Thursday, October 1, 2009

Film School Follies: Part 2 – Full Sail Ahead

By ScottDS

In the Beginning…

While my neighbors from the dorm were no doubt getting wasted on some beach, I spent my 2002 spring break from FSU attending an open house at a school I had only learned about the previous October. It was a film school called Full Sail.

It was two months into my year at FSU and already I was prepared to leave. My dad had called me to let me know that one of his co-workers knew a guy who knew a guy (ad infinitum) who had attended Full Sail, which happened to a have a film program and was located in Central Florida. My dad said, “It had a weird name – something like Sail Air, I don’t know.” I did a search for “Sail Film Orlando” and Full Sail came up just milliseconds later. I perused the website – interesting… interesting. They did indeed have a film program and a game design program and a recording arts program, and a few others.

I sent an e-mail asking for more information. Within a few days, my new admissions representative, one Mr. Sean Plank, had written me a nice reply. He asked me what my goals were, when I’d like to get started, what excited me about the industry, etc. I told him the truth – I was interested in writing and directing feature-length films, in capturing the imagination of a mass audience, yada yada yada. Looking back on that original exchange, I can see how optimistic and naïve I was. Rule number one of film school is that most students want to direct. Period. While many want nothing more than to learn a specific trade (editing, camera, etc.), the vast majority have stars in their eyes and dreams of becoming the next Spielberg – or to stay current, the next Christopher Nolan or Peter Jackson. Some manage to accomplish this goal; many do not.

My parents and I drove to Winter Park (a small city bordered on all sides by Orlando) for a day during spring break and I liked what I saw. Orson Welles once said being a director was like being given the “biggest electric train set a boy could have!” He was right. We were given the grand tour: soundstages, editing facilities, mixing rooms, etc. The tour guides (current students) gave us a general idea of what to expect. Among other things, the Full Sail film program was (at the time) thirteen months long. Not two years, not four years – thirteen months from start to finish. This would mean classes would take place six days of the week on a rotating schedule. Lectures would be held during the day for durations of up to eight hours and labs would take place 24 hours a day. A typical scenario would be class from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. and then a lab at 1:00 the next morning. New classes would begin every month and most would last for only one month. The production classes would usually last two months. “Bring it on!” I thought. I had it pictured in my head – my new film school buddies and I would bring sleeping bags to school and crash in the classroom until it was time for our labs! (This did not happen, but a couple friends did manage to catch a few zzz’s on a bed on one of our sets!)

We weren’t given all the details but it was understood that we would get to make films in three formats: digital video, 16mm, and 35mm. Some crew positions would be on a rotational basis while, for others, students would have to formally apply, with portfolios and everything. We would write all the scripts and the instructors would choose which ones were produced. (Our instructors turned out to have eclectic tastes.) We would edit on various platforms, including the now ubiquitous Final Cut Pro, the Avid Media Composer, and the Avid Symphony. We would also be working with real actors hired from around town. This threw me for a loop – I had never worked with (gulp) actors before. How would I know what to do? And yes, for our films we would be limited to the equivalent of PG-13: no sex, no nudity, and no profanity (one or two would be okay but nothing heavy). I remembered watching an FSU student film that featured a scene with a topless woman. That sort of thing wouldn’t fly here (which was probably for the best!).

The other thing I noticed was social – (many of) these kids were nerds! While I had some good friends over the years, I still never quite fit in. I never played sports (I still don’t) and I couldn’t always talk about movies with these people. The schmucks in the dorm at FSU certainly didn’t help matters either. But here, at Full Sail, I could finally be myself. I won’t say I chose Full Sail based solely on this but it was an integral part of the decision-making process. Sure, there would be geeky conversations but hopefully without the insular vibe I got from the FSU people. I could drop titles like Star Trek or Star Wars (or more arcane titles like Buckaroo Banzai) and a real conversation would ensue! And maybe, just maybe, I’d meet a nice girl with whom I shared at least a few common interests. Of course I later learned that Full Sail had a 95% male population, which led me to smack my forehead and call home to complain (with tongue planted firmly in cheek, of course!). Needless to say, this was to be an interesting adventure.

I can’t recall any major concerns I had at the time. I knew the program would only net me an Associate’s Degree, not a Bachelor’s. (They have Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree programs now.) I also knew that, like any school, the experience would be what I made of it. I suppose I looked at it like a second chance. Just for the record, before FSU I interviewed with an admissions rep from the film school at the University of Central Florida (UCF, just fifteen minutes down the road from Full Sail) but I walked away unimpressed. This seemed like a great opportunity and I wasn’t about to waste it.

