Cutting School
Colleges Strive to Stay Current with New Technology
by Debra Kaufman

Chapman University's new Lawrence and Kristina Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. Photo courtesy of Chapman University

At the University Film and Video Association’s (UFVA) annual conference, held this year in early August at Chapman University in Orange California, chairs, deans and professors from film and television programs, departments and schools across the nation gathered to discuss the challenges of teaching film and television skills to undergraduates and graduates.

Keeping up with constantly changing, ever-more-expensive technology emerg-ed as one of the biggest of those challenges. With the advent of High Definition and other high-resolution formats, schools and colleges are weighing the pros and cons of creating entirely new workflows––from cameras to editing and finishing systems.
“Ten years ago, we were talking about convergence and I think we’ve converged,” says Rob Sabal, film production teacher/former chair of the Department of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College in Boston. “We had talked about the importance digital media would have on our industry and in the educational institutions, and now that’s evident everywhere. Part of the way you see it is in the building that Chapman designed and built.”

Emerson College's Ron Sabal

Chapman University, which just opened the doors to its gleaming new Lawrence and Kristina Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, was a clear example of what it takes to be on the cutting edge. A three-story building housing two soundstages, a Foley pit, a motion capture studio and a state-of-the-art screening room equipped with a Kinoton 35mm projector and Barco DLP 90 Digital Cinema projector, the new College of Film and Media Arts cost $40 million to build, $11 million of that in new equipment.

That includes 136 workstations, 129 of which are loaded with Avid Media Composer, two Avid Nitris systems and five Avid Adrenalines––all of which are networked via an Avid Isis with 128 Tb of storage. The workstations also run Assimilate Scratch, a digital intermediate (DI) software. The facility features a Spirit 4K, which enables students to shoot on 35mm and scan it (usually at 2K) to begin the post-production process.

“We’ve tried to replicate what’s increasingly become the workflow, which is the DI process,” says Bob Bassett, dean of Chapman’s Dodge College. He also notes that the planning process for the new building took four years––and initially was going to be Standard Definition-based (SD).

Chapman University's Bob Bassett

And yet, even for Chapman, staying current with technology is a moving target. How long until Bassett believes the sparkling new college will lose its razor-sharp cutting edge? “About ten minutes,” he shrugs philosophically.

Not every college has the kind of funding to create a state-of-the-art facility (Chapman relied on a consortium of Orange County, California businesspeople). Indeed, most film schools are homes to older equipment, supplemented by carefully chosen, newer gear. Fritz E. Gerald, post-production supervisor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts/Kanbar Institute of Film, Television & New Media, understands that well. The NYU institute has approximately 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students, making it one of the bigger programs in the country. “All of our students direct a fairly significant number of productions, so we handle thousands of projects every year,” says Gerald. “It’s high-volume, and we provide a lot of support with on-site tech support staff in addition to post-production support staff and student workers.”

His post-production department not only supports the production classes for the entire school but also offers specialized editing classes for students to get more direct hands-on aesthetic and technical support. “Most students come here wanting to direct,” says Gerald. “Certainly by the junior year, it breaks up and you find students who want to be cinematographers, editors or producers.”

NYU’s film institute supports post-production with 60 Final Cut Pro workstations. At the sophomore level, however, when students shoot five films, they use Steenbecks. “A lot of students aren’t sure they want to use the Steenbecks, and they complain,” Gerald reports. “But many of the tenured teachers feel there’s a value to doing it that way.” The Steenbecks may not be there forever; Gerald reports that, within the next year or two, class will most likely switch to digital editing. As it is, intermediate and advanced classes use 20 Avid XpressPro systems, nine Avid Adrenalines and two Avid Symphonies.

The editing lab of Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Media. Photo courtesy of Chapman University

The Steenbecks at NYU are a symbol of a basic philosophy of many film/TV schools. “We’re not a vocational school,” points out Gerald. “We’re teaching storytelling, and we always keep that at the core. Having said that, it’s hard to consider yourself one of the top film schools in the country if you’re not in the ballgame with what the rest of the industry is doing.”

