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Different Ways of Learning

Across U.S. film schools this spring, a similar scene played out. The novel coronavirus went from faraway topic to urgent local threat. As rolling stay-at-home orders were issued, administrators shut down campuses, students scrambled for transport home and film departments quickly improvised online teaching methods that would allow instruction to continue even as students couldn’t attend classes and screenings in theaters or crew each other’s shoots in person. 

Three months later, we know much more about the coronavirus: its asymptomatic transmission, resistance to warm weather and ability to target multiple organ systems in the body. And with early, erratically applied mitigation efforts—quarantines, social distancing, business shutdowns—having failed to stop the virus, the United States now enters what science writer Ed Yong in The Atlantic called “a patchwork pandemic,” a succession of sprawling hot spots in the months ahead. Given that the spread of the virus, and the ability of our nation’s political and health officials to strategize against it, are so unpredictable, universities and colleges have had to plan for a fall 2020 semester that will look a lot different than last year’s. As the statements included in Filmmaker’s accompanying film school guide attest, a variety of different strategies are being used to adapt the film school experience to the world of COVID-19. Hybrid teaching, synchronous and asynchronous classes, changes in semester scheduling, shifts in course work and much more are being developed. In many cases, instructors are learning new skills to adapt to a more online, socially distanced environment. 

But with Zoom use near-ubiquitous, what stops film schools in 2020 from becoming just souped-up online courses? How can the signature aspects of a film school education—not just lectures and classes but community, access to equipment, production and guidance on entering the workplace (or getting one’s feature made)—be maintained in such a radically altered environment? A number of professors, all filmmakers or creators, spoke about lessons already learned and the ways film schools are changing in this strange post-coronavirus, pre-vaccine year ahead.

Filmmaker Elisabeth Subrin (A Woman, A Part; Shulie) is an associate professor at Temple University’s School of Theater, Film and Media Arts. While on a Fulbright scholarship in Paris, she was teaching at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Arts de Paris-Cergy: “The immediate challenge was sourcing all the films I had curated into the syllabus as [President Emmanuel] Macron shut down the schools so abruptly that we weren’t able to get the films I ordered out of the library before they closed,” she said. “I was scrambling to find them online or elsewhere. Ironically, as the world—and all film programs—went online, Chantal Akerman’s estate, controlled by her sister, started taking down any copies of her films from the web that happened to be available for free, right at the moment everyone could relate to a lockdowned camera.”

“The deeper challenge was the intense disruption for students,” she continued, “many of whom had to return to homes around the world and were also facing intense economic challenges—as they needed to work but couldn’t or had to take care of siblings and relatives. Many felt very emotionally isolated and also very scared. Navigating that, trying to provide a stable and supportive remote classroom, turned us all into educators/therapists.”

The U.S. State Department cancelled Fulbright scholarships worldwide on March 19 and ordered Americans to return home—“pretty much overnight,” said Subrin. Back in the States, Subrin said, “I was suddenly teaching with a six-hour time difference, so I had to come up with some ’asynchronous’ methods of teaching. I ended up creating podcast-style audio file lectures, so they could download at their convenience on their phones, as many didn’t have constant access to a computer, and we used Google Hangouts for group discussions.”

Veteran New York independent producer Tim Perell is the program director at Johns Hopkins University’s graduate program in film and media. Like others interviewed, he used the word “triage” to characterize the way he pivoted his creative-producing and line-producing classes to remote learning. But, he said, “we have to manufacture momentum as producers,” so the challenge of kickstarting a new process wasn’t alien: “Collaboration and community are such key parts [of the educational experience]. I found it helpful to break classes into smaller groups within the Zoom environment and to take more breaks—two or three within a three-hour class.”

Perell said it’s important for those who haven’t taught online before to be extra sensitive to how they’re using Zoom. “Not everyone enables their video,” he said. “I normally try to spend time looking at everyone to ’read the room,’ and that’s been a challenge. You can’t get a vibe of what’s happening with the students, and I’ve found that a real challenge, although not an insurmountable one.”