August, 2003

After leaving FSU and receiving my AA from Palm Beach Community College, I took seven months off just to work and save money. I rented a nice apartment just five minutes away from the school in Winter Park (Full Sail has no on-campus housing) and on one weekend in mid-August, I moved… again. I have fond memories of that place and it would make a nice apartment for anyone.

A word about the Full Sail campus – there wasn’t one. The school has expanded by leaps and bounds in recent years but at the time, there was one large main building (two buildings connected in the middle) and an abandoned strip mall next door. Full Sail had actually purchased this land years earlier and converted the various stores into offices, classrooms, and soundstages – a smart use of space if I may say so (and quite common today). There was also a series of offices in a building on the far end of the parking lot and a small venue – Full Sail Live – on the other side of the main building for concerts.

It was in this venue that Full Sail held their orientation for new students. Classes started every month no matter what your major was – we were the “August, 2003” class. We would be together for our core courses: Introduction to Media Arts (IMA); Behavioral Science (BS); and Computers, Math, and The Internet (CMI). We were also divided alphabetically so in my core courses, I would be surrounded by students whose last names began with the letters “S” through “Z.” Afterwards, we would begin our major-specific courses. So for me, month 4 would mark the beginning of the film curriculum proper.

We were introduced to Garry Jones, president (or possibly CEO, I’m not sure) of the school. Just from looking at him, my first thought was that he must purchase his clothes from the same shop where Dr. No and Blofeld bought their wardrobe. I had no reason to be skeptical and I didn’t have any kind of anti-authority streak; I suppose it was simply my aversion to cult leaders and their psychological tricks. “Skip the sales pitch, we’re here already!” I don’t recall much of the orientation, only that it probably lasted an hour or so and that would be it until the following Monday when IMA started. I wish I could go back in time and be a fly on the wall during the session – I’m sure I’d spot some students who later became my classmates once the film courses began.

Once back in my apartment, someone knocked on the door, and for some reason I opened it. It was a student from orientation who spotted me in the parking lot. He introduced himself – Nick, bit of a country vibe going on, lived across the courtyard. He seemed nice enough and he would later prove to be one of the hardest-working (and nicest) guys in the class. (Interestingly enough, whenever people talk about rednecks – usually in a negative tone – I would always bring up this guy. Hell, he liked the Blue Collar Comedy guys and NASCAR. What more could you ask for?!) He ended the conversation with “Don’t be a stranger!” but it was several months until I talked to him. I don’t know why.

Three days until the first day of class… I did what any new student would do. I hung out with some high school friends who were attending UCF and got really drunk!

Recommended Reading (some of my favorite making-of books):

Bouzereau, Laurent and J.W. Rinzler. The Complete Making of Indiana Jones: The Definitive Story Behind All Four Films. New York: Del Rey, 2008.

Reeves-Stevens, Garfield and Judith Reeves-Stevens. The Making of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. New York: Pocket Books, 1994.

Rinzler, J.W. The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film. New York: Del Rey, 2007.

Shay, Don. Making Ghostbusters. New York: New York Zoetrope, 1985.


ScottDS said...

Coincidentally, we graduated five years ago today - October 1st, 2004. My, how time flies.

Andrew - no jpegs this time? :-)

Writer X said...

Scott, I'm really enjoying reading about your film school journey. Are there any BLAIR WITCH PROJECT films in your past? BTW, what is the male-female ratio at the school now? Surely there must be more women who want to be directors. Look forward to the next post!

AndrewPrice said...

Sorry Scott, I forgot. Give me a second.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, A very enjoyable article. How does the 13 month program compare to a regular film school? What do they learn that you didn't?

ScottDS said...

Writer X -

Thanks! I have no idea what the male to female ratio is now... I can't imagine it's that much better. It's funny... I worked at Best Buy just before Full Sail and the ratio there wasn't any better but when I go there now, they have women! It's like, "What happened? I leave and the women come in?!"

I don't have any BLAIR WITCH films in my past but the two guys who did that film actually went to UCF. I don't really know what they've done since (the BW sequel was not done by them). I saw the girl from BW in that Sci-Fi miniseries "Taken" something like ten years ago but that's about it.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Thanks! I imagine at 4-year schools, the students work on much more films than we did. We did one film in digital, 4 in 16mm, and 3 in 35mm. 4-year film students probably do more.

They also learn much more than we did about theory and film history and criticism. We watched a good handful of movies but I don't recall even having to do a report on one. Actually, that's not entirely true - in screenwriting class, anyone who did not want to write a script had to do a report on a movie. That was it.

We also never delved that much into foreign films either. And given the nature of Full Sail's 24/6 curriculum, internships were out of the question. At some 4-year universities, they're a requirement.

