Reboot: On the Future of Film Schools

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Holly Willis explains what film schools need to explore to stay relevant  in the future. 

Look around. Films are moving steadily from theaters and DVD players onto computers and cell phones. While they continue to infiltrate galleries and museums as what installation artist Doug Aitken calls “broken screen narratives,” we also see them in Web-based projects that create new interfaces for storytelling and in dynamic generative projects. Locative storytelling tells tales using mobile devices, and crowd-sourced films, like the Life in a Day YouTube project recently produced by Ridley Scott, cobble together stories from disparate sources. Looking just slightly into the future, advances in pervasive computing, 3D imaging, augmented reality and gestural interfaces all point to a world that asks us to interact with stories, information and each other in very different ways.

The language of filmmaking is also shifting — how we talk about new media and transmedia, about crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding, about pre-vis and pitch-vis and world-building. We’re also seeing dramatic changes in storytelling formats, and we have access to an increasing array of virtual and Web-based tools. As a result, both film production workflows and films themselves are becoming increasingly nonlinear, distributed and networked.

Several terms are used to help describe these shifts. Henry Jenkins, a professor of media and communication studies at the University of Southern California, likes the terms “transmedia” and “convergence,” which describe the ways in which formerly separate media entities are being connected. For author Frank Rose, the key word is “immersion,” which he explores in great detail with numerous case studies in his terrific new book The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories. According to Rose, viewers who deftly — or distractedly — juggle a dozen digital tasks, connect with friends via rampant text messaging and cheerfully scatter personal information across the Web don’t seek complete, linear stories anymore but total immersion in hyper-connected worlds. Thanks to the Internet, he says, “a new type of narrative is emerging — one that’s told through many media at once in a way that’s nonlinear, that’s participatory and often game-like, and that’s designed, above all, to be immersive.”

If convergence, participation and immersion are key, and if movies no longer necessarily embody the 90-minute, three-act structure we all know and love, what then should we be teaching in film schools? As we witness a dismantling of cinema and a dispersal of screens, stories, performers and viewers, all of which are reconsidered and re-mobilized toward new ends for a new culture using new tools, how do we re-imagine both storytelling and modes for teaching it?

I was invited to talk about these ideas in August 2011, when the University Film and Video Association dedicated its summer conference to “The Future of Film Education.” I’d already been grappling with the impact of new paradigms at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, where I participate in a committee that has the somewhat grandiose title “Envisioning the Future Group.” It was founded two years ago precisely to investigate whether we’re teaching the right things, and if we’re teaching them the right way. In preparation for the UFVA talk, I spoke with several colleagues about their film programs across the country, asking how they imagine the future, and how programs and teaching methods might be changing. Are transmedia, convergence and immersion part of the curriculum? What about Webisodes, locative stories and generative storytelling?

Many of the people I spoke with are in the process of devising strategic courses, creating innovative collaborations, or aligning with different partners to help connect students with real world activities. Some are having students at the graduate level make feature films, and others are integrating learning across multiple, formerly disparate areas. And some are thinking specifically about transmedia, with special seminars or courses dedicated to Webisodes and mobile content. However, I did not find a broad and transformative vision for film education that prepares students for a future characterized by convergence, immersion and transmedia, or for film production workflows that are poised to be transformed through practices such as pre-visualization or world-building, motion capture or visual effects.

Indeed, from these conversations, it was clear that there were two main perspectives from those ensconced on various campuses. First, many of the people I spoke with insisted that the fundamentals of storytelling haven’t changed for centuries and that if you can tell a story well, you’ll figure out how to do that across various platforms as they come and go; trying to keep up with all the different tools, given the rapid pace of change, is basically a waste of time.

The second model says that, especially in the current economy, we need to train students for jobs in the industry. Those students who leave film school with lofty ideas about writing and directing need to understand the realities of the industry and be prepared to work with the very specialized tools and technologies currently in use. This kind of education risks becoming instrumental, but attends to the basic need students face to be employable when they leave their programs.

Both approaches have their merit, certainly. And every film program is different, serving different needs and different students, which makes comparisons, such as The Hollywood Reporter’s list of top film programs published last summer, very challenging. However, just as academia at large is struggling to comprehend and deal with the fundamental cultural shift around us, so, too, are film programs. To insist on the purity of storytelling and the necessity for specific job skills misses the bigger picture and ignores the fact that a new kind of culture requires new kinds of stories. The Art of Immersion captures the need for new thinking, as Rose claims, “Every new medium has given rise to a new form of narrative.” But isn’t it really that every new narrative gives rise to a new medium? We need tools to tell new stories for new times, and our stories right now reflect our culture: they’re fragmented, dispersed, remixed and remade. They’re networked and participatory and nonlinear.

