Thursday, August 31, 2006

The struggles of a film student

Jeff Clegg graduated from the film program at Keene State College in 2004, two years later, he still lives with his parents and is just trying to get the next job and build his CV.

“There really is no normal day,” says Clegg. “If I’m not doing something [film related] at the moment I could be working some other small job to make money or getting material, looking for jobs, trying to contact people, keep up on potential projects.”

The struggle to find work after university is hard for just about anyone, but the challenge for a former film student is up a hill with a distinctly steeper slope.

“A lot of guys I went to school with are working in banks, car lots, or in Starbucks. They are trying to do more short films to get into festivals because that seems the route to go,” says John Schimke, who started his film school education in 1999 at California’s Azusa Pacific University (APU).

Keene State College and Azusa Pacific University are hardly the first names that come to mind when one discusses film school. Institutions like the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), University of New York (NYU) and University of Southern California (USC) are normally the ones that first spring to mind.

While those schools have the reputations as the premier film schools, it does not necessarily mean Clegg and Schimke were left at a disadvantage as they set out to make it in the film industry.

Keene State College (KSC) is a small liberal arts college in New Hampshire and the only state school in New England with a film department. While it and other small schools may not have the prestige of some bigger schools, they still can offer a worthy, if not better, education.

“When you are at a larger institution or a more well known film school, such as UCLA, USC, NYU, it is harder to make yourself, your work and your creative interests known,” says Mike Merli, a film production and film critical analysis double major at KSC. “It is harder for you to make a name for yourself because you are just one film student in hundreds or thousands of film students.”

For Merli the most valuable part of his film education thus far has been the accessibility to his instructors, something he doubts he would have at a larger school.

“I feel perhaps more so than the production courses themselves, the department and the direct advice and wisdom and guidance that the faculty members can offer students is more valuable and more helpful in leading a student to having a more grounded base to go off and try to find a job in the industry,” says Merli, who is entering his junior year in September.

On another level, the smaller school can offer more access to equipment and therefore more hands on experience.

When Schimke started at APU their film program was also just starting and had a lot of equipment.

“There is a really strong advantage at being in a small film program that has equipment that enables you to shoot as much as you want,” says Schimke. “My freshman year I must have made seven short films as opposed to going to a bigger film schools like USC.”

While APU has the advantage of being in California, KSC is far from the glitz of Hollywood and glam of New York. But when Merli was touring the campus, he was told that a couple former students wound up working for Steven Spielberg. That sold Merli.

“It made me grow even more excited because hearing Steven Spielberg you realise this is no joke, that even if you are going to a small liberal arts college and not a big name film school that you can get a job in the industry and work for recognisable names,” says Merli.

While such claims are encouraging and enticing Schimke warns that stories like that are rare in the film industry.

“Coming out of school stories about people finding deals and getting hired to do films, especially features are very slim,” says Schimke. “Nobody wants to take a chance on you, you’re young, you really don’t have experience, why hire you when I can hire someone who has way more experience.”

After graduating for APU in 2004, Schimke went on to the directing program at the American Film Institute, a large organisation in Los Angeles dedicated to film preservation with board members that include Spielberg and Robert De Niro.

Schimke took part in a conservatory program at AFI with a small group of about 20 other students, many of which were coming from bigger schools likes Columbia and USC. Much to Schimke’s surprise, he found that he had more experience in his small school than they had at their more prestigious named schools.

“I talked to people who only got to make one film during their whole four years at USC and it wasn’t until their senior year because seniors get seniority on equipment,” says Schimke.

Transitioning into a program that while not bigger in student body, but in clout and stature naturally did offer Schimke some advantages. The biggest being AFI had the facility to display student film projects on a large screen, which allowed Schimke to experience the films he was making as they were meant to be.

