Thursday, October 8, 2009

Film School Follies: Part 3 – A Gathering of Geeks

By ScottDS

Welcome to Introduction to Media Arts ("IMA")

The first few months of Full Sail are a bit of a blur. Oh, how I wish I had kept a journal at the time – it would certainly help now. In any case, the first day of school is always daunting, regardless of how old you are or how many first days you’ve already lived through.

Who are these people? Where is my classroom? Will the teacher be any good? The best you can do is keep a stiff upper lip and try not to embarrass yourself. Since my apartment was literally behind the school, it only took me five minutes to drive there. (I lived in the back of the complex and was not about to walk in the August heat! Sorry, Mr. Gore.) IMA was held in Full Sail 3, which is what the shopping center complex was called, with the two halves of the main building designated Full Sail 1 and Full Sail 2, respectively.

To this day, when driving by the school you can always spot the Full Sail students: mostly dark clothes, shaggy hair, some hats, some glasses, a trail of cigarettes. Of course, this wasn’t always the case but there was definitely a “type” for lack of a better word. I was in the middle of my “Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops” phase and God only knows what kind of first impression I made at the time. I took comfort in knowing that, presumably, these people didn’t care about such trivial things. I mean, look at them! I do recall a few characters that were sitting around in the hallway before class: a boy and girl who seemed inseparable (the girl was cute and I was hoping they were siblings; they were married) and one hot girl wearing an “I (Heart) Nerds” t-shirt. “Well,” I thought to myself. “This’ll be interesting.” (You’ll meet them all later.)

There was no assigned seating – this was college, after all – so I sat a couple rows in. I’d say the class had about fifty to sixty students – remember, this was a core class; the actual film classes would be a bit smaller. We were quite a motley bunch: computer nerds, movie geeks, audio nuts, (oh my!) etc. I suppose a kind of calm set over me: “These are my people. I don’t need to impress anyone.” (Oh, how wrong I was.)

I had my standard issue supplies: binder with loose-leaf paper (I dislike spiral notebooks), mechanical pencil, extra lead and erasers, and graphing calculator. Up to and including the last day of the last class, some students would inevitably ask, “Can I borrow a pencil?” Really? How old were these people? Actually, when all was said and done, the students ranged from 18 (just out of high school) to late-30s (adults changing careers). I was 20, with a two-year community college degree under my belt.

Our teacher was Mr. Kantner. Before writing this blog, I called up a friend and asked him for his recollections. In his words, Mr. Kantner “looked like he stepped out of an 80s movie.” He had a mustache, a pseudo-mullet, glasses, and a “utility belt” with assorted gadgetry, including a cell phone and possibly a beeper as well. He was a nice guy – most of our instructors were. There might’ve been a teaching assistant but I can’t recall. Just like your average four-year university, we had young teaching assistants who would tell us to be quiet, hand out paperwork, and tell us to be quiet again – some were very good and fun to be around; others… not so much. Once we got to the film production classes, we would have lab assistants who would train us on the equipment – again, some were good; others were just there for the paycheck (and would’ve made good doorstops).

A word about the textbooks and class presentations. Almost all of our textbooks were printed, not by professional publishers, but at the school itself. In retrospect I have no idea where the material came from. Some pages were perfectly clean while others looked as if they had been photocopied from other (professionally produced) textbooks. Thankfully, factual and typographical errors were rare and the books were easy to read though they weren’t always well organized. As for the presentations, almost all of our class lectures were accompanied by PowerPoint slideshows. Some were better than others and I recall one class that used yellow text on a light gray background. This was enough to send me to the optometrist’s office! Then I realized, “It’s not my eyesight. It’s just a crappy presentation!” Some teachers played music; most played clips from movies and various DVD making-of documentaries.

There were a few issues that gave me pause. For starters, the textbook had separate definitions for “director of photography (DP)” and “cinematographer.” The DP is lord and master of the lighting and camera departments; selects film stocks, lenses, and filters; is involved with film printing and color correction; directs the gaffer’s placement of lights; and works closely with the director to realize his/her vision on screen. While there are very few exceptions (mostly technical or cultural in nature), the terms “DP” and “cinematographer” are interchangeable. I mentioned this and the teacher said something to the effect of, “Well, for the purposes of this discussion, ‘cinematographer’ will refer to the person who operates the camera.” Really? Isn’t that person the “camera operator”?

Another little “problem” I had was when we were talking about computer-generated imagery (CGI). In short, George Lucas founded Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) in 1975 to produce the visual effects for Star Wars. In 1979, he established a computer division to explore new uses of computer technology in the worlds of visual effects, digital imaging, and film editing. Some of the early CG images that ILM and the computer division created include the “Genesis simulation” from Star Trek II and the “stained glass knight” from Young Sherlock Holmes. Lucas eventually sold the computer division to Steve Jobs in 1986 and Pixar Animation Studios was born. Our teacher made an error during the presentation: “In 1986, George Lucas sold the computer division to Steve Jobs who named it Pixar. Lucas then founded Industrial Light & Magic.”

