This is certainly a sharp turn from reviews but the idea and the service that can be put out by writing on a topic like this clicked inside so here I am giving out a message to all those wanting to pursue a degree in film. You’ve got the UCAS points, you’ve got the A-Levels, you may even have some experience under your belt, but from what I observed from my time as a film student and the word from others like me, you probably don’t know what you’re getting yourselves into.
I don’t say this to put you off, but studying for a film degree is very tough and demanding, you’ve got to have a capable mental strength to deal with being pushed back, having to make decisions in the moment and the motivation to pull yourself together when something goes south (which it will at some point). But for all the stress a film degree can cause, the payoff is well worth the struggle. To see your work on a big screen, even if you think it’s bad or flawed, is still a euphoric and rewarding experience and if you manage to keep a cool head for 3+ years, then and only then will you get to graduate with your head held high.
But you’re going to need some help along the way, which is where this post comes in, this is a few essentials as told from a film graduate that every new student studying film should know or have before the start of September or whenever your course starts.
(Anything recommended will be linked at the bottom of the post)
Buy some essential tools
You may not realise it yet, but at some point, you’ll understand that apart from the usual costs, studying for a film degree can be very expensive. That is, if you’re not prepared beforehand. Having the tools, yourself is much more convenient than having to rely on going into university every day hoping there’s a camera or computer free for the day you really need it. To avoid the hassle and complications this can lead to, here are a few pieces you should DEFINITELY pick up.
- Buy a DSLR – Universities will always have cameras like the Panasonic P2 to loan to you, but unless it’s an Arri Alexa you’ll eventually realise is that they’re OK at best. If you’re thinking of becoming a cinematographer I would advise buying a DSLR camera beforehand, make sure it’s one you’re comfortable holding and depending on how skilled you are it doesn’t even have to be that big on price. Next get some lenses, if you can’t afford lenses, find somewhere or someone who will let you borrow them for a reasonable agreement or price (or you know, just ask nicely). You can also include a tripod if you really want, but universities will often have industry standard tripods such as Sachtler tripods.
- Buy an external hard drive – This is a must have for wannabe editors, you’ll never be able to store all the footage you’ve shot on even the highest memory mac or PC out there, get an external hard drive that you’ll use exclusively for all your footage. If you’re strapped for cash I’d recommend the LaCie rugged 2TB external hard drive, this will normally cost around £100+, however for the big guns you’ll most certainly want the G-Technology G-DRIVE 4TB which will cost you around £200+. No matter what you choose, you should always aim for the most memory you can afford.
- Buy some studio headphones – I know what you’re thinking, surely normal headphones will work right? Well kind of, you see, apple headphones and Beats by Dre are primarily for listening to music not sound. If you opting to become a great sound guy, buy a good set of headphones so that you’ll be able to hear background noise with clarity. The headphones I used whilst at university and currently have around my neck whilst writing this are BayerDynamic DT 250’s. If you’re not willing to spend more than £100, there are cheaper ones on the market that work almost as well as the much dearer options such as the Behringer Hps5000 or the Audio-Technica ATH-M40X.
Get the books
Honest to god, there is nothing worse than wanting to find a book that you desperately needed for that one reference is booked out. For me, luckily, my university had good connectivity to library’s in other campuses so the books I found in other campus’ could be delivered to my campus which saved me the journey. However, your university may not have the same connectivity so to save time, the following are books that I can’t recommend enough. (because everyone will be fighting over them).
- Film Art: An Introduction (Bordwell & Thompson) – If you don’t have this book already ask yourself why don’t I have this book already. This is the first book that should be on any film students list, it has everything you could possibly want to know about film theory and filmmaking. GET IT!
- The Screenwriters Bible (David Trottier) – The Screenwriters Bible is a must have for screenwriters but is also a good read for other as it identifies how to evaluate the effectiveness of the script, not only that it will help you after your course as there are tips on how to sell your script to producers or find people who can help towards getting them made.
- In the Blink of an Eye (Walter Murch) – This book focused entirely on editing is a refreshing take on why a film cuts when it does and what each cut means for a constant narrative flow. What the book does best is talks about the emotion of a film rather than showing how impressive film editing can be. A good insightful read for determined film editors.
- Directing: Film Techniques & Aesthetics (Rabinger & Hurbis-Cherrier) – A must have for Directors, this book goes into everything required for directors to recognise the value of a script, how to communicate with actors on set, the artistic process on working with the themes you want to address and so much more stuff that if I were to explain it would take up the rest of this post.
- Motion Picture and Video Lighting (Blain Brown) – What puts this above any other books aimed at cinematographers is that it also comes with a DVD explaining the different kind of lighting so not only are the books points on paper, you also get to observe it as well. Most aspiring cinematographers will have already devoted themselves to the craft and know the ins and outs of a camera, but these aspiring cinematographers have more than likely never used studio lighting before, and this book gives you the know-how on how to light a scene properly.
