Posts Tagged ‘advice’

Applying for Your MFA: Tips, Tricks and General Straight Talk

I’m getting a lot of hits to my site lately about MFA programs and applying to film schools in general, so this post is really meant for these curious peeps. I’ve written about this before, mostly on the question of whether or not a film MFA is right for you. Just for your handy-dandy convenience, here they are in one splendidly convenient place:

This is a bit more “service-y” than my usual m.o., and if you’re not interested in Master of Fine Arts programs, film school or any of that, there’s fun stuff planned for later this week. But if you are definitely going to apply to a MFA program, I’m more than happy to be a cheerleader and Girl Scout to help you along your way, especially since I have some insider-y knowledge of the process.


Advice That I Wish Someone Gave Me After Getting My MFA

The end of 2010 marked approximately six months after I got my MFA from film school, so it was perfect time to take stock of the distance I had traveled, where I was going and all that good “big picture” stuff. Then, over at Twitter asked for post-grad film school advice, and a few other friends of mine talked about our experiences after graduation and compared notes, which got me thinking. The logical conclusion to all this introspection? Blog post, naturally! I actually ended up doing a lot of these suggestions here, but not in a guided “here, Kat, do this and you won’t freak out so hard when you graduate” kind of way. More like a “WTF DO I NEED TO DO TO STOP FEELING THIS ANXIETY” walking-in-the-dark kind of way. In other words, trial and error. Avoid my abuse of all caps and keep these in mind when you’re rounding the final lap of an intense creative immersive experience and face the abyss of post-grad life. It doesn’t have to be such an abyss!

Write down a list of everything you learned in school right after you leave it.

No, I don’t mean some memoir explaining your creative evolution or anything fancy like that. This sounds way more daunting than it really is — it really is just a list! I also find that it’s really useful to do this with any concentrated experience, like a workshop, or a class, or even a particularly challenging work gig. You don’t have to go into mega-detail — it’s really just a quickly-jotted list of concepts, practices, tips, tricks, ideas, etc. that you absorbed during your experience. Just try to jot down everything, from the most basic “I’ll never forget that” info to more complicated, personal realizations. I still have mine in a PDF, and it’s got stuff on everything from technique to production to psychology that would make very little sense except to me and other film school people. Hilariously enough, it’s called “WHAT I LEARNED IN FILM SCHOOL.” Here were a few things on this list:

  • 180-line rule (a nerdy directing thing)
  • Wiping the shot at the beginning (another nerdy directing thing)
  • Always try to have actors enter/exit frame
  • Where does the camera have to be to have maximum dramatic impact
  • Generative images
  • “Begin late, leave early”
  • Using events to create sense of future in scripts
  • Visualize the day you want to have on set before you actually get there
  • Don’t put out chocolate in craft services till afternoon — too early makes people lose energy early in the day, but it’s a nice boost in the afternoon when energy lags (a producing thing, but kind of applicable to everyday life!)

You’d be surprised how much you’ll forget once you get caught up in the stream of life, so it’s great to have a record. You’ll read it even a few months out of school and get a big kick out of all that you learned. You’ll get an even better kick when you look it over and realize that you could even add to the list, which is a great sign that you’ve kept learning and growing, even well past graduation date.

Start working on your post-grad projects way before you graduate.

Even if it’s just to suss out ideas or find collaborators, it’s important to plant serious seeds to projects you want to work on when you leave school. You’ve just spent a concentrated, intensive period of time running at a creative high (or running on empty!) You want to keep creative momentum going. Give some thought as to where you’re at when you’re ending: are you poised to take advantage of momentum? Are you in need of recharging your batteries? Then design a project that fits. My advice would be to do something manageable, with a clear, discrete goal — there’s nothing better than being able to say you finished something just a few months after you graduated.

Start working in general before you graduate.

