Archive for the ‘Principles & Productivity’ Category

Should I Get An MFA? : Pros & Cons from Someone Who Did

Monday, April 29th, 2013

I recently got a request from a filmmaker for advice on whether or not he should go back to school to get a master’s degree. As someone who did get an MFA and has both teaching and non-teaching work experience (that is, life making a living as a full-time maker) under my belt, I  thought I’d reply to the blog-o-sphere for others who are pondering the same decision:

I think the first question to ask yourself is this: why do you want a degree? If you just want to learn more about filmmaking or film studies, you could do yourself much better with a library card, a Netflix subscription, some free classes on iTunesU, and slaving away as a PA on a few productions. Better yet, take the amount you’d spend on tuition and spend that time in NYC and LA working–as a PA or in an agency mailroom–cultivating your network…or buy your own DSLR and make mistakes for free in your own proverbial backyard.

To my mind, there are two strong justifications to pursue a higher degree in Film:

1) It’s already paid for (i.e. you’ve gotten a fellowship or assistantship) and you can learn with the wonderful safety net that graduate school provides. (I do *not* recommend anyone go into debt more than the cost of an old, used car–no matter what the reputation of the school–for a film degree.)

2) It allows you to teach, which is a respectable way to support yourself as an artist, especially as someone who wants to make independent films, experimental work, or films with less-than-great commercial prospects.

If it’s the latter, then you must also consider that there are beaucoups of people out there who are unemployed holders of MFAs in film. Film teaching jobs are few and far between–just take a look at the listings on the Chronicle of Higher Education or the University Film and Video Association website to get sense of the scarcity. But, if you’re willing to live somewhere fairly off the grid (i.e. not in a big or even medium size city, relatively isolated from the industry and other filmmakers), then there are more positions that may have less competition. This can be a workable situation for the self-reliant or DIY type, especially if you make sure to travel several times a year to keep your inspiration levels up and industry ties strong. But, it can also be, well, depressing and frustrating. My requirements are that a job is too far off the grid if there’s not a post-production or equipment rental house within a 3-hour radius. For each person, that threshold is different.

More importantly, I think the best teachers are those who also make–people who are really doing it and have a lot to offer their students in terms of work experience, connections to your industry/field, and a real-world perspective. Anything less poses an ethical dilemma for me: if you can’t provide the above, why should students pay tuition to learn from you?

Another consideration for any would-be teacher is that teaching is more than a clock-in/clock-out commitment. While teaching, I more often than not put in above and beyond the 40 hours/week in terms of committee meetings, university and community service, advising, endless emails, etc., on top of my course teaching load. It’s work that follows you home, unlike, say, a kind of survival job where you can punch your time card. On the other hand, summers are free for making your own work and the flexible schedule is tough to beat!

Teaching at a research-oriented institution is the ideal job, as it carries the smallest teaching load and encourages (expects, actually!) a high degree of research productivity, which for you translates into filmmaking. And some of your best students may actually be people you want to have collaborate with you on your work. These full-time positions, however, are also the rarest and most competitive. It will be expected that you have made one or more films with a certain level of success (e.g. strong festival run, distribution, critical praise, etc.), have a positive reputation in the industry (e.g. demonstrated by awards, grants, professional organizations, or other acknowledgement), and previous teaching experience. Of course, there are all kinds of schools: liberal arts colleges, typically with a strong emphasis on teaching and student relationships; community colleges, who usually emphasis both teaching and community service; for-profit schools and film programs (which I don’t have any first-hand experience with); and part-time teaching positions.

Adjuncting is fairly common for new MFAs, but the pay is rarely great and usually does not carry any fringe benefits, such as health care. That said, I know many a freelance film producer and writer/director who use adjunct classes and part-time lecturing as a way to have some sort of stable income while spending the bulk of their time as makers.

It’s also worth saying that there are folks who do teach without an MFA. Guest lectureships, artist visits, workshops both at universities and community organizations often pay successful filmmakers to share their knowledge in short or long-term capacities. I’ve had a few of these gigs and they are usually a lot of fun but were never enough to sustain me in and of themselves. After a certain level of success, though, it’s not unheard of for a filmmaker to become a professor without an MFA at all…but we all can imagine those odds.

