Behind the Camera: Getting a Master’s Degree in Film Production

a woman reviews footage on a video camera

Hollywood insiders often joke that there are two “entry-level” jobs in the movie industry. The first is on the bottom rung of the ladder as a Production Assistant (PA); the second is at the very top of the tree as a Director. Both roles require candidates to possess a great deal of skill, talent, persistence, and maybe even a little luck if they are to succeed. However, the most desirable trait, regardless of the position in the industry, is the ability to speak the language of movies.

A master’s degree in film production from National University gives students the ability to “talk film.” Regardless of individual talent, vision, or technical competency, making a movie is a collaborative task. A lack of ability to communicate effectively with everyone on a movie set increases the risk of project failure.

The Challenges of Working in the Movies

Associate Professor Alyn Warren founded the Master of Fine Arts in Digital Cinema Production (MFA) program at National University in 2004 as an alternative to traditional graduate film programs that required full-time residency.

Professor Warren understands the challenges facing film school graduates better than most. A third-generation Hollywood movie maker, he was at ease in the film world from a young age. Early educational experiences saw him rubbing shoulders with Hollywood legends, including Lucille Ball (actress, comedian, and studio executive best known for the pioneering TV sitcom, I Love Lucy), John Carpenter (director of the Halloween series of horror movies), and Thomas Keneally (whose book Schindler’s Ark later became the Spielberg-directed movie, Schindler’s List, acclaimed as one of the greatest American films ever made by the American Film Institute). When Professor Warren later “ran away” from university to attend film school, he was essentially coming home.

An Ever-Changing Industry

Professor Warren’s personal experience of the movie business (and that of his father and grandfather) acts as a perfect metaphor for an industry which is in constant flux and the hurdles that poses for anyone trying to build a career in film.

“One of the challenges today is that the pathway after an MFA is so varied now because everything has changed and nothing is the way it was. That is typical of the film industry itself,” says Professor Warren.

“My grandfather was a traveling actor who came to Hollywood in 1915. Lillian Gish [an actor, director, and writer, often referred to as the First Lady of American Cinema] became big, theatres were closing and becoming movie theatres, and so he became a movie actor, but he got into silent movies. When the talkies came along, he was terrible!”

As cinema continually evolves, it is reasonable to expect that change is the only constant.  Professor Warren believes that one of the critical skills developed by anyone who goes through the digital cinema MFA program at National is the ability to take and creatively manage any project that comes along.

In an industry where job security can be rather fickle, the importance of this adaptability cannot be understated.

“The digital cinema brand is a professional creative MFA. It enables you to figure out ways to communicate clearly what your intentions are, to pitch projects, as well as do everything else you might need to do just to pay the bills, ” says Professor Warren.

“The other thing it teaches students is to take their own projects and learn how to run with them. The opportunities are quite endless out there — unknown even.”

Thoughts on Digital Disruption

The digital media landscape has opened up numerous opportunities for film producers to reach a diverse audience without the backing of major studios or distribution companies. Similarly, movie fans have never had so much choice regarding the films they want to watch, or where they watch them. Despite this, film students face the same challenges as they did 40 years ago: They still need to use narrative and cinematic concepts and professional techniques to engage audiences on multiple levels. Everything changes. Everything stays the same.

“The core of what we do in the digital cinema production program is to create stories, and whether those are documentary narratives or fiction narratives, it’s the same kind of thing,” says Professor Warren. “So the focus is on telling a good story that engages the audience.”

The proliferation of video content across the digital landscape also opens up new opportunities for film graduates.

“Video is just ubiquitous now. Every year there is more and more. Someone’s got to produce that content. Is it effective, is it doing what it’s supposed to be doing? Video editing is certainly important.”

And it’s a skill that is emphasized in the MFA program. National University was recently recognized by Moviemaker magazine for the quality of its instruction in film editing.

An Essential Qualification

For those students whose focus is set on a career in the movies, a qualification like the master’s degree in film studies is essential.

“I personally think that it’s imperative now because there are a lot of MFA programs out there competing for attention for these positions,” says Professor Warren.

