Focus on Education

Focus on Education 2013-14: Report from Quebec & Atlantic Canada

Concordia’s path to Cannes

Students working on a film at Concordia University / photo courtesy Concordia University


It’s been a big year for alumni of Concordia’s Film Production programme. Two former students have propelled themselves into the Oscar race. In February, Concordia grad Kim Nguyen received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film for his magic-realist inflected drama Rebelle (he lost to Michael Haneke for Amour), while Louise Archambault, who has both a BFA and an MFA from the school, has been tapped as Canada’s Oscar submission for Gabrielle (which screened at TIFF). To complete the hat trick, BFA graduate Chloé Robichaud was the only Canadian director with a feature film at this year’s Cannes film festival, winning plaudits for her feature debut Sarah préfère la course (Sarah Prefers to Run).

The other major news at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema at Concordia is that it’s built up its arsenal of digital equipment until it can compete with any school in Canada. “Students are now shooting their work on the most advanced cameras used in the industry,” says adjunct professor Michael Yaroshevksy. “Third-year students produce their films on ARRI Alexa XT 4:3/16:9 sensor cameras, second years work with Red Scarlet cameras, and first-year students are introduced to digital film production on Blackmagic Cinema cameras.” The post-production tools are similarly impressive: students finish their projects with the Rohde & Schwarz Clipster digital intermediate system, an award-winning programme that can handle any level of resolution and is used in professional post-production facilities globally.

“The decision was in response to what the film industry is undergoing globally,” says Yaroshevsky, one of several award-winning filmmakers on Concordia’s faculty, which also includes Richard Kerr, Guylaine Dionne and François Miron. “Most production around the world is now digital. Almost all of our faculty is shooting digitally in their own work. The cameras just kept getting better, very quickly.” Yaroshevksy insists that Concordia isn’t burying celluloid, however. “Film remains a foundation. In fact, we have our first-year students shoot a roll of 35mm in the first two weeks of classes. They are studio portraits of one another on 35mm motion picture stock. The roll is not just scanned digitally but also work-printed, with each student receiving their ‘shot’ on a traditional 35mm spool of film. It’s an invaluable reference for key concepts, a touchstone for the future…and it’s immensely fun.”

Concordia also has a vaunted program in film studies at the BFA, MA and PhD levels. Graduate program director Catherine Russell (who edits the Canadian Journal of Film Studies) stresses the diversity of the curriculum, especially for undergrads. “We’re giving them a basic liberal arts education with film and media at its centre, which I like to think of as ‘the new English’ for the 21st century. English programmes have started showing a lot of films, and people in English departments are film scholars and literary scholars. I’m trying to steal students away from those departments. I want the smart kids to come to film studies and think of it as more than watching movies all the time. We do deep thinking.” The course selection is very eclectic, offering everything from seminars in film theory and criticism to surveys of Third World cinema.

More Atlantic Region Film Programmes

College of the North Atlantic (CNA): Media Arts Centre | Stephenville, N.L.

No school is an island, even one located off the water in Newfoundland and Labrador. Nestled into the small but vibrant community of Stephenville, the College of the North Atlantic’s Media Arts Centre services aspiring filmmakers and technicians in the Atlantic provinces, but has also recently been taking in applicants from a little further afield. “We’ve had more and more international students,” says instructor Peter Buckle. “This year, we have a first-year student from Russia, and there was also a man from Germany. And there are people from all across Canada.”

The reward waiting for these travellers is a two-year programme in film production overseen by veteran professionals like Buckle, who started a video production company outside of Stephenville after working for years in Vancouver. “We teach them what they’re going to need to know out there in the industry,” he says. “Within the two years that they’re here, our students produce six short films through their assignments, and our equipment is available to them any time they want it, which leads to a lot of extracurricular work. They’ll show us things they’ve shot on the weekend and we’ll give them feedback.”

Like many production programmes, CNA has embraced the digital medium, but just because its students don’t actually shoot on film doesn’t mean that Buckle wants them to ignore the question of celluloid. “We’d love to do be doing more film stuff, but it’s so hard to get it processed nowadays. I myself was trained on film—on Super 16mm—and because of that background, I tend to swing that way. I tell my students that they can’t use the light meter inside the camera, they have to pull out their own meter. They have to measure the light and figure out the F-stop based on the light rather than just looking at the monitor and deciding it looks okay. I want them to learn about what it was like before people had that sort of technology.”

