Writing about authors, Annie Dillard warns: “He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns because that is what he will know.” It seems there is such a thing as useful ignorance. It is possible for artistry to be spoiled by intellect. Or maybe what we’re trying to say is simply this: Be careful what you learn in film school.
If you want to get filmmakers worked up in a hurry, talk about film school. Opinions are as varied as they are impassioned. As they should be. Film school requires a lot from a person. It takes a lot of money, a lot of time, and, ultimately, a lot of trust.
Learning a craft is never easy, and there aren’t any shortcuts. As we’ve talked with filmmakers over the past few months, one question we always ask is “How did you learn how to do what you do?” Sometimes it feels like that’s the only question that really matters, and yet it’s usually the most difficult one to answer. While only some of the people we interviewed attended film school (and even fewer finished), all of these filmmakers are self-taught in their own way. Meaning, filmmaking is something they internalize—they’re constantly learning, discovering, and working it out for themselves. Just in time for the holidays, we’ve compiled a smorgasbord of insights into the benefits of a formal versus a not-so-formal film education. Salud!
A sculptor doesn’t see the rock. A sculptor sees what’s inside the rock (i.e. The Sculpture). It takes a different kind of eyes — ones that look past the surface and see the shape underneath. In many ways, it’s the same kind of eyes that a documentary filmmaker needs: x-ray eyes. “You have to chisel away at big chunks of rock,” filmmaker Jake Viramontez told us. “But what it ultimately reveals is something beautiful underneath.” Jake’s latest film, Killing the Rock, is both about a sculptor and is a sculpture in itself: a piece of art carved from the Syrian refugee crisis, and one man’s attempt to make sense of the senseless. Watch the film below, then read more about Jake’s experience making it.
At some point on the way to becoming who we want to be, we have to stop being who we were. Muhammad Ali had to stop being Cassius Clay. Rachel Morrison had to stop working on The Hills. And Katelin Arizmendi had to stop being a camera assistant. “I moved to L.A. and I decided I wasn’t going to introduce myself as a camera assistant ever again,” Katelin told us. “I only wanted to shoot.”
If there is no “right way” to make a film, then is there no “wrong way” either? If you’ve seen Paul Özgür’s work — an award-winning Dutch cinematographer whose films have screened at festivals like Sundance and the Berlin International Film Festival — you’ll start to question if there are any boundaries at all. “This is filmmaking,” Paul told us. “There are no rules.”
If our conversation with Dan Sadgrove seems to rove a bit, bear with us. It’s what he does. “I don’t have a mortgage or assets. I have a suitcase of clothes and that’s about it,” he told us. The director films projects during his travels across the globe, so when our conversation went to Vietnam, South Africa, or West Texas, we let it go there. And while it may seem like he lives a romantic life on the road, Dan didn’t hesitate in admitting that it’s a hard life as well. In fact, he was reluctant to encourage anyone to take it on.
It shouldn’t surprise you that Ryan Koo didn’t go to film school. He is, after all, the founder of the wildly popular website No Film School, an indispensable resource used (and loved) by independent filmmakers around the world — us included. No Film School is a direct extension of Ryan’s scrappy, independent mentality. This is a guy who does things his own way. Like when he moved to New York to start a job as a graphic designer at MTV, despite having zero design experience. Or when he ran a Kickstarter campaign for a film that ended up being years away from being produced.
It may have started as a film school assignment, but the short film AWAY quickly became a film school in itself for Zach Zombek (a.k.a. Convolv). Over the course of its three-year production, the demands of the film forced Zach to master everything from cinematography to visual effects to scoring. “That’s one reason we kept the team so small,” Zach told us. “It forced me to learn these things instead of having someone else do them for me.”