Learning the Ropes

February 1st, 2005 Film, Film Features, Filmink

Looking at the quality of work, students and ideas Australia’s film training community produces every year, it’s hard to believe the industry is in such a rut.

When you take into account our population and the size of our industry, few national film industries have had more of an impact on world cinema than Australia. In the worlds of Kim Dalton, Chief Executive of the AFC; ‘The Australian film industry has grown over the last 25 or 30 years in absolute disproportion to the size of our industry and the size of our marketplace.’

Before our Russ or our Nic made most Australians realise that our countrymen could succeed in the US film industry, names like Dean Semler, Russell Mulcahy and George Miller were well and truly established.

But now things are rough, what do we do about our film education system? Give up on it? Fund it better? Or change the curriculum. Just who deserves to sit in the thinking spot?

Girls Just Wanna Have Funds

Is there enough spent on screen education? Jacinta Walpole runs the National Student Film & Video Festival out of the University of Sydney, and she sees a gap.

‘Practical training is something most metro institutions do well and rural/regional places struggle with,’ she says. ‘They tend to have less government funding, or the type of courses that don’t attract higher international upfront fees. That means older equipment and smaller salaries for staff.’

I asked Walpole how much more (if any) we should be investing in our film industry. ‘A great deal more — as much as we do for sport.’

‘More is always welcome,’ agrees Malcolm Long, director of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, ‘the key though is that it’s targeted. The number of people who are doing one media production course or another in Australia is huge. Over thirty universities in Australia have some kind of course in those activites. And to me, the key to effective public investment is highly targeted investment for acquisition of high-end skills that are of direct relevance to screen production.’

The Theory of Relativity

Of course, there’s training and there’s training. You can sit around discussing Truffaut or Stanislavski or you can have someone teach you how to take a camera, point and shoot. To Malcolm Long, that’s what AFTRS is all about — and what the industry needs.

‘I’ve been very keen since I’ve been at the school to make sure our courses are based on the real industry, and there are a lot of mechanisms — like an advisory and industry liaison — to make sure that happens. It’s crucial. Without that, we’re not doing our job.

‘It’s important that there’s a link between education and industries. We’re building more and more courses which are a hybrid of working in the industry and studying at the school so people get a sort of high level apprenticeship.’

Steve Pasvolsky knows the Australian screen education process pretty well. A graduate of AFTRS, his student film, Inja, was nominated for an Oscar, and he’s the writer/director behind the much-anticipated Deck Dogz. To Pasvolsky, practical training is not only crucial, it can counteract the theory entirely.

‘Practical training is the only way you can learn,’ he says, ‘by making mistakes on set, or directing yourself into a corner and then directing out again. Directing is so organic that any theory has to be adapted on set anyway, and the light, set, crew or actors can render a rule or technique you’ve theorised over useless.’

Aside from the practical versus theoretical training, there’s another distinction we have to make between types of training and how we fund them, according to Malcolm Long.

‘It’s important to make the distinction between general education in the media and training talented individuals to become senior artists,’ he says, ‘and I don’t think that distinction is discussed or thought through enough in our institutions. Some money must be made available to those who clearly show potential to go to the top of their field.’

Train on the Job

Then there’s the question; is screen education necessary at all? We all went to school, then went to work and realised that school taught us to read and write but couldn’t possibly prepare us for the pressures of the real world.

There’s no training like being at the coalface, so how effective can screen teaching be (especially when cinema is one of those art forms that constantly reinvents itself and throws the rule book out the window)?

According to Jacinta Walpole, training makes a very real difference. ‘Industry training provides networking opportunities,’ she says, ‘which is what the film industry is all about.’

And in an industry where DIY is easier said than done, Steve Pasvolsky thinks it’s as close as you’ll ever get to the real thing only better.

‘My training was one of the most fantastic experiences of my filmmaking life,’ he recalls. ‘It was all practical on-set training. You learn by doing. They provide equipment and support that you could only gain with a fully funded AFC short or a rich uncle. Training takes fundraising out of the equation and puts the focus firmly on making films.’

The Matrix Effect

One thing that’s changing the way we educate the next generation is the influx of big budget US films to our shores.

In the early nineties, the only thing most Australian knew about a blue screen was from the Star Wars Making Of’ video, and the thought of major film studios all around the country seemed as likely as that frizzy redhead from BMX Bandits being a major star.

Now, if Australian filmmakers want gainful employment, they need to learn the finer points of digital editing and CGI. And it’s the unenviable job of our schools and colleges to keep up.

Malcolm Long is acutely aware of not getting stuck behind the eight ball. ‘That’s one of our constant challenges,’ he confirms, ‘and that’s why the school — to be true about it — costs the taxpayer a lot of money. Unlike perhaps universities, a lot of our resources go into making sure our students are working on industry contemporary software and hardware.

‘We also do a lot of work within the industry at production companies, upgrading the skills within those companies, and to do that we’ve got to have the gear here and allow people to come here and do that work in a technologically contemporaneous environment.’

The Missing

There’s one thing everybody agrees is lacking in the education sector; something which may just account for difficulty the industry is in right now. If we’re going through growing pains from trying to make the shift from quaint cottage industry to self-sufficient, wide-scale and creatively interesting employer, we need to learn how to close the deal.

‘There’s such quality work being produced,’ says Jacinta Walpole, ‘but currently the film industry doesn’t connect with emerging filmmakers in a streamlined way. There needs to be real entry-level opportunities for students who are winning awards. Schools like AFTRS and VCA are well connected, but other schools don’t get the opportunities as they should because they aren’t in NSW or Victoria.’

Malcolm Long explains further. ‘One area we want to concentrate on is the acquisition of screen business skills; input that can help people become truly effective is input that contributes to their sustainability and goes beyond this project-by-project environment.

‘There should be some ability to lay off risk between projects let filmmakers build on their successes (and failures) and still be in the industry instead of waiting on tables.

So the moral of the story is that with some of the best facilities, and having turned out some of the best film people in the world, you can learn anything in Australian film schools and colleges. We just need to learn how to make the best of it.

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