On the first day of their freshman year, after a summer of anticipation, four roommates finally came face-to-face with each other in their as yet unfurnished Vanderbilt Hall common room. It’s the story of hundreds of students, but this one was caught on tape.
Four years from now, their initial meeting will be the opening sequence in a senior thesis film for Sandra Chwialkowska ’05. The feature-length film, shot on digital video, will capture four years of budding friendships
Much more than the antics of four freshmen, however, will influence and shape Chwialkowska’s project. As the Film Studies Program experiences its own growth spurt — a two-fold increase in senior majors in one year — students and faculty are considering altering the major to include more production courses and filmmaking resources. Considering the 300 percent growth in course offerings since 1992, the next four years could be a time for significant expansion.
But with growth must come growing pains. In a major that has historically met resistance from critics of “low art”, the desire for emphasis on the craft and trade of filmmaking has sparked a contentious debate. Student committees have drafted petitions asking for production courses and more resources for the Digital Media Center for the Arts, while some faculty members continue to advocate a strictly liberal arts program.
As Chwialkowska continues to peer into the lives of the Vanderbilt freshmen, the Film Studies Program is undergoing its own critical self-inspection, particularly looking at the majors and resources offered by other Ivy League schools. For Chwialkowska and her fellow film studies majors, departmental changes may determine how they examine film, what their films look like, and where they go from here.
Lights– A fresh look
Along with Nathan Kitada ’05, Chwialkowska got an ambitious start to her first year, planning to shoot a short film based on the infuriatingly catchy Suzanne Vega song, “Tom’s Diner.” After gathering a cast of freshmen and the staff at Clark’s Dairy, the two filmmakers shot on black-and-white, 16 mm film, eventually sending the footage to be processed in New York.
But technical problems brought the project to an abrupt end. The developed film showed only half the footage. Realizing they had used a light meter incorrectly, the two students began to wonder how to overcome their inexperience.
Both Kitada and Chwialkowska experimented with filmmaking in high school, making documentaries and fiction pieces. But 16 mm proved to be a challenge.
“The technical aspects are what made the project fail, so I moved on to digital video,” Chwialkowska said.
Most students make the same decision at some point in their careers at Yale. The film studies major currently offers two production courses — “Language of Film Workshop” and “Advanced Film Workshop” — but limits them largely to seniors, allowing juniors to fill the remaining seats. Neither these courses nor the DMCA offers resources for shooting 16 mm films, leaving the process a mystery to many Yale students.
“[The restriction] makes it difficult especially if you are just curious,” Kitada said. “It discourages experimentation, which is important when you’re starting out.”
The DMCA, with its film equipment available for rent and its production workshops, does encourage filmmaking. Opening its doors three years ago, the DMCA has become a vital resource for undergraduates, even though the center was designed particularly for graduate students in art, architecture and drama. Charles Musser, the co-chairman and director of undergraduate studies of the film studies major, helped procure the DMCA as an undergraduate resource by attending planning meetings and refusing to “let myself be uninvited.”
The DMCA now hosts free workshops in everything from lighting to editing, but only for a select group of students. Film, art, architecture, art history, music and theater studies majors — especially seniors and juniors — have priority to the equipment, which includes a lighting kit for three-point lighting and sound equipment.
Because of these restrictions, Kitada said, many students have to declare a major early in their careers, decreasing opportunities to explore a field of study. Others, he added, simply lie.
Undergraduates across the Ivies have a similar resource problem. Columbia University, for example, caters its multimedia resource lab to graduates, and undergraduates sometimes have to find unorthodox ways to gain access, Musser said. They also have to take a number of classes beforehand. Harvard University, on the other hand, has a number of resources — including 16 mm cameras — despite its lack of an actual film program.
Camera– Peering into the film studies major
With its emphasis on analysis, the Film Studies Program mirrors similar majors at Columbia, Harvard, Brown and Dartmouth. Unlike Columbia and Yale, the latter three schools offer the film studies major in conjunction with another visual art, such as television, painting or other mass media.
Although two production courses are offered at Yale, they are not required for graduation.
“I understand the relationship between undergraduate filmmaking and critical studies,” Musser said, acknowledging the requests of students for more production courses. “They don’t undermine each other — they’re complements. Students see that and they’re frustrated.”
Dartmouth requires a production course. The university has a rich history in film production, since the campus has been a locus of shoots since the 1930s, said Mark Williams, department chairman and associate professor of film studies at Dartmouth.
