Canadian Film School Survey 2012: Report from British Columbia & Alberta

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Capilano University
Vancouver, British Columbia

Of the all the film schools in Western Canada, Capilano University is the slickest, with its gleaming, $40-million Nat and Flora Bosa Centre for Film and Animation, which opened its doors in February. The award-winning 70,000 sq.ft. facility provides everything necessary to create a production, whether liveaction, animated or 3-D. Equipment includes two stereoscopic 3-D camera rigs, a 200-seat 3-D theatre, HD cameras including Panasonic HPX 300, Sony F3, Arri, Alexa and Red, sound mixing and recording studios, costuming studios, and visual effects labs.

First-year students learn the basics in such classes as Lighting and Camera, Editing, Screenwriting, Directing and Business of Film while creating three short films: a 30-second commercial, a one-minute film and a threeminute film.

The course that commands the most discussion at online school review sites is a secondyear class that sees teams create a one-minute film per week for six weeks. Second year also has students writing a 10-page script and pitching it to a faculty panel. Six of those scripts (out of roughly 60) are then produced by student crews 30-strong with budgets of $2,500.

Capilano University’s film programme focuses more on practicalities of filmmaking than any film degree programme in Western Canada, says instructor and documentary filmmaker Michelle Mason. “Consequently, we’ve always had a great deal of industry support because they see our grads are people they can employ right away.”

Indeed, she credits the 10-year-old programme’s emphasis on production skills as the motivation behind government and industry partners’ funding of the new Bosa Centre. “They all said, let’s create this new space that’s on the cutting edge of where we can envision the film industry of tomorrow and mentor the next generation.”

Although the film industry is always changing, there is one constant in its centurylong history: People want to be entertained with interesting stories and characters. Even surrounded by all the high-tech gear at the centre, the story is clearly where Mason’s passion dwells. “I tell the class, ‘Work on the stories you care about because documentaries are too hard to make. The only way you are going to show up every day is if you care. So tell a story that you’re passionate about.’”

Emily Carr University of Art and Design
Vancouver, British Columbia

Some films resonate in a community more than others. At Emily Carr University, Pina (2011), Wim Wenders’ phenomenally beautiful 3-D documentary about dancer Pina Bausch, has spurred both faculty and students to make films in 3-D, as if there was no turning back after watching it. The Film, Video and Integrated Media programme 3-D studio is equipped with a 20-camera Vicon motion capture system and a stereoscopic 3-D projector, along with low-res Fuji W3s and Hurricane and Kerner rigs (for mounting two cameras). The school maintains that 3-D has become a standard not only in the film and television industries, but in video games and computer graphics as well.

But the real focus for the school’s BFA film major “is ideas,” says professor, director and producer Peg Campbell. “Technology will shift constantly, so we teach students they can realize their vision with whatever technology that presents itself.”

The university strives to offer students real-world experience. Nine credits for their degree can be obtained through coop placements. Students have worked at casting agencies, made corporate videos, documentaries for community groups, and they’ve worked as production assistants on feature films. _Eat Street_’s tweets and Facebook updates? All whipped up by a second-year student.

Emily Carr University also expands its reach for students by collaborating with UBC and SFU’s film programmes to share courses. “Their students come here to take some film and documentary classes, and our students go there to take producing for television, which we don’t offer,” says Campbell.

This unique exchange is due primarily to the Vancouver film industry’s tight-knit community. “Faculty at these schools all grew up in film together,” says Campbell. “We’re longstanding friends; we feel we’re all in it together. So we easily share information and resources.”

Since Emily Carr University is renowned as an art school; its film students tend to think outside the box, or “turn everything around,” as Campbell puts it. Waleed Nesvif, who graduated last year, has taken a singular approach to documentary film. He had been a journalist in Iraq, where he captured devastating footage of the war, especially of a family with several members killed by a bomb. He had never used the images but at Emlly Carr, he was moved to create with it. He edited the footage together with his own personal poetry “and made a very quiet, yet powerful commentary on how people cope,” says Campbell.