There’s a push-pull between honoring the basic, time-honored tools of filmmaking with an emphasis on storytelling, and the drive to mirror, in technology, what the industry is doing. Though these schools are academic, not vocational, they all want to teach their students the skills they’ll need in the film and television industry. At the same time, however, film/TV schools can’t provide the nearly unlimited resources of a community of post-production facilities, and they’re constrained by annual budgets, not free-market economics.

Columbia College’s Film and Video Department is the biggest film school “by a long way,” at 2,200 undergraduates and graduates, according to chair Bruce Sheridan. “We have to deal with volume much more than in the professional world,” he notes. “Our students need to have access to editing. There’s a huge demand on storage and network access.”

In addition to 130 editing workstations, of which about 80 are Avid and the balance Final Cut Pro, the school also owns a telecine to transfer 16mm film, and added an Avid Symphony Nitris system to allow students to online uncompressed HD and SD and do basic color correction.

Columbia College's Bruce Sheridan

Sheridan notes that everything is networked together at the school, which means a student who is editing can log into the network from any workstation. “Our mantra is that we model professional practice,” says Sheridan. “We accept that we’re an educational environment. We do have to stop and teach. But we model how professionals work all the time. After four years in school, people should be at where they’d be after four years of working in the industry.”

But schools acknowledge that keeping on the leading edge in an academic environment bears little resemblance to the real world of post-production. “Of course there’s a pressure to stay on the cutting edge, but it’s impossible to keep up,” says Norman Hollyn, visiting professor/head of the editing track at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television. “Running a production film program is incredibly expensive. For example, we can’t afford to jump into high-definition video (HDV). It’s a huge, huge expense to change our post to accommodate that and then, in another two years, move on to another format.

“We’re USC and people think we have humongous amounts of money,” continues Hollyn, who is a Guild member as well as an occasional contributor to this magazine. “But we never have enough money because we have to accommodate a huge number of students. We’re continually balancing what’s good for the students in terms of learning technology––so they’re equipped when they walk out the door––and what we can afford.”

Smaller programs have the same issues with staying on top of technology. At Howard University’s Department of Radio, TV and Film in Washington, DC, chair Sonja Williams is proud of the fact that, because the department is smaller, classes top out at 15 students, giving them more access to professors and professionals. ProTools, Avid XpressPro and Final Cut Pro are the tools, with plans to bring in After Effects soon. Williams notes, however, that it isn’t easy to justify purchasing new equipment. “Like other film schools, enrollments have been increasing, but the budgets are either decreasing or staying the same,” she says. “We have been able to increase our resources incrementally. But at the same time, it’s been hard to be able to consistently do it, because the money just isn’t there.”

NYU's Fritz Gerald

All of these challenges have come into play as film/TV schools make their transitions to High Definition. Schools are now making their plans to offer students a chance to be hands-on with HD cameras and HD editing equipment. “We’re planning on it,” says Williams. “The good thing about HD technology is that the costs are coming down. But the bad thing is that if you’re going to switch, you have to switch everything. Or, in the case of Avid, we’d have to upgrade. But we know it’s the way of the industry.”
At Emerson, “We’re not super-early adopters; we’ve waited a little bit for the market to sort out the format differences,” says Sabal. “We usually buy a few prototypes, test them out, figure out what will work and then make a decision for integrating new technology into the curriculum. That’s what we did when we transitioned from editing on Steenbecks to nonlinear editing.”

Switching to HD has similar implications even at the biggest film/TV schools. “We’re not a film company,” says Columbia College’s Sheri-dan. “We have to make the pedagogical argument and how HD relates to learning, which is different than just making my film look good.” Sheridan points out that he has to pick formats carefully, so as not to invest in “half-generations” of formats that require more development to be stable. “If you’re not careful, you get caught with a new camera that’s not going anywhere,” he says.

Wariness about transitioning to HD, however, is much more of an issue with regard to cameras than post. “Avid has been excellent in making its equipment sensible with what’s going on with the front end,” Sheridan says. “Avid doesn’t chase every format but gives you an ongoing dynamic ability to respond.”

