The Future of Film Education

by Todd Wieland, Founder & Director of Ames Media Institute
The Future of Film Education

Sylvia tucks the last of her children into bed with a kiss. Though weary after a long day, she finds herself excited by her next task.

It's time to go to film school.

Sylvia walks into the den and fires up her Mac, heading to the kitchen for a bottle of water as it powers up. Within a minute or so, the machine is cranked up, her DSL connection is live, and she is ready to go online to join her class.

A single mom of two kids, Sylvia has dreamed all her life about making films, television projects, and, lately, interactive games and animation. Now, she doesn't have to give up her dream of going to film school.

Film school is coming to her.

Sylvia clicks onto her school's web site, and logs into her virtual classroom. She is a few minutes early, so she joins a few of her classmates who are chatting about their current project. They uniformly complain about the tough assignment, but grudgingly admit it's a terrific learning experience.

Right on time, the instructor joins in via live video streaming and announces that class is in session. He takes attendance and asks each student to give a progress report on their projects.

The project is especially challenging, requiring the students to complete their first entire short film. They have been charged with writing, casting, pre-producing, shooting, producing, and editing a 12 minute short film.

They are using their own equipment and resources, enlisting friends and family as cast and crew. They shoot in local locations and manage the process themselves.

This week, they are assigned to present their first "rough cut." As each student describes their project, they also upload a clip to the course server. Along with their presentation, the instructor streams their clips through the virtual classroom so the rest of the class can see the work and critique it.

Sylvia is delighted that her work is well-received by her classmates. She is the second oldest person in the 12-member class, and was not sure she could compete with her young hyper-creative classmates.

As the session ends, the instructor encourages each member of the class to maintain a good pace with their work. The course is coming to a close, and he does not want any late projects.

The class meeting complete, Sylvia prepares to log out of the virtual classroom, but sneaks another look at the archive of Jamie's rough cut. That girl has massive talent, integrating camera angles, editing cuts, and special effects that Sylvia hasn't even learned yet.

Film School Goes Virtual

As a nontraditional student, Sylvia is joining literally millions of learners as they discover online education. Colleges and universities with active distance learning programs are delivering their programs to students from all over the world.

The difference for Sylvia is that she is going to film school online. Long a bastion for MBA students and high-tech training, the online environment is fast becoming attractive for creative pursuits like film study.

The combination of technological and creative forces changing the way Hollywood operates is also changing the nature of film study. Fast, powerful computers, incredibly robust editing software, high bandwidth Internet connections -- not to mention big doses of creative brainpower -- are driving down the cost of filmmaking and unleashing a massive creative revolution.

Increasingly, top Hollywood filmmakers are using technology to liberate the filmmaking process. Rather than shooting their films within the political and bureaucratic confines of the Hollywood studio system, they are gathering their casts and crews and heading off on location.

There, they shoot their films, often from a relatively skeletal script, in very short times and at very low costs. Finished shooting, they take their films home (often, literally home) to edit on very powerful workstations -- usually Apple Macs with hot editing and special effects software.

The model is shoot, edit, and burn. Filmmakers shoot the story on digital media, edit the work themselves, then burn the result to DVD. It 's a fast, efficient, smart way to create entertainment and information products.

Only when their films are finished do they send them to Hollywood, where the hype is added and the film is put into distribution. The filmmakers maintain almost total creative control, save huge amounts of money, and fully apply their considerable talents.

One important thing for film students to understand is that this "New Hollywood" system is only just beginning. With the rise of high-bandwidth Internet connections, consumers will increasingly have the option to use the Internet to find and enjoy entertainment products. This is going to merely magnify an already voracious appetite for entertainment and media products worldwide.

The other important thing for film school students to understand is that this technology -- and the processes that make it so powerful -- is available to them! Digital filmmaking tools are amazingly inexpensive, so a determined, creative film school student with a digital camera, computer, and some software can become a film storyteller almost instantly.

Therefore film schools, like the film studios, no longer have a monopoly on their craft. This "democratization" of filmmaking means that it is no longer necessary to pay outrageous tuition fees, suffer on interminable waiting lists, or even travel great distances to "go to" film school.

Now, just like Sylvia, you don't have to go to film school at all. Film school can come to you.

Today, the Internet makes it possible for great instructors anywhere on the planet to teach willing students anywhere on the planet. The best virtual classroom systems now use live video, audio, chat, and application sharing to bring the classroom experience right to the computer screen.

And the best film schools in the future will not limit themselves to "film." They will realize that their mission is to help creative people use tools to tell a story (or create an experience). They will encourage students to use digital media to tell great stories and they will teach students how to integrate media resources.

