Monday, December 15, 2008 • 12:00 AM Comments ()

The Media Knack and How to Get It

posted by Larry Hott

Up until ten years ago I used to get a phone call every week from aspiring filmmakers or parents of aspiring filmmakers (or were they aspiring to be parents of filmmakers?) asking me if their talented son or daughter should go to film school to become another Spielberg or Lucas or Scorcese. Or, they asked, can one learn to make films on one’s own. In other words, how do you become a filmmaker?

I used to spend a lot of time explaining what I knew about film school (I never went to one) and what I knew about making it as a filmmaker without any formal training. But I don’t have to spend much time doing that anymore. It seems that most aspirants and their parents have already made up their minds. Going to film school wins hands down, even for kids who don’t want to be filmmakers. I’m not the only one who noticed this trend. In March, 2005 the New York Times published a now-famous article about the phenomenon with the provocative head line “Is a Cinema Studies Degree the New M.B.A.?”

The article quoted students who knew that the odds of getting a decent-paying film job were stacked against them. According to the Times, there are only 15,000 or so jobs for film producers and directors in the US, meaning that there are only a few openings a year. So why study film? Because, the Times said, film school “is beginning to attract those who believe that cinema isn’t so much a profession as the professional language of the future.”

The future, we’ve been told ad nauseum, won’t include much written language; media literacy translates into motion picture literacy, not the mastery of sentence structure and rhetoric. Of course, that’s nonsense, at least for the people who actually make the films, if not the ones who sit in stupefaction watching them. Although I never studied film formally, I have taught it many times at several different kinds of schools. I’ve learned this: students who actually have a shot at surviving in the field as creators of the films, not as technicians, are the ones who know how to write a treatment and a proposal, let alone a coherent script. No matter how good they are at lighting, shooting, and editing, they will rarely be the ones in control if they don’t know how to write (and have something worthwhile to say, based on their quality humanities education, one hopes).

This may seem obvious in the feature world, where the written script determines the staging and dialogue, but what about the documentary, especially the ones without a narrator? Aren’t these just a clever compilation of talking heads, sound bites, images and music? They sure are, but the clever part doesn’t happen by accident.

Here’s a specific example. In our recent film “Through Deaf Eyes,” a two-hour documentary about the history of deaf life in America, we interviewed over fifty people, some for as long as two hours. Each interview was transcribed; a one-hour interview comes out to about twenty pages of single-space type. (In the end we had more than a thousand pages to peruse.) We then read each transcript, mark the “selects,” i.e. the takes we want to try, and create files of the selects by subject matter. Then the fun begins.

Whatever script or treatment we started with was just to give us a guide while filming. Once we have the real material in hand it is time to put aside the make believe documents and work with the real words and images we have in hand. We begin to write, not with our own words, but with the language of our interviewees. Although there is no right order, there are wrong ones; orders that don’t work because they violate the laws of good narrative structure. So if one talking head is telling the story of Alexander Graham Bell’s leadership of the eugenics movement, the next talking head needs to connect to that theme and move the story forward to the eugenics movement’s impact on sign language repression. And the whole section needs to be grounded in chronology, or at least some logical sequence, or the viewer will be confused, then bored, then watching another channel.

Watching is the watchword here. Filmmaking is about writing, but it’s not the same as the written word. I have had several well-known and successful radio producers tell me that making the transition to producing documentaries for television was one of the more terrifying experiences in their professional lives. In radio, especially on NPR and PRI shows, good writing is heightened by sound effects, music, and excellent sound mixing. But when these radio producers add in images, they are dumbstruck by the extra time involved to get something ready to air. We were working in two dimensions, they would tell me, but television adds a third, the image, and that multiplies the complexity by several powers.

Does this mean that filmmaking has its own language, with unique rules of grammar and construction? Writers of film criticism would have you think so and they’re often well-paid, tenured professors, so who am I to question their authority? And if film has a language, can you pick it up on the street or do you have to learn it at the feet of masters? Regardless of whether you study film in school or pick it up on your own does it lead to a more satisfying, self-actualized life free of blemishes, relationship problems, and indigestion? Of course it does, why do you think I’m such a happy guy? So do you need to go to school to learn how to make films? No, but it’s a good excuse to go to graduate school and it sounds a lot cooler than saying you’re getting an MBA.

The Times quoted one film student as saying that his film major was “a way to learn about power structures and how individuals influence one another.” As a definition of media literacy that’s not bad.

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