So, to sum up:

 Why Getting an MFA/Teaching is a Good Idea: 

  • Stable income without selling your soul.
  • Great schedule.
  • Intellectual and creative freedom for the kind of work you make without as much commercial pressure as full-time filmmaking or freelancing.
  • Helping shape the future of the industry.

 Why Getting an MFA/Teaching is a Not-So-Good Idea: 

  • Highly competitive, especially for desirable cities/schools.
  • Lots of responsibilities beyond teaching for full-time positions.
  • You need to be a maker before you become a teacher. And teaching will take time away from making.

If after all this, you want to take the back-to-school plunge, then I recommend you check out these previous posts from the blog. They will give you a good start on the advice we’d give about looking for a film program:

So You Wanna Go to Film School Part I 

So You Wanna Go to Film School Part II

A Creative Producing Storm

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Our blog has been silent over the past few months, but don’t let that fool you–we’ve been busier than ever! In this short span, Paul and I began work as managing producers for a new film production company dedicated to producing feature films in the American South (more on that soon); one of Paul’s scripts was selected for IFP’s No Borders Co-Production Market; and I spent a week at the Sundance Institute‘s Creative Producing Lab and Summit as the 2012-13 Sheila C. Johnson Creative Producing Fellow. Oh, and we’ve also been filming a feature film!

More than anything, it’s been a time of growth and change as creative producers, so I wanted to share a few gems I heard at the Lab & Summit on this under-appreciated role :

“You have to the calming center [for the production] …but you’re also the punching bag for everyone.” –Lynette Howell, on the paradox of a creative producer’s role.

“Producing is the credit that everyone wants and that no one values.” –Anne Carey, on the constant struggle to define and protect producing credits.

“We’re like cockroaches. When the nuclear blast hits and we have to eat plaster, we eat plaster.” –Christine Vachon, on how she and her company, Killer Films, have stayed in the business for so long.

P.S. For even more of a love song to creative producers, check out this video, called “The Unsung Hero of Indie Filmmaking” made by the Institute.

DIY Catering Part II: 4 Easy Ways to Go Green(er)

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

A few posts ago, I shared the first part of this series of tips on DIY Film Catering. (To read about 5 Essential Catering Tools under $50, go here.) This time, I focus on the seemingly impossible task of making a film with a small environmental footprint–there always seem to be compromises for the sake of convenience, time, or the other kind of green (money). While it’s not always easiest or cheapest to take the eco-option, I have found four simple ways to keep our film catering a little bit greener without taking up too much time or cash:

1. Use Recycled Paper Plates + Compostable or Metal Flatwear: When faced with on-the-go shooting days, rustic or outdoor locations, recycled compostable plates and compostable corn-based flatware make clean-up easy and more affordable than you might think. Even Sam’s carries 100% recycled, chlorine-free plates these days, so this “green” step can be nearly as cheap and convenient as using their plastic and styrofoam counterparts.

When we find ourselves in a semi-equipped location (i.e. an indoor location, especially one with a kitchen), I’ll bring metal flatware, which cast and crew place in a plastic bin at the end of meals and I throw into a dishwasher that night for the next day. Caterer style stainless steel flatware sets can be had for cheap — and, in the long run, are much more cost-effective than the environmentally-friendly disposable kind: They will last a lifetime!

Finally, if disposable coffee cups are a must for your set, opt for something like Chinet’s Comfort Cups or Dixie’s Vanity Fair Cups which paper-based and have recyclable plastic lids. Again, these are found at most major retailers and are less evil than their styrofoam versions.

 

2. Require BYO-Bottles &  Provide A Refill Station: Our film sets are BYO-water bottle for all crew. I also keep a few extra stainless steel bottles on hand for talent, PAs, and the inevitable forgotten bottles. Having designated, labeled bottles helps to cut down on waste–no more unidentified, half-drunk plastic bottles lying around! And I’ve found that many crew will keep their bottles attached to their belt loops with a carabiner. This constant access equals more hydration and less fatigue on set.

