(Spoiler alert: they're not. All three of us have wildly different perspectives and feelings toward these classes, which goes to show how hit-or-miss the quality of certain classes can be literally from one classroom to another, from one student to another.)
Here are their responses:
Of the three production classes we’ve taken so far, which one did you like the most? In which one did you learn the most? Why?
Zack: I liked 290 the most because I feel like I learned more than in the other classes (though we’re only 1/3 through 294 so hopefully that will change). My 290 class was different than most, though, because Sheldon didn’t care about the no dialogue rule, he wasn’t strict about runtime, and he’d let you make pretty much whatever you wanted. So, in that sense, it became similar to 285 – you could throw caution to the wind and try new things. However, the feedback was always more detail-oriented and story focused, which made it better than 285. So you could make anything, and then get really rational, smart feedback from Sheldon, our SA, and the class. Sheldon has been my favorite professor so far because of that. And if something wasn’t working in your script or edit, he wouldn’t tell you “the right way” to do it just because that’s how he’d do it… he’d discuss alternatives with you and it would actually become a conversation and discussion exploring how to achieve the film’s goals. Unlike some professors here, he didn’t frame us as lowly students who don’t have a sense of what works yet… he framed us as fellow filmmakers with less experience, but visions equally as valid as his.
Anonymous: My favorite class, I think, is 294/295. I don’t mind the New Media/Documentary/Narrative section, but what I really benefit from is the workshops in sound, producing, editing and cinematography. It’s the hands-on production that we signed up for two years ago, didn’t get in 285, and barely touched on in 290.
Soraya: 285 because of its freedom and audacity. 294/295 because of its structure and relentless immersion into filmmaking’s every detail. I feel like I’m learning the most this semester (especially in producing) about how the industry and all the parts within a very complicated system function. All credit is due to the professors.
What is the most important or useful thing you’ve learned in film school so far?
Zack: Everything should serve the story. Everything. It seems obvious, but I had never really laid it out like that before film school. Now I constantly tell myself that as I’m prepping for shoots… because it’s less a matter of throwing out (or saving) ideas that I think would look cool but have no real purpose for the story, but more about opening up more ideas. If you have a scene and you know the film’s theme is death is always knocking, for instance, really considering what you can do through all the aspects of production – the acting, the blocking, the lighting, the camera moves, the production design, the score, the editing – to deliver on that theme of a looming death and the circumstances of story at that moment, it opens up an array of ideas that you can then pick and choose from.
A: The most important thing, for me, is the value of confidently operating beyond my comfort level. I’m still not great at reaching out; the thing right now I’m working on is applying to internships, which is tough—but much easier when I’m confident enough to not care if I embarrass myself.
Soraya: “If you think you’re smarter than the system, then it won’t teach you anything.”
Do you wish a certain class could be designed differently? If so, which and how?
Zack: 295 should happen between 285 and 290.
285 gave us that wonderful chance to experiment and say “hey we’re in film school, this is fun!” But it really didn’t give too much practical knowledge, at least in my section. I learned that I should do unconventional things… and that’s about it. And I think 295 is a great format of getting us familiar with cinematography, producing, editing, and sound. So if we had to do that for a semester and get really good with the aspects of physical production, then we’d be itching like crazy to make films when it was time to jump into 290. Since the technical aspects would be taught already, the class could be fully focused on directing and story, and it would have been more helpful and directed I think.
A: When I find issue with a class, it usually comes down to the professor and not the design of the course. I still don’t like how the entire first two years of the program are slow, but I’ve figured out this semester that a shitty course can be the most valuable when you have a professor that changes how you fundamentally think of and practice filmmaking. I wish professors would be tougher, give more detailed criticism (and in some cases, know if they even believe what they’re saying), more than I wish for better-designed courses. And then, after that, I would throw my hands up and pray for a more intensive first two years in the BFA Production program.
Soraya: 290, for me, was largely ineffective. I thought the deadlines were too rushed and the guidelines were sometimes too strict (I’m all for structure, but god, it’s such a headache walking on eggshells with these rules). Also, while I made some great friends in the class, I don’t think mixing production students with screenwriters or critical studies is a good idea. Some of us just inherently care more, and others don’t. Didn’t feel compelled to raise the standard of my work when few seemed to take the class seriously. Being back with production students is a completely different experience this semester and such a relief. Caveat: did learn a more about directing actors, which my documentary making-self had yet to dip my toes in. That was all thanks to my professor.
Can you remember a time when you were feeling the most uncomfortable to pursue a project or to screen it in class? What made you feel that way and what did you learn about yourself and your work coming out of it?
Zack: Besides wishing I had time to do more editing, this hasn’t really happened to me yet for any class projects… though I’m sure it will. I haven’t pursued a really personal story for any of the projects yet, so that’s probably why I’ve managed to steer clear of this for now.
