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Is Film School Necessary?

How Freelancers Can Succeed: Ande Schurr explores a common question about whether&n

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How Freelancers Can Succeed: Ande Schurr explores a common question about whether to go to film school or enter the industry directly and learn on the job.

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Last week I received an email from an Italian student (now living in Auckland) that many freelancers will smile at knowingly because he asks an age-old question that is quick to polarise people's opinions. The rest of this post will answer his question:

"Hi Ande,

I realize that you are a person in love with your Job and willing to share your passion with others interested in it. I've got an Italian four years Bachelor in my CV but it's not recognized in New Zealand and I admit that I don't have much experience in the field. Now I've got the opportunity to do a diploma in audio engineering at SAE school in Parnell, I was wondering if you know if this will help me to get into the job market or if it's better to start helping professionals for free to learn and make some experience in the field. I read you have been studying in film school, but that for an international student is too expensive, so I cannot take it in consideration. I just ask you your opinion for which is the best and feasible way to start, and I know this is not an easy task."

It is a good question.

Some say formal film education is a waste of time and money and just builds a false ego; that you actually know something (which doesn't do you any favours among the pros who expect a level of humility from a 'newbie'). This is perpetuated by students who come out thinking rather arrogantly that they are directors and DPs, and (god forbid!) sound recordists, based soley on their film school projects.

Others will say that the money is irrelevant and that film school is where you make your best starting-out contacts, build your foundation and get to experiment with film's many disciplines before making up your mind what you want to specialise in.

As you may see, both have validity. So what we must explore is which of these two polar-opposite opinions is right for you.

Yes, the answer for me was to go the film school route. Why? I am from the small city of Palmerston North which had no production companies at the time and I thus had no contacts and no exposure whatsoever to the industry.

This brings me to the answer I would usually give: if you are a stranger to Auckland (and certainly if you are from another country) - get formal education.

It is not so much for the education but for the contacts and familiarity you will gain with industry professionals who tutor and do guest lectures at the school. A film school would be the perfect place to 'find your feet', make kiwi contacts and learn the about our industry.

I know that money is an issue for you, but there are plenty of smaller film schools out there which have shorter courses - some run for three months and are taught solely by guest tutors visiting and teaching the students the skills of camera and sound. In case there is any confusion, it is a bonus having a guest lecturer teach you because you know they are still very active in the industry which means they are up to date with the current work, trends and full of fresh examples to share.

Having shown you that it is possible to attend a cheaper, shorter term film school, let me now tell you a story about SAE so you can see whether it has value or not, for you.

The boom operator I have used on several jobs, whom has aspirations to be a sound recordist, studied at SAE and found that music recording bored her. So she looked to film location sound instead, emailed me directly, entered the industry and loved it. But why I chose to use her is because she had a year of training behind her. I could see that she was serious about sound and it wasn't just a whim. SAE wasn't a wasted year in her eyes, because she learned a lot about the physics of sound and also, music recording does come in handy for certain scenes in films. Once she was with me, she was able to observe all the different roles on the film with interest. So her film school became each day on set.

I think SAE has a film school division so that could be a good option, but I do not know anything about it personally.

As I mentioned earlier, I went to a film school and am very pleased I went. I met allies, friends, and talented tutors whom I have kept in close contact with and had the opportunity to work with on their own feature films some years afterwards. I enjoyed studying the various disciplines and in the end I chose sound and focused solely on that. Since I was one of the only ones to do so, everybody soon came to know me as the soundie - even before I entered the industry. in the last term, on the major project of the year, I asked all the directors to send me a list of the FX tracks they wanted and I went away with a few others and made the tracks - from lightning (using roller doors), to punching (using cabbages!). I sent the CD to the editor who appreciated the sounds as they didn't have to go and recreate them. It was certainly a great place to learn and grow in a positive and carefully observed environment.

I hope this has helped clarify your next course of action. I do not want to answer it for you as of course you must come to the final conclusion yourself but the examples should help you see if they are relevant to you or not.

There is just one more thing to say on the matter. You contacted me directly a month ago asking for an opportunity on set. I told you what I tell all people, that I will add you to my list, which I did. But then you contacted me a second time with this sincere question. So in my mind you have initiative and so I have to say also that perhaps you could enter the industry straight way. If I don't have a job for you at this moment, another sound recordist may.

And let me remind you that many successful directors and DPs started making music videos and shooting still pictures, which became their 'film school'.

The ultimate doorway into the industry is if you have family, friends, or a close direct contact who can bring you on as their assistant, regardless of what they do.

The next level is to keep on contacting people - any people, regardless of their role - and persist until you find an opening.

But I can't help thinking that a short course, with industry guest tutors, with peers your own age, will give you a greater confidence and sense of familiarity with New Zealand, the industry, sound and camera skills.

If this has raised any further questions for you, please use the response form below on this website so everyone can see and also have a chance to share their thoughts with you.

Written by

Ande Schurr

5 Apr 2010

Corporate video producer and production sound recordist now based in Singapore after a 15-year career in New Zealand. Video clients incl. universities, tech startups, medical clinics and business consulting agencies. Sound clients incl. Netflix, Discovery, BBC, National Geo.