Before the advent of film and video schools, learning image making crafts was mainly through mentorship. The needed skills were handed down to newcomers on the job from more experienced veterans. This apprenticeship system worked well.
In the 1960s and 70s-era of 16mm film and early video production, the “one man band” evolved. By doing every job on a production, the novice learned each part of the process. Early portable production equipment was temperamental and unforgiving. It forced the operator not to make mistakes, which could easily ruin a shoot.
As one who had good mentors most of my life, I consider myself very lucky. Through this apprentice system, I learned video, film, lighting, sound and how to write. I didn’t know it at the time, but the menial jobs I did prepared me to become a multimedia journalist before the term was even invented.
Today, the world is a different place. The old mentorship system has mostly disappeared. Many newcomers — at least the ones who can afford it — learn their craft at film, video or multimedia schools. The term “one man band” is back, but this time it has a different meaning — it’s not to teach, but just a way for a company to economize to save money.
Sadly, like everything else these days, media schools are very expensive. There are still great places to learn the craft, but be prepared to spend big bucks to study there. If you don’t have the money for a professional education and want to avoid getting into debt by financing it, there are ways to get around the formal education system.
One way is to use low-cost “content creator” equipment and watch YouTube videos to educate yourself. This can work, but it usually leaves major gaps in professional skills. To fill in what’s missing, there is more targeted training available.
One place to hone specific skills is the Maine Media Workshops in Rockport, Maine. Though the school offers a full degree program, one can take workshops in topics like directing, editing, lighting, documentary production and writing. I studied lighting there with the great British cinematographer Billy Williams and directing with Robert Wise, the late director of West Side Story and The Sound of Music.
With Williams, who had shot On Golden Pond nearby, we lit barns, churches, houses, offices and about anything else you can imagine. It was tough, hands-on work from early morning until late at night. After one week, I had learned lighting skills that I use to this day.
Literally dozens of schools and universities throughout the country now offer media, film or television degrees. Among the top schools remain the University of Southern California and UCLA in Los Angeles and New York University in New York City.
Specialized media schools include Full Sail in Winter Park Florida, an institution that offers under-graduate and post-graduate programs in computer animation, digital arts and design, entertainment business, film, game development, recording arts, show production and concert touring.
A search on the internet shows schools where media education is now taught in almost every part of the country. This does not mean, however, the quality of those schools is equal. Like every institution of higher learning, it best to do one’s homework and speak with graduates about how good the education at school really is.
When I was in journalism school at the University of South Carolina, I got most of my media education working on broadcast jobs outside the classroom. I learned to write — not at the university — but by working in job in a fast-paced news “sweat shop” at United Press International in Mississippi. It was tortuous work, but I learned rapidly.
Another strategy for learning media in today’s market is just to dive in and get your feet wet. Enthusiasm, willingness to learn, and a good work ethic are values that will get anyone far in any business.
I got my first job in broadcasting as a ninth grader. I showed up at my local radio station and offered to work for free to learn the business. It worked and I got a break, putting me on a career path for the rest of my life.
It is not so easy to do that today, but it is still possible to find mentors and get breaks. Successful people in the media business are often more generous in mentoring than you might think. Sometimes all you need to do is ask.
The important thing is to pick the right mentor — someone with genuine skills that is willing to help you learn. It is easy to fall into a trap of doing free work for someone you can’t learn from.
Anyone with a smartphone can now make movies and the video can be edited for free on a personal computer. Make a short film and if you have talent, it will be recognized. The good news is it has never been cheaper to shoot a “movie.”
To learn to edit, study editing theory, learn how to tell visual stories and then use that knowledge to edit stories using a personal computer. Again, if you have talent, you are likely to find work.
To be a director, volunteer at a small theater or do a short film with local actors and demonstrate what you can do. Some of the greatest directors began that way. Acting classes also often accept directors. This way you can learn the craft while working.
As for writers, pick an area that’s of interest to you and just write. There’s an old rule of thumb: if you write one hour each day, you’ll have book in one year. It is not necessarily going to be a good book, but only by writing can you learn what works and what doesn’t. It is important to write about something you enjoy and that’s of genuine interest. Don’t write just what you think is commercial.
Media today is the storytelling business. People either have an affinity for it or they don’t. There is no certain way to learn the skills for the various parts of the media system. A good example of this is virtual production. It is new and still evolving, so the subject is rarely being taught in schools. Most people doing virtual production today are being hired from the gaming industry or live concerts, which have used big screen displays for years. One job leads to another.
There are few industries where grit, perseverance and eagerness to learn are more important than in media production. There’s an old cliché: where there’s a will, there’s a way. If you really want in, there is always a door to open.
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