Film school has long been the favoured launch pad for filmmakers. It’s where you gain your skills, knowledge, and connections. It’s also where you begin to make sense of the industry and where you fit in it. Going to film school is a statement: you’re not playing around.
Over its 24 years, the Film Production program at Vancouver Film School has made waves as the best place to learn the craft of filmmaking in a unique, intensive way.
Graduates include Karen Troubetzkoy and Derek Schreyer, the Creators/Executive Producers/Writers on CBC’s 18 to Life; Tim Whyte, an Assistant Director on TV’s Fringe; Cabral Rock, the Visual Effects Line Producer on Twilight: Eclipse; and long-time Kevin Smith collaborators, cinematographer David Klein and producer Scott Mosier.
Among the many options available to emerging filmmakers, the program has kept the pace – and often set it – for the level of equipment, software, and facilities students have access to over their year. But that’s not what makes it special, according to veteran cinematographer and Head of Department Don Hunter.
“We teach you to be the complete filmmaker,” he says from VFS’s Gastown studio (formerly known as Storyeum), which is playing host to the Studio Intensive – an immersive student-faculty exercise in large-scale set protocol.
“Some programs aim to create an independent, auteur filmmaker,” says professional Assistant Director and the Film program’s Production Supervisor Julia Courtenay. “Others aim to create a union member in a specific job category. I think what’s great about our program is that we cover all aspects; we blend the independent model and the studio model so [students] are really equipped for any level of professional life in film.”
Open to Discovery
From day one, students gain a hands-on, holistic education and become well-versed in on-set protocol, the value of team collaboration, and the five core disciplines of filmmaking: directing, cinematography, production design, producing, and post-production.
Halfway through the program, they also choose to specialize in two of those areas. That means a student could take his or her first steps in kicking off a career as a producer-director, production designer-cinematographer, or director-editor (to name a few possibilities).
Often, they discover a passion for an area of filmmaking they may have never considered. Recent graduate Karl Kimmel (pictured above) came into VFS with some competition and festival acclaim as a young filmmaker, but wasn’t sure of the path he wanted to take.
“I found that I really loved cinematography, which I didn’t know before,” he says. “That was something VFS showed me – how much fun it could be and all the nuances of it.”
Remaining open to this kind of discovery is one of the qualities Courtenay wants to instill in future students.
“A lot of people come in and say they want to direct, but they really don’t know what else is out there,” she says. “And there are great livings and great creativity to be had in many, many fields in filmmaking.” Those who come into the program with the sole focus of directing might be selling their other skills short, she suggests.
“There’s nothing you learn here that won’t help you, should you ultimately wind up as a director.”
Discipline and Focus
“Here in Vancouver, we run into a lot of people who came to this school and are now working in various parts of the industry, doing a whole variety of things,” says Hunter. “A lot of camera crew people, a lot of lighting people, grips, and a lot of producers and post-production people, for sure.” He explains that while directing might be the goal for many new filmmakers, “all you have to do is look at any shoot out there. There could be a crew of 300 people easily, but there’s only one director.”
That’s one of the reasons the Studio Intensive shoot is such a valuable experience for students. Over two days, they function as part of a 15-person crew, working in different departments under instructors who mentor them through the motions of professional, studio-level production processes.
“We’ve got a much larger studio now than we have had before, and we’ve certainly taken advantage of it,” says Hunter. “And there’s a green screen element to this, so we’re throwing just about everything you could possibly imagine at them for this studio shoot.”
Current student Daniel Berezowsky Ramirez can attest to the vast amount of experience he’s gained already in the program. “The last few months have probably been some of the most intense in my entire life,” he says. “I have learned a tremendous amount, not only in the technical aspect – which has been enormous – but especially in the understanding of the filmmaking process as a whole.”
With an eye toward directing, he’s keeping his options open: “I’m also thinking about specializing in post-production. I’ve been fortunate enough to learn about the hidden power that an editor can have in shaping a film – sometimes being as powerful as the writer or even the director.”
The Studio Intensive itself is the conclusion of a production design exercise wherein students pitch, design, and build a studio set from scratch. By this point, they have previously experienced a location shoot in their first term, and after this studio experience, they’ll learn to blend the two together in a film shoot wherein they’ll be the creative drivers and will need to illustrate the knowledge, technique, and professionalism learned earlier.
It all leads toward what Courtenay calls the “crowning glory” of a year in Film Production. “I get really excited about the final projects because they’re the culmination of everything. Sometimes we just get a crew that gels so beautifully. They come back with footage that we’re proud of. It reflects not only everything we’ve taught them, but they’ve also added their own creative aspect to it as well.”
Kimmel’s final project, a short film titled A Noble Cause , is about a young army private who, while stationed in Iraq, makes a mistake and is caught up in a sequence of events that will come to haunt him. “The art direction is pretty incredible, considering we were able to recreate a marketplace in Baghdad and have military soldiers in full gear.”
Kimmel was fortunate enough to make a number of friends in the program with whom he would collaborate through graduation into his professional career.
“It was really great working with them because every show was so much fun. The atmosphere was great. We worked really well together. I made a ton of connections with people that I know are all going to be working in this industry one day, for sure.”
While directing his own script for A Noble Cause, Kimmel was elated by how far his creative vision had come: “When we were doing the Iraq scenes, we were shooting in the Richmond Night Market [an annual food and consumer goods fair just south of Vancouver] and there were about 30 people there, and I was in charge. That was a pretty cool feeling.”
Kimmel is now promoting this short through the film festival circuit, hoping it will be selected for screening and give his talents – and those of his collaborators – some much-deserved exposure.
The high quality of student work comes as no surprise to Hunter:
“What these students can accomplish after one year absolutely floors me,” he says. “And it doesn’t even take the whole year. Sometimes only three months go by before you start to see some really amazing work.”