“The final moment in the film is a young woman, who has lost her eye in the bomb, telling her mother to stop crying, ‘crying doesn’t help.’” Nesvif’s experimental film, Yearning, was shown at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Simon Fraser University
Vancouver, British Columbia

Simon Fraser University (SFU)’s four-year degree programme is oriented toward nurturing a future generation of film directors, rather than film technicians, so you won’t find truckloads of high-tech gear closeted in their new downtown facilities. But students do manage to get their hands on some fantastic equipment, including Red cameras, even though the school doesn’t own any.

Two students who are avid cinematographers purchased the cameras, and now they rent them out to other students keen on image quality.

“We’re in a time when there’s almost no point in laying out thousands and thousands of dollars for, say, a 3-D camera that in two years will be superseded by its own next model,” says SFU film professor, writer and director Colin Browne. “We concentrate on what to do with the leading edge of technology more than how to do it.

“We’re artists,” he continues. “We’re interested in the soul, the kinds of situations people get themselves into, and we’ll use anything we can get our hands on to convey that. Some students still want to use 16-mm in order to get a certain kind of look. We’re all for that. So, it’s really about making the kinds of tech choices that are right for the project.”

In addition to a rigorous production schedule (for which the school’s fleet of Canon 7Ds is available), students are deeply immersed in the study of the aesthetics and history of film. “It’s critical to us that our student have a sense of the legacy they’re building on,” says Browne. “We try to make a well-rounded filmmaker, a person who’s educated across the arts.”

When students understand the moving image in all types of applications, from Kubrick to Bill Viola’s work with dancers, they are more nimble when it comes to the myriad of challenges filmmaking presents.

Perhaps this open-mindedness steered two other innovative SFU students. They invented a system on Facebook for casting student productions that is now used by other B.C. film schools. The SFU Student Film Actor Database “is a terrific resource” that has vastly improved the quality of student films, says Browne. “Now they can find their 50-yearold person with red hair.” The calibre of SFU films was on view at this year’s Canadian Student Film Festival in Montreal. Of 60 films, 21—one-third of all the featured films—were created by Simon Fraser University students.

University of British Columbia
Vancouver, British Columbia

Three years ago, the University of British Columbia (UBC)’s film curriculum was restructured to focus on courses the faculty excels in: storytelling and entrepreneurship. In a way, it was a strategy to deal with constantly changing film technology since the school wouldn’t deal with it.

It simply cannot afford to, admits Sharon McGowan, a producer, director and professor/ chair of UBC’s Film Production programme. Over the years, it has managed to upgrade in increments “by just buying a little equipment at a time. I mean, we literally have less than $30,000 a year to maintain and buy new equipment.” The programme’s latest purchase was a round of Canon Rebel T1i’s.

The new curriculum includes a first year production and planning course. “Most schools offer this in the final term to prepare students for work,” says McGowan, “but I teach it in the first year. It’s about budgeting, scheduling and networking. They access resources all over the community. They work with the City to get permits, and with suppliers to get equipment deals. Then they have three years to practice this while they make films in our programme. And it seems to work: they’re walking out into jobs; they have quite big networks by the time they graduate.”

The redesigned course also features a more intense creative writing programme. “Experienced screenwriters work with our students in the first year of the programme,” Gowan explains. Now she find her grads working “in all these new media fields,” like gaming and webisodes. “And the reason they’re being hired is that they can tell stories and they’re visually creative. It doesn’t matter how or where the product is being displayed, it’s the communication skills and the vision of the filmmakers” that’s key, insists McGowan.

Even given this relatively traditional way of learning film, UBC grads are creating innovative film projects. Nicholas Humphries produced the science-fiction web series Riese: Kingdom Falling as his MFA thesis. It’s Canada’s first webisode to be purchased for television by the Syfy Channel. Another master’s student, Bruce Spangler, created the mobile film installation Tree Project, 16 short films that screen on trees in the forest. And faculty member Rachel Towely and her students are producing an Alice in Wonderland – inspired 3-D film (thanks to a camera deal from an industry partner).

