The ultimate anticlimax
by Meredith Mantik, guest writer
Students are worried about the future of film at Colorado College. They should be.
They see student films on the CC website and at the CC Film Fest, hear about the new filmmaking facilities and equipment, and even meet successful CC alums like director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer), Academy-Award-nominated Tim Sexton (Children of Men), documentary filmmaker Doug Pray (Art & Copy), writer/producer Aaron Shure (The Office), and writer/producer Neal Baer (Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit, ER). Still, filmmaking on campus remains veiled in obscurity. Not only that, but the program that CC was already struggling to solidify now faces complete dissolution.
Currently, there are two branches of the film program: theory/history and filmmaking. This dichotomy embodies what’s encoded on the CC seal: scientia et disciplina, or knowledge and discipline. But while knowledge is heavily emphasized in the film program, discipline is only tenuously supported. There are five tenure-track film theory and history positions, but a tenure-track filmmaking position has yet to exist. CC deserves a film program that complements the rest of the school, but in order for it to do so, it must allot a permanent tenure-track position for filmmaking.
You may have noticed the newest building on campus, the Edith Kinney Gaylord Cornerstone Arts Center. Whatever your opinions may be of its architecture, there is one thing we can all agree on: it’s a space specifically designed to cultivate students’ artistic endeavors. In its conception, Cornerstone aimed to create an ideal environment for both the theater department and the expanding film program. From the small side-room of Taylor Theater (where the printing press now resides), with few computers and outdated equipment, the film program has moved into its swanky new digs. With the move came not only a soundstage and screening room, but also an editing lab equipped with professional editing software programs Final Cut Pro and After Effects. The film program also acquired top-of-the-line gear such as HD cameras, a green screen, a dolly, C-stands, and a brand new crane. In addition, the CC Film Fest continues to be one of the most popular events on campus, and the student club that organizes Film Fest, Film Union, has more members than ever before. The school has provided the film program with facilities, equipment, and encouraged the participation of passionate students. But one essential missing ingredient stands in the way of the film program fulfilling its potential: a professor.
In the last two years, a series of visiting professors have taught the filmmaking classes, a system that the administration plans to continue in the years to come. The administration argues that the block plan was specifically designed in order to have visiting professors “enrich” the students’ experience the same way visiting writers enrich the creative writing program. But if the last two years have proven anything, it’s that students struggle when their only guidance comes from visiting professors.
Anyone who has taken a class from a visiting professor can attest that these newcomers often need a few days or more to orient themselves to the block plan. This is understandable. But often it’s not until the second week of the block that they find their bearings. Even then, the homework load and grading standards tend to be inconsistent with the CC norm. These downsides are amplified in the filmmaking major, where professors need to have a firm grasp not only on the block plan and grading protocol, but also on how to distribute and assign responsibility for equipment, how to teach the use of computer software and camera gear, and how to access and operate the screening room and other facilities. Most importantly, they need a grasp of how to integrate the discipline of filmmaking into the overall academic environment. This a lot to ask of a visiting professor, whose chance of failing far outweighs his or her chance of success.
These assertions aren’t based on ungrounded, hypothetical data; they’re based on the 2008-10 academic years. With a different professor for each filmmaking block, no student knew what he or she was going to get. Some professors emphasized editing over production, others cinematography over storytelling. Some professors gave assignments every night; others gave only one for the entire block. No two students who took Basic Filmmaking were equally prepared for Advanced Filmmaking.
Some visiting instructors would unexpectedly disappear in the afternoons, inadvertently denying students access to the facilities and equipment they needed to complete their assignments. Visitors also had a hard time keeping track of the camera gear, which resulted in the disappearance of several brand-new pieces of equipment. Simply put, visiting professors haven’t seemed invested in the future of CC’s film program.
One such professor-in-passing didn’t know his way around the editing program Final Cut Pro, and was forced to ask a student to teach it to him so he could explain it to his class. Several students even turned to online tutorials in order to learn the programs, compelled by the lack of guidance in class.
But things have been looking up since then.
Thanks to the persistent effort of several staunch English professors and the Film Union (CC’s student film club), the film program has hired two full-time artists-in-residence, Clay Haskell and Dylan Nelson, to take the helm of filmmaking for the 2010-11 academic year.
