President’s Desk: Film School Misery

“I found, in most instances, film school teaching was not always reaching an acceptable level of education.”

Kees van Oostrum, ASC (Photo by Jacek Laskus, ASC, PSC)

Every year, some 60,000 students graduate from about 600 film schools worldwide. I estimate that probably 20 percent choose to focus on cinematography — so, let’s assume 12,000 budding cinematographers graduate every year. These numbers represent the universities and one- to three-year film schools. If you include the various master classes, summer courses and online classes that are available, you would probably add considerably more students.

The teaching of cinematography has always been of interest to me. At one point, it motivated me to start the ASC Master Class program because I found, in most instances, film school teaching was not always reaching an acceptable level of education. Over the last 20 years, I have also occasionally taught at film schools and universities — always in the form of a workshop. It surprised me that many students lacked a basic technological background — really not so difficult to learn — and, more importantly, they lacked an understanding of the creative motivation that results in good cinematography.

“The money being charged for film education these days is staggering; spending a whopping $250,000 to $350,000 to send someone through to graduation is not uncommon.”

I am a product of six years of film education — first, the Netherlands Film Academy for four years and then two years at AFI. Looking back, I remember a few educational lapses at both schools, though they have excellent reputations. Yes, I did enjoy my six years very much; the collaboration with my fellow students was phenomenal. Just how great is it to have time to develop yourself in a protected environment? That aspect alone has formed an essential foundation for the rest of my career. But, honestly, I cannot forget some of the marginal teachers I endured. Those burdened by alcoholism and favoritism, and the idiosyncratic ones who did nothing constructive for students but instead glorified themselves through teaching. In my early film school days, one suicidal instructor drowned himself in a bathtub after we did not show up to a screening of his thesis movie about “being of an alcoholic soul.” Later, another teacher made us put paint on our heels and, after having us watch a scene from probable camera angles, made us decide where to put the camera based on the density of the paint residue on the floor!

What this all brings to mind is the saying by educator William Arthur Ward: “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires!” 

I realized over the years that some film-teaching professionals probably were not so successful in their careers and, through teaching, found a stage for their insecurities. I’m done watching teachers tell their students how brilliant their own work is, and, in the process, influence young and eager minds. I have been in educational staff meetings where these “prophets of mediocrity” say things like, “We like to work with vacant minds and shape someone’s creativity.” That has sent me running for the door. 

Although this all sounds maybe a bit hopeless, the reality is not so. Students today are producing great and innovative films. The submissions to the annual ASC Student Heritage Awards competition are a testament to this.

And there are, of course, teachers who are genuinely our deserving heroes. I would classify them as those who don’t necessarily have a lot of structure or preconceived ideas, but are just themselves — exposing their faults as well as accomplishments.

A lot of learning in cinematography is watching others do it — others who are, of course, talented and create images that speak to you. In my early years, I observed and interned with cinematographers who included Witold Sobociński, PSC and Gerry Fisher, BSC. They were doing a job — one cracking jokes all the time, and the other stern and intolerant of worldly distractions. At the time, many things I observed were incomprehensible. Years later, it suddenly all started to make sense and made me forever grateful to them.

The money being charged for film education these days is staggering; spending a whopping $250,000 to $350,000 to send someone through to graduation is not uncommon. Then the hordes not admitted to a reputable institution fall prey to the commercial film schools, with less oversight and accountability. A $50,000 bill for a year is the norm. Those schools, motivated by profit, often paint a sorry picture of students recruited worldwide, recipients of veteran administration grants, and a hopeless group that wants to work in the industry at any cost and take out high-interest loans in the effort to do so. 

It’s time to do something about this situation. Maybe it’s time for students to revolt, and for parents to withhold tuition and demand accountability. 

That will be a wake-up call for the mediocrity, motivate a move to better education, and get us out of this film school misery.

Kees van Oostrum 
ASC President


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