Film school report card

Film schools incorporate new media into their curricula as the entertainment industry syncs up with modern technology.

When the USC School of Cinema-Television opened the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts in 2001, the festivities signaled not only a ribbon-cutting for the nation's first fully digital training center but also the beginning of an era in which film school graduates would be conversant in the latest technology the industry had to offer.

Five years on, there is no question that the seventh art has been upgraded: Celluloid is sharing the entertainment spotlight with cell phones, iPods and other mobile devices, which have, in the blink of an eye, become essential outlets for content. Even video games have strong-armed their way to legitimacy as a coveted companion to science fiction, action-adventure and horror movies, and film schools nationwide have taken notice, incorporating cutting-edge technology, tools and delivery systems into undergraduate curricula so as best to prepare students for their chosen careers.

Although the costs associated with developing classes, hiring faculty and remodeling or building facilities can escalate into the tens of millions -- most universities have had to invest in digital cameras, computerized editing bays and the latest hardware and software -- experts say such expenditures are necessary if film schools wish to remain relevant as the art and craft of cinema continue to evolve.

"Think about how quickly this is all happening: The Internet wasn't here 15 years ago; DVDs weren't here 10 years ago," says Thomas Schatz, executive director of the University of Texas Film Institute. "Things are moving at an interesting clip, and it's being driven by this kind of holy trinity of the postindustrial world, which is digitization, globalization and conglomeration."

The inclusion of new media in film school curricula might seem sacrilegious to old-fashioned cinephiles, but their absence would be baffling to incoming students who have grown up with myriad such devices. Today's freshmen haven't just spent their formative years crafting short movies on a Super 8 camera in mom and dad's backyard: Most are intimately familiar with the latest digital-camera equipment and already know Final Cut Pro like the proverbial backs of their hands.

"Their cell phones and iPods are extensions of who they are, so our first reason (for incorporating new media) is that our constituency uses those tools," says Bruce Sheridan, chairman of the film and video department at Columbia College Chicago. "The second reason is that they can touch an audience in a way that's not possible while in film school via the feature-film form on the cinema screen."

American Film Institute Conservatory dean Robert Mandel echoes that sentiment. "The (students) are very interested in new media because they have already played a large part in their lives," he says. "Since this is a brand-new field, there is no template for them. It is wide-open, like the early days of moviemaking, (but) the crux of what makes someone watch -- whether on a big screen or cell phone -- is strong story and characters."

Most in the film school community acknowledge that understanding technology allows students greater creative freedom in bringing their visions to life. "The more they know, the more it removes obstacles for any kind of story they want to tell," says Bob Bassett, dean of Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts in Orange, Calif.

Chapman is working with an advisory group from the gaming industry to devise an interactive-media curriculum that almost certainly will make use of the school's motion-capture stage, which features equipment of the same caliber used by director Robert Zemeckis on 2004's "The Polar Express" and Sony's planned fall 2007 release "Beowulf."

Since 2004, USC has offered a master of fine arts degree in video-game design, a venture funded largely by a multimillion-dollar endowment from Electronic Arts. The School of Cinema-Television also has added new-media courses including Programming for Interactivity, Intermediate Game Development, Usability Testing for Games, and Design and Technology for Mobile Experiences, and a class devoted to creating short films for cell phones will be offered in the spring, according to Michael Taylor, chairman of the school's film and TV production program.

Crosstown rival UCLA has beefed up its techno quotient with a digital-media department that offers undergraduate and graduate courses focusing on game development and content creation for mobile devices.

"When a new delivery system comes along, it's used as a way to deliver the media from the last delivery system," says Robert Rosen, dean of UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television. "In the beginning, nobody knew whether television was going to be movies on a small screen or radio with pictures -- (but) within a few years, television developed its own language. The same thing is going to be happening in these other worlds."

Outside of Southern California, the UTFI last year launched its interdisciplinary digital arts concentration, a program that incorporates computer science, engineering, music, art, architecture, radio, television and film. The university also has converted one of its on-campus studios into a digital-media production environment and plans to add multiple-semester sequences to its digital-animation and computer-gaming courses.

NYU's Tisch School of the Arts recently formed a new-technology committee to help steer its curricula, according to panel chairman Phil McNagny. "We feel it's important to keep in mind that it's not just the delivery format but what we're delivering," he says.

With undergrad film school tuition ranging from $10,000 to more than $30,000 a year, students want assurance that they will obtain marketable job skills. Film school deans acknowledge that their graduates are likely to be recruited by cell-phone, computer-animation and game-design companies seeking the best and brightest in cinematic artistry and technological savvy.

For the most part, though, wide-eyed incoming freshmen dream of careers in film and television -- and given technology's incredible influence on the future of the business, it will be essentially impossible for them to succeed without a solid background in the digital realm.

"We want to get everybody very familiar with it so they'll know how to compress a piece of video to get it on the Internet, or how to develop something for a mobile phone, and all these things that haven't been invented yet," says Ross LaManna, chairman of the undergraduate film department at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. "But we don't want to train people to feed a marketplace. Our guys will be conversant with this stuff, and we're going to teach them to tell stories so when they've got an idea, they can say, 'Where does this story belong?' Wherever it does belong, they'll be able to create for that."
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