And our film programs are not. At least, not yet. Looking beyond the confines of the campus to new directions in filmmaking, it’s clear that film schools need to grapple with four major ideas if they’re going to be relevant for the future. (Not coincidentally, these four ideas also align nicely with university education as a whole.)

The first idea is the evolution of the “new paradigm director” or “new paradigm creative,” which points to a person whose identity is not tied to a single media-making activity, but shifts and changes from project to project. Take Joss Whedon. He’s known for being one of the first Hollywood professionals to take the Internet seriously, first with a series of five short videos titled the R. Tam sessions, designed and released in 2005 as a marketing campaign for the TV show Firefly, as well as an online musical series about a goofy superhero, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, from 2007. He’s also, of course, known for his TV work, notably for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which he wrote and turned into a TV series, as well as for his work as a writer and director of feature films; he writes comic books, too, and has published books.

Some might argue that what makes Whedon so talented is his understanding of story. However, the real key to his brilliance is his sense of agility, and the ability to integrate narrative and specific media platforms.

Guillermo del Toro is another good example of the new paradigm creative. He works across a spectrum of activities as a director, producer, screenwriter, novelist and designer, and moves fluidly across the boundaries that normally divide these areas. He recently co-founded a company called Mirada in Los Angeles, in conjunction with his cinematographer, Guillermo Navarro, and Mathew Cullen and Javier Jimenez of Motion Theory, a company that began as a graphics house, moved into directing, and with the founding of Mirada, wants to create an entity that is adaptive and constantly in transformation.

Asked directly about film education for filmmakers of the future, Cullen says, “I think the filmmakers who are going to really stand out looking forward are the ones who are rooted in traditional storytelling but are completely in tune with technology.” He continues, “I think the filmmakers who will have the most success will have a keen understanding of how to leverage the Internet, [will] see the potential of an idea that other people aren’t paying attention to and understand the whole picture.”

The attention to the “whole picture” is echoed by the notion of world-building, a term used by production designer Alex McDowell to describe a new production workflow, which I would argue is the second key concept we need to understand for the future of film education.

McDowell uses his experience on Minority Report to illustrate how world-building functions: He and the film’s writer started to work on the project on the same day, and began their creative process with a simple brief from Steven Spielberg about an apparently benign near future that is revealed to be undermining basic civil liberties in a dangerous way. The challenge for both was to conjure a realistic vision of the future, something that reflected what we collectively imagine might be coming.

“I said, if there’s no script, let’s look at the global context of the story and start thinking about it that way,” McDowell explains. The team started with Washington, D.C., imagined in 2045 and from there extrapolated a story. What are the story drivers? And then what are the social and political drivers? Then they used an array of digital tools to create photo-realistic images of that world, basically visualizing the story before the story existed. While it was a practical necessity in having Spielberg sign off on things as they progressed — things that were not yet in a script — this creative period was also for McDowell a prototype for a new filmmaking process that focused first on context and only then on content, allowing the story to emerge from a very nonlinear workflow.

“By the time I came out of Minority Report,” says McDowell, “what was clear was that, by accident, we’d actually engaged in a pretty efficient piece of filmmaking. It was filmmaking that was using all sorts of techniques and social relationships within film production that had never really been used before.” McDowell poetically dubs this kind of filmmaking “sculpting in space.”

McDowell tries to illustrate this new production workflow — what he calls the “film design process” — with a mandala. “It’s a progressive, non-linear workflow adopting and adapting to a digitally-based process that is fundamentally changing our industry,” he asserts.

USC MOTION CAPTURE STUDIO PHOTO COURTESY OF USC SCHOOL OF CINEMATIC ARTS.

If world-building is changing our industry, so are performance capture and virtual camera moves. USC’s School of Cinematic Arts is lucky enough to have a 46-camera Vicon System for performance capture, and thinking about its potential is enough to carve a new fold into your brain. The system consists of an array of cameras placed on a grid around the perimeter of a large, high-ceilinged room. In the middle of the room is a gray square marked on the carpeted floor, which designates the “volume” that can be captured by the camera array. Performers clothed in black suits with reflective markers perform inside the volume, and their actions are captured from 46 different perspectives. This information is fed into a computer, where it can be used to have the performer appear to be something else — an animated dinosaur, for example. In this case, the performer “drives” another character, which can maneuver through a virtual environment, or the performance can be stored and later placed in a sequence. In either case, at a later point the material can be “navigated” by a virtual camera by walking through the volume with a screen. The camera moves can be explored, practiced and repeated until the right “shot” has been crafted.

“In live action, when we’re shooting, we’re typically directing performance, lighting, make-up, camera work and all the other crafts simultaneously,” explains Eric Furie, who is both a Digital Systems Specialist and the instructor for a performance capture class at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. “Here, we’re breaking those components down and we can treat each one individually. The directing component can be more like directing in the theater; the volume is essentially a black box theater. The lighting can be changed later, as can the make-up. If I want to include the camera perspective at the same time as a reference — and there are benefits to doing that as most actors like to know where the camera is — I can do that. But there’s nothing to prevent me from coming in after I’ve recorded the performance and ‘shooting’ the scene thousands of times over until I get the shot that I want.”

