Saturday 29 May 2010

Is Film School Worth It? Is It Necessary?

If anyone says that you must go to film school, they're wrong. If anyone says you must definitely not go, they are also wrong. There is no right answer. The one thing that matters is that you continually learn and study, and that means different things to different people. Some people learn best by listening to lecturers talk about symbolism, some people learn best by watching Spike Lee films in their bedrooms. Some people learn technical stuff by enrolling in a course, some people learn by volunteering on a film set and saying 'hey, can you show me how you do that technical stuff?'
A few years back I was a camera assistant on a horror film being shot in Ealing Studios. The crew were ALL film school friends. Apart from me. But the fact is: I was still there. Also, ever since I began making short films I've had film school graduates applying to be helpers on my short films, because they struggle to find good work experience. They were qualified filmmakers, my only qualification was when I passed a cycling proficiency test, aged 9. My point is: go to film school or don't go to film school, both are wrong, both are right.

I think that three of the most important things are confidence, knowledge and experience. My knowledge comes from in depth studying of cinema, from pretty much every single day of my life since I was 13, and from producing my own films ever since I was 16. It doesn't come from the classroom. Other people get great knowledge from fascinating film school lectures. Neither are correct, they're just different. Most film school grads I know have great knowledge and know wonderfully complex things I'm clueless about. But that's the good thing about doing it my own way, I set my own studying agenda. I know a Morgan Freeman glance or a Woody Allen line or a Billy Wilder moment better than anyone I know. They don't teach you that. They can't teach you the little tiny moments that excite you about movies. They're your own.

Experience is important. I spent years struggling to understand actors, dealing with ruined locations, fumbling over bad dialogue and being stopped by police for having no permission--- all this came from making short films in my teens without having a clue what to do. Now I'm at the point where I'm fearless come the shoot. I can do it. No problem. That's experience. That's my journey.

However, film school offers wider experiences; the chance to try different equipment, collaborate and build relationships with like-minded people-- and a chance to focus on technical proficiency of the craft. When people come out of film school, they know the names of cameras and they know the shortcut buttons on Final Cut Pro. That's experience.

Confidence is, for me, the main one. When you have the choice of film school, or the industry, or dedicating your life to packing groceries: it really comes down to confidence. If you think film school will make you a confident filmmaker, then that's probably the right place for you. If you think you need to get out there and find your way, then maybe you should. If you think you're ready to produce and direct right now, if you have that confidence, go for it.

There are many people who act confident or display confidence. That's not what I'm talking about... There are directors who act like big shots but get scared on film sets and there are actors who stroll around breezily but deep down are crippled by fears of inferiority... by confident; I mean Spielberg marching into Universal Studios and demanding work, I mean Will Smith constantly determined and certain of his greatness, I mean Chaplin taking to the stage aged 5 and mesmerizing the audience. Those people don't need a syllabus, modules and tutoring, they need to express themselves immediately. If you have unyielding confidence and belief; then you're ready. For me, film school is what many people do to find those things. The alternative route is to learn through trying, and by helping out, and by listening: there is great wisdom to be found by helping on film sets.

Do what feels right. Follow your mind and body in the direction they are pulling you. NO-ONE can tell you whether film school is right or not; both paths can lead you to jubilation or depression, just like anything else.

The one thing I will say, whilst admitting I'm partial to going the industry route--- many, many graduates have said to me, "I wish I'd done what you did," and nobody has ever said "I'm struggling to get work, I wish I'd been to film school." Often, people go to study film simply because they're clueless about how to move forward with their careers. Maybe that isn't a good reason.

Film school is great for making contacts, friends and collaborators-- I missed out on that. I've always been a little jealous of some of my film school peers who seem to take turns to work on each others passion projects, and they all chip in and work together. There's something wonderful about that. Film school gave them that. It's been more gradual for me to find those types of relationships through going it the industry route.

In terms of succeeding in the industry, it really doesn't make a difference. No-one cares. But, paradoxically, in some way-- everyone cares. On both sides of the argument, people often cut each other down. I have often been asked, in an oppressive kind of way, "Er, did you go to film school?" -- it can be an instant way to try and deflate you. Likewise, I've often seen do-it-yourself types feeling superior because they went out and did it and aren't 'Rich film school kids.' This stuff is nonsense; and I hope we can begin to move past it. The only reason to go to film school should be: because you really want to go to film school. Because you find value in it. Whether it will affect or even help your career in film, who knows. It certainly can.