ScottDS said...

Also Andrew -

I remember thinking at the time, "Well, I need to learn the equipment. If I want to learn film history, I can just study it on my own time."

That argument didn't hold much water by the time we got into 35mm when I was trying to convince people why certain shots on our movie (more about that later) should be done a certain way. Gee, maybe if we had learned more film history, maybe the other students would understand what I was trying to express so ineloquently. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That is the danger of dealing with an uneducated group. The purpose of education, after all, is to teach you all the mistakes everyone else ran into before you, so that you can avoid making them.

So you had to write a script? Cool.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I wouldn't call anyone "uneducated." The film our group did in 35mm was a comedy (in theory) and in comedies, as we discussed before, nothing can get in the way of the joke. A lot of the students just wanted to play with the gear: cranes, dollies, etc. But in a comedy, fancy camera movements could distract you from the story.

I should say that one of the advantages of going to Full Sail (per the advertising) was to get a hands-on experience with the equipment sooner than you would at a 4-year place.

At the end of the day, I couldn't blame these guys. I wanted to play with the gear too but the teachers chose the scripts and in 35mm, two of the three scripts they chose could've been done in 16mm when we had less resources at our disposal.

In 16mm, we couldn't shoot on location but in 35mm, we could. So what do the instructors do? For 16mm, they chose a cool sci-fi script that took place in a futuristic lab and another script that took place on a passenger airliner. Remember, we couldn't go on location.

For 35mm, what do they do? They chose a script that took place mostly in a bedroom! Really? When we could go on location, they chose a bedroom script? We could build a bedroom... we couldn't build a plane! (In a way, we did, but that's for later.)

P.S. In the future, how many jpegs should I send? One? Two?

ScottDS said...

As for the script, that'll have to wait for “Film School Follies: Part 9 – The Write Stuff” :-)

MegaTroll said...

Sounds like fun. I always wanted to go to film school, but never did. How much of the technical parts did they teach you?

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I'll wait with my questions for the upcoming articles then.

(P.S. Check your e-mail.)

ScottDS said...

Thanks, Andrew.

MegaTroll -

We were taught A LOT... more or less the following:

-basic html
-basic Photoshop (some students were already geniuses with this stuff)
-lights and various light accessories (cables, stands, etc.)
-in our digital production class, we learned the GY-DV5000 MiniDV camera
-in 16mm, we learned the ARRIFLEX SR3 camera
-in 35mm, we learned the ARRICAM Studio camera
-for editing, we learned Final Cut Pro, the Avid Media Composer (I think I made a mistake in the blog, I think we learned the Avid XPress instead), and the Avid Symphony
-for audio, we learned how to operate a Nagra V digital audio recorder and a Tascam DAT recorder
-we also learned how to connect mics and operate the boom mic
-we learned how to construct and operate camera dollies and tracks (I think they were manufactured by Chapman-Leonard but I'm not sure)

There's more but unfortunately some of us (ahem) have forgotten a lot of it in the last five years. :-)

StanH said...

It sounds like fun Scott. My son is thinking of attending Full Sail, he wants to be a sound engineer.

LawHawkSF said...

Scott: It appears that I was even more dilatory than Andrew. Ooops. This is a fascinating series. I wish I were younger, and as entrepeneurial as I was lo those many years ago, or I'd be looking to get us set up in the film business.

I think a good start on your first movie would be to write a script that follows your film school education. Drama or comedy, take your pick. You could make either work. And besides, I'm fed up to the neck with movies about law schools and young lawyers.

ScottDS said...

I have uploaded a couple scans from the original e-mails I sent to Full Sail eight years ago:

And the acceptance letter:

ScottDS said...

StanH -

Full Sail would probably be perfect for someone who'd like to be a sound engineer! If memory serves, they were a recording arts school for years before they branched out into film and computer animation.

In any case, do the research you would do for any school: go to open house, ask to speak to alumni (I'll help in any way I can but my knowledge of the non-film programs is limited), tour the place, etc.

ScottDS said...

LawHawk -

Ha! Truth be told, I had fiddled with the idea of writing a film school-oriented screenplay after graduation (about five years ago this month) but not enough time had passed for me to maintain any objectivity. And sadly, we suffered a tragedy that some people still weren't over. (More about that in a future blog...)

I agree about lawyers. A friend and I actually started plotting an idea for a TV show about production assistants on a bad reality show (sort of like the flipside of Entourage) and we were going to use a lot of the film school material for flashbacks.

However, real life got in the way and we haven't really touched it in months. Right now, truth be told, I don't know what the future holds. I'd like to get back into screenwriting one of these days...

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