Serving as visiting professors at CC since 2003, Haskell and Nelson have both taught everything from “Basic Filmmaking” to “Documentary Filmmaking” to “Screenwriting” to “Directing the Fiction Film” to the ever-popular “On Location in Hollywood.” They have brought to the program everything that the other visiting professors couldn’t: consistency, knowledge, responsibility for the equipment, resourcefulness, a willingness to collaborate with other departments, and a genuine desire to help students in any way they can. A class with Haskell or Nelson brings students back for more film classes (unlike the other visitors’ classes, which so often end in students associating filmmaking with abhorrence and frustration). Haskell and Nelson’s presence as full-time faculty over last four blocks has improved the film program immensely.
Regardless of who fills the full-time filmmaking position, what matters most is that the position exists. At the end of the 2010-11 academic year, CC will be taking a step backward if it once again resorts to employing a series of visiting professors in lieu of establishing a full-time position.
No one is saying that having visiting professors is a bad idea. In fact, it’s one of the key elements that make CC a “unique intellectual adventure” and often influences students’ decisions to come here in the first place. Ideally, the film program would benefit from visiting professors who teach specialized classes in addition to a tenure-track position for the core requirement classes like Basic Filmmaking and Advanced Filmmaking. But the presence of visiting professors cannot be appreciated fully until there is a fundamental structure for the program to build on.
Not only would this permanent position give the film program stability; it would also ensure that the integrity of the gear is upheld, that seniors receive guidance with their filmmaking theses throughout the year, that film majors and minors have consistent advising throughout their CC careers, that collaboration with other departments and on-campus clubs is encouraged, and that visiting professors receive the help they need to orient themselves to the block plan.
We all know this is a tough time for the school financially and that it’s more expensive to have a full-time position than a series of visiting professors, but this is money that needs to be spent.
The deeper and more troubling truth is that the administration seems to fail to recognize filmmaking as an artistic medium. As senior English/Film track major Sarah White asserts, “The administration is giving the impression that all of the work and creative effort that students put into making films is not a legitimate means of artistic expression.” This argument yields a fundamental philosophical question: is film primarily a business or an art? This quandary is not limited to the film program at CC. In fact, the Supreme Court’s 1952 landmark decision of Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson (known among the film community as the “Miracle” decision) resolved this issue in ruling that film is an art and not a business.
This dilemma does not affect only the Film Department; many students report using film for classes far outside the arts and humanities’ scope, from Anthropology to Mathematics to Geology to Biology. Theater majors and Theater Workshop members are recurring characters in student films. In fact, eighty percent of the students who take “Basic Filmmaking,” the intro-level filmmaking class, are not English/Film majors.
As English/Film professor George Butte states, “Film at CC is a broad interest across many departments. English has carried the flag because we have the faculty members in critical mass who teach the film studies components. But film is deeply interdisciplinary here.” So even though film is stationed on the south side of campus under the English Department label (a decision that has left many students confused and hesitant in committing to the English/Film track major), it encompasses the whole campus.
Sophomore Film Union member Drew Kelly asserts that film is one of the most liberal art forms out there: “It’s storytelling with a combination of three other highly legitimate arts: music/sound, photography, and words/structure.”
Not only does filmmaking force you to draw from several different areas of study, but—as with any artistic endeavor—it also forces you to internalize what you’ve learned from all of these areas as well as from every aspect of your life. “In Basic Filmmaking second block I learned more than any other class,” says Kelly. “Film makes a person question his own self as well as the perspective of others—the audience and the world around them.”
Filmmaking forces students to engage in the principles learned in film history and theory classes. Again, it embodies the CC ideal of scientia et discplina, putting theory into practice. And even though filmmaking classes at CC do show you how to make a movie, the emphasis—to follow the CC quota—lies more in the philosophy of filmmaking than in filmmaking itself. It’s more about the why than the how. This school has the resources, the talent, and the potential to make something great out of our film program. Students want to make films. But in order to keep the enormous potential of our program from atrophying, CC needs to create a full-time filmmaking position.