Yeah, you’re super busy and burnt out and stressed. That’s just part of being in film school, or perhaps grad school in general. But the stress that comes from engagement and doing is PEANUTS compared to the anxiety you’ll feel from the fear that you may be NOT DOING WHAT YOU LOVE. Especially in a creative field with no real employment structure or route to security, you need to start building contacts and experiences outside your school’s sphere before you leave it. Find some small way to engage in the larger field — if you’re going into production, start taking on PA jobs on larger sets. Start a film blog and start writing. Start assistant editing. It’s a lot to add on an already crowded plate, but there won’t be an empty abyss you’ll face the day after you get your diploma. Basically, if you’ve been in student mode, you have to start thinking of yourself as a professional before you actually “go professional.”

(Also, if you’re like nearly everyone I knew at film school and took out loans to go to school, you will especially want to do this, just for your own financial security/peace of mind’s sake.)

Take advantage of what you can before you leave school.

This means: using the school’s editing labs to put together your director’s reels; renting equipment you may not have access to anymore; using the fancy laser printers to print out beautiful copies of your beautifully edited scripts; get mentors and professors to critique your work or offer introductions to colleagues. There are all sorts of intangibles that a school environment has that you have every right to take advantage of — all that tuition you’ll be paying (or repaying, in the case of loans) should let you do this.

Accept doubt and define success.

Perhaps one of the hardest things for people to deal with after graduating is the sudden loss of structure, which school gives. Taking on projects and work for post-school is just part of a larger process. I’ve spent the last 6-7 months trying to create a structure in my life that supports both writing/filmmaking and making a living, and it’s only just started to come together. (Dear bad economy: thanks for making it so much easier. Ha!)

I realized most of all, in the months after school, that one of the things that school structures gives you in a perpetual sense of growth, of something to work for. You may be incredibly tired and stressed out, but above everything, you are growing as an artist and craftsperson. But when that sense of growth goes, things like doubt and anxiety begin to seep or rush in. The important psychological thing to do is to sustain that feeling of progress, of learning, of growing.

There’s two things to do, really. First, you have to realize that doubt is one of the biggest specters you’ll face once you leave the confines of school. It doesn’t matter if your student short got into Sundance or you landed an agent or manager or whatever…if there’s one thing I learned under the experienced filmmakers who taught me, it’s that you’ll always deal with the uncertainty of getting to do the thing you love for your living, even when you’re a “success.” So get that idea that you’ll never deal with doubt once you’ve “made it” out of your head. I don’t have any wise words on doubt, other than to remember what made you love making films (or writing stories or designing clothes or whatever) in the first place, and try to carve out some definition of success and achievement that isn’t defined by an external set of circumstances.

That leads to the second thing to do, which I got from Danielle LaPorte‘s brilliant Fire Starter Sessions: Ask yourself how you want to feel in your work? Most of us would say “happy” or “successful,” but it really pays to be specific about this: what does “happy” or “successful” mean to you? Challenged, peaceful, sexy, powerful, liberated, bold, innovative, loving, intellectually brave? Then, seek out and create experiences that make you feel that way. That’s what I try to remember. I’ll let you know how that goes

[Edit: if you’re looking for general perspectives on getting an MFA in film (or other fine arts discipline), here is the entry for you.]

Happy new year, beauties!

Still sussing out intentions, plans and dreams for 2011, but these words are part of my compass for the next year:

Cling to simplicity,
sincerity, serenity,
and the power of truth.

— I Ching

Letters I Wish I Had Gotten From My Future Self When I Was 5/10/15, Etc.

Sometimes I wonder how creepy and cool it would be to get letters from my future self.

Imagine it: you’re on your way to air out your mailbox (or face the depressing stack of bills and junk mail sitting in the void, since no one really writes letters anymore.) You open it, and there is a mysteriously addressed letter from a place called “The Future.” By a future version of you. I’m sure deep in my memory there exists a science-fiction film based on this scenario, but on a sincere level I would’ve welcomed a bit of guidance from my future self, especially over bumpy parts of my past. (Or maybe I would’ve freaked out and given myself a nervous breakdown — you never know.) Anyway, just as a weird little exercise, I imagined what my present self would’ve sent back to past mes at different ages. Other than werewolf skaters and first love, this is what’s on my mind lately — trying to get the pieces of my past to connect with what’s out there in the future, making the span of time feel continuous and meaningful.

