14 hours of student films

As regular readers might have noted, my posts over the last few weeks have really dwindled. There are good reasons for this, as I’ve been phenomenally busy.

One of the many reasons is that I was overseeing the production of Temple‘s annual student film festival. I had never organized something of this scale (31 short films, jurors from London and L.A., closing awards ceremony to feed 200 people, etc). Luckily, I had a group of six student volunteers, all of whom did a fantastic job.

I thought about writing a long post about how to organize something like this, but I assume there are better resources on the internet by people more experienced in film festival management. Instead, I’ll just offer one piece of advice to student (or beginning) filmmakers, which I was reminded of while we put the fest together:

If you’re interested in being a filmmaker, volunteer to be a pre-screener for a film festival.

By my estimation, the student volunteers and I watched over 100 short films in one 14 hour stretch to select the films that would screen in the festival. They chose the work; I mainly voted in tie-breaker situations.

What was really amazing for me was not watching the work itself. It was watching the students watch the work.

The students making the selections want to be filmmakers themselves, and I think they probably learned as much about filmmaking from those 14 hours as they did from any single course they’ve taken. Why? Because they saw more bad films than good ones and, seeing them in such close succession, they saw that bad films often have the same, simple problems:

– Too long. Comedies and documentaries are especially guilty of this. The docs are too long because the filmmakers haven’t yet found their story or they’re in love with their footage. The comedies… well, you know that saying, “brevity is the soul of wit”? Shakespeare knew what he was talking about. A comedy that overstays its welcome isn’t, well, a comedy.

– Bad sound. So what if a film looks great? If we can’t hear the dialogue we don’t care. The first moment the students heard that a piece had bad sound, they’d cry “Next!”

– Underwriting and overacting. The saddest of the movies with these problems were those that looked phenomenal. Sad, because time should have been spent on re-writing and rehearsal instead of production design. Sad, because so much money had been spent.

This isn’t meant as a slam on student filmmakers. They’re learning the ropes and, honestly, you can run into the first and third problems in any kind of film — Hollywood, “independent”, foreign, etc.

My point is that there’s something about seeing the problems back to back for hours on end — as well as having to make choices about what stays and goes, and learning to articulate the reasons — that is specific to the film festival selection process. It’s a phenomenal chance for developing filmmakers to think about what makes a film “work.”

What did the films that were selected have in common? Not much. They were a diverse group. But all had a simple, engaging story, technical proficiency, and a least a little style.

So much time in film school is spent watching “great works” and talking about what to do. (I am guilty of this as a teacher myself.) Conversely, so little is spent talking about what not to do. I guarantee that the students that sat through those 14 hours will make better films now. And maybe I will too.

22 Responses to “14 hours of student films”

  1. Agnes Says:

    From one festival programmer to you and your budding programmers…Amen! Now, imagine sifting through Sundance’s 4000 submissions for how many slots is it now – 200? So many people think they will premiere there but it’s simply too easy to move on to the next. Dreams are fantastic but being realistic about a films’ potential is just common sense.

  2. Phil Kahn Says:

    Boy howdy.

    The only other experience I’ve had at Temple that matches that sort of educational experience (specifically, seeing what doesn’t work and learning not to do it) was Paul Sylbert’s lecture course. He showed us all the major works he did production design for, including Kramer vs Kramer (with which he won an Oscar for Production Design). With the exception of a select few of the films we watched, the rest were pretty damned awful. After the credits rolled he would look at us, smile, and ask “Now… what was wrong with that movie?”

    Being a part of that screening process was gruelling. Even though I was four hours late. But Paul’s 100% right. We took a lot away from it, without even knowing it. That’s how you should educate people on making movies. Show them what doesn’t work. Because you can watch Battleship Potemkin 90 times and talk about how amazing it is/was, but people just don’t make movies like that anymore.

    But I digress. The festival experience was a pleasure, even if I didn’t do nearly as much as Paul would have you believe.

    – Phil Kahn
    (6th of 6 Student Festival Committee People)

  3. Jason Scott Says:

    “you can run into the first and third problems in any kind of film — Hollywood, “independent”, foreign, etc.”

    You can run into the second problem too! I don’t condemn movies for having bad sound, but I realize the winnowing had to happen somewhere.

    The question is….

    Did you make it clear that the films had to have clear sound and/or clear shots? Was that in the rules or mentioned somewhere? Otherwise, you’re applying rules the students didn’t know they had to follow.

