Thursday, December 20, 2012

To study film, sort of.

A funny thing happens when a desperate college student plays a little game called "Go down the entire list of majors and pick one, or die." Suddenly you insert yourself into weird fantasies and scenarios previously thought to be out of the question. Traveling down the list one by one, I think to myself "How can I embarrass my parents the most and spend a lot of borrowed money doing it?" I pass over "Film and Digital Media" and then it hits me. Wait a second... can I actually just sit there all day and watch movies... for college?!

To most people I just say yes, it's pretty sweet blah,blah,blah. But beneath the surface of it, my experience with studying film at the university level in California has left me with mixed feelings.

As an undergrad, at least at my school, you get about two or three options with this discipline. The first is obviously production, you're making actual films for class. The second is critical studies, you read, write, and probably even teach some other students film theory. The third is more focused on digital media, mixed mediums, web design, etc. Now, I'm coming out of this thing with all my energy put into the production side and about 3 years in I start to notice a big problem.

Everyone starts off in the same boat learning the language of film. Cuts, tracking shots, lighting, editing, every filmic technique -- mostly through example. It's true, I did in fact sit there for years doing exactly what I pictured, which was watching film after film and then getting lectured about it. Now this is all fine and dandy, but it was also a problem for me because we were being taught how a story is told in film without being taught how to tell a story period. This might sound like a stupid complaint, really, who the hell doesn't know how to tell a story?

The thing is, after watching plenty of student films that we made for class over the years, most people couldn't convey much to an audience aside from the fact that it took them all night to get the title cards just right... We all knew how to work a camera, we were raised with them, but what frustrated the hell out of me was that dramatic storytelling, screenwriting, even three-act structure was just not a halmark of my education. Right away I learned technique from Hitchcock and theory from Eisenstein, but actually telling the story and in an interesting way was the farthest thing from my mind.

I feel like I've only reacted naturally in response to this backwards strategy of teaching film. I got sick of not knowing how to write. Why doesn't my short film about a dude who listens to a vinyl record and dreams about being a criminal getting judged by a demon while he's actually a police officer who just broke up with his girlfriend make any fucking sense? At least partly because I didn't think to take the only screenwriting class offered until my senior year. I'm going to be mentioning it in more posts in the future, but for now let's say that taking that class has to be the best decision I've made in years. It's also what sparked the idea for this post in the first place, because every day I thought "Why is this not mandatory for all beginning film students?!" Now I know how to develop characters, premises, obstacles, a setup and punchline... be it a little late in the game.

I think my perspective has drastically changed and in a good way. Of course I still want to work in production, but I've also jumped on the writing train and it's opened up a lot of new ideas for me. I'm reading more than ever, studying screenplays, and working on a voice for myself. It's the only logical path to take for fixing the problem that I had earlier where I couldn't make coherent films. I simply want to get the writing down solid.

Don't get me wrong, I've had a blast studying film over the past 4 years and, to be honest, I might have dropped out to do something else had I not come upon it. Shooting bloody fight scenes, emotional breaking points, twisted fantasies, and everything in between is something that not many students get to do for their assignments and I feel lucky for the opportunity at such an exciting education. Now I'll be writing a feature film for my senior exit instead of the usual senior short film, and will hopefully hone the skill to get somewhere with it in the real world...

(licks his peppermint Haagen-Dazs ice cream bar)

Mmm. I'm home in Napa for the holidays. It's time to freeload for a few weeks and catch up on my, uhm, more ice cream? I think yes.

Favorite Christmas movie? No question, I'm in front of that 24-hour marathon every year!

Also considering using Django Unchained as an excuse to escape the impending family living room get together. Last year was actually the first time I was driven to do such a thing and I snuck out for Tintin in 3D. Yes, I will pay good money to get the hell out of that nightmare and no, I don't feel any remorse. Ho ho ho!

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