Among the many things we’ve learned while producing our education editions is that the film industry is perennially on the cusp of change. These days, the changes revolve around high-definition formats, smartphone apps, virtual reality and other immersive experiences—and that’s just to name a few. The goal of film schools is to stay on top of change and evolve with it. How do the country’s best film schools deal with change and bring it into the classroom? That’s the key question we posed to school directors and instructors this year.
The School of Motion Picture Arts at the Bosa Centre opened just four years ago with state-of-the-art equipment. Since that time, it has continued to introduce students to new equipment and develop new programmes.
Director of the Centre Bill Thumm says the school is in the process of developing a 3D Visual Effects degree and “putting effort into developing technology around virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality. “We’ve found an increased use of virtual reality in documentaries, so we’re looking for ways to allow the students to experiment with it. My conversations with film festival and industry reps make it clear that VR technology is close to becoming a standard, but it’s understanding ways to tell stories with it that counts, and that’s what we’re really excited about teaching.”
To that end, the school has developed “a convergence of programmes in third year, where we have students from the motion picture programme, the acting programme, costume, visual effects, 3D animation and other departments come together and work on a sci-fi project. So it’s all green screen, it’s visual effects—and this is where we can implement a virtual reality component, as well. It’s a comprehensive experience. We think this is where the education of digital technology is going in the future.”
The Bosa Centre currently offers a Bachelor of Motion Picture Arts, as well as diplomas and certificates. The Documentary Film Certificate is modeled after a professional production cycle, from story concept and development to pre-production, production, post-production and distribution phases.
Known for being quick and expensive, Vancouver Film School (VFS) offers students intensive courses on the key disciplines of filmmaking. As the one-year programme progresses, students choose to specialise in two of those disciplines. Each of the six terms focuses on different film production projects, including documentaries, episodic shows and a final high-quality short film. The result is a solid professional reel to launch a career as a professional filmmaker.
When asked about technology upgrades at the school, Ted Jones, director of VFS’s Film Production programme, first mentions the Game Design programme’s brand new virtual reality lab. But he’s more excited about his department’s developments in high-definition 4K production. “Although it’s not really a 4K world yet, in terms of post and deployment, we’ve introduced the RED EPIC 4K camera to keep in line with industry standards. We’ve done a lot of homework as to what we think the industry would like us to do as far as the 4K platform. We’re going with RED because the industry tells us if students can run a RED camera platform, they can run any program.
“But it’s one thing to say we have RED EPIC 4K cameras; it’s another thing altogether to be able to handle the large amounts of data that a 4K camera produces—to be able to edit the footage and post-produce it. We’re in the testing phase with that.
“As a technical school we want to have a certain leverage on technology. But we don’t jump on new equipment right away,” Jones says. “What we do really well is focus our learning on storytelling, and it doesn’t matter what kind of camera you have in that sense.”
During the four-year Bachelor of Fine Arts programme in Film Production, students at the University of British Columbia (UBC) learn the theory and techniques of motion picture production in lectures and technical seminars and through working on collaborative digital film projects completed to professional standards. For their theses, MFA students collaborate on original films. These projects have screened at film festivals across the globe.
In an email, UBC Film Production Administrator Sarah Crauder writes: “UBC has always focused on storytelling (whether documentary or narrative), rather than technology, because a good story is never made obsolete by the next format that comes along.
“We support our students telling their stories through whatever medium they prefer. While most students focus on a short film as a project, and some use that short film as a proof of concept for a feature, more and more are also making their short film with an eye on turning it into a web series, and we had alumni do very well in the StoryHive competition last year.
“Our core strengths are our people, both the instructors and the students. We have new tenure-track faculty and hire adjuncts who are working industry professionals. We know students also learn from their peers, so we take pride in our diverse student body representing a huge range of skill levels, interests and backgrounds.”
At Emily Carr University, graduates not only pursue careers in film and video production, but also sound art, visual communications, 3D film and animation, integrated media and interactivity. A BFA major in Film, Video + Integrated Media (FVIM) combines 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.
Harry Killas, assistant dean of the Dynamic Media department, which includes the FVIM programme, emailed us about big changes at the school. “With Emily Carr’s move to a brand new facility in the fall of 2017, we will roll out two new Bachelor of Media Arts programmes, one in Film + Screen Arts and the other in New Media + Sound Arts. These programmes will offer students myriad opportunities for crossover between the majors, with courses in music composition, sound design for games, interactive media and performance and experimental cinematography, which will introduce students to S3D, VR and 4K capture. “We will have brand new studios, editing rooms, flexible digital spaces—right in the middle of the city. We will also be right next door to the Centre for Digital Media. So, a media hub and start-up incubator, basically. It’s going to be awesome.