A: I didn’t want to screen every project I made in 285. They were all so terrible. It wasn’t a valuable experience for me. Glad I’m gone.
Soraya: Ugh, yes. This film I made in 290 – of course haha! I was challenging myself to do a non-dialogue narrative short, which was more or less the same plot as 127 Hours but with a ultra-runner. Hard to shoot in the forest with the big, awkward camera and so much fragile equipment. The whole time I was praying for my DSLR and hoping my actor couldn't see through my utter lack of competence in directing him (haha, how could he not). Aside from the production nightmare, the actual film itself was so embarrassing. I guess I learned never to do that again. But once your ego takes that large of a nosedive while screening in class, you’re immune to just about any future screening. The good news is: it can only be your worst film once!
What is the biggest mistake you’ve made so far in film school?
Zack: I sometimes find myself leaning on things that I know I can do well. I’m thinking back to my first 290 project… the exercise… I made a dumb, little, dark, thriller, atmospheric thing that I haven’t watched since. I didn’t have a lot of time to make that project, so I went with that idea because I knew it’d draw on my strengths and it would come out pretty well. Stupid. What did I expect to learn from it? Nothing. That’s the kind of decision you’d make if a client wanted a film in a week (do something simple you can do well), not a class designed to grow your craft. Even if I didn’t have a lot of time, I should’ve went with something simple, but that drew on my weaknesses as well. You sometimes have to remind yourself that you’re not here to make good films; you’re here to make shitty ones. Luckily, while that film came out well visually, the story was still shit and suffered from the overabundance of style over substance, which I then learned from. So that project made me more appreciate and understand the failures we should want to have in school.
A: Biggest mistake I’ve made and continue to make is not getting involved enough. It all comes down to throwing yourself into positions for which you’re only slightly under qualified, then learning from it. Freshman year I should have been on many more sets (I PA’d only a few 310s/480s, which was the most eye-opening experience), and this semester I should have been working an internship—but I didn’t, and both, unfortunately, would have been a tremendous push forward.
Soraya: I agree with what’s said above about working on more sets, though I also think it’s important to protect my precious and fleeting moments of free time for the benefit of my mental health. But as for my biggest mistake so far, I think I should be way more concentrated and consistent on creating the types of short, outdoor/adventure documentaries that I want to pursue professionally. If I can't do them for class assignments, then I really need to be more disciplined about getting them done. Employers want to see your work, and if you don't have quality work to show or enough work to show, it's your loss.
What would you say is the most successful thing you’ve done so far in film school?
Zack: My P2 for 290 was a short called Spin the Bottle about two teens who decide to shake up their grad party when they retreat to the closet for a fake ‘7 minutes in heaven.’ I had initially written another script for this project that we read in class, but as I was prepping, I realized that I didn’t really care about the story. That’s a bad sign haha, so I sat down and forced myself to write something I really cared about. High school kept coming to mind. More specifically, the obsession with sex in high school. Everyone wants to know who’s having sex, and with who, and are they dating, etc… it’ll drive you crazy. Like it’s the most important thing in the world. So I wrote this story where sex is the most important thing in the world. And, since I was actually frustrated from four years of hearing the constant bullshit, I felt more driven to capitalize on the theme of the film through everything – the blocking, camerawork, editing, surreal moments – going back to how does everything serve the story. And the film ended up being my favorite film school project thus far.
A: The most successful thing I’ve done is learn screenwriting on my own time, outside of class, then writing a script. It was the most helpful thing; I now understand how movies function, which is something you will not understand if you only know what you learn in class. I have no pity for any production students who don’t read scripts at least once a week. Also, writing scripts is part of my higher ambitions outside of school. When I make a short for class, I say “okay, I made this. Cool. Now how is this short going to help me when I graduate?”—whereas a good script (or at least the ability to write) can be a useful skill post-film-school.
Soraya: This blog!
If you could tell your freshman-self something that you’ve learned either this semester or this year, what would it be?
Zack: Everything you heard about USC’s film school being competitive and cutthroat is completely false. Friends at other film schools have told me it is like that there, so that kind of environment does exist, but not at USC. Everyone here wants to help each other, learn from each other, and collaborate in ways that are beneficial and fulfilling to everyone. Honestly, I look around our Production class and I love all these people. In just under two years, we’ve grown into a little family and we all have each other’s back. It’s incredible, and I love it.
A: I would tell my freshman self to read a lot, write a lot, sleep a little, question everything, don’t take everything at face value, remember the zip code on your fake ID, and don’t be intimidated by what everyone else is doing, because: A) They have their insecurities just like you, and B) They might just be a lunatic.
Soraya: When telling a story, start late and get out early.