Traditionally, production courses and other craftwork courses have been the domain of film schools such as the Tisch School at New York University and the University of Southern California’s film school.
“I think every school should have a huge department. Yale has a long tradition of getting big filmmakers — they’re huge players in Hollywood now. Just imagine if there were more courses,” said USC film school graduate George Heller, a founder of Foursight Entertainment, a talent management company. Heller recently toured the Ivy League campuses, except Cornell and Dartmouth, to recruit student filmmakers for his company.
Yale’s two courses that do offer instruction in the technical side of film are often overbooked. Workshops are divided along project categories, such as screenplay or film, and the film seminars are in high demand. Only one junior was able to secure a place in “Advanced Film Workshop” this year, which was originally meant to be taken more than once during a student’s last two years.
“We need full-time faculty because we need more sections [of ‘Advanced Film Workshop’],” Musser said. “We also need their administrative expertise.”
Students are also concerned about production courses. Caitlin Taylor ’03, the president of University Pictures and co–chairwoman of the Film Studies Undergraduate Advisory Committee, has suggested the creation of an intermediate workshop, which students would take between “Language of Film” and “Advanced Film.”
“There is no full-time production teacher in the department. We definitely need that,” Taylor said. “If there were a full-time faculty member [to teach production, teachers] would understand resources more. The look of the film and the production value are not really discussed at all. Telling a story is important, but it’s not the only thing.”
After a harrowing experience appeasing a cranky woman with a toothache, Tucker Capps ’02 finally pushed his way into her home, near the riverbank at East Rock, setting up shop for the day’s shooting. It was one of many trials for Capps and crew, who are currently editing “The Third Bank,” their magical re
alist short story adaptation, for an early May screening.
Spending $3500, Capps went against the film studies grain and shot his senior project on a 16 mm camera equipped to synchronize sound. Though this figure is higher than Capps had initially estimated, it still cost less than many projects of comparable length and quality. Even though the budget is relatively low and partially funded by Sudler money, however, such large budgets are exactly what Musser and his fellow faculty members are trying to discourage.
“We’re encouraged to keep projects small. That’s good to a point, but I’d be frustrated,” Capps said. “I didn’t really say I was going to do [my senior project] on film — I would have met resistance.”
Musser, who grew up working solely with expensive film, explained this resistance.
“I have no problem being committed to digital media,” Musser said. “I’m not eager to encourage students to break their bank accounts. With so many films now being shot on [digital video], film is an increasingly antiquated form. If we don’t offer it, it is not as though we’re depriving the students.”
For students who are interested in working with film, Musser cited a number of options, including summer school at NYU or internships. But students often claim that internships are difficult to come by. As Capps said, if you’re an intern in the film industry, you’re probably making coffee or coiling cables. He could recall only one student — a Class of ’99 graduate — who held an internship in production.
“You’re not going to learn anything from analysis — you have to get out there,” Heller said.
Capps himself participated in a study abroad program at a film school in Prague. While there, Capps shot his first, “almost improvised,” 16 mm film on one roll without any sound. Later, he shot another 16 mm film that won him last year’s Ivy League Film Festival. The same film, called “Clockwork,” took best student film at the New England Film Festival, where Capps said 90 percent of the entries were shot on film.
“I own everything to Prague as far as film goes,” Capps said. “You can’t make a film without knowing basic techniques. There’s a limit to what you can learn from books.”
Picking up the slack
Where the academic department stops, UPix picks up. Founded in 1983, the organization entered a slump before Ross Wachsman ’02 revitalized it, once again making a forum where students could produce their own works. UPix gives student filmmakers two important elements to their study at Yale — experience and resources.
Not only does the organization have experienced crew readily available, but they also loan their own Bolex camera. The group plans two film festivals each year, one of which is this weekend, and offers workshops at the beginning of the fall semester.
“One of the biggest problems in making a film — no matter what you have backing it up — is that you have to push to get people involved,” Capps said. “You have to look at what can be done without technical resources.”
UPix is unique in the Ivy League as the only undergraduate organization that helps students produce their own films and offers experienced crew members for student projects.
Chwialkowska has also looked to UPix for technical help when courses were insufficient.
“We asked the people in UPix a lot of questions,” she said. “The people in the community are really nice.”
With dedicated students to support it, the film major has finally won a permanent foothold in Yale academia, with two tenured faculty members and a permanent infrastructure. But most importantly it has a strong interest in filmmaking.
“The level of talent was far superior at Yale,” Heller said. “It was clear to me that people at Yale are passionate about film.”