Care to share?


  1. I'm struggling with this question at the moment. I'm about to graduate from university (with an irrelevant degree in English Lit) and want to go into television. I'm thinking - training or work experience? I could go the whole way and get a masters degree. But the more I think about it the more I just want to get stuck in. If I came out of a film school I'd be qualified but without experience. And the same goes the other way round. I'm to going to try phoning around to get work experience. Someone will let me in eventually. I hope.

    Helpful post.

  2. I don't think English Lit is irrelevant dude, that's a wonderful degree to have.

    It would be great if you could get stuck in. Are you London based? There are many production companies in town who do TV work -- is it specifically production you want to do? What interests you about television? Let me know, I'll see if I can help in any way.

  3. I'm in Wales, so Cardiff is my best option. I'm looking to do production - to eventually produce my own drama. What worries me about this is that I can't specifically say what I want to do. I'd like to write, to produce, and direct too if I'm up to it. That seems too general. It seems that a producers job can be 'a bit of everything', but then I'll sound unfocused.

    I'm hoping I won't be told to go through the 'proper process' when I phone around. My CV is almost non-existent at the moment, so I'll need someone to give me the first step.

  4. Then be unfocused! Maybe that's your style! Producing could really suit you -- you could play a hand in the writing, without having to do it all yourself. I talked to Scott Rosenberg about his TV shows, and he would talk about his role as Head Writer, he'd get people in to do the writing, but then; he'd get the final say on it--- maybe you could work in a way like that.

    You sound like you're not confident in moving forward right now, not totally sure where to go-- which I completely understand, but I hope you can see all the opportunities rather than the obstacles. It's clear you're interested in doing some great work; which should be celebrated!

    Do you know of any dramas that were shot in Wales that you liked, that are perhaps similar to what you're interested in? You could find the producer/crew details, hunt them down, offer to help them out/make their coffee/whatever, and by being in their presence; it will really open your eyes to how they do what they do which will, in turn, inspire you to do what you want to do!

  5. If I can get enough money, I'll probably go to film school. Excellent piece, anyway.

  6. Then the question is, if you choose film school which one should you go to? I'm in the same situation with Chris, studying English Lit at Uni and pondering film school afterward. The thing is I'm Guyana a long way from any film/tv industry so I have some thinking to do...luckily I've got three years to do so.

  7. This is definitely a great article for me to read because I will be applying to college in the fall. That being said, I do plan to go to film school for a lot of the reasons you mentioned. I feel that it will give me experience in filmmaking that I do not have right now, and it will give me a great core group of filmmaker friends with projects to work on that are tough to find right here right now.

    One of my favorite quotes from any filmmaker comes from Tarantino, and it goes something like this: "I didn't go to film school. I went to films." This is something I have almost lived by for the past few years, going to as many films as possible, and I have learned an invaluable amount of cinematic techniques, facts, feelings, etc.

    Like you said, though, this is (and never will be) a black and white decision. I hope that film school will work out for me in the end, and that's all I can really say right now. I will do my absolute best to make sure my career goes in the right directions.

  8. Danny, good luck - whatever you decide to do!

  9. I say just do what feels right for YOU, don't worry about what every other Tom dick and Harry are doing.

  10. Dazed and Confused4 March 2012 at 21:13

    Hey, dude you seem really cool. I live nearby NYC. Don't know where I want to go, but listening to filmmakers talk about their films in interviews and such, I know, THAT's where I belong. And sometimes I say something, and I think, that would be a GREAT movie line, b/c it reflects how many teenagers like me feel. I live in the suburbs and the likiness of me getting on a film set here seems slim. I don't know where to start, but I know it's
    where I belong. I want to write a movie script, and I start and I get scared. I love writing, but I also would want to
    be creatively in control. With the shots, locations. And
    such. I have the money to go to film school and college,
    but I find film school unnecessary. You think you could please give me some tips? Thanks. Greatly appreciated.