Excuse me? Founded in 1986? I’m sorry, but I owned several DVDs, a couple of coffee table books, and dozens of Cinefex back issues that said otherwise. It wasn’t my intention to make the teacher look bad; I simply strove for factual accuracy. There are many things in this world I am unsure of; ILM’s founding year is not one of them. Remember, before settling on directing, I was interesting in possibly pursuing a career in visual effects. When I was 11, I had my mom call directory assistance to get ILM’s address so I could send them a fan letter (this was just before the explosion of the World Wide Web). In this case, I’m sure I informed Mr. Kantner of his blunder during the mid-class break. After all, it was the first class and I did not want to get a reputation as a “know it all”!

One day, we watched a clip from The O’Reilly Factor. Bill was interviewing Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Records and his beef was with the marketing of profane music to kids – one of those issues that never seems to go away. My friend (who, like me, agrees with O’Reilly now and then) described the interview as “Bill at his worst.” I’m sure the general consensus among the students was, “What does Bill O’Reilly know?” It’s funny… in another class, I had to write an essay on how media affects society and I didn’t have kind words for Bill or the other talking heads but, five years later, I admit I was a tad flippant in my remarks and I have come to accept that there might just be two sides to the whole “censorship” issue, at least when kids are involved. At the time, I did what any college kid would do: I simply blamed everything on Republicans! Today, I blame both parties (he said with a smile).

I found that my classmates (both here and in the film classes) represented a good cross-section of America. We had people from all over the country (Michigan was a pretty popular state). We had non-religious people as well as Evangelicals. We had Democrats and Republicans (and probably a couple of Libertarians). One student – with whom I later worked at MGM in Los Angeles – came from a small town in Virginia called Saluda (its Wikipedia article is only five lines long!). One student – a humble genius with Photoshop and other programs – did freelance video work for Campus Crusade for Christ. A good handful of students were regular churchgoers. I have to admit, as someone who always used to equate religion with the Falwell/Robertson brigade, it was an eye-opener. To this day, when people bash all religious people, I always have to step in with, “Yeah, but what about…” Oddly enough, I was the only Jew! There was another film student who was half and half and that was it!

From a cursory look at my notes dated 9/2/03 (I saved everything), we learned History of Media; Physics of Sound, Light, and Electricity; Creative Structures; Video Basics; and a lot of math. Regarding video, I remember getting into a conversation with a classmate named Mike (see below) about high-definition. We were a couple years away from Blu-Ray discs and affordable HDTVs. We both wondered, “How good could a movie like Casablanca look in HD?” Our teacher told us it would look much better since standard TVs have 480 lines of resolution while HD has 1080. Neither Mike nor I believed him (and given the teacher’s previous errors, I was hesitant to believe anyone). However, six years later, I can safely say the teacher won this particular argument.

We learned all the basics of film, video, audio, show production, animation, photography, communications technology, digital media, and game design. Unfortunately, a lack of space precludes me from going into great detail here (see the supplements below). Just a preview of things to come: the next blog covers our Behavioral Science class and introduces you to my first Full Sail friend, Mike, with whom I later wrote a short film script that was shot in 35mm (he’s the friend I called earlier). After that, we’ll have Computers, Math, and the Internet; followed by Multimedia Audio; Lighting for Film and Television; Photography (and the Girl Who Got Away); and Screenwriting. Then the fun begins in Digital Cinematography. All I’ll say about DC is that I tend to divide my time at Full Sail between two eras: pre-DC and post-DC.

Recommended Listening (some of my favorite DVD audio commentaries):

Abrahams, Jim, Jon Davison, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker. Audio commentary. Airplane!. DVD. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2000.

Braga, Brannon and Ronald D. Moore. Audio commentary. Star Trek Generations. DVD/Blu-Ray. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2004/2009.

Gale, Bob and Robert Zemeckis. Moderated Q&A. Back to the Future. DVD. Universal Studios Home Video, 2002.

Gilliam, Terry. Audio commentary. Brazil. Laserdisc/DVD. Criterion, 1996/1999.

Meyer, Nicholas. Audio commentary. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. DVD/Blu-Ray. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2002/2009.

Supplemental Materials (excerpted from my original class notes):

IMA Syllabus
First page of notes from the first day
History of Recording Technology
History of Motion Pictures
What is Sound?
Electricity and Magnetism
A typical worksheet


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I ran into that occasionally too, with photocopied materials instead of textbooks. Interestingly, I found those to be some of the best classes because the professor knew what they wanted to teach, rather than just following a textbook.

ScottDS said...

I had no experience with that before Full Sail (having purchased the requisite overpriced textbooks at FSU). The teachers didn't always refer to the books and I recall a LOT of material in the screenwriting book that was never discussed, including a discussion of the sexual subtext in Alien.

We did have some professionally-produced books but I don't think we ever referred to them, maybe one or two. In lighting, we were given a cool catalog from a company called Mole-Richardson which had every light and accessory under the sun.