“We’re encouraged at Johns Hopkins, where there’s a rigor in the pedagogy and curriculum, to not just rely on Zoom and video formats,” Perell continued. He’d been using other platforms, too, such as Blackboard and Panopto, that allow students to record and share those recordings, creating a “more dynamic community environment outside of the classroom.”

“The hardest classes, of course, are the sound and production classes,” he continued. But this spring, Perell said, the attitude was, “We don’t need to get hung up on equipment. Let’s really focus on the fundamentals of storytelling and editing—what students can do with their phone and Adobe Creative Suite and Premiere.”

Immersive artist and filmmaker Gabo Arora, known for such seminal VR pieces as Clouds over Sidra and These Sleepless Nights, designs and leads the Immersive Storytelling and Emerging Technologies program at Johns Hopkins University’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. His course work includes instruction in 360-degree storytelling, as well as media theory, and the midsemester changes brought on by the pandemic made him think about the technology of teaching VR and XR (augmented reality)—as well as, like his colleague Perell, the nuances of instruction over online platforms. 

“I grew up in the 1990s,” he said, “and [at school] I’d always have that rambling but endearing philosophical lecturer. So, I’ll ramble and go off topic, but it’s impossible to do that in Zoom. In real life, you can go with the flow, but on Zoom, you have to be more structured. And you have to prepare in different ways; the stakes are much higher. Students set off these cues, like they’ll shut off their video. There are more indicators—that’s what digital platforms do, give you more feedback.” Zoom upsides, said Arora, include the platform’s chat function ability to allow more shy students to join a conversation they might abstain from in a live setting.

When Arora’s classes moved to online, he made some changes to his practice. “I made it mandatory, which I had never done before, that every other week every student had to get in touch with me for 30 minutes to talk about their original proposals and ideas,” he said. In terms of technology, for a creative technology production class, he found ways to use very simple screen-sharing and WebXR so that students building VR and XR prototypes could share their screens with the group, who’d then interact with their prototypes using a second device, like an iPhone or Android phone. He described one project where a student created a VR experience around a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, which took place in church and where fellow students could roam in the environment, put chairs in the space and generally participate in the build. 

In a way, said Arora, how he worked with students this fall isn’t so different from the professional practice he’s used to. “So many of my own productions have been remote,” he said. “The developer will be in L.A., the VR [technician] in Spain, the editor somewhere else. It’s 60 to 70 percent remote. You’ll do a one-week intensive together, then go back and work on the phone and internet doing builds, getting feedback and more one-week sprints. Going forward, teaching XR lends itself to this model. We can do something in a blended way if we can’t meet in person.

“Where it becomes more difficult and different,” he continues, “is with the serendipitous creativity/innovation/brainstorm thing. But I am more optimistic than most that you can still have those ’a-ha’ moments.”

Another JHU teacher who sees a congruence between his professional work and teaching online is composer Thomas Dolby, professor at the Peabody Institute, where he created the Music for New Media major in 2018. (The program schools students in composing for television, film, games and virtual reality.) Known for his electronics and keyboard work (“She Blinded Me with Science” was an early MTV hit), Dolby said, “[In my course,] we talk about scoring techniques, look at a piece of video, spot it, [students] go away and compose a cue. We come back together, look at what they’ve done and critique. Online lends itself pretty well for this: When I do one-on-one sessions with my students, I can share their screen, take control of their cursor, point things out.

“The sound is not great,” he continued, “so I can’t make judgments about the engineering aspects of what they’re doing. But as long as you use Zoom for something it’s great at, which is discussing, and don’t try to show high-quality audio and video in real time, you’re OK.” Dolby will prepare for class by uploading folders of clips for students to study before class, so they’ll be familiar with the high-quality version.

Dolby also pointed out that these processes mirror the direction of film scoring in the past decade: “The brunt of the work of scoring is done remotely with the composer in a studio videoconferencing with the director, then uploading files and sharing Pro Tools in real time.” 