Buckle points out that CNA’s curriculum reaches beyond technical instruction: there are classes offered in film history and even art history to give the students a proper grounding in theories of aesthetics and narrative. He’s proudest, though, of an intensive, semester-long process where the entire class teams up to make a short film that gets screened for the community. “We’ve had over 200 people show up for the screenings, and Stephenville is great with that sort of community support. Once we’ve finished this round of film festival submissions, we’re going to try to get the short up onto our website as well.”

New Brunswick Community College, Mirimachi Campus | Mirimachi, N.B.

Now in its 15th year, the New Brunswick Community College (NBCC) Animation and Graphics programme is still trying to keep things oldschool. “We still believe in the basics,” says Tara Audibert, an NBCC grad with a decade of experience working as an animator on various Gemini-award-winning productions. “We have them all animating on paper at first. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We want to ease them into the concept of ‘trad-digital’ animation. It’s still traditional in that they’re doing key frames and drawing it out, but then incorporating stuff like Flash or 3-D elements. But that’s up to the students. Once they’ve learned all the programmes, like After Effects or Toon Boom, they can decide how they’re going to utilise them and stylise their shorts.”

The big change for NBCC is that its students will actually produce entire short films this year; whereas in the past Audibert’s students have been evaluated based on works-in-progress, the expectation now is to work towards a finished product. “In first year, they learn character design and storyboards, and in the second year they bring it all together,” she says. “We want them to have a solid background and know how to use the different software, so that they’d be comfortable going into any studio and using what’s there.”

There are 40 spots for students in the programme—20 in each year—and the instructors teach across the entire spectrum of subjects. Audibert says that the common denominator amongst the staff is that they’re all still active within the industry. “We strive for that. We want to be relevant and to know what’s going on. We don’t want to be telling the students about the way things were 10 years ago, because it’s not the same thing as what’s happening now.”

Audibert admits that Mirimachi is an out-of-the-way location for a film school. “We’re out in the woods, which is kind of cool. Everyone around here is really nice, which is a Maritime thing, and very welcoming.” One local advantage is that Mirimachi is the host city for the Jalloo Festival of Animation and Games, an annual event including conferences, workshops and panels that’s the biggest convention of its kind in Atlantic Canada.

Students shooting at NSCAD / photo courtesy Nova Scotia College of Art and Design


Nova Scotia College of Art and Design | Halifax, N.S.

“Narrative is strong here,” says Darrell Varga of the film programme at NSCAD , which exists alongside photography and intermedia in the school’s media arts division. Varga is a self-described former member of the “Winnipeg mafia” who, along with his fellow NSCAD instructor Sol Nagler, got his start in the Winnipeg Film Group. He cites recent grad Stephanie Young’s short film Scarlines—which is just beginning its tour of the film festival circuit—as an example of the sort of “technically well-crafted work” that he’s trying to encourage from his students.

“The students take a first year in ‘foundation’ where they do a wide range of art practices,” he explains. “They then have to apply to major in film, and the production courses are taken in a very intensive third and fourth year. I think that having students gain that sort of breadth of experience can be good, because sometimes film programmes are very insular.”

It might seem like a film school located in Halifax would be particularly cut off from the western epicenters of Canadian filmmaking, but Varga says that “there is plenty of crossover between art and industry. Students have opportunities to connect with industry professionals, who are often here teaching seminars and workshops. That’s one of the advantages of the smaller community.” Recent NSCAD events include a workshop with Jennifer Baichwal and film screenings in collaboration with DOC-Atlantic. (Several years ago, Varga organized the Docula conference in Halifax including an outdoor candlelit séance for the spirit of documentary, but says “that’s another story.”)

Varga doesn’t shy away from talking about the challenges faced by NSCAD in a competitive region. “All schools have ups and downs,” he says. “We work hard with few resources to give students a solid education. Our film production and film studies courses are taught by very committed instructors who care about the students and work hard to deliver the goods.”

More 2013-14 Education Reports:
Ontario & Manitoba: Cinema Studies Institute Rocks U of T
British Columbia & Alberta: Invasion of the VFX People!