Technology at Home

Just as the technology used to enjoy entertainment media (DVD players, PC/Macs, game stations) is becoming less expensive, so is the technology used to create them. For a relatively low cost, film students can now set up a "virtual film studio" in their dens or bedrooms.

Learning to use these mobile, inexpensive, and powerful tools is crucial. Although it's true that very expensive high-end cameras, editing stations, and production facilities give a film the finest "polished" look and feel, they are not necessary to produce an acceptable entertainment product.

Further, in the digital age, the concepts and practices that define the "high end" of filmmaking are also embedded in the less expensive tools. By learning to operate less expensive digital cameras and production software, students get a lower cost introduction to the ideas behind the more expensive machinery.

Is Online Learning for You?

Online learning is here to stay, but it is not necessarily for everyone. Some students still prefer to study in physical classrooms, interacting with their peers and instructors face-to-face. For them, going away to film school is still a great idea.

However, for many students, time and money do not permit the luxury of a full-time (or even part-time) film school experience. For them, distance learning is a great option.

Changes in the Distribution System

One of the most profound changes impacting the film and entertainment industries is the use of the Internet to distribute product. The practice of downloading digital media products is here to stay.

The old fight over mp3 file swapping involved copyright and, allegedly, the media industry's interest in protecting its artists' integrity. The same battle moved on to film and other visual media. The Motion Picture Association of America has pusued actions against a number of file sharing sites like Razorback2 and The Pirate Bay, alleging copyright infringement.

Now, the question will not be whether films, games, shows, and other forms of media can be downloaded, but how.

Once those systems are in place, serious creative filmmakers, game developers, and media professionals will be able to offer their products on the Internet with ease and integrity. That is going to open up an entire, massive file-sharing network to new content.

Therefore, not only will filmmakers be able to put a virtual studio on their desktops, they will have access to virtual distribution networks as well. They will be able to make a great digital product, hone it to a high standard, and upload it for sale, with the majority of the revenues coming to them.

Some filmmakers are finding success releasing films or TV shows over the Internet. Like other on-screen releases, they may lose money initially, but those funds can be recouped with DVD sales, cable re-runs, international distribution, and

All of this implies that the filmmaker of the future will need to move beyond the esoteric functions of "making a movie." They will need to be competent in the entire process of creating digital media products.

The film school of the future will help its students expand beyond screenwriting, directing, production, and editing. It will help its students develop the "product orientation" that will enable them to become participants in the new media digital revolution.

How To Join The Revolution

Today's entertainment experience is all about participation. Today's film school experience should be the same. And the best way to participate is to jump in and get busy. So make sure your film school curriculum has plenty of hands-on projects and opportunities to create your own content.

Your film school should be designed to get you into the game as soon and as much as possible. Part of getting into the game is getting into the equipment.

You should have your own equipment, even if your school offers a lab. You'll need a great computer (Mac is still the standard. Sorry Mr. Gates.), a digital camcorder (the more professional the better; the Canons do a great job), and some editing software (Final Cut Pro if you can get it; one of the less expensive options if you cannot).

But most of getting into the game is just, well, getting into the game. Your film school should encourage you to create, experiment, and invent. Beware any school or instructor that already "knows" everything there is to know about filmmaking.

Remember, we are living in an age of invention. Most of the great ideas about filmmaking in the digital age haven't even been invented yet. They are waiting for you to invent them.

Your film school instructors should be experts, sure. But even more, they should be coaches, mentors who give you the basics, then let you use your own incredible creativity to invent the future of filmmaking.

Like Sylvia, you might need the flexibility and convenience of a distance learning program. Or you might prefer to meet your classmates and instructors in a building somewhere. Either way, you can join the digital media revolution right now.


About the Author

Todd Wieland, an Internet and Education entrepreneur, is the founder and director of the Ames Media Institute (AMI), based in Naples, FL. AMI facilitates film and media studies via distance learning, using a distributed, independent learning model.

Mr. Wieland has 15 years experience in higher education, including staff, faculty and administrative positions involving both traditional and distance learning degree programs. His specialties include curriculum design and development, strategic development for nontraditional degree programs, and distance learning and training.

Mr. Wieland's academic credentials include Associate and Baccalaureate degrees from Northwood University and a Master of Business Administration from the American Graduate School of International Management (Thunderbird). He has also taken doctoral course work in the areas of Higher Education (Research focus: Teaching and Learning in the University of the Future) and Information Science (Research focus: Organizational Information Behavior).

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