Writer X said...

Scott, I am so enjoying your posts. Throw in a romance angle (the girl who got away), and you got yourself a memoir entitled: Film School for Dummies (or some such working title like that). I love it when art meets commerce and that's exactly what you're describing here. Can't wait for the next post. :-)

P.S. Also love the details of your experience; makes it that much more visual: the mechanical pencils, the mullet haircuts, etc.

P.S.S. I count AIRPLANE as one of the best movies ever! So many great lines in that one. I laugh just thinking about it.

ScottDS said...

Writer X -

You have no idea how much it pleases me to hear (read?) you say that! I'm still trying to work out the balance between the cool things we learned (which mostly happens later) versus the politics and personalities of the class itself. And how much detail is too much?

I'm probably going to be condensing a few blogs into one so I can get to the production classes faster - equal parts hilarity and heartbreak.

P.S. Re: Airplane!, it's one of my favorite films. I'm a nut when it comes to DVD special features (when they're good) and the audio commentary is one of the funniest things I've ever heard. You pretty much learn everything you need to know about that movie.

MegaTroll said...

When you say you learned the basics, what kinds of things did you learn?

ScottDS said...

MegaTroll -

I wish I had more room in the blog to go into all of this but I'm still working on how to present some of the more technical information. :-) As the blogs continue, I'll be getting a little more specific with regards to what we learned.

Among other things, in this class we were taught:

-the history of recording technology (Edison invents the phonograph, Berliner invents the 78rpm disc, Tesla predicted wireless telephony in the 19th century, Marconi's wireless radio, Bell Labs' condenser mic, the intro of magnetic recording, the intro of the multi-track recorder and the CD, etc.)

-history of photography (camera obscura used since 300 BC, Niepce's first photo - 1826, Daguerrotype photographs - 1839, George Eastman introduces a box camera to the public)

-film history (Edison's kinetograph, the Lumiere Brothers, audiences first pay to watch projected films - 1895ish, "The Great Train Robbery," D.W. Griffith introduces common storytelling techniques like how camera placement can affect the mood of a scene, The Jazz Singer - first "talkie," the rise of TV post-WW2, widescreen formats)

StanH said...

Interesting Scott. Have you been able to use your degree from Full Sail to earn a living in your chosen field? As I’ve said on an earlier post, my son is considering Full Sail.

ScottDS said...

StanH -

To put it bluntly, no. A film degree is quite useless and while there are probably exceptions, no one ever got a job in the film business by showing their degree during the interview. The handful of jobs I got in LA were done the old-fashioned way: networking, research, common sense. (I recall my parents' advice: "Maybe you should get a different degree to fall back on!")

With audio, it might be different. Starting out in the film business, you work a lot of freelance gigs. But with sound engineering, a recording studio or record company will probably require a degree. If your son wants to do sound on a movie set, probably not.

ScottDS said...

Also Stan -

It's like anything else. Everyone I graduated with has a degree but maybe half are actually doing film-related work. Some are doing great: one kid won a regional Emmy for a no-smoking PSA he directed, one works on DVD special features, one did A/V for Carnival Cruises (they probably required a degree), one does editing for Lockheed-Martin (ditto), etc.

On the other hand, one kid does web design, one works at the school (doing what, I have no idea), one girl went back to school to major in social work, one friend went back to school to be a teacher, some have gone back to retail jobs...

AndrewPrice said...

Sounds like poor odds then to convert a film degree into a job.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Film school is worth it for the experience of making movies and for the people you meet, which is something they emphasize from day 1. But again, when I was perusing job ads for freelance PA gigs out in LA, no one ever asked me about my degree. (I have, however, been asked about specific accomplishments at film school.)

Do I wish sometimes I had a degree in something a little more "useful"? Sure, I do. I admit that.

But my film degree is probably more useful than a Nobel prize. :-D

AndrewPrice said...

LOL! But does a film degree come with a check for $1.5 million?

ScottDS said...

Sadly, no. In fact, it comes with a nice bill!

StanH said...

That’s what I thought. My son as you remember is trying to work as a sound engineer and has a friend now attending Full Sail, so I find it timely and instructive your blog. I’m attempting to make certain that in his education he has a functional degree. Many of the disciplines learned at a Full Sail have uses in corporate America. Most companies in the Fortune 500 have internal production facilities that can be quite lucrative for a young person. There are also thousands of large and small production companies throughout the world. While he attempts to become the lead engineer a Electric Ladyland a young person can still earn a living as a sound engineer.

ScottDS said...

Stan -

Again, I don't know the specifics of the audio program. But he'll also learn skills when it comes to applying for jobs, resume-writing, networking, etc. He'll actually have more resources than we did (like Facebook and LinkedIn) that either didn't exist or were in their infancy just five years ago!

Another plus for him: at the time, all the programs were AS degrees; today, they have BS degrees. I'll be covering our audio class (as it related to film) in the next blog so stay tuned!

You can e-mail me at if you have any more questions.

StanH said...

Thanks Scott for your insights.

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