Focus on Education 2013-14: Report from British Columbia & Alberta

18 mins read

Centre for Digital Media | Vancouver, B.C.
Vancouver Film School | Vancouver, B.C.
Capilano University | Vancouver, B.C.

If B.C.’s film education centres could be compared to a famous movie character, one could do worse than to suggest the campy alien the Blob, whose modus operandi was an unstoppable quest for girth, imperiling not just one neighbourhood or even a city with its ravening, but possibly the entire world.

An exaggeration, of course, but it’s true that in the past year alone, the total film campus area in Metro Vancouver has nearly tripled in size. The brand new Centre for Digital Media finally finished construction in February, the Vancouver Film School (VFS) opened its massive new Animation & Visual Effects campus in September, and Capilano University’s shiny and vast Bosa Centre for Film and Animation launched in 2012.

For film students, it’s a boon that offers state-of-the-art studios, and spacious, well-appointed classrooms. Yet aspiring filmmakers should note the common theme in all three titles of the new campuses: “digital” and “animation.”

It’s as though educators in Vancouver now see filmmaking as an endeavour for which digital effects and animation are key prerequisites. The three new schools will graduate more web content and game creators than directors, cinematographers and producers. With B.C.’s future film auteurs being schooled in ways that focus on visual effects, smartphone apps and interactive websites, what kind of films can we expect them to make? (Attack of the Film Schools? Let’s hope not.)

“Films aren’t going to go away,” says Richard Smith, director of the Centre for Digital Media (CDM). “Just like television hasn’t gone away because of computer games, films that simply tell great stories will continue to exist. But now you add layers on top of the experience. Having a film background can help you make an interactive experience to connect with fans. Broadcast media basically just broadcasts out a message. It’s not a great way to connect with people. All the interactive media are fantastic ways to connect. I think that’s really the future of entertaining. That’s where digital media comes in.”

The future of film is not about “us all sitting in the theatre with our own individual screens that we can manipulate, or swirling around in several dimensions,” Smith continues. Rather, it’s the increasingly critical transmedia world for which CDM is priming students. Hollywood studios have used transmedia, or multiplatform storytelling, for years, with movies based on comic books (or other properties, like games, TV shows or toys). But now, independent producers can take a similar approach to increase awareness of their movies. Whether it’s a companion website or a clever interactive experience that involves games or even live events, transmedia lets filmmakers own the audience like never before. The success of movies like The Blair Witch Project or Kevin Smith’s Red State was the result of the buzz created by the filmmakers using the Internet and social media.

“Now almost every media project is approved because it has a transmedia strategy,” says Smith. “So there’s an app, a game and a social media strategy. All those things have to be factored in before people are going to put in the hundreds of millions of dollars to greenlight a project. And they’re going to spend a ton of money on those things.”

The Centre for Digital Media, which actually accepted its first students in 2007 while still under construction, offers a 12-month (plus four-month internship) Master of Digital Media degree. The result of a unique collaboration between the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, and the British Columbia Institute of Technology, the program teaches students to work at the highest level of the industry as creators or entrepreneurs. The students work on industry-supported projects, guided by top level faculty and industry mentors. “Leadership and creativity are hallmarks of the programme,” Smith says, adding that some 10 companies have come out of the MDM programme in the last five years.

What kind of filmmakers might take a master’s in digital media? Picture students like the young Wachowski siblings before they made The Matrix. They’ve filmed some pretty nifty home movies and now they want to learn what’s possible in the world of innovative visual effects and ways to augment their films with video games, animated shorts and more—projects the Wachowskis were heavily involved in. (Recall that George Lucas, too, has complete control of all Star Wars products and still makes a fortune from them.)

“If you went to the theatre and just saw The Matrix, you really were only seeing the tip of the iceberg,” Smith concurs. “That was a multi-layered project. Those were the early days of transmedia and now we’re teaching that stuff.”

While Vancouver now leads Canada in providing this type of education in new media, Capilano University’s new Bosa Centre for Film and Animation is still banking on traditional film to attract students. The sleek, nearly 72,000 sq.ft. campus houses the School of Motion Picture Arts as well as industry-designed animation and visual effects labs.

And though the school boasts 3-D camera rigs and an editing lab, an 8,000 sq.ft. sound stage with green screen, full lighting rigs and a 200-seat, high-definition 3-D theatre, that’s all just “icing,” according to Jane Still, faculty chair of the School of Motion Picture Arts, as well as coordinator of the film crafts department and instructor in the costuming program. “Underneath all the digital technology and finishing process, you need a foundation. And it could be two guys with a camera.”

To that end, the Centre offers “really broad-based training in all different aspects of the filmmaking process,” says Still. “This includes not only the concept and writing, the production, directing, but also the editing, the visual effects, the animation that needs to go in it. Because we have all those programs here, we can integrate the different aspects, and everyone gets a shot at doing everything.

“There’s always the small story that doesn’t require explosions or the otherworldly, stories that don’t need a huge studio production. But it’s here if they want to take it on a tangent. If they want the audience to interact and have feedback, it’s here.”

