So You Want to Be a Filmmaker

Is it time in your life to consider a career direction – and you just can’t the idea of filmmaking out of your head? Perhaps it is a recent producer (Thomas Langmann), director (Michel Hazanavicius) or cinematographer (Robert Richardson) who won at the 2012 Oscars (for The Artist, The Artist and Hugo, respectively) who inspires you. Or, you are a natural storyteller and feel drawn to the power of film on an instinctive level.

If that is the case, what do you have to do to get there? says a few things about training to be a filmmaker, including the following:

1. “Filmmaking is not rocket science. Everything about filmmaking is extremely easy to learn. Anyone can do it if they wish.”

2. “The challenge is filmmaking requires learning a huge number of skills. Each skill is easy to learn but the number of things you must learn is huge. If you want to be an independent filmmaker, you must learn the equivalent of 20 different careers. Even if you are a fast learner, it can take you years to learn everything.”

3. Filmmaking is intrinsically a hands-on experience, so long-distance education even if it’s WebEx video conferencing, cannot replace the feel of being there.

That should be both encouraging and instructive. An education in the art is almost certainly required. So the next question is where to get that education? Is a four-year university degree required? Can filmmaking and related skills (cinematography, directing, producing, screenwriting, etc.) be learned in a technical-school environment without trying to earn a bachelor’s degree?

For better or worse, there are many options to choose from. Consider whether the university or arts school environment – as well as the physical location and costs – matter to you most. Here are some thoughts on the topic of film schools:

• University film schools or arts academies? There are many “name” universities that have a filmmaking program (U. of Arizona, UCLA, USC, Northwestern, City University of New York, Columbia University, and many others), while other schools have a clearer focus on arts and entertainment (Berkeley Digital Film Institute, New York Film Academy, California Institute of the Arts, Columbia College Hollywood, and others). What’s the difference? Some people want to study with non-arts people, while some prefer it the other way around. And some students’ parents insist they get a dual major with film in “something practical” such as accounting or teaching – not the most confident approach, but perhaps it won’t hurt to pursue one’s art with a broader worldview.

• Physical location of the film school. It goes without saying that film students will be shooting a lot of digital video on location as part of their study. The actual geography, people, architecture and weather of that location can be both backdrop and subject of their films. So the student might consider whether a rural, urban, desert or forested location provides them with the kinds of environment they would like to develop their skills in (certainly, a student could travel just about anywhere to shoot, but that would likely be at their own expense).

• Cost of the film school education. As a rule of thumb, a four-year university degree will be twice that of a two-year degree. Also, room and board fees generally follow the cost of living for anyone living in that particular city or town. Columbia University, in New York City, charges $24,724 per year for students in their MFA program, plus an additional $16,200 for room and board. In contrast, the Colorado Film School, part of the Community College of Aurora, will cost a Colorado resident only $9,200 to achieve a two-year Associate’s degree ($28,900 for non-state residents).

Not everyone is going to be the next James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar, Aliens) or Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), although a handful of aspiring filmmakers studying the art today may well be. It’s important to know that filmmaking doesn’t begin and end at the Cineplex. People with any of the many skills associated with filmmaking can find work in commercial shoots, documentaries, corporate productions and in education, in addition to the plethora of jobs in the traditional film industry. With the value of video on the Internet, savvy marketers are employing short films to draw traffic, sell products and educate consumers. Even trial lawyers produce films (i.e., they do hire filmmakers, though you won’t using an ARRI) to make their case in front of judge and jury in large-ticket litigation.

Filmmaking always has and always will be an exciting career for those who love the medium and love to tell a good story. As Wikiversity says, it’s a challenge involving a huge number of easy-to-learn skills and yet it might take years to learn. But in case it looks like fun to you, you’re right. It is.

Update: Post with the assistance of New York Film Academy and