I recommend stainless steel over plastic since (a) you can avoid the whole BPA issue, (b) they are less likely to develop odors/bacteria, and (c) they can go through the dishwasher. You could even have some specially printed for your crew to keep as mementos from the shoot! (If you really want to go all out, you can get hot/cold insulated ones that will keep water cold and coffee hot and that don’t “sweat” with condensation.)

Secondly, part of our BYOB system includes a refillable 2-gallon Brita Filter water dispenser to provide fresh, tasty water on set, using any available tap, without contributing at all to the world’s bottled water dilemma.

 

3. Use Aluminum Food Prep Containers: Any Costco or Sam’s can set you up with the industrial strength, catering style disposable aluminum pans. Because they are so heavy duty, you can actually use them several times (but don’t put them in the dishwasher–they will turn brown!). Unlike glass casseroles, they won’t break and unlike plastic they won’t retain odor from other foods. They are great for transporting and storing cold food or you can also use them to heat hot food, either in the oven or using a sterno-catering setup on set. Best of all, you can recycle them at the end!

 

4. Keep Trash & Recycling Bins on Set: It can be a pain, at times, to provide both trash AND recycling bins but I just can’t stand the waste on film sets. Even with our BYO-Bottle system, caffeine can create lots of waste on set. So, I make an effort to buy all sodas in aluminum (since it can be recycled many more times than plastic and without the toxicity) and recycle those at the end of each shoot day. If this seems like too much of a hassle, try using something like the Flings pop-up recycle bin and trash can–these are reusable, much more portable than traditional bins, and they might just make it easy enough for you and your crew to go greener!

 

At Self-Reliant Film, we believe that the way you make something shapes what that thing is. So, while recycling on set or using biodegradable products might seem like a low priority, especially when working with budgets where every cent counts, we think even these small decisions can shape the work we’re making. We want the stories in our films to be responsible (i.e. to tell uncommon stories with integrity and respect for the region where we make and set our work) and we believe a big part of that responsibility begins with how we treat the set, our crew, and the environment that makes it all possible in the first place.

If you have other easy ways to keep film sets more eco-conscious, we’d love to hear about it. Please share in the comments!

 

Rest In Peace, Steve Jobs

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.

I remember January 6, 1984 like it was yesterday: My dad and sister went to an electronics store and brought home our first VCR. My mom and I went to one of Knoxville’s only computer stores and brought home our first computer, an Apple IIe.

Like so many filmmakers, my life been shaped by the fusion, the intermingling, and the collision of the motion picture with the personal computer. That I was introduced to both of these on the same day — on Epiphany, no less — is so “poetic” that it’d be a cliche if you read it in a story or saw it in a movie. But that’s the way it happened, honest.

More than any other person that I can think of, Steve Jobs is responsible for bringing together motion pictures and the computer. Jobs’ influence on both fields would be hard to overstate.

For me personally, Jobs’ life work — that is, the things he made or had a hand in making — directly led to me pursuing my life’s work, work that is, for me, the kind he spoke of in his commencement address at Stanford, quoted above.

So it seems appropriate at this moment — on the day of his passing — to say, “Thank you, Mr. Jobs, and rest in peace.”

Here’s one more quote from that 2005 commencement speech:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

How to Build a Lens Collection

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

Today I was reading a camera discussion forum in which someone asked how to build a lens collection on a budget. He was looking for Nikon lenses to use on a Sony NEX-FS100 camera. I could relate — I was in his position in 2006 when I started to look for Nikon glass to be used on video cameras with a Letus, on the Red One, and so on. I hadn’t purchased a lens since my senior year in high school (for my venerable Pentax K-1000), and I knew only the most basic things to look for.

Since then I’ve built up a nice collection of Nikon lenses, which now work on a host of cameras. I love my Nikons and have no regrets!

So what follows are some very basic tips I’ve learned on how to build a lens collection. I make a few allusions to Nikons vis-a-vis the NEX-FS100 below, but my advice could just as easily be interpolated for someone buying Canon lenses for the Red Epic or a Panasonic AF-100.