“There’s formal education that you get from school, and there’s informal education which is how we learn most things. Ideally, an MFA needs to do both. It helps people learn the language because going into any discipline, whether you want to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer, you need to learn the language. It’s exactly the same in the movie industry.”

Technical, Creative and Aesthetic

Professor Warren stresses that the Digital Cinema Production MFA at National University is very much a professional qualification that takes a comprehensive approach.

“There are three areas that we are focusing on. There’s technical proficiency, that’s important, then there’s aesthetic and creative,” says Professor Warren.

“The aesthetic is the thing that’s really important. That’s where the language lies and learning the concepts is involved. It’s quite complex.”

The professor compares the complexities of filmmaking to a game of tri-dimensional chess (as played on the TV and film series Star Trek and equally loved by the “geeks” on TV’s Big Bang Theory).

“Filmmaking is the most collaborative process that exists. Each member of that collaborative team has a creative input and a direct relationship to the success or failure of that project. We stress the importance of that collaboration,” says Professor Warren.

“Whether you are a producer, a director, a cinematographer, an editor, or a production designer, these five key positions and disciplines are all creative, and each individual in charge of that process needs to understand both the aesthetics and what their creative role is and how to function in both of those areas.”

Changing the Way We Think About Aesthetics

The concept of aesthetics is one of the more complex issues that students studying for the master’s in film production have to come to grips with.

“Aesthetics used to be the study of beauty. That’s when we’re looking at an object and figuring out how does it make us feel,” says Professor Warren.

“Now, thinking from the perspective of the creative person, I create something that stands between me and my audience. As part of that creative perspective, I have to understand the aesthetics. What technically and creatively do I have to do to make that object beautiful, engaging or pleasing to the audience so that they stay with that work as long as I need them to, to get my intentions across. Intentionality is important. I have something locked in my brain that is supposedly represented by that thing in front of me.

“On the other side, flip it around (we call that the shot-reverse shot), the audience is looking at that same object. I have to make sure that on their side, that creative process continues in terms of the engagement with that object and does that engagement engender the thoughts and feelings that I intended.”

Deconstructing Movies

Obtaining an online master’s degree in film studies is as much about understanding how to deconstruct a movie as it is about making a movie.

“Before we can tell the story we have to discover it,” says Professor Warren.

“To move forward, we not only have to discover the story, we then have to discover the elements of that story, the bits and pieces that go in there. You need to distinguish between the essential and the inessential.”

A Journey of Self Discovery

students work on a shoot with a green screen behind them

While Professor Warren believes there are “types” of individuals who are attracted to study for a master’s degree in film production, there is no typical student. However, all students who enroll in the program go through a similar journey of ideas and exploration.

“I see the creative process as like an aboriginal walkabout,” says Professor Warren. “Part of this process is to be open to receiving whatever there is when you are going on your journey. You’re going to kick something up when you’re crossing a stream, and you’re going to think, ‘Oh that looks cool, maybe it’s a piece of gold!’ That’s basically how human beings have been discovering things for a long time and then running with it,” he says.

“In doing that, it’s also a challenge because you don’t know where you are going next. So the walkabout becomes like an exciting roller coaster ride. You’re going up and up and up, but then there is a point when the journey becomes terrifying. I call this part of the process, creative anxiety. The idea is that there is a tremendous amount of risk involved with putting oneself out there in one’s work.”

Citing his own personal experience in graduate school, Professor Warren suggested that every workshop he attended felt like open heart surgery where he would become disembodied and find himself looking down on the process.

While students may find this part of the journey uncomfortable, it is an essential “rite of passage” into any creative industry.

“In order to succeed, you’re going to have to try a lot, and that means you’re going to fail a lot, but that’s OK. It’s not that you failed, it’s what you’ve learned,” says Professor Warren. “Don’t think of it as a problem — it’s just a solution waiting to be found.”

The route towards a master’s in film production can be a long one, and the final destination isn’t always so apparent at first.

“There are always challenges but each member of the faculty here is a professional, and we are all creatives in our own right,” says Professor Warren.

“We are here to help each student find their way forward at whatever level they can achieve. But the secret is to keep moving forward because some of these things you learn, you don’t get to put together for a while.”