Films you need to know about
This may be blatantly obvious but on a film course you’re going to see a lot of films (shocker). However, as much as it’s about seeing as many film as possible, which you can assess in your own time and enjoyment, it’s also about seeing the right films to expand your knowledge on the evolution of filmmaking and the history behind such films. Here are some super important films to know to get a head start above the rest.
- Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925) – Study up on Soviet Cinema and your theory lecturer will be impressed. But if you’re going to focus your attention on one, it can be none other than Battleship Potemkin. Even get to know Sergei Eisenstein, the godfather of cinematic pioneers. When watching Battleship Potemkin, pay special attention to The Odessa Steps sequence, a scene so grounded in realism Roger Ebert commented that you could be mistaken for the sequence being the actual event.
- A Bout De Souffle or Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960) – The beginnings of French New Wave, the most important and most crucial film style and group of filmmakers to look at, especially Jean-Luc Godard. Use this film to examine French New Wave film techniques and the positive effect and inspiration to start experimenting with narrative, visuals and editing.
- Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) – Ok maybe a lot of you were expecting to see this on the list but being the most common film shown to film students it’s on the list for a reason. Orson Welles’ supposed masterpiece is fantastic for a critical viewing on film noir techniques and is a great source for inspiration for you as a student filmmaker, why? Because Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at the very young age of 25. If he can create a masterpiece, why not you?
- La Voyage dans la Lune or A Trip to the Moon (Georges Méliès, 1902) – This ties in with knowing about the origins of cinema (if you don’t know who the Lumière brothers are by this point, stop reading this and go google them as a matter of urgency). A Trip to the Moon is the earliest example of classic cinema and brought about a revolution in what creative elements could be possible with a camera. It spurred on a science fiction and fantasy development with those elements being used for entertainment. Editors and those wanting to find out more on special effects should watch this film and other Méliès shorts for the appreciation of his editing and special effects innovation.
- Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) – This is more for inspiration, for the time where you may have hit a dead end. Apocalypse Now is the cure for getting some motivation, my advice is to first look at the horror show that the cast and crew went through to make this masterpiece then watch the film. The scale of Apocalypse Now is like no other film and this was made by people who were emotionally, physically and mentally damaged by the making of it. not only can you assess the various filmmaking and writing techniques but also use this film as fuel to carry on.
There are so many other films that could exist on this page but we’d be here forever, that why as well as watching these films, discover your own masterpieces, even watch some bad films as well. Watching bad films is just as informative as watching a masterpiece as you can look at what the filmmakers did wrong and make sure that you don’t make the same mistake.
Know the shortcuts for essays
Chances are as well as the practical filmmaking side of your course, it will be accompanied by a little theoretical work, which will certainly come true in year 3 when the beast of the academic world walks the earth and the only thing to defeat it is a 10,000-word dissertation (word count varies for different uni’s). Before brimstone and fire falls from the skies, it would be a wise move to know the shortcuts on how universities will probably want you to write an essay.
- Google Scholar – Google scholar is pretty much the ultimate library of the internet, there’ll probably be a time where a certain book isn’t in the uni library and it’s too expensive to buy on amazon. Plus you’ll probably need the entire book just to find that one quote so buying is out of the question. However, if you know your topic and/or author, there’ll possibly be a PDF of the same book on google scholar. It’s not guaranteed but it the best bet.
- citethisforme.com – Citing sources properly is a pain to do buy hand. This website will be able to take any source and automatically generate the reference, all you have to do is paste it into a bibliography and boom. What also great is if you create an account, it will automatically save any source its references, you can effectively create an entire bibliography in the Harvard Referencing System, which is the most common system universities use. You’ll possibly have to make some alterations to fit your university’s specific requirements.
- Prep Prep Prep – My advice for preparation is to plan an essay the moment your lecturer says you need to do one. Get a calendar and mark down the days you’ll spend finding sources, writing the essay itself and polishing it. Doing something last-minute is a cruel student stereotype and unfortunately in my experiences, one that is becoming truer. Setting in stone a plan is the best thing you can do and it takes a whole load of weight off your shoulders so you can move on to the fun stuff. Get down to the tiniest details such as setting out how many words you’re going to write that day. I did this with my 10,000 dissertation and wished I had done it with my previous essays.
- Hand it in the day before – If your essays are to be handed electronically through your uni’s web portal, aim to and in essays the day before. Handing it in on the day is stressful and time-consuming, time that on the day of hand in will not be on your side. If the case of handing it in on paper, print it off the day before. One day during when I had to hand it an essay was also the day for other group to hand in their work, some people were even wrestling each other just to use a printer. It was crazy. Avoid doing this at all costs.