The result is that film/TV schools often rent HD cameras, but find it easier and more cost effective to upgrade the in-house post process to HD. At USC, says Hollyn, “We’re not throwing everything to HD.” The school has bought two Sony F-900 HD-CAM cameras and recently purchased an Avid Symphony DS Nitris. “We have HD for two reasons,” he says. “One, because it’s now becoming accepted in the feature and television world, and we want to give our students that experience. Second, the students are asking for it.” He reports that more than 50 percent of students’ thesis films are now shooting and finishing in HD.

USC Campus. Photo by Gregory Schwartz

“We’ve been dabbling with HD and we’re going in deeper this year,” says NYU’s Gerald, who notes that students in advanced TV courses are the ones using these tools. “Part of what we’re doing for the next year is upgrading two of the Avid Adrenalines to HD capability. We’re gearing up to handle HD and looking at some possible in-house scanning system so we can do DIs in house.”

Adding digital intermediate capabilities is another goal at many film/TV schools. At Chapman University, the 4K Spirit, Assimilate Scratch seats and data-based network mimics the professional world’s DI workflow. Sheridan reports that he, with several student workers, made a short film with Steppenwolf Films that later got into the Los Angeles International Film Festival. “We did it to verify the best way to do a DI,” he recounts. “We shot in Super-16mm, did the DI at i^3 in Chicago and went out to a 35mm print. We established our DI route. Although we haven’t put a full 2K DI system in, we’re using professional work as a method to develop strategies based on our own experiences.”

A close relationship with equipment manufacturers also gives film/TV schools a big boost in keeping current. “We worked very closely with JVC to create a camera,” says Sheridan. “Our attitude is that we have a perfect research and development environment because we’re working with people who want to push the technology. Manufacturers work with us to do just that.”

“We’ve gotten wonderful support from Avid,” agrees Williams. “They have sent us professionals in the field who meet with students or lecture about the editing process and what it takes to work on major films. They also do one-on-ones in terms of looking at students’ films and offering critique.” Hollyn credits “great partnerships with Apple, Avid, Sony” with “helping us in ways to get to another level of technology.”

USC's Norman Hollyn, photo by Gregory Schwartz

But keeping up with technology takes a second-row seat at most film/TV schools. All film/TV schools put the emphasis on storytelling, and each school devises curricula that sets it apart from the competition. At Howard, for example, Williams points out that they approach the medium “with some kind of social consciousness, focusing on issues of social concerns. Students take classes like Third World Cinema or African cinema,” she continues. “We try to get them to look at the world a little more intensely in terms of film and TV history and development. There’s more focus on issues that are important not just to the black community, but to people of color around the world.”

Sabal points out that Emerson, as a communication-based school, is “really oriented towards developing communication practitioners. The department is marked by the level of collaboration that exists across all the different classes and concentrations,” he says.

At numerous schools, a differentiating factor is individual faculty members, including a well-known editor or two, offering students the chance to work closely with someone who has already been successful in his or her craft.

Howard University's Sonja Williams, photo by Kerry-Ann Hamilton/Howard University

All film/TV teachers agree that the main thing they are teaching has very little to do with the particular tools of film and TV. “We all know the technology will continue to change,” says Emerson’s Sabal. “So it is important for students to have the facility to self-educate while they have a foundation in storytelling and aesthetics that will sustain them throughout their careers.”

For USC’s Hollyn, the educational experience for would-be editors is to develop skills that help them “think like an editor.” “The way we teach editing now has to do with understanding what the script is about, to be able to identify whose story or stories it is, and to identify the arc of each of these stories,” he says. “I call it ‘palpable’ teaching, with the language I use and how we emphasize and teach these things in most of the editing classes.”

Because of his experience as an editor, Hollyn says, “I don’t analyze every scene because it’s built into me. That ability is not built into the students yet, but with our curricula, they can then begin to think like that. When students come out of those classes, they have a language with which to talk to the director, so they’ll be thinking along the same path.

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