Yale’s film program was recently named the 25th best in the country, according to The Hollywood Reporter’s highly anticipated annual rankings. This was a major victory for Yale’s film community, which rarely garners such high-profile praise. As a Film and Media Studies major at Yale, I was glad to see my program get such positive recognition. But the ranking also made me acutely aware of the imperfections in Yale’s approach to film studies, and especially of the financial and extracurricular burden the department places on students who wish to pursue practical filmmaking skills. The Hollywood Reporter’s description of our program reads: “If classes like World Cinema–which explores the ‘coexistence of globalization and the persistence of national identities’–are your cup of tea, then Yale is the school for you.” There is no doubt that Yale’s theory-based courses, like World Cinema, are world-class. But the film studies major is designed to favor theory over practice in such a way that makes it difficult to combine the two.
For students who want experience in actually making film, the extracurricular time required to make film prevents many from ever learning how to apply the concepts that they’ve learned in class. This preference for theory over practice excludes a sizeable chunk of students from the film production community on campus, since many must pursue film production while juggling evening and weekend jobs. In turn, these students are kept them out of the film industry.
As a matter of personal preference, I have never loved to write exclusively about the abstract theories and terms that get bandied around film studies classrooms. For me, a better alternative has always been to make pictures and videos, and to see how new academic ideas are reflected in them. As we learn in film classes, this process of combining theory and practice is called praxis. Translating a lesson into an object, a piece, is a crucial part of the filmmaking process—the essential idea behind every film. When Brian de Palma made Carrie (1976), he was taking Hitchcock’s lessons and applying them in a new way. When Joss Whedon made Cabin in the Woods (2011), he carefully observed many effective approaches to horror film that came before him, and he synthesized these ideas into an original horror-comedy.
The Film and Media Studies program at Yale College is very excited about theory, offering courses in niche areas of practically any subject you can imagine. But the Yale College film program is not very excited about practice. This trend is apparent in other undergraduate arts programs, too. The Theater Studies department is one example—if an aspiring set or sound designer wants to take a course that focuses on the technical skills to apply design theories, they must register with a class through the School of Drama, which is not an easy process. For Art majors, any course listed as ART has to be taken through the School of Art. In these cases, at least, there’s a graduate department to provide desired skills. But that option does not exist for Film and Media Studies majors. The department offers a few courses in praxis, requirements for any film major who wants to make a thesis film, but they are focused on screenwriting—definitely not the same thing as learning about filmmaking on a set.
The only resource available to students who wish to gain hands-on experience in film is the Digital Media Center for the Arts (DMCA), which offers a marvelous series of workshops taught by a rotating series of visiting artists. These workshops are the closest thing to a skills-oriented class we have at Yale. Though the artists are inspiring, they never stay for long, so there’s no reliable artist to approach with problems or questions. To pursue practical film experience, all film students are directed to Lynda.com, a useful how-to video site. Any time I have a question, I turn to Lynda for help and guidance. Over the course of my time as a Film and Media Studies major, I’ve spent countless hours watching tutorials, going to workshops, and asking friends how to do certain tricks. Therein lies the big issue—time.
Learning practical filmmaking skills has to occur on your own time—there’s little opportunity to get academic credit for gaining necessary technical abilities, like how to light a scene. So making films becomes an extracurricular, one that can take up as many hours as you have available. For some students this is feasible. But perhaps you need to start working more shifts at your student job, and suddenly being a film studies major concentrating in production conflicts with earning enough money to get by.
As a Film and Media Studies major at Yale, learning the basic skills you need in order to tell the stories you feel are important can cut into your livelihood. This burden silences many voices that ought to be heard. In an industry constantly under fire for being whitewashed, for lacking diversity on the screen and behind the camera, it’s important to enable as many aspiring filmmakers as possible. Yale offers a high-quality array of theoretical, intellectual classes. And for students with a flexible schedule, Yale has some good extracurricular opportunities—the DMCA and the School of Art can provide good equipment, and groups like Bulldog Productions have been working hard to train young filmmakers. But it shouldn’t be up to students to train each other, on their own time. With such high barriers to entry, learning film production is needlessly exclusive. The film department has been making some strides to account for this disparity—just this year they created a (roundabout) way to get credit for a summer production internship. This is a positive change, but it should be only the beginning of a more accessible path to practical filmmaking skills. Many potential filmmakers are still barred from making film just because there aren’t enough hours in the day.