Know your limits
Whilst at university, you’re not there to make cinematic history, you’re there to know the ropes and do the best you can. With that being said, know the limits on what types of films you can make, I’ve seen ambitious people, very ambitious people reckon that their vision will propel them to the heights. It’s a long game that you’ll be playing so play the game one turn at a time. But don’t let limitations get in the way of what you want to do. That may sound condescending but there may come a day where a battery hasn’t been charged or a piece of equipment forgotten, find creative ways to solve those problems. For example, one day my crew forgot the boom poll for a shoot in the middle of a forest, so we found a long, thin tree branch and used that instead of calling the shoot off.
Build your connections
People will often tell you that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know and for film it couldn’t be nearer to the truth. You may question why then you’re going to spend £9000 a year to learn about film, well you’re going to need proof to back up the skills aren’t you? From the get go let everyone know that you’re studying film and get into any experience opportunities you can. There’s nothing in your universities rule-book that you can’t make films separate from your course so take advantage of that, your lecturers will understand if you have to be away for a week because you’re working on another film, in fact, they’ll actively encourage it.
Building connections will also be an advantage in the long run when you leave university as it’ll increase you’re chance of finding work after three years. Linkedin is a great and more professional way of building connection rather that the more social way like Facebook or Twitter. On the subject of social media, join as many Facebook groups on filmmaking as possible, in particular, ones situated in your area. You’ll often find people asking for production assistants and/or people asking and giving advice on filmmaking.
- Have a good rapport with others – it’s safe to say that the best thing to do on your first lecture or seminar is to tuck away and not draw attention to yourself. My advice, do the opposite. Talk to everyone and anyone, the more you establish yourself with the people of the university, the more people you know and the more people you know means a guarantee in standing out, especially if they know your skilled. The best way is to treat people as friends and work colleagues. You don’t have to necessarily have certain people as friends, as long as you have a good impression of them and know that you can work with them is such a scenario happens.
- Talk to staff – You are an adult, they are adults, so talk to them like adults, not students. Remember, get into the mentality that you’re not a student but already in the film business and the university is your workplace.
- Get physically fit – What? Some of you might be asking. Although it seems an odd thing to recommend, you’re going to be moving around a lot, carrying a lot of equipment that’s going to be expensive and also heavy. If you haven’t had the urge yet to get a gym membership, now’s the time. I only motivated myself to get fit because the closest gym was conveniently in the campus where I lived near. One time I was in a film crew which had to carry bags of heavy equipment, in a torrential downpour, walking up a busy A-road. Also if you’re a sound guy, that boom pole you’re carrying is going to be difficult to carry with no blood pumping in your arms, so that only thing left to hold it is your strength.
Filmmaking is one of the most creative and more rewarding pursues ever. You have the gracious opportunity to build your skills and learn a craft that is golden. The tips I’ve given you are a lot to take in, but if there is one tip I can give you to follow more than the others, it is to enjoy yourself. The next three or so years ahead of you are going to be the greatest period of freedom of your lives possibly, make these known as the most enjoyable, not the most stressful. Work hard, stay optimistic and make and watch as many films as you possibly can.
Best of luck to you all.
Behringer HPS5000 Studio Headphones: https://www.amazon.co.uk/goods4less-HPS5000-HEADPHONES-STUDIO/dp/B005LXKBW8/ref=sr_1_2?s=musical-instruments&ie=UTF8&qid=1503762922&sr=1-2&keywords=Behringer+Hps5000
Audio-Technica ATH-M40X: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Audio-Technica-ATH-M40X-Professional-Headphones-Black/dp/B00HVLUR54/ref=sr_1_1?s=musical-instruments&ie=UTF8&qid=1503762997&sr=1-1&keywords=Audio-Technica+ATH-M40X
An Introduction to Film (Bordwell & Thompson): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Film-Art-Introduction-McGraw-Hill-International/dp/0071140735/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_14_t_2?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=YRHYARB7YQBTZB2NNC3Q
The Screenwriters Bible (David Trottier): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Screenwriters-Bible-6th-David-Trottier/dp/1935247107/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503763383&sr=1-1&keywords=screenwriters+bible
In the Blink of an Eye (Walter Murch): https://www.amazon.co.uk/BLINK-EYE-NEW-EDN-Perspective/dp/1879505622/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503763396&sr=1-1&keywords=in+the+blink+of+an+eye+walter+murch
Directing: Film Techniques & Aesthetics (Rabinger & Hurbis-Cherrier): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Directing-Techniques-Aesthetics-Michael-Rabiger/dp/0240800117/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503763419&sr=1-2&keywords=Directing%3A+Film+Techniques+%26+Aesthetics
Motion Picture and Video Lighting (Blain Brown): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Motion-Picture-Video-Lighting-Blain/dp/0240802497/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503763439&sr=1-2&keywords=Motion+Picture+and+Video+Lighting