    Oh, sure, they SHOULD know, but so what, you’re a teacher. The question is if an explicit rule at the bottom of the form (“unclear shots/muddled sound may be a factor in the decisionmaking process”) might inspire a student/filmmaker to take one more round of looks at his work, and tune a few more buttons.

  4. Paul Says:

    Students are (or should be) taught how to achieve good audio. Implicit in that teaching is the notion that “good sound” is a necessity.

    I guess I think that a student is in bigger trouble than he thinks as a filmmaker if he has to be explicitly told something like “sound should be intelligible” when submitting to a film festival.

  5. Jason Scott Says:

    Well, then we have a limited number of situations going on if the students are submitting films that, out of hand, are causing the evaluators to dismiss the film.

    1. The students are not learning the lessons being taught them, and are not able to hear that their sound quality is sub-par/unintelligible, and are therefore submitting stuff they think is acceptable but in the “real world” or “final evaluation” are not.

    2. The students are not being taught by their teachers properly how important sound quality is to production, along with pacing and story, and were not told, as I was in school, that audio is the majority of what people react to in a film’s showing and that you should be able to get the majority of what’s going on in a film by shutting your eyes.

    3. The evaluators are applying some sort of Super-Secret set of arbitrary standards, in their own little cabal, that they are then applying to these hapless films and rejecting or accepting them based on them.

    Clearly stating the importance of the sound and diction in a film in the submission guidelines, or that there should be special attention paid to these factors wbefore submitting, helps lessen the situation of #1, brings to the forefront the issues of #2, and hopefully cuts down on #3.

  6. Paul Says:

    Interesting points, but there are two other things worth noting:

    First, people (not just students) submit films with lousy sound to film festivals all the time. I don’t know if these people can’t “hear” the bad sound, or if they simply think no one else will notice it. But ask anyone that pre-screens for festivals.

    Secondly, you’ve ignored the possibility of the careless and/or lazy student. I can say from experience that I have taught students in video production courses that they should fundamentally:

    a) use external microphones and
    b) monitor their sound using over-the-ear headphones (not earbuds).

    Then I’ll see a project in a class critique and inevitably at least one will have lousy sound. It’ll have refrigerator noise, wind noise, you’ll hear the servo in the zoom lens working, whatever, you name it. And the dialogue will be unintelligible.

    After the piece is over, in the critique, I’ll ask:

    ME: Did you use an external microphone?
    STUDENT: No.
    ME: Why not?
    STUDENT: I was in a hurry.
    ME: Did you *hear* the sound you were getting with your headphones?
    STUDENT: No.
    ME: Why not?
    STUDENT: I left them at home.

    This happens to me, it happens to my colleagues, and students see this all the time. We call them slackers. Still, they submit their work to festivals.

    In the end, ANY film festival has to discriminate if they’re not going to show everything that is submitted (and these days most fests get far more than they can screen). As a result, they make selections based on their tastes, prejudices, judgements, etc.

    What I would imagine is common of almost ALL festivals, though, is the very basic assumption that a film/video should have the most basic technical proficiency. I’m not talking about Hollywood-style production value. (Anyone who reads this website regularly knows that’s not where I’m coming from.) I can only speak for myself (and report on how I saw six undergraduate college students select films. For me/them it meant: intelligible sound and images that are in focus more often than not. If the most basic elements of film are distracting you from the content/style of the piece, well, why would you want to screen for an audience a work that’s so self-defeating?

    Still, your third point did have me laughing.

  7. Jason Scott Says:

    It has you laughing but it certainly doesn’t have me laughing. I have been in plenty of situations, in film and outside film, where the door closes, the cigarettes light up, and then it turns out that what was really wanted was films showcasing the plight of minorities. Or women. Or about relationships. And nobody outside the room knew that.

    I hate that stuff with a passion.

    I agree about the possibility of the lazy/incompetent student. However, the phrasing of your entry made it sound (maybe I misread or the linking was unclear) that you had films that looked “great’ or otherwise showed high production values on the part of the student, with sub-par sound. I agree that if the whole thing is borscht, then it’s borscht. But lopsided production values point to a failure in the learning process.

    Oh, now I remember why I hate film people.

  8. Phil Kahn Says:

    There were a few films that made the final cut that the sound wasn’t the best it could be, and neither were the visuals. But it’s a rare instance, that I’ve seen, where the content of the piece is still strong enough that one can ignore the technical issues.