Vancouver Film School
Vancouver, British Columbia

During its 24 years, the film production programme at Vancouver Film School (VFS) has made waves as the best place to learn the craft of filmmaking in an intensive way. From day one of the one-year programme, students become well versed in the five core disciplines of filmmaking: directing, cinematography, production design, producing and post-production.

The school may be known for its high tuition fee ($35,250), but that doesn’t necessarily translate into shopping sprees by the tech department. The priority is to teach students to be complete filmmakers, rather than just technicians. So the school hasn’t outfitted students with 3-D cameras; they use Sony’s 35mm F3s. In post, they still use Final Cut Pro, Avid, Adobe Premiere and After Effects. But what impresses senior instructor and audio producer Will Meadows is how his students push boundaries using this equipment and software.

“These students have used computers since they were babies,” says Meadows. “They’re coming here having already shot and edited their own films with friends and put them online. They’re not afraid of technology.” He recalls viewing a student’s high school reel and being impressed by its technique. “I looked at it and thought, ‘Five years ago, that would have been industry level.’”

These days, student projects are more ambitious than ever, he says. His last grad class, for example, made the school’s firstever feature-length film as their final project.

“I admit, some of us here, professionals in the industry, had doubts about it, because from our background, you can’t shoot 90 pages in 13 days! Even into post, I said, ‘You guys should just aim to have a test screening at grad.’ ‘No, we’re finishing it.’” Crime thriller Captive is currently being considered at several film festivals.

Meadows says that his students’ computer savvy also quickens their learning curve in post-production. They’re “blowing things up and adding completely new things to their picture in ways that two years ago would have been extremely uncommon.”

The advent of webisodes is responsible for VSF’s newest course: episodic writing, shooting and editing. “They become familiar with the idea of creating a series so they can apply this to the new web-based environment,” says Meadows.

At VFS, students have as many ideas as teachers, marvels Meadows. “Everybody knows how to use the technology now, so it’s a question of ‘What do I want to do with this?’ as opposed to ‘How do I do this?’”

This creative energy means a new way of mentoring. “I’ve noticed in the past year it’s more about how to step aside and allow them to use their imaginations to take them to wherever they want to go, not to let my previous industry experience limit their ideas.”

The Banff Centre
Banff, Alberta

One night last fall, Kerry Stauffer, the executive director of Banff Centre’s Film and Media programme, was on her way for a swim at the centre’s pool and found it closed off. Curious, she peered through the window and found a film crew shooting under the water.

“The choreographer Aszure Barton was here doing a dance residency,” explains Stauffer. “She’d had a dream, and the next day, she said she wanted to create an underwater dance and film it.”

This kind of activity is precisely what makes Banff Centre one of North America’s leading art schools. The choreographer was able to marshal a film crew and proper equipment from the Film and Media programme and dancers from the Theatre programme, and film her vision within days of conceiving it. “These things aren’t planned for,” says Stauffer, “but at the Banff Centre, we always try to stretch and be flexible with artists’ ideas to make them happen.”

The school’s work-study programme, residencies and workshops offer an exceptional chance for filmmakers to turn their project into reality. The faculty promotes an interactive and creative atmosphere. Experimentation with modes of production are encouraged in the centre’s state-of-theart facilities, which include a large television studio, Panasonic Varicam HD cameras (soon to be replaced by the Panasonic Lumix), a Panther dolly and extensive lighting. Six postproduction suites offer the latest Avid and Final Cut Pro software.

Situated as it is amidst a mountain setting in Alberta, filmmakers tend to find it paradise both inside and out.

What they won’t find are classrooms filled with students.

“We’re not like a college,” says Kerry Stauffer, “We don’t teach people how to make film, we help them to be better at their filmmaking. So it’s not for new film students, it’s for emerging to senior artists. We are looking for well-developed concepts and then we act more like a partner.”

The Film and Media programme offers up to 30 work-study opportunities in such disciplines as editing, cinematography and videography. “We get work-study participants from all over the world coming here to improve their craft,” says Stauffer. “They tend to learn more from each other than any faculty because they are so varied themselves.”

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