“I was unprepared for it,” said Cathy Crane, associate professor, Media Arts, Sciences and Studies at Ithaca College, about the sudden shift to online learning. Crane said that while some colleagues embraced more asynchronous methods—prerecorded lectures available through an online portal—she stuck with synchronous meetings. “And that was good,” she said, “because it was regular contact with students who were all a bit shell-shocked, particularly my first-year students. Everyone was in the completion stage of the semester, and in production classes, that’s when all the creative work gets done.”

Crane said the second half of the spring 2020 semester became “a teaching opportunity” for both her and her students: “What can you do with limited resources? Well, what else can you possibly learn that’s better than that if you want to be an independent filmmaker?” The plan for Crane’s course in directing actors for film was for students to direct actors in three scenes from three previously published screenplays. With in-person classes and production curtailed, “I had to ’180’ the rest of the class,” said Crane, “and get out of ’technique’ and get into a more hybrid approach of working with nonactors. They ended up having to work with their family members, which was great.” Crane chose Sam Shepard’s play Far North and had each student choose a different scene and shoot it at home. The resulting scenes, she said, are “beautiful,” with students having to fashion their own production and sometimes metafictional techniques to solve creative issues—such as, in one scene, a student adding voiceover to explain that her mother didn’t know what to do in a scene. Connected, the scenes have an exquisite corpse quality; Crane said [that] this summer a “COVID feature version” of Far North is being edited, with all the scenes cut together. 

At NYU, another group of students produced an omnibus work while creating alone. Reported Barbara Schock, chair of Tisch’s graduate film program, first-year students used their quarantine to make 36 individual five-minute iPhone films about sheltering at home for what will be a long-form work, titled The Private Month. The finished films included a poignant mother/daughter tale, an absurdist nightmare horror film, and a diaristic tale of alienation and separation. Said Academic Director and Assistant Arts Professor Andrew Okpeaha Maclean, “The students were just a few days from starting to shoot their spring narrative shorts when the lockdown orders started to come down.” Coming up with new ideas, the students, said Maclean, “rose to the challenge of artistically responding to the situation.”

For Nathan Fitch, a part-time lecturer teaching production classes at The New School, the second half of the spring 2020 semester was also to include the production of a short film, the subject of which to be developed over spring break. Of course, students didn’t return from that spring break, and whatever films they may have been conceiving pre-COVID had to be reworked. The films Fitch’s students made were necessarily more handmade and more personal due to the quarantine conditions, he said. “While several students owned more expensive equipment, with students confined to home, an improvised approach—iPhones, DIY lighting setups, natural light, archival and found footage and various audio solutions—defined the production process,” Fitch wrote in an essay published on Filmmaker’s website. “For many students, the intensity of the moment seemed to have stripped away distractions and semester fatigue and increased the personal and political stakes of their narratives.” One of Fitch’s students, Brittney Allotey, documented the effect of the quarantine on her own obsessive-compulsive disorder in a short film set within her apartment. And “several students,” Fitch wrote, “created YouTube-style vlog films, intercutting moments from pre-coronavirus life and speaking with friends who are essential workers.”

In technical and below-the-line classes, teachers improvised ways around the Zoom format. For example, Schock said in an interview on the school’s website that for a sound design class, teacher and sound designer Ryan Billia “taught students to do foley at home with a simple recorder on a camera tripod. He showed them how to cue up everything they wanted in a scene: Play back from Avid, calling out a timecode marker and snapping their fingers for a sync point; and then act out whatever was needed. He showed them coffee mug grabs, clothing rustling, hand grabs, etc. After importing the audio back, they can hear the timecode and finger snap to sync audio!”

At USC, cinematography professor Bruce Finn, working without a production studio, created one in his home. School of Cinematic Arts professor Gail Katz told Deadline that Finn “has built all these miniature sets in his house, and he’s lecturing to the cinematography students. He’s got lights set up and everything, and he’s created various lectures with examples, instead of showing it on stage or in person.” For a USC course, titled “Straight to Series,” where students make four 10- to 12-minute episodes during a semester, production was initially curtailed, with just the final episode being staged through a table read. But, Katz told Deadline in May, “The table read was so good that we’ve decided to virtually produce the episode. The students and actors will be using Zoom, FaceTime, smartphones, green screen, visual effects and other technology. It will all be done using social distancing rules—for example, actors filming themselves—with all post [done remotely].”