“Our strength will continue to be our commitment to developing each student’s voice and practice as an emerging artist. Every student is expected to make her own capstone or fourth-year project as an artist, auteur, or however you wish to call it. This differs from other programmes where students, for instance, compete to write and direct their final projects, and their colleagues must crew on them. We aren’t having any of this. We want each person to experience for themselves the creation of their own body of work.”
While most students enrolled in Simon Fraser University’s Bachelor of Fine Arts with a Film Major specialise during the course of their studies, devoting themselves to areas like screenwriting, directing and editing, the programme aims to train students capable in all aspects of filmmaking. The programme’s technical training is combined with cinema studies and history.
Associate professor Christopher Pavsek tells us via email that, “the school’s entire workflow is digital (though it still teaches 16mm production and students do make films on 16mm regularly), with the capability to produce at 4K. Our programme’s orientation is mostly toward theatrical exhibition, but more and more we have students producing works for presentation as installations, on the web, and in other digitally based formats, and we encourage a diversity of approaches.
“Exciting collaborations are possible with the School of Interactive Arts and Technology in our faculty, if students are interested in VR and new media in particular.
“We have hired two faculty in the past two years with exceptional CVs as cinematographers, sound recordists and as auteurs. Noé Rodríguez has been very successful as a fiction and doc DP (cinematographer) and recordist, and Simone Rapisarda is one of the most exciting rising filmmakers in the world today. We expect to hire additional faculty in the next two years who are willing to experiment with new forms of filmmaking (experimental, hybrid doc-fiction, new forms of documentary) and to expand the bounds of narrative filmmaking.”
The University of Calgary provides students with a thorough grounding in the historical and theoretical discourses on moving images POV learned in an interview with Charles Tepperman, associate professor. Film students pursue degrees specific to cinema, but the programme’s placement in the larger house of Communication, Media & Film provides the chance to study complementary aspects of media arts, like social media, new media and popular culture.
New technology creates fresh opportunities, and the university offers studies in emerging forms—for example, students may pursue a class in video essays and articulate their ideas through images. The theoretical and historical groundwork of the programme situates cinematic evolutions within their cultural contexts. Similarly, new workshops with established filmmakers, including acclaimed director Gary Burns in one forthcoming class, offer opportunities to make films with equipment to which the average student has access, like iPhones or webcams.
Students develop their programming skills at departmental events like the Docs that Matters series, which includes Q&As with faculty members and guest filmmakers. Extracurricular activities with media co-ops and campus broadcaster NUTV, or production gigs in live action and animation expose students to current and emerging trends in filmmaking. These strong but comparatively small organisations in the Calgary film scene offer advantageous access points to robust learning experiences instead of the revolving-door internships one sees in the largest industry hubs.
Aspiring auteurs need this foundational knowledge to hopefully become the next masters of art cinema, as great directors like Martin Scorsese and Jia Zhangke have solid critical backgrounds. Students eager to pursue production may apply their knowledge to the “2 & 2” partnership with the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) Polytechnic, which engages with the technical side of the field. One needs to understand the medium in order to perfect it.
York’s long-running programme in Cinema and Media Studies has strong roots in documentary as pioneering NFB filmmaker James Beveridge was the founding chair when York taught its first cinema class in 1969. Barbara Evans, associate professor and interim chair of the Department of Cinema and Media Arts, told POV that York continues Beveridge’s legacy by nurturing research expertise and production skills alike. There are even full screenwriting programmes at the undergraduate and graduate levels—a unique trait among Canadian film programmes.
York has three streams: Production, Screenwriting and Cinema and Media Studies. Students can’t do all streams equally, but the range of opportunities means that one may take courses from each pursuit. York requires students in the Production and Screenwriting streams to pursue courses in theory and history to receive some groundwork knowledge, while students in the Cinema and Media Studies stream may contribute to projects for the Production and Screenwriting students.
York classes generally favour the theatrical mode of filmmaking, and students in the documentary production class can expect to produce three short films in the areas of factual entertainment, documentary and alternative non-fiction. The school keeps apace with the field by offering classes on interactive documentary while expanding and enlarging students’ perspectives on non-fiction film. Courses on film history ground the students’ understanding that film is a medium of constant evolution, while classes in Transmedia Storytelling and Interactive Documentary explicitly engage with the new modes of web, mobile and tablet-based storytelling bringing documentary to screens. Moreover, the department itself exists within the interdisciplinary School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design, which exposes students to complementary areas of the arts and shows that culture and creativity are fluid. And with a subway stop finally expected to bridge the campus to rapid transit, York truly keeps itself connected.