“A small mistake on small television doesn’t seem like that big of a deal until you get into a theatre and it is huge, 20 times or 40 times larger than how you have been watching and editing it,” says Schimke

In perhaps an interest commentary on the American university system itself, whether it be at small or larger institutions for Clegg, Schimke and Merli their film school experiences were somewhat disappointing.

“In a lot of ways there is a sharp learning curve out of a school where there are things that were just never discussed, never brought up. I’d never known to ask about them because I didn’t even know about them because they were never mentioned,” says Clegg.

While Clegg did learn it was not necessarily because he had courses that taught him, it was more trial and error than guided teaching.

“The one thing I can say about my film school experience is that it was sort of a safe place to do things,” says Clegg. “You know you make mistakes and maybe a little money or a grade suffers, but you’re not necessarily losing 100,000 dollars of someone’s money.”

Schimke’s film school experiences ended with similar feelings that it was not so much the courses, but the opportunity to just work on films in a safe environment that allowed him to learn.

“It wasn’t the fact that I went to film school, that I had a lot of this knowledge that gave me the ability to tap into the industry it was actually the fact that I had a lot of experience in production,” says Schimke

As for Merli, his first experience in a film production course left him feeling alienated and unsure of himself as many of his peers were making action and horror films.

“The reaction was usually a good one from the professor I had the course with,” says Merli. “He was into into action and horror and films that showed crime or some sort of violence occurring and that became sort of the thing to do.”

The problem was Merli had little interest in making those sorts of films and instead had a desire to makes films that dealt with relationship issues and analyzing human behavior.

“Both my peers and my instructor did not really get or understand what I was doing and that was a little jarring. As a student in a college course I did expect the instructor to have a little more understanding and a little more of an open mind than he did,” says Merli.

It was in his film critical analysis courses that Merli believed he was deepening his understanding of the world of cinema.

“The courses I have taken in the critical studies end of the film program at Keene State have enriched me in the sense that now when I watch films I readily apply the concepts, ideas and terms I learned through taking these courses. They have given me a broader worldview of not only cinema, but art in general,” says Merli.

With two more years ahead of him, Merli is still hopeful and excited for his further film education and his potential film career.

“I hope to be able to work on the production end of the film industry, working on sets, starting out probably as a production assistant on any set I can get on or through connections in an office job somewhere and work my way up there to someday to perhaps be a writer/director.”

While Merli is still in the safety net of school, Clegg and Schimke have already been living in the real world for years, but both are not losing hope.

“When you first get out of school you know people who want to do it, but you don’t know that many people who are. People six months, a year out of school have dropped it and are doing something else,” says Clegg.

Clegg is not packing it anytime soon. Since graduating, he has been working as a director of photography and editor and has worked on two features and two television pilots.

“It does seem like that things are getting better, I can see a progression in my work, in the quality of it because you’re always learning, always doing better. And I’m moving to bigger and better things a lot of the times”

Clegg is essentially a cameraman and editor for hire right now, but there are worse places to be within the industry. The key is that during this whole time Clegg is making contacts.

In Schimke’s case, he wanted to direct sooner rather than later, but realised rather quickly that no one was willing to take a risk on an untested commodity.

“I discovered if I wanted work as a director and no one is going to give me work as a director I need to create work for myself and figure out a way to sell it because the reason movies are made is because people pay to watch them,” says Schimke

With that in mind, Schimke teamed up with a couple of friends to form a company to make a series of short film of Jesus’ 36 parables.

“I knew a lot of churches were starting to show more media content in their services and there wasn’t a lot to choose from,” says Schimke. “The content was really bad and the acting was really bad and what I wanted to do were modern adaptations as short films and market them to churches.”

Schimke has found funding for the project and has completed several of the films already.

“I’m able to do what I want to do and I know that it is going to open a lot of doors for us in the future because studios, production companies, other people who invest in films don’t want to take a chance on you they want to see other people taking a chance on you first.”

For both Schimke and Clegg it is just a matter of seeing if what they are doing builds to something else. For the time being, they are just happy to be doing what they love.

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