Teaching Film Techniques to the Video Generation

At the 2008 University Film and Video Association (UFVA) Conference, Professor Matt Meyer of George Fox University in Oregon gave a presentation on how the discipline of learning on film has evolved. Meyer noted that for today’s film students, shooting film is more important than ever, and he warned that for every advantage associated with video, there is a disadvantage. Here, he discusses these observations and reveals his Top 10 Reasons To Teach Film far into the future:

Matt Meyer

Q: In your opinion, how have advances in technology changed filmmaking? 
The advent of digital technology has revolutionized filmmaking and, in turn, film education. Twenty years ago, it was a rare opportunity for a filmmaker to get his or her story on the silver screen. The digital revolution has democratized filmmaking, making some of the filmmaking tools that were once only available to a privileged few more easily available to the masses.

Q: What specifically has contributed to this revolution?
First and foremost, the equipment is far more affordable than even a few years ago. Editing software, which takes the place of the Moviola, film lab and optical house, is now frequently included as part of the bundle of software that comes with new computers. Another benefit of working with video is speed. Students today can edit their scenes immediately after they’re shot, without having to wait days for dailies. As a result, 48-hour and 24-hour film festivals are commonplace, with filmmakers racing to complete an entire film in one or two days. There’s even a four-hour film challenge in the U.K.

Q: As an educator, how have these changes impacted teaching?
There are serious side effects to the digital revolution, which are especially problematic for the educators of this new wave of videomakers. The very traits that have made the media available to the masses have seriously undermined its quality. Many videos produced by high school and college students will not be seen in a movie theater, but will be streamed on YouTube or other Web sites. The image is heavily compressed with severe artifacts, but that doesn’t matter much because it’s viewed in a window the size of a playing card. Although other capture devices are capable of delivering high resolution images, why bother if the final product is destined to be viewed on a cell phone? As a result, many student videos pay scant attention to lighting, composition or camera movement, and are shot quick and dirty without a tripod.

Q: What are some of the underlying issues that have resulted? Because schedules are short and video is cheap, many student filmmakers don’t bother with rehearsals. Some don’t want to sully the immediacy of the actors’ first take; most are just too rushed to bother with rehearsals, blocking, setting focus, and other details that are perceived to be dreary. This problem is exacerbated by cameras that make all the decisions for the budding filmmaker. Focus, aperture and audio gain can all be controlled by the cameras. Crews can be downsized, allowing for more personal cinema – why bother with a boom operator if the built-in mic is already there? And if something isn’t quite right, most editing programs have a vast array of toys available for manipulating the image, so students feel that bad shots can be salvaged with artsy editing or digital effects. As a result, students learn bad habits that media educators have to help them overcome.

Q: What would you suggest as a solution? 
Perhaps the best way is to dust off the 16 mm cameras and teach the video generation how to shoot on real film. I propose:
The Top 10 Reasons to Teach Film to the Video Generation:

  1. It’s an investment: When a student realizes that he or she is burning a buck every second of the shoot, that student approaches the production differently. Lines are rehearsed. Movements are set up more carefully. And lighting is set up more carefully, because audiences will be seeing the images on higher resolution screens. The result is better filmmaking, which carries over to video projects.
  2. Productions are planned more carefully: This (hopefully) means more attention will be paid to the story and storytelling techniques, which is the heart of filmmaking.
  3. With delayed results comes wisdom: Students have to wait a day for the film to be processed before they know the exact results of their work. While this might seem like a long time in today’s high-speed world, it makes for more careful shooting, and gives students time between shoots to plan their strategy.
  4. It looks better: The fact is, there’s more resolution in film than 1080 HD. There’s even more resolution in film than a 4K scan can produce. There’s also a wider dynamic range than HD, and an organic ‘feeling’ that film gives that you still can’t obtain in video.
  5. Film is more forgiving: Because film has a higher dynamic range than video, there’s more latitude for correction in post if the exposure isn’t quite perfect.
  6. It’s a great learning tool: Just as master artists had their students grind up pigments for their paints, learning the nuts and bolts of the film media gives students a special appreciation for their craft.
  7. The concepts of cinematography are better honed: It’s a lot easier to understand what an aperture is when you can look inside the lens, or what the focal plane is when you can see the film gate. The same goes for shutter speed, depth of field, gamma, film speed, etc.
  8. There is more control: No matter how much we may insist on manual control of focus, iris and sound, students are born into a “point and shoot” world, and may be tempted to let the camera’s electronics control these important elements. By shooting with a film camera that forces them to set the aperture and focus, they regain artistic control over the image.
  9. It doesn’t cost as much as you think: High-quality film cameras are being sold at garage sale prices on Ebay. For example, we purchased our first film camera, a Beaulieu R16, for less than $200. I’ve seen an ARRI SR sell for $2,550 online. You can pay a lot more for the latest and greatest, but these are great cameras for students to learn on. Although film stock is certainly more expensive than DV tapes, Kodak has been very supportive of the film school community, and offers student discounts on stock. I’ve found that local labs and post facilities are also willing to discount or even donate services to film schools. Our camera and lighting class shot a five-minute film project on 16 mm for less than $200. Furthermore, Super 8 mm has a lively community, and is even less expensive.
  10. Students think of film differently: They take it more seriously, and tend to be more artistic and creative when they shoot film, probably because of the mystique and tradition of film. Similarly, students think of film schools differently than video programs. If a prospective student is serious about filmmaking, I always encourage him or her to look for schools that actually shoot film. Since moving from offering a video program to becoming a film school, we’ve grown steadily in enrollment and in the quality of our students.

Q: How would you suggest combating the perception that everything will be digital one day?
 I would suggest demystifying the film process. Get students’ hands on the gear; take the lens off; show them the intermittent movement; let them practice threading the film. It’s cool to be “old school!” Hand them light meters and show them how to use them. Since many of our students are used to letting the camera control the settings, this may take a bit more explaining than you’d expect. It’s also a great way to introduce students to concepts like contrast ratios, lighting ratios and emulsions. Use a tape measure to set focus. Not only is this standard practice in the industry, but it avoids nasty surprises if someone messes with the viewfinder diopter. I would also stress capturing the magic in the camera rather than doing it in post.

Q: What do you think is the most important benefit that students take away from the filmmaking process?
 Collaboration. When students shoot as a team, they learn the importance of operating, clapping the sticks, setting the focus, and adjusting the lights. Although the temptation will be to have one person direct, we’ve gotten great results by having different students direct different scenes. Each step of the process is an educational opportunity. They should learn to sync dailies, and log shots. Then they’ll understand first-hand what it takes for a production to come together and tell a story that entertains audiences.