Since the mid-1990s Vancouver has become a hotbed of animation, gaming and visual effects, employing 35,000 people and pouring $2-billion a year into the provincial economy. The Bosa Centre aims to fuel this predominantly foreign industry with new employees but also to foster a new generation of filmmakers who can help create a local, sustainable industry.

Certainly, director Neil Blomkamp has galvanized the local industry with his films District 9 and Elysium, employing hundreds in Vancouver’s visual effects labs. Blomkamp is a prime example of a filmmaker who studied animation and visual effects and went on to direct films. In his case, he graduated from Vancouver Film School in 1998.

Of course, that was long before this year’s extensive expansion of the department. At 42,000 sq.ft., the new space, complete with two surround sound theatres, a 1,600 sq.ft. green screen studio, fully optimized 3-D classrooms and much more (and, in fact, just phase one of a 106,000 sq.ft. total expansion for the school), situates the formerly across-town animation and visual effects department adjacent to the main campus in the heart of downtown.

“The new campus is really just an extension of what we’re already doing and what we’re extremely good at,” says VFS managing director Marty Hasselbach. “This is just part of a growth phase for us. What sets us apart is that, as opposed to going to a film school or an animation school, you’re going to a studio that teaches. So whether you’re an animation student or a directing student, you’re interacting and collaborating with all of those people. It’s a very concentrated, immersive one-year experience where you’re actually doing it. You’re making a film, making an animation.”

The film studio–like environment allows aspiring directors at VFS to know that a visual effects person is “going to be sitting there for 16 hours a day for three days working on a couple seconds of a film,” says Hasselbach. “They’ll know how to communicate with them, to ask for the things they need and they’ll understand the challenges.”

Like Blomkamp before him, another graduate has taken full advantage of VFS’s all-encompassing filmmaking environment. Adam Marisett graduated from the 3-D Animation & Visual Effects program in 2005. He worked as animator on films like District 9, Iron Man 3, Thor and Elysium. (Here’s a good place to mention that if you’ve seen a blockbuster lately, chances are VFS graduates were involved. Their credits include Life of Pi, Hugo, Tangled, Spider-Man, The Hobbit, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2, Toy Story 3, The Hunger Games, Argo and X-Men, among many others.) During the past two years, Marisett wrote, directed and edited his own short sci-fi film, AMP. The film appears on the likes of such websites as The Escapist, Short of the Week and First Showing.

“One thing I want to make clear,” concludes Hasselbach, “is that the physical facility [and] the equipment are really just tools. Yes, we put a lot of energy into making sure the campus is top notch, with state-of-the-art studios, but that’s not the education at VFS. The education is the instructors and the industry mentors and the way the programme is delivered that actually makes people successful.”

More Western Canadian Film Programmes

Emily Carr University of Art + Design | Vancouver, B.C.

At Emily Carr University, a BFA major in Film, Video + Integrated Media gives students the opportunity to explore myriad contemporary practices in the media arts. Courses combine studio work, theory and professional practices. The course aims to give students real-world experience; nine credits of the degree can be obtained through co-op placements. Since Emily Carr University is renowned as an art school, its film students tend to explore film’s creative potential, rather than focusing on the technical proficiencies that other film schools might demand. Graduates not only pursue careers in film and video production, but also sound art, gallery exhibition, visual communications, 3-D film and animation, integrated media and interactivity.

University of British Columbia | Vancouver, B.C.

The University of British Columbia’s film production programme provides students with core disciplines and cinematic knowledge as well as practical experience in filmmaking. BFA and diploma students produce and work on several films while in the programme. For their thesis, MFA students make an original film. The recently revised curriculum focuses on courses the faculty excels in: storytelling and entrepreneurship. It includes a first-year production and planning course, dealing with budgeting, scheduling and networking. Students then have three years to practise these skills while they make films. The redesigned programme also features a more intense creative writing course because telling a good story is the key—not just for films and documentaries, but for all the new media fields, from gaming to webisodes. Students can access professional internships and additional equipment and services from the Vancouver film industry, creating invaluable connections.

Simon Fraser University | Vancouver, B.C.

The BFA programme at Simon Fraser combines technical training with cinema studies and history. The first year of the production programme is done on 16mm film. Second year involves digital video using the latest camera technologies. While most students specialize during the course of their studies, devoting themselves to screenwriting, directing, editing, etc., the programme aims to train students capable in all aspects of filmmaking. For example, if a student chooses to become a cinematographer, they will also learn to edit and direct. “Because as any great cinematographer will tell you,” states Christopher Pavsek, an associate film professor, “if you don’t know what’s going on in a director’s mind, if you don’t know what will be happening in the editing room, if you don’t know how the picture will interact with the sound, then you will not be able to be a truly great cinematographer.”

The Banff Centre | Banff, Alta.

Banff Centre’s Film & Media programme offers up to 30 work-study opportunities in such disciplines as editing, cinematography and videography. The Centre gives emerging and established filmmakers the chance to turn their project into reality within an interactive and creative atmosphere. Experimentation with modes of production is encouraged in the Centre’s state-of-the-art facilities. Unlike most other film schools, Banff Centre does not have classes. It is not suitable for new film students. They don’t teach filmmaking but rather provide an energizing, supportive and professional environment to aspiring filmmakers. The school accepts students with well-developed concepts and then acts more like a partner to see the project through fruition.

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