July 14th 2006
Independent Filmmakers Alliance Newsletter
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In this newsletter, Andrew Van Slee answers the age old question: To go to film school or not to go to film school? The answer may surprise you.

Ask the Producer
with Andrew Van Slee

“What is your opinion on film school. Worth the expense? Which ones would you recommend?” - Adrian - Tucson, Arizona

To go to film school or not to go to film school, that is the question?

Well, this is a tough one, but I’m just gonna lay it on the line here. Filmmakers are filmmakers. If you want to be a doctor, lawyer or brain surgeon, you have to go to school. I mean, it’s the law. You can’t just wake up one day and decide that you are going to be a brain surgeon and then start to slice into someone’s head. The fact is that filmmaking is an art form. You have to be creative, passionate and yes, I do believe you need some sort of talent. A film school can’t give you these things. You may have the natural ability inside you and you want the film school to guide you through the process and jump start you with the basics. If that’s the case, then by all means, sign up and pay your tens of thousands of dollars to be in a film program. But the reality is you really don’t need to pay, you can get all of the information you need for free.

Here’s what I suggest. Get involved in casting, as an assistant, volunteer, or whatever. Just get into that department. The reason why I am suggesting casting is because that will give you close access to a variety of directors and producers. If you are a production assistant, you may be delegated to watch over the trucks or direct traffic, far, far away from the actual filming. You need to be close by, so you can watch the process. Watch the directors work and start to compile notes on how it all works and how they work. When I was in casting I got to watch real pros work, like John Badham (Stakeout, Bird on a Wire, War Games) and Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused, Immediate Family, Brokedown Palace, Unlawful Entry). The great thing about casting is that you will be right there, close to the directors watching them work with the actors. This, to me, is the most important part of filmmaking -- the performance. No matter how much money you have, or how many special effects you have, it all boils down to performance. If the performance is bad the film will tank. So, you’ll be right in there learning from people who are actually doing it, and on top of that they are going to pay you! So that’s one route.

The other is to get an internship as an office PA (Production Assistant). If you are in the office, especially in the prep period, you can learn a hell of a lot. The downfall to being an office PA is that you rarely get a chance to be out on set where all the action is. But, you still can learn a lot and you will be noticed since you are right there in the thick of things. So, those are just two options to consider. A third would be to intern as an assistant in the editing department. This too will give you very close access to the director and producer and will allow you to see how they put it all together. So, I know your parents may be nagging at you ‘cause they want you to go to college and learn so you have “something to fall back on,” but hey, why not take a few months off and get on set and learn about the realities of the business instead of being in a classroom somewhere?

The other thing you must do is SHOOT! Buy a cheap digital camera, write some shorts, work with actors. These are things that you can do for free and these are things that you really should be doing. I mean if you were a singer you would practice singing everyday. So, if you are going to be a filmmaker you need to practice and gain experience. You need to learn how it all works. And I really think you are better learning out in the field than in a classroom somewhere. I was lucky enough to get a gig for a few years as a casting assistant and extra’s casting director for a company called Pacific Motion Pictures run by a great guy named Matthew O’Connor. I learned so much about production. I got to sit in on the production meetings, work with all of the department heads, handle my own budget, it was awesome! Still to this day I utilize all the things I learned from PMP when I am in production.

So, if you can, I would suggest that you get out there and learn as much as you can on a practical level. Then if you really want to, go to film school as well. I can’t really recommend one school over another. I suggest you do some research and see which one has the most practical approach, less classroom, more time filmmaking. Just remember you need to have the passion and some talent to start. Combine that with ambition and that will equal your success, not a diploma on the wall.

If you like this story and found it useful my name is Andrew Van Slee. If you didn’t, my name is John Doe.

You have a question? Contact Andrew @ andrew@ifilmalliance.com

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