Seneca’s unique Documentary and Non-Fiction Media Production programme incorporates training in technical, creative and editorial disciplines and is geared for both the business world and the film industry. The Institute—which offers a year-long graduate programme and an abbreviated summer version—encourages students to think like accomplished independent filmmakers. In an interview with POV, Mark Jones, chair, School of Creative Arts and Animation, explains how every student produces an individual project that begins at the outset of his or her studies.
Seneca encourages students to have a story in mind while applying, as pitches are part of the process. The story pitch tells Seneca’s staff how students fit within the programme and it helps the students learn to be flexible with their stories during research, coursework and production. Clearly, Seneca interweaves the practical realities of independent filmmaking within its educational DNA. Key to the dynamic and creative freedom of the Seneca experience are the many industry contacts that students will make during their close-knit studies with professors who themselves are working in independent production. The relationships created on campus are intended to establish opportunities for students after graduation.
Students eager to explore the increasingly fluid nature of the documentary form should consider the more diverse year-long graduate programme. Classes in transmedia let students build web-based projects like web-series and interactive docs in which code and design become just as essential as interviewing and research skills. Students and teachers are joint explorers in these emerging art forms that are too new to have any established rules. This freshness invites creative freedom, which the campus echoes overall with its inclusive approach to multi-disciplinary storytelling.
Students at Ryerson University find themselves at the intersections of documentary media. The main programme in Documentary Media requires graduate students to complete a film, photo show or new media piece as part of their master’s thesis.
Ryerson lets students in other programmes explore the space between film and photography with a new interdisciplinary stream, the Integrated Digital (ID) option. This stream, which film and photography students may choose to enter in their third year of studies, combines elements of both mediums with digital convergence.
ID builds upon foundational knowledge from the film and photography streams and introduces students to new trends in production and research that the other programmes don’t fully cover. Mobile app development, multi-channel video, non-linear and interactive productions are options for students eager to explore the new possibilities. Ryerson even houses new technology in virtual reality, so students pursuing documentary are truly on the cusp of the latest trends. While Ryerson doesn’t yet devote a specific class to VR—it’s simply too new—students may create their work in this form and stitch together images using the full range of space that extends beyond the screen. This new terrain doesn’t require much technical expertise outside of cinematic skills, as the software applications are pre-coded. Rather, this emerging trend requires a new way of thinking.
Equally innovative is the Ryerson Image Centre (RIC), which houses galleries, research opportunities and invaluable collections of photography and media arts. The RIC affords students opportunities for work and study, while frequent guest speakers and visiting artists connect students to leaders in their fields. Situated in the heart of downtown Toronto near cultural hubs, festivals, theatres, galleries and production houses, Ryerson encourages students to see the city as their campus. Like the new possibilities of doc form, it’s a grid of infinite views.
Film studies at the University of Toronto has progressed over the past 10 years from a college-controlled programme into an independent institute with fully integrated undergraduate, graduate and doctoral curricula. As enrollment in its undergraduate and master’s programmes increases, the Cinema Studies Institute (CSI) is strengthening its status as a premier film institution offering a programme that concentrates on film history and theory.
POV asked Corinn Columpar, the head of the CSI, about the effect of digital technology on the programme.
“Digital media has had a huge impact on film and media studies insofar as it has fundamentally changed our understanding of the very nature of film and media, most of which is now produced and exhibited through digital means, as well as the larger social and cultural context in which that film and media circulates,” she commented. “Given how seismic the shift from analog to digital has been, there is a ton of interest in exploring it, as exemplified by the work of our faculty. In that work you can see an active engagement with questions relating digitality to everything from aesthetics to politics, textuality to spectatorship and industry to technology. And based on the research projects being proposed by our graduate students, I expect that such interest and engagement will only increase in future years.”
POV asked if there are increasing numbers of students interested in VR and new media, and, if so, how they are being served.
Columpar replied, “There are. At U of T we just hired a new faculty member named Scott Richmond, whose specialization is digital media and who is teaching courses that foreground video games and social media, among other things. Having said that, a great number of our courses, even some of those dedicated to a far more traditional variety of cinema studies, take up questions of digitality since these questions have reframed so many of the debates and discussions that characterize the history of thinking about cinema. Through this two-pronged approach we are trying to keep apace with student interest. As for VR, this is not something we teach about with any regularity, but with the right faculty hire down the line, that could change.”
