Posts Tagged ‘film school’

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.


Getting a MFA: Yay or Nay, Pro Vs. Con, Yes or No

Lately I get a lot of Google search hits to this post about getting their master’s in film: “Should I get a MFA in film” or “graduate film school yes or no” or whatever. That post reckons more with being post-MFA, so I decided to be useful for once and write this instead. If you have arrived here looking for a perspective on this question, well, this post is for you. And those who aren’t ever going to get an MFA in filmmaking, I hope you enjoy this little window into a rollicking, rambunctious, rock ‘n roll time of my life.

This won’t be organized or highly structured, unlike your typical classical narrative film. My memories and experience of film school were like a blaze of light across the sky — it went so fast that individual pieces blur together. As a result, sometimes my feelings about it blur as well. But somewhere in this ramble, I hope you find pieces of the answer you’re looking for — and at the end, I’ll share with you the question I asked myself that made up my own mind. I think it’s a solid compass for anyone who wants to embark on any life-changing, savings-sapping adventure, so even if you’re not contemplating film school, maybe it will help you as well. Let’s start with the scary stuff first, the reasons that you don’t want to go to film school:

Why You Shouldn’t Get a MFA in Film

You Want to Be Rich and Famous

Let’s put it bluntly: the days of taking your thesis short to Sundance and landing a major motion picture deal are over. The film industry is in trouble. No one really knows what is going on in terms of where moviegoing and moviemaking will be in the next 10-20 years. Your film will more likely be streamed on the web somewhere, maybe downloaded off Amazon or iTunes, than projected at a movie theater. If you think film school is a short cut to fame and fortune, you’re wrong. You’re better off making a name for yourself and spending tuition money on a great film based on a superior script.

To be slightly more nuanced about it: you can build a viable, sustainable career in the film industry for yourself via film school. You’ll meet a lot of people and if you do good work, you can carve out a niche for yourself and build your resume. You’re building your list of contacts, and that’s something — actually, in an industry that relies a lot on who you know, it is more than something. But don’t kid yourself that you’ll easily become a mover and shaker from film school. You will make “connections” and meet people, but they’ll most likely be your peers, not your magic-makers.

You Worry About Your Financial Future

You might be lucky and land a big fellowship, or some grants and scholarships. You might be lucky enough to be born rich. Or you might be only applying to schools that can fully fund you if you’re accepted. But chances are you’re probably looking also at the big film schools, like USC, NYU, Columbia or the like. The truth is that these schools are often incredibly expensive. Tuition and fees are expensive, living expenses can rack up, and you will likely have to fund your projects to some or all degree. And making films can be incredibly expensive, especially if you want to compete at certain levels.

This is my personal perception and experience: my school often gave lip service to the fact that thesis films don’t have to be expensive, and yes, digital technology can lower the costs considerably. But honestly the most rewarded, successful short films in my program at Columbia — the ones that garner prizes and get launched into the more prestigious film festivals — were not the scrappy films that cost a few thousand to make. The prize winning films that garnered the most support from the program and faculty often cost tens (and some cost hundreds) of thousands of dollars in production, post-production, film festival, marketing and other auxiliary costs.

This is not to say that they weren’t well-made — the money was used incredibly well and resulted in gorgeous cinematography, stunning locations and real, professional caliber production in general. But that’s what you’re up against at prestigious film schools, and it costs money. If this worries you but you still want to go to a film school, pick a program that provides ample production support and post-production support.

But beyond costs, the financial truth of getting a MFA is: you’re likely going to reduce your earnings potential as an adult by a few years, contribute a lot less to your retirement accounts and sap your savings, if you have any. Those things can have long-term effects on your future. And if you go to a prestigious school, you’re going to take out a lot of student debt, and this isn’t something to take lightly. Before I decided to attend my program, I had to ask myself whether or not I’d be okay delaying buying a house by about ten years of my life — because the cost of my MFA was about the cost of buying a home in many places. I was, but that was something I had to work through, and it’s something you should look at as well. If traditional paths to financial security are important to you — if you are the type that wants to buy your first house by 30 and retire by 65 with a nice tidy nest egg, or you have a kind of “investment” mentality in which you want a direct result from something you put your money in — then think really, really hard if this is the path for you. Because it’s probably not.

The Flip Side: Why You Should Get a MFA in Film

Okay, have I scared you yet? Are you still game for the reasons to say yes? Because many of them are compelling, especially if you are truly an artist at heart.

Going From Movies to Novels, i.e. Was Film School A Big Waste of Time? [Video Blog]

I graduated from film school last May, so it’s been officially a year since I’ve been a MASTER OF FINE ART. Last year’s memories are hazy with exhaustion, but one thing I remember: I had decided to write the idea of my next screenplay as a novel instead.

No one around me really understood this, and I didn’t really, either, myself. Everyone around me was in a frenzy of lining up work, consolidating their contact lists and renewing any connection that could get them a job, a deal, a project. I did have a small web-based video project in the works, but here I was, embarking on writing a novel.

What was I doing? Did I really just spend five years and huge amounts of money….just to start writing a book instead? In this video, I go into some of the making-of for that decision…a few moments that set up my disenchantment with film, and the moment when it all opened up for me.

This is kind of a long video blog! (Think of it as making up for my last one being two weeks ago.) It’s a very personal question, actually, and well, if someone’s willing to listen to 12+ minutes of me talking about it, then I’ll be more than happy to give them a personal answer.

I actually shot this vblog a bit ago but held off on putting it out there because at first I was worried about sounding like a big whinging idiot. But it’s a pretty honest account of a few moments that connected together to bring me away from filmmaking into fiction writing. I think it’s also pretty honest about the difficulties and problems facing the film industry as a whole when it comes to gender. I do a bit of feminist irritant-ing about it, I guess, but it’s very true. You look at the participation of women at the leadership level in filmmaking and then compare that to the visibility that women have in literature, and I’m sorry, you actually just cannot compare.

I did cut some bits for time (!!!) — I went a little into my other building frustrations with narrative film as a medium, mostly because it takes so long to get a film from page to screen, especially contrasted to blogging, which I’ve been doing since 2003. Another thing I cut was my growing realization that I didn’t want to wait any longer to GET WORK OUT THERE. I wanted to produce work faster, get work out in the world faster. Vite, vite, vite! And finally: it costs thousands upon thousands up to millions of dollars to make a film. It costs me much less to write a novel!

And also: writing stories in novel form just feels great, and right, and true for me right now. You can’t discount that.

The unspoken question is whether or not I see myself going back into film. At this point, no, not in the conventional sense, although I think after this novel I’d like to shoot something small, personal and just very, very “for myself.” I think I will always work on screenplays, because I genuinely love the form and it keeps me in practice on the parts of storytelling that I find most difficult (economy, action, plot.) And also: I’m having too much fun with my books right now, and I think I have a few more novels left in me. I always follow the fun, so look forward to more and more stories coming here soon.


I think I’m enjoying the video blogs a little more, now that I settled on the Q&A format to guide me a little. I get a few questions on screenwriting, film school and blogging, so I might tackle those in future video blog entries, but if anyone has a question they’d like me to talk through, please email me at kat (at) nogoodforme (dot) com.

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.]