Working Together

As a highly collaborative task, filmmaking requires competencies across a range of technical skills. The digital nature of film makes it perfectly suited to the online environment. The collaboration between students and faculty members is facilitated by National University’s pioneering online learning platforms that facilitate group discussion, the sharing of projects, encourage peer review, and further cooperation. For this to work smoothly, it is essential all students come ready equipped with some basic filmmaking skills.

Prior to joining the program, students should have a beginner to intermediate-level knowledge of video editing software and possess the basic technical knowledge and skills required to operate a digital camera. Students who do not have such experience or skills should take a basic non-credit video editing and digital photography course as preparation for the degree.

However, it would be impossible to make a film without coming together as a team. Therefore, students are required to attend an intensive residency program consisting of three practical courses onsite at National University’s Los Angeles campus. During this time, students are given the opportunity to put everything they have learned on the degree program into practice and collectively produce a film.

The Residential Program

The MFA in Digital Cinema Production is offered in a hybrid online/on-site format. “The residential program became a reality because you really have to be there to understand the whole process of making a film,” says Professor Warren.

Students attending the residential program have the opportunity to work with each other, faculty members, and a professional crew drawn from a number of local studios and production companies. This is often the student’s first opportunity to put their knowledge of the “the language of film” to the test.

“Unless you have the experience of working on a professional film set, you don’t really know what it is. You can remain in your creative bubble, which is yourself doing your own projects and doing everything,” says Professor Warren.

“To be a leader, you need to be able to communicate with others effectively, to set expectations clearly and to let others carry out their end of it and then give them feedback.”

Producing Class

The process of making a film during the residential program begins in a producing class, where Professor Warren acts as an executive producer. It follows a similar workflow for any project coming into a studio, where it is first purchased and then turned over to a producer. Every student in that class has to put on their producer’s hat and look at the project that the group is going to tackle. They then need to look at issues relating to genre, problems with the story, budget concerns and other factors that come into the earliest phase of filmmaking. This information is then documented and presented in the form of a Producer’s Book, just as it would be in a professional environment.

Director’s Class and Production Management

The second class is the director’s class. Every student in the class has a shot at directing the project. Now they have to think about how they would direct the project — what would their approach be? Each student then has to produce a Director’s Lookbook (a collection of photographs and images selected as visual references to demonstrate the director’s vision for the look and feel of a film).

Acting as the executive producer, Professor Warren’s job is then to pick the four lead positions of the production team — the producer, director, cinematographer, and production designer. In the next class, production management, these students in these four lead positions are then required to come up with a Production Book which is the plan for shooting the film.

The class then proceeds to shoot the film, assisted by members of the faculty and other individual industry professionals, before entering the post-production stage and finally delivering a completed project.

Successful Outcomes

Successfully completing the Master of Fine Arts Digital Cinema Production program at National University is only the first step in beginning a career in film. Students are encouraged to keep working on their projects after completing the MFA, and as they refine their work, they are motivated to submit projects into various film festivals around the world.

“We’ve seen maybe half-a-dozen projects where students have had success at film festivals,” says Professor Warren.

“One student recently took her project to the Palm Springs Short Film Festival where she sold her project, picked up a distributor, and has received offers to work on other projects. Another student took her film to a festival in India where she won a director’s award.”

Alternative Career Options

A master’s degree in film studies is also a qualification that has the potential to open the door to a wide range of careers outside of the film industry.

The creative, aesthetic, communicative, and collaborative skills developed while studying for a master’s in film production are attractive to employers across a range of industries, including advertising, marketing, television and the media, and product development. Essentially, the online master’s degree in film studies will prepare graduates for any career with lots of moving parts.

Teaching is another role where many students with a master’s degree in film studies have done well. “We know that everyone who has graduated and wanted to teach has been able to get teaching positions and do well and move forward in the profession,” says Professor Warren.

Do You Have What It Takes to Launch a Career in Filmmaking?

If you are passionate about movies, know your way around a camera, have the technical skills to operate a digital editing suite and are ready to be challenged, an online master’s degree in film studies from National University might be your first step into a rewarding career in the movie industry.

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