Universities provide hands-on training for future filmmakers
New York — ``Language of Sight and Sound I H56.0043'' is just getting under way. A 16-mm black-and-white silent film flickers onto the screen. A pouty-faced woman slumps in a chair in front of a television set. The woman fiddles with a glass. The woman dangles a shoe off her foot. The film lasts five minutes. ``Like, what's the emotion you were going for with the actress?'' asks a student in a Grace Jones haircut and black high-top sneakers. ``Catatonic shock,'' answers the filmmaker. ``Well, not shock, but the whole shadow thing. She knew what I wanted, intensity but no emotion.''
And so goes the education of tomorrow's filmmakers at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. Here in Greenwich Village, as well as at dozens of college and university film departments around the United States, students receive the hands-on training that has become not only the accepted calling card within the industry but, more significantly, testifies to the unique role universities now play in American moviemaking.
While film departments at NYU, the University of Southern California (USC), and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) have been turning out such well-known Hollywood directors as Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Francis Coppola for nearly two decades, film departments are now producing many directors whose quirky cinematic wares are considered vital to the growing independent film movement. NYU alone claims as alumni such heralded young filmmakers as Jim Jarmusch (``Stranger Than Paradise''), Susan Seidelman (``Smithereens''), and Joel Coen (``Blood Simple''). While such films may not yet play in Peoria, they have earned critical recognition for their directors and for the schools that produced them.
With the erosion of the established studio system in the late 1950s and the subsequent rise in popularity of moviemaking in the 1960s, films shifted from a mass entertainment to a more youth-oriented focus. The early successes of young, newly graduated directors such as Francis Coppola -- the first to make it in the industry right from film school -- only increased the demand for college-trained filmmakers.
``The old guard came up through the industry,'' says Eleanor Hamerow, a former film editor who now heads NYU's graduate film program. ``Then you got the Coppolas and Scorseses, who came from film schools. The general attitude now is that schools are providing incredibly good training.''
``[In order to get jobs] people need something to show to the industry,'' says Gene Weiss, professor in the Communication Arts and Theater Department of the University of Maryland and executive director of the FOCUS film awards. ``And it is very hard to find a place on the outside [of the industry] to get that. Film schools are filling that position.''
While some estimates list nearly 1,500 schools offering some aspects of media training, other observers say that recent funding cutbacks have trimmed the number of colleges turning out competent filmmakers down to 50. Cinema programs at Boston University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Texas at Austin, and the California Institute of the Arts are generally considered strong, but those at UCLA, USC, and NYU remain the ``Ivy League'' among film schools.
``If anything NYU, USC, and UCLA have stretched out their leads,'' says Professor Weiss. ``Without adequate funding it is difficult to maintain state-of-the-art equipment.'' Both NYU and USC are currently completing multimillion-dollar expansions of their physical facilities.
Such capital improvements are not overlooked by even the casual cin'easte. For if there is any hard and fast rule to be found among future filmmakers, it is that movies, not degrees, impress producers, distributors, and investors. Whether they are seeking jobs within the Hollywood system or simply working as independents, graduates covet the hands-on training acquired at school.
``Nobody cares about the degree,'' says Alan Kingsberg, a recent NYU graduate and director of ``Minors,'' the 1984 winner of the Student Academy Awards and FOCUS film award, the top student film contests. ``The point isn't to get your MFA. The point is to make movies.''
``It's all to get a showpiece,'' adds Elizabeth Storer, a USC graduate and fellow FOCUS award winner. ``[The film] is your r'esum'e.''
To this end most film students spend either the second two years as undergraduates or all of their graduate school years, not leafing through reference books or typing out term papers, but squinting through cameras and gazing at movie screens.
While disparaging the label of trade school, most film departments require such courses as Animation Action Analysis, Camera Technology, and Techniques of the Film Cutting Room as part of their emphasis on actual film production.
For example, USC undergraduates complete five films in the first semester of the junior year and 20 to 30 minutes of finished film in each subsequent semester. At NYU, a course called Language of Sight and Sound forms the core of the 18-year-old program, in which students produce a minimum of five films a semester.
``Our philosophy is that one learns by doing,'' says Charles Milne, chairman of NYU's Institute of Film and Television. ``Anywhere from 14,000 to 15,000 films [and film exercises] will be shot by [1,200] students in the undergrad and grad film programs.''
While such a prodigious output sometimes contributes to a ``factorylike'' atmosphere on campus, it is one that NYU seems to encourage. ``Every student has the right to make films, and that's why they come here,'' says NYU's Hamerow.
Currently the two top film departments in the country -- NYU and USC -- enjoy several similarities, including competitive admission standards, a faculty heavy with professional experience, and an emphasis on production. However, they diverge in other respects. While NYU insists that every student produce a finished product, USC's structured environment permits only a percentage of the students to direct a feature film. Students disagree over the benefits.
``You can go to USC and never get to be a director,'' says Kingsberg, who says he chose NYU over USC.
``USC is really geared as an apprenticeship to the industry,'' says Greg Beeman, a recent USC graduate and student award winner. Like many film students, Beeman sites USC's immense network of alumni job contacts as a significant factor.
Despite such ideologicial variations in curriculums, do film schools have an impact on the industry as a whole?
``I hope we can bump up the quality,'' says Dr. Russell McGregor, director of USC's school of cinema-television. ``The thrust of film departments more and more is on ideas rather than just learning technology.''
If such is the case, then what future film trends might be emerging from the schools?
``It goes in cycles,'' says NYU's Hamerow. ``First there was Vietnam . . . , then role-playing. Sometimes [students] are very reactive to what's going on outside, other times more personal. But now, we're getting monster movies, zombie movies.''
Back in ``Language of Sight and Sound,'' Chris Kentes is busy proving Hamerow's words prophetic. As his film, ``Roaches,'' comes to a close, he takes the podium to defend the five-minute film featuring giant homemade clay-and-latex bugs.
``This is a statement I've been wanting to make for a long time,'' he says with only the faintest touch of irony to his voice.