Columpar also pointed out that “our challenge is to place digital media in historical and theoretical context, linking it to other media forms and practices that were at one point ‘new’ while also appreciating and accounting for all that is unique and legitimately novel about it.”
The film studies programme at Carleton University favours academic study over practical filmmaking. Located in the nation’s capital, Carleton has the advantage of offering its undergraduate and master’s students a wide range of research and co-op opportunities. With honours and general BAs, which are offered alongside a research-driven MA programme, Carleton University is an established academic institution with unique practical elements that are difficult to find elsewhere.
POV asked Professor Tom McSorley about the impact of digital media on the film programme. “The impact has been considerable, with students being able to gain access to materials—primary and secondary—with much greater ease. While we still ensure that the moving images in class are seen collectively and without interruption (as in an actual theatre situation), motivated students are now engaging with the works in interesting new ways via digital research options (e.g. filmmaker interviews, websites, trailers, etc.). The rate of change in this area has been dizzying, but exciting and academically rewarding.
“We are also finding that students are increasingly interested in VR and new media, and we are trying to incorporate the study of these new forms into teaching about moving image culture and its ever-expanding manifestations (apps, gaming, etc.). It is a challenge, certainly, as the field is shifting constantly.”
Concordia’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema is divided into three programmes: Film Studies, Animation and Production. Digital media has affected all of them.
Concordia has built up an arsenal of digital equipment that can compete with any school in Canada. “Students are now shooting their work on the most advanced cameras used in the industry,” says adjunct Film Production 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 postproduction facilities globally.
“In Film Studies, digital media—particularly what’s available on the internet—has helped us greatly,” says Professor Catherine Russell. “For academics, there are articles and archival material available online, which can help research greatly in what is coming to be known as ‘digital humanities.’ Many of us still have to travel to find important documents related to our projects, but in many instances we can access important textual items through websites administered through universities, foundations, film festivals and other third-party websites.
“It’s also become possible to see rare films online. YouTube has many art films, documentaries, experimental cinema and silent classics, which are useful for students and professors alike. Through Vimeo and other sites, filmmakers and colleagues can offer access to even more contemporary and archival films. This is a real boon to us.
“We’re finding that students and teachers are engaging in the creation of video essays. Through greater access to visual material available in digital format, it’s possible to create essays combining film clips and contemporary footage, forming them into a scholarly statement.
“I’m seeing the gap between filmmaking and film scholarship closing thanks to the rise of digital media. We’re seeing the rise of ‘flipped classrooms,’ where students can view lectures online before class. When they’re in class, their time can be taken up with discussions, projects and exercises. That’s a step forward, though we’re only using this method sparingly so far.
“In our Film Animation unit, students are using digital technology almost exclusively. Apart from a drawing class or two—and even those use digital methodology—animators are all working with computers now. In Animation, we’re now engaged in paperless teaching. That’s quite a shift!”
The spirit of independent filmmaking continues at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD). Students are inspired to create auteur-driven works that draw from Halifax’s character and landscape says Solomon Nagler, associate professor of Film, in an interview with POV. They’re also studying in a community that has seen massive cuts to its cultural sector, so their teachers and professors emphasize community relationships as building blocks to a successful career.
NSCAD students get a thorough understanding of documentary through courses that show Canada’s history of non-fiction filmmaking. This understanding is key when the notion of “documentary” extends to hybrid films and poetic docs, right through to interactive works and virtual reality. NSCAD encourages students to see film within its larger context from the outset, as the school is unique in that students cannot enter with a declared major. A foundational year of coursework introduces students to various disciplines where they learn the history of a medium and develop critical approaches to media arts. Their second year narrows the focus and, by the third year, Media Arts students choose their path between Film, Photography and Intermedia.
Students benefit from conceiving of cinema as a composite art, especially nowadays when technological convergence means that forms are rapidly changing. Students eager to craft projects on apps, interactive and online tools, for example, might choose the Intermedia stream. The film stream offers cutting-edge technology like RED digital and the types of cranes, dollies, and sound equipment used in professional shoots. Students eager to study film on the medium for which it is named may relish courses like Cinema Sculpture, which lets pupils get their hands on tactile 16mm stock. By studying on physical film and learning hand-processing, NSCAD highlights the pedagogical benefits to shooting on celluloid as students learn the mechanics of the medium, more intimately than they might by fumbling with settings on digital cameras.
The Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative, the nation’s oldest English-language film co-op, offers hands-on experience and essential opportunities for students to make the transition from schoolwork to independent production. By starting the students with a strong foundation and developing their independent spirits, NSCAD prepares students for the ever-changing journey ahead.