    But, yes. Generally speaking, if the sound sucked, we hit the eject button.

  9. Phil Kahn Says:

    Additionally, we were luck to avoid a scenario like #3. The student committee we made up contained a really diverse group of folks, each with their own “agendas,” if by agenda we can mean “mindset on what constitutes as good/important.” We had a lot of disagreements on a lot of pieces, and I was grateful for that. Having a lot of different perspectives in our group meant we were able to assemble a show that best showcased our university’s student body of film makers, as we strived to have a diverse yet thoroughly riveting show.

    In the end, the audience was the true judge of the content. And so far I’ve heard nothing but positive reactions from them, and other faculty members.

  10. Paul Says:

    Wow. Who knew saying, “Have good sound” could inspire such debate?

  11. Anthony Says:

    Interesting the criticism of cutting movies for bad sound when I doubt the same would be said about cutting movies because the picture was out of focus all the time. I don’t think anyone needs to make specific public statements like “we need to hear and understand the dialogue” as a rule for disqualification as much as no one has to say that “if all your shots are out of focus, you won’t make the cut” either. Crappy production values are crappy production values and crap gets cut.

  12. Jason Scott Says:

    I disagree, Anthony.

    There are plenty of movies where the picture is “out of focus” or the image is unintelligible, because the artist/director is trying to accomplish something off the wall.

    We are talking about an astoundingly subjective art form, and there’s a lot of times that I’ve seen where two different value systems collide when someone’s hard work meets someone else’s judging agenda.

    These days, I don’t even try and submit my stuff to festivals. I just sell it.

  13. Paul Says:

    Whether it’s David Lynch “whacking” the lens in Mulholland Drive or the experiments of Leighton Pierce, or whatever… I agree, there’s definitely a place for breaking the so-called “rules” of filmmaking.

    Still, Jason, I don’t understand your beef with Anthony’s comments about production values. On your own blog you mention the issues you’ve had with some footage you recently shot:

    “Boom mike in shot. Grating sound in background I didn’t notice. Strange behavior by interview subject. Interview subject stopping saying something really informative and jettisoned off into a tangent and never went back. Camera shook. Camera white balance was sucko. Out of focus. Me showing up in reflections or as shadow.”

    Why would you note these issues if there is not “good” footage and “bad” footage, at least relative to a filmmaker’s objectives?

  14. Jason Scott Says:

    First of all, you’re quoting me out of context, but fine, we’ll go from there.

    I have my own internal standards on my work, and I enlist a number of people in a close circle who validate/verify my works for a number of issues before I consider something complete. That is my story. But I am also 35 and coming at this process different than a student.

    That aside, I have had people who have watched stuff that has gone through my machine, my set of filters and friends, and declared it crap. They’ve also declared it excellent. It is very arbitrary, very subjective.

    Anthony is saying there is an objective standard in film. I am not agreeing.

    The issue I am bringing up and mostly being debated is whether there should be a statement of quality in a film festival’s submission guidelines. I say that it can’t hurt, especially if stated clearly. Apparently others think that it doesn’t, that students should just “know”. I, personally, hate that shit.

    It is the equivalent of “appropriate attire required” at the bottom of a club flyer. Does it remove the subjectivity of who gets in, or not? No, no, the people running the show get to play king all they want. This little line, however, makes most people think a couple seconds about what they’re putting on, whether to go for the non-creased shirt or the clean shoes. It’s a little something, it hurts nothing. This is what I mean.

  15. Paul Says:

    I didn’t mean to take you out of context. For those that are interested, the post can be found in its entirety here:

    http://ascii.textfiles.com/archives/000229.html

    As for the festival submission guidelines criteria, I do think it’s an interesting point and I agree that it can’t hurt.

  16. nathan mcginty Says:

    Film festivals are a strange thing. I’ve run one and also had my work shown at some of the biggies.

    I know it’s frustrating to submit something and not get in – but I think a lot of filmmakers don’t take the time to learn about the festivals they’re submitting to.

    You could have the best Post-Apocolyptic Zombie Ninja Robot movie ever and you’re not going to get into the Gay and Lesbian International FF or the Women in Film Festival, etc. They’re not looking to screen Post-Apocolyptic Zombie Ninja Robot movies. Unless you put a gay person (or robot) in there. That’s another matter entirely.

