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  • Writer's picturefergusfcooper

5 Things I Learned in Film School

I attended the Northern Ireland Film & Television School, SERC, Bangor 2019-21. I was 62 when I started and 64 when I emerged with my Higher National Diploma. My time in college coincided with the emergence of the Covid pandemic. “Blended education” became the new norm and together with our lecturers we navigated our way around varying public health Covid restrictions, BFI guidelines for film crews and a college leadership that became risk averse.

I confess that I was more than a little anxious on my fist day in film school. When I looked around the class of over twenty students, I was glad to see that there were at least five other mature students. More than half the students were under twenty-one, there were only three females in the class, four if you counted Alison, the senior lecturer, and I was sure I was the only student with a bus-pass. Nevertheless, despite the disruption caused by Covid, I loved every minute of my time in college, and I was glad that, along with five other brave souls, I went on to do a second year to obtain my HND.

Here are 5 things I learned from my time in film school.

1) The only failure you should fear is the one you don’t learn from

I entered film school with more than the normal trepidation of a pupil attending his first day in school. I was considerably older than my peers, I struggle with new technology, and, despite appearances, I am intensely shy. Film school forces you to confront your worst fears, to embrace cameras, computers, editing software, lights and lots of theory and practise. I was glad to have so many young people around me to ask what my lecturers were talking about and how to do the simplest things on the college’s PCs. I learned as much over coffee at breaktimes as I did in the classroom. Younger students embraced me as I must have given them confidence to have someone older but dimmer than themselves.

I wasn’t great on the technical skills but worked hard at it and made friends with students who seemed to know their way around a camera. My lecturers were good and showed great patience with me. In time I came to realise that everyone makes mistakes filming. I can’t honestly say that I ever lost my fear of failure while filming projects for my course, but I came to realise that the only failure we should fear is the one we don’t learn from! If you recognise your mistakes from your last filming or editing experience, you will be sure not to make that mistake the next time.

2) Despite advances in technology cameras don’t think for themselves

Camera technology has advanced enormously this last decade and even the most basic DSLR comes packed with features and options. At times there are so many features even mastering the basic menu can be bewildering. But despite all the advanced features, the auto-focusing and white balancing, never forget that the camera doesn’t think for itself. I used to be terrified when my tutor Pete insisted that we never use auto features on the cameras. But in time one learns the importance of framing, exposure and reading waveforms. More importantly, I learned how important it was to plan my filming, to visit locations in advance and to draw up a detailed shot list before filming. Looking back at my earliest work now can be painful but also satisfying in showing my progression as a filmmaker.

3) Often, it’s what you leave out that makes your final cut

As a documentary filmmaker I produce and direct my own projects. I get enormous satisfaction from researching my subject, carrying out early audio interviews before writing my Treatment. I enjoy developing the project further and then trying to realise my vision during the filming and editing. It is the edit which I find most challenging, getting the pacing right. The challenge is to construct a narrative story that engages your audience and to tell it visually. With creative scripts dialogue can be sparse. With documentaries one may have some great interviews but often the challenge is what to leave out. Film is a visual medium and audiences can soon lose interest in a subject which is all talk with multiple talking heads. Good B-roll can help but refining one’s edit is often deciding what to cut out. It can help enormously to share a rough cut with a trusted friend if editing one’s own work to inform some of these decisions. Often in editing, less is really more.

4) Success in film requires collaboration

There are some individuals who are multi-talented. I’m not one of them, very few of us are. Film is all about collaboration from conception to execution and screening. Everyone has a role to play, and each film depends on excellent contributions from so many people. Screenwriters, producers, directors, cinematographers, art department, editors, everyone brings something to the film. Documentary film crews tend to be lean but there are many additional people who contribute to the project. Researchers, production assistants, sound recorders, interviewers, editors and camera crew, marketing and not to mention the on-screen interviewees themselves.

5) If you don’t know how, chances are YouTube will!

I’m indebted to my fellow classmates, Helen, Jake, Matt, Tiernan and Pete for this last piece of advice. When I went to university sometime in the last century it was all about reading textbooks, writing essays, and producing referenced footnotes. Film school has its share of theory and written assignments but so much of what we learn is based on practical assignments and producing a body of work. When Covid came along it was no longer as simple as talking to a fellow student at coffee break. Yes, I still phoned Peter Keys from time to time for reassurance, but it was YouTube that became my tutor. This was especially true when it came to editing and learning Adobe Premiere Pro. If you don’t know how to execute something using the software, chances are someone has already covered it in a short video on YouTube. Harvard referencing these days is more often about referencing website articles and YouTube videos than textbooks. Did YouTube invent “blended education”? A thought for another day.

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