One teaching method mentioned by multiple professors is increased use of guest lecturers, many drawn from schools’ alumni. Holly Willis, professor of cinematic arts at USC, who writes Filmmaker’s Extra Curricular column, said that schools in general found it easier to book speakers this spring. “It used to be that everyone is so busy,” she said. “But during the quarantine, everyone is just sitting at home and happy to Zoom in.” At Ithaca College, professor Mitch McCabe brought in directors like Robert Eggers and Jennifer Reeder. DP Roger Deakins guested at NYU. AFI had Rian Johnson and Edgar Wright. Most notable, photographer Gregory Crewdson, also the director of graduate studies in photography at the Yale School of Art, developed a program where artists, filmmakers, photographers and musicians engaged in conversation that was posted to the school’s YouTube channel and streamed on Instagram. His all-star lineup included Spike Jonze, Jim Jarmusch, William Eggleston, Ari Aster, Tilda Swinton and Catherine Opie.

Upcoming in 2020/21, said Schock, NYU is moving away from just asking well-known guests to do simple Q&As. “Guests on Zoom remain a wonderful resource, but we’re moving away from Q&As and asking for guest feedback and involvement with evaluations of what our students are doing.”

Also in the online sphere, on June 8 Filmmaker’s publisher IFP launched its IFP EDU program, a virtual internship. The program is realized with a group of partner schools—Colgate University, Columbia University, Lincoln University, The Ohio State University, Princeton University, Rhode Island School of Design, Rutgers University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Virginia—and uses a new “intern management platform,” Symba. In the program, the students participate in a series of master classes and receive one-on-one mentorship from industry leaders. The seven-week program introduces students to a different topic each week, from film production to distribution to festival strategy to PR.

With fall approaching, schools are taking lessons learned from the spring’s pivot to online and codifying them into best practices. At San Francisco State University, Britta Sjogren, professor of cinema, will return to the classroom after a sabbatical. The school will be nearly completely online and, Sjogren said, has put together “a really helpful online teaching lab class” for professors, which she’s taking. “I’ve been invigorated by this invitation to rethink how and why I teach,” she continued, “and to reorient course goals with fresh considerations. For example, for a melodrama class in which I normally give a short lecture at the beginning of class, show a film, give a longer lecture and then open up for discussion, I will be requiring them to have already seen the film prior to the synchronous part of the class—and will be providing short capsule recordings to introduce them to the film before viewing that they can access whenever. The lecture portion becomes more focused in this structure, and I can (presumably) rely on students to have already seen the film and done the readings, which should help them engage more fully with not only the presentation but with their own ideas about the film that they bring into the forum.”

Along with terms like “asynchronous” and “synchronous” teaching, another phrase you’ll hear in the coming year is “de-densifying classrooms.” When schools return to in-person teaching, whether that’s fall or later, it’s likely that, until a vaccine arrives, some forms of social distancing will be required. This will require schools to examine everything from their hallway size and building architecture to class scheduling. Schools are contemplating adding weekend or evening classes to reduce crowding during the day. And in schools where there will be face-to-face learning, many courses will remain online. Dolby, for example, said that because his course is easy to do online, it may remain there to “maximize use of physical space for ensembles and to keep classrooms as empty as possible so students can be spaced out and to leave time for cleaning.” Another de-densifying strategy in discussion at some schools is dividing classes in half, with one group live in the room with the others watching at home and then, for the next class, these groups reversed. 

One group that may not have ability to participate in face-to-face instruction, even if classrooms are open, is international students. “They’re one of our big concerns,” said Schock, “particularly, the incoming class. They can’t get visa appointments at their embassies because of the virus and travel restrictions, so they’re in limbo, and our continuing students who went home can’t get back into the country, so we’re providing fully remote attendance options this fall.”