  17. Jason Scott Says:

    Totally agreed, Nathan. If people have a film they’ve finished, the absolute desperation of the creators for anyone, anywhere, to get some attention to them means they’ll do the equivalent of spamming across anything that has a 9×9′ screen somewhere in a building somewhere. Anything they can do to get more eyeballs. And often, they just kick-drop into entirely inappropriate places, totally against theme, and do so on the slightest chance someone will accept it and they’ll get in.

    That said, I’ve also seen a lot of festivals with absolutely this-side-of-scam setups. I recall one in Western Massachusetts that literately said, on the form, that you will be informed of your entry’s acceptance BY THE PUBLISHING OF THE SCHEDULE OF THE FEST ONE WEEK IN ADVANCE. Sorry, that’s just poor.

    But the “everyone’s scamming everyone else” thing, that is, the inherent scumminess of this business and artform, is a slight tangent from what I believe we’re talking about, which is first-time or student filmmakers. These guys need a little slack.

    If someone’s on film 5 and they still aren’t spending a little more time tweaking knobs in Final Cut before showing it off or asking their actors to do a little dub session for a few critical lines, yeah, I can see paddling their butts. But where the standards are not clear on both sides, I strongly dislike needless misunderstandings and middle-of-darkness decisions.

  18. Phil Kahn Says:

    I still purport the idea of a “standardized” idea of good/bad audio/visual, especially as a student of film myself. You gotta learn the rules before you can break them.

    While I agree that intentional focus blurring and audio distortion can produce great effects in films, there’s still a sense of what works and what does not work that, I feel, is intuitive in filmmakers. Also, I believe we can intuit when these things are or are not intentional.

  19. Daniel Kremer Says:

    I submitted a documentary of mine to the Diamond Festival. I had been itching for sometime to take a camera back to my hometown of Pittsburgh to capture the “tumultuous Heinz ketchup argument” for which my parents have become known, and to at least adequalely analyze this immense fear that I had of returning home after being away. I guess you could say I wanted to make my own ITALIANAMERICAN.

    One of the problems of the piece was indeed sound, as my father has a tendency to mumble and slur his words together and slur them quietly. While he may have been giving me gold (a stirring confession he made to me while he was driving a car), I had to cut certain parts because you just could not hear him. Even the parts remaining of him in the film you had to strain to hear a little bit…but these are conditions I just had to tolerate, grit my teeth and bear.

    Some (but not too many) elements of technical competency had to be forsaken for the sake of just being there with my little GL1 and capturing everything I was able to capture. However, the parts of “straining audio” in this circumstance, as opposed per se to a more stylized work, offered to the film a flavor (that flavor being the idea of a film student returning home with, to my mother’s chagrin, a suitcase full of dirty laundry and a movie camera…nothing more, nothing less). To judge a film on sound/visual cannot be standardized, and it is foolish in my belief to perpetrate this approach to judging a film. The technical judgment of a piece must be passed on a case-by-case basis. 1) What is the piece’s objective?, 2) Does the “poor sound” get in the way of accomplishing this objective? and 3) Is there a special reason why it should not pigeonhole the abilities of the film to accomplish the objective?

  20. Daniel Kremer Says:

    Also, upon talking to Henry Jaglom (he is a very technically lenient director), you might discover that he uses often obtrusive sound(s) to create this sense of heightened reality. If an overriding airplane flies over the scene or an annoying tapping is ever-present in the background, he will leave it in the final cut because 1) Looping or post-production dubbing will alter the “real” (very important to him) and 2) These sounds are real. This, I admit, is a stylized approach to bad sound, but they do indeed exist.

  21. Tom Quinn Says:

    much of this comes down to the difference between an aesthetic choice which supports the film in some way and ‘mistakes’ due to lack of understanding, laziness, poor gear, etc.

    My first film had terrible audio. It was distracting. It was because i had no idea what i was doing and had to learn as I went.

    Last year, in school, we watched a student film by a now well-known filmmaker and the boom dipped in. The professor pointed out how the film was being ‘reflexive’ and breaking the third wall. However, the overall production quality was pretty low and it was obvious to the class that the boom dipping in was a mistake.

    In the end, things will come down to taste regardless of how many points the festival puts in its paperwork. Also, the reality is that we can’t process poor audio the way we can a ‘poor’ image. It is distracting because of how audio perception works. If it is not having another postive effect on the film experience I can’t see why you would argue it. but i guess i’m just dragging this argument out….

  22. (The agony of ) 14 hours of student films at FresHDV Says:

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