Nikons © Csaveanu from Flickr

1) Determine your needs. Obviously, you need to think about what kind of coverage you want. Even if you primarily shoot wide angle footage, you probably also want a normal and a telephoto lens in your bag. But only you know your tastes.
Likewise, only you know your budget. You’re going to be keeping this in mind as you build a list and prioritize your needs.

But beyond these things, there are other considerations:

What cameras now and in the future, might you use these lenses on? Do your lenses need to be full-frame to be future-proof? Must they have aperture rings? I prefer having aperture rings on my lenses because I sometimes have to use “dumb” adapters (i.e., those that can’t control aperture).

Since I was working with a very limited budget, for me, the most important question when I began building my collection was whether to go for primes or zooms. I primarily would be using these lenses to shoot narrative work so I opted for primes; if I was shooting a documentary, I’d want a good zoom lens (if I was shooting with the NEX-FS100, would actually just get the Sony kit lens since autofocus is nice to have in a pinch).

The thing to remember about zooms intended for still lenses is that they are often not parfocal, which means that they don’t hold focus across the zoom. (Some are. You have to test to find out.) To me, a non-parfocal zoom negates at least part of the purpose of having a zoom, so that’s another reason I went with primes.

2) Familiarize yourself with the lenses that are out there. Researching Nikons, I visited sites like Photozone and those by Bjorn Rorslett (go to the LENSES page and then dig deep into his reviews, especially the “Best of” page) or Ken Rockwell. Different people trust different reviewers (some people HATE Ken Rockwell, for example). But the point is this: When all the websites praise a lens, that’s a pretty good sign of a winner.

I’m obsessive, so I prefer to make lists and tables of all the lenses I’m considering. It helps me keep track of what I’ve looked at, the (dis)advantages of each, and the price.

3) Read reviews, but with a grain of salt. Remember that if you’re only going to use lenses for video, you don’t have to fret about their resolving power nearly as much. A lens intended for full frame negative film or a 16MP digital camera must resolve far more detail than you’ll ever get out of HD or even 4K video. For example, many lens testers worry about blurring in the corners; you don’t have to worry about this quite as much since using a full frame lens on a Super35 sensor means you’re using the sweetest spot of the lens.

Having said all of this, I do think you should buy the best lenses you can afford. Like microphones, and unlike video cameras, they tend to hold their value for much longer. In 20 years we may be shooting with cameras that capture 8K footage… and it’s possible I could still be using my Nikons.

4) Test. Try out the lenses you’re considering, especially if they’re pricey. Assuming you don’t have a friend who happens to have all the Nikons ever made, your two best options for testing are a) visit a fantastic photo store in your area and try out the lenses or, if you don’t have a great photo store (I don’t), b) rent the lenses. I’ve saved a lot of money by spending a few bucks to rent a bunch of lenses and then buying the one that I actually like. (I have happily used and endorse LensRentals.com. I have received no promotional consideration for that endorsement.)

Your basic lens collection. These are Canons.

5) Buy used (if possible) and buy smartly (always).

Start by finding out the going price for a used lenses by visiting KEH and the going rate for a new version on B+H or Adorama.

If KEH has the lens, and you have the money, buy a lens from them — they grade their lenses very fairly and have a great return policy. (Again, I’ve received nothing from them for this endorsement.)

If they don’t have it, or it’s too pricey, go for one on buy on Ebay, keeping the KEH prices in mind. If you’re going for AI-S lenses you can get GREAT bargains on Ebay since many photographers, needing autofocus, consider these obsolete lenses. When buying on Ebay all the usual cautions apply. Make sure the seller has fantastic ratings and that the photos clearly show the quality of the lens. Only bid on the lenses that look pristine.

Whatever you do, don’t overpay! If a lens on Ebay starts approaching anything close to its price on KEH, just get it on KEH and be done with it. The return policy will be far better than the risks you take with an Ebay seller. Or wait for another auction.

6) Watch for warning signs and, if necessary, seek help. I say this jokingly, but building a lens collection can be addictive fun — and can distract you from the real purpose of building a collection, which is to go out and film! Don’t say you weren’t warned.

If you have other tips or disagree with any of the above, share in the comments below.