Schools are also experimenting with the timing and lengths of semesters. For example, said, Schock, at NYU in 2020/21, “We’re also promising program extensions for students, to allow us to make up for the hands-on instruction we are currently unable to provide. The Provost is offering a summer term, tuition free, next year, and we’ll be offering classes in cinematography, directing, directing the actor and some editing and sound classes.”

That hands-on experience in production—as well as students’ abilities to make films more expansive than quarantine shorts—will be the challenge of many film schools going forward. With strict safety guidelines recently issued by SAG, IATSE and DGA, there are established protocols that the entire film industry, including student filmmakers, are figuring out how to adapt to. Regarding the quarantine shorts her NYU class did, Schock said, “They met the challenges of that process but also discovered that collaboration is the heart of filmmaking.” Accordingly, NYU is trying find ways to get students into production. “We’re hoping to get some equipment to them and allow them to shoot in small crews this fall,” she said, “following state/CDC safety guidelines. We’ll encourage students to make some modest five-minute films, adapted to work within COVID film industry safety guidelines. They were in some ways reluctant to embrace COVID restrictions in the beginning, but now they are realizing how creative they can be within the limitations. In any event, a few students working together, safely, in small student pods, suits our long-standing focus on smaller crews as a way to develop craft.”

If the lockdown persists, said Schock, “We’ve found a camp in Pennsylvania where we will send students later in the school year. We will quarantine them and ask them to adapt their first-year short film scripts so they will work within the confines of the buildings and outdoor areas of the camp. I’m not sure it will be necessary since we’re hoping for a vaccine by spring, but students love the idea—we’d probably get a horror film or two out of that experience!”

One thing professors noted about the spring is that the sudden shift to remote learning revealed inequities existing throughout the student body. There were students who didn’t have privacy at home or who had bad WiFi or who had to take care of a vulnerable family member. Said Sjogren, “Part of the mission of a large public university like SFSU is, of course, to redress what are often dramatic resource disparities within the student population—inequities mitigated when students view a film in class, research or write on a library computer, check out camera equipment, etc. The professors and administration here are absolutely committed to making sure all of our students get the best education regardless of their individual
circumstances. The unequal degree of access to tools needed to complete online classes that some individuals in our community face has come sharply into relief for faculty and administration in this new pedagogical context. It is sobering and upsetting and intensifies the pain of social injustices within our society. Should a student who can’t afford an iPhone or a laptop, or who does not have a separate room to work, have to put their academic progress on hold during a pandemic?”

Some schools are attempting to redress these problems through changes in the structure of their financial aid. As reported in Deadline, The Simpsons creator Matt Groening allowed monies he granted for fellowships to be redirected to help students in financial need with expenses like a new computer.

The pandemic, as well as the protests of this spring and summer, are prompting educators to rethink aspects of their syllabi. “With the convergence of all that is going on in our society right now, and the physical separation that can leave people feeling isolated or disempowered, it is more intensely pressing than ever to meet our students where they live and to make what we are studying relevant to the issues facing them when they turn off their computer,” said Sjogren. “In this light, I’m committed to reassessing across the board which films to present, how they will need to be contextualized and what kinds of assignments will engage students in a relevant way, regardless of course topic.”

The final concern that has come up in conversation with every professor is the need to create community when face-to-face interaction may be more limited. “Students are craving community,” said Schock, “and we’re going to attempt to provide that in small groupings. There are many ways to form a community.” Wrote Fitch, who’s in the midst of planning his courses for the fall, “One thing that I’ve been thinking about is how, without ever meeting in person, I can create an atmosphere for my students that is conducive to collaboration, community and trust. It will be a challenge but one that I’m looking forward to, if also kind of dreading.” Perell referenced the importance of the New York independent scene—the collaborations with various colleagues—to his own career when thinking about the ways his students can meaningfully interact and bond so as to carry their own professional relationships into the future. “Community is the essence,” he said. “How do you make sure those ties are connected so that they’re figuring out how to play and work together, so they can bring those skills out in the real world and not dehumanize the process? Everyone is trying to figure this out.”

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