Furie goes on to explain that motion capture essentially merges production practices, animation techniques and interactive design. “It steals from each and feeds back into each,” he says. The key, though? “The workflow ends up being very, very different.” He concludes, “This is a game-changer. It’s a totally new paradigm.”

Chris Edwards agrees that we’re witnessing a paradigm shift. The founder of an L.A.-based company called The Third Floor, Edwards and his team have developed a streamlined pre-visualization process quickly gaining acceptance in the industry, and it represents the fourth idea that educators need to address.

Pre-vis was recently defined by the ASC-ADG-VES Joint Technology Subcommittee as “a collaborative process that generates preliminary versions of shots or sequences, predominantly using 3D animation tools and a virtual environment.” The definition explains that pre-vis “enables filmmakers to visually explore creative ideas, plan technical solutions, and communicate a shared vision for efficient production.” As costs rise, pre-vis becomes increasingly compelling, helping producers agree on a visual plan for a project before too much money has been spent. But it also plays havoc with what we understand to be traditional production roles.

To help make pre-vis less threatening, Edwards likens it to early storyboard art by Alfred Hitchcock, who used extensive drawings to help direct action-filled sequences in films such as The Birds and Psycho. The practice evolved so that filmmakers like George Lucas might create animatics, or test sequences of Jedi flights using Barbie and GI Joe dolls, just to get the feel for a sequence visually. There have also been story reels and what’s known as “rip-o-matics,” with ripped media clips standing in to illustrate the general gist of a sequence. While the practice in the past was generally restricted to action sequences, according to Edwards, “it’s becoming much more mainstream.”

The pre-vis process includes creating 3D assets, blocking basic camera moves and capturing possible shots. Edwards dubs all of this “shot design,” and says that the tools enable more collaboration. “Animators, filmmakers and game developers are all using the same digital tools, and this leads to increased collaboration and efficient transmedia production,” he explains. He says his team of 20 artists must be incredibly versatile in the use of new and emerging tools and yet also skilled in classical filmmaking. “They’re directors-in-training; they’re editors-in-training; they’re cinematographers-in-training; and they understand modeling and textures.”

The material generated in the pre-vis process ends up becoming “an animated blueprint or design document,” Edward explains. What is so significant, however, is that this material begins to establish not only the visual look and feel of a film as it’s derived from the concept art, but it also begins to craft the actual shots, the cutting and even the audio. Parts of the film, then, are made before production actually begins. The entire workflow gets turned inside out.

“Virtual production is upon us,” insists Edwards, “and it will be a major influence. We’re moving toward a nonlinear workflow.” He concludes, “I’m hoping we can move toward a new generation of auteurs.”

Advocates for virtual production, visual effects, performance capture and world-building like to point to top box-office films from last year to bolster claims for the significance of these practices. Those box office leaders include Toy Story 3, Alice in Wonderland, Iron Man 2, How to Train Your Dragon, Shrek Forever After, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Tangled. Tron Legacy comes in at number 12. And The King’s Speech? That was number 18, which points to a significant problem. While the domination of the charts by effects-heavy and animated films is supposed to support the fact that we need to take these techniques seriously to score big audiences and profits, that’s exactly the wrong approach! What would happen if instead these tools were applied toward experiments in smart, compelling storytelling?

The new generation of auteurs that Edwards imagines needs to engage with these tools, turning them inside out, pushing them, re-configuring them and making them essentially tools to think with, tools for creativity, tools for crafting the kinds of stories that are relevant right now.

This, then, could be a role for film programs. The linear and time-based workflows of the last century are giving way to nonlinear processes echoing our current moment. Understanding the power wielded by whoever controls the production hub, whether it’s the production design team in world-building or the pre-vis team in an effects-driven film, is essential. Understanding the conceptual power of virtual production is similarly vital, as is being open to entirely new paradigms of creative expression. This all comes with a caveat, of course, articulated by many people working with these new tools. As McDowell asserts, “I believe the potential problem is making it about the technology and not about the content and the collaboration.”

Academia as a whole is struggling with the same issues in a different context. Taken broadly, advocates for reform of higher education insist that we need to rethink the linear and time-based educational models from the last century. We need new learning paradigms for a new generation of students. We need to recognize the significance of context over content in a world that’s changing at a faster pace and inundated with massive amounts of information. Calls for attention to systems-based thinking as a foundational literacy are rampant, and the role of informal and even game-based learning as a significant educational space for contemporary students is being assessed. Indeed, it seems that if film educators can both understand and articulate the conceptual shifts embodied by new forms of storytelling and emerging areas of film production, we’d have a lot to teach the rest of the university.t