Dear 5-Year-Old Me,

Congratulations on your first library card! You’re going to check out these books all the time: D’Aulaire’s Mythology, some novel about a Midwestern prairie settler girl and her favorite corn doll (told from the point-of-the-view of the doll, GOD I wish I could remember the name of this book, it had a purple library binding cover) and random issues of Mademoiselle, even though you have no clue what they are talking about. Pay attention to this mix, because it’s going to be the key to your imagination when you start writing. You’ll get a toy typewriter for Christmas and you’ll read the Peanuts and think typing “It was a dark and stormy night” again and again is what people mean they talk about “writing.” You don’t really have to begin each and every single story with a dark and stormy night. (Although curiously, every movie you make in film school will take place at night.) You may want to try just beginning your story in the middle and then figuring out what the best beginning would be, since this is what you’ll end up doing when you reach my age. Oh, and when Lisa B. makes fun of your laugh, don’t listen to her. She’s a hater. What’s a “hater”? It’s a word everyone will use in 2009. You can start now.

You’re also going to have a dream that you’ll remember for the rest of your life, one where you come to school with a box of donuts and no one wants them for some reason and you’ll wake up crying because you can’t give away your donuts. You’re going to spend a lot of time unlocking the message of this dream, which is basically deep down you worry that what you have to offer isn’t valuable to someone. The key is that what’s valuable is not just what’s in the box, but in the act of giving, so give even when you think no one out there is that interested.

Oh, and chasing your newest sister around the kitchen while screaming like a maniac at the top of your lungs and waving around a plastic sandbox shovel because she pissed you off? Don’t do that, either. She’s going to bug you about it for years.

xo k.

Dear 10-Year-Old Me,

This is going to be the weirdest age for you, because deep down you will not understand why half of your friends like boys, who are still mostly stupid and gross except for two main exceptions, who sit in two rows over from you, next to one another. Everyone will be preoccupied with boobs, which you don’t have yet. You’ll have very tumultuous friendships with neighborhood girls, which you’ll be bewildered by. Let’s begin with these, since you’ll spend a perplexing amount of time thinking about these. First, the neighbor girl who called you ugly: she’s a crazy Jesus-freak fundamentalist, and anyone who keeps wearing the same damn tube socks over and over again is kind of a freak. (Seeing those tube socks on girls in ads for a stupid company called American Apparel in the future will make you think of her and shudder.) Second, the other neighbor girl who you’ll get into a huge fight with and never speak to again: she’s actually a nice girl and you’ll miss her long after both of you have moved on, so don’t burn your bridges. One day you’ll realize how weird it is that every girl at this age fixated on one another’s looks, and maybe you’ll wonder if this appearance-obsession is something that women inflict upon themselves and give straight men permission to buy into.

Here’s the thing you should know: people are changing so fast, trying things out, and many pals are situational. You were strangely independent and self-sufficient up till now, so the best thing you can do now is to make a little island in yourself and put everything you love and value on it and let it ride out the hurricane of pubescence. Pack your psychological suitcase carefully, set it out on a boat and meet it in five years when you land on the Island of It’s Going to be Okay at age 15.

The great thing is that you’ll start writing stories because Mr. D. encouraged you. You’ll start writing about spaceships and the future and exotic countries and witches and outlandish, imaginative, fantastical things. You’ll start reading books by Robin McKinley about heroic, dragon-slaying girls. You’ll read Choose Your Own Adventure, which will change your life, and Sweet Valley High, which will not. Remember this, because you’ll go through a phase where you feel like all the deep people write about relationships and post-modernity and semi-traumatic sex. And that’s what works for them. But when you start really digging into massive writing projects that demand sustained effort, discipline and a level of commitment that exceeds most modern-day romantic liaisons — well, you need to remember what it is about writing and stories that made you love them in the first place. And how your writing will, in some way, honor that.

Also: don’t throw out your Madonna memorabilia. Or let your mom throw it away.

Ages 10-14 are going to suck hard. Sorry.

Oh, and when B. in fifth grade tells you that “horny” means someone who reads a lot of Playboy, he has it only halfway right.

xo k.