Teaching Production in a Liberal Arts Context

CJ_Final.indd Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
 Vol. 2(2) Spring 2014
 Paul McEwan
 Muhlenberg College

“What’s the most interesting idea you’ve learned here in the past year?”

A few weeks before students begin my Video Production course, they receive this prompt from me, in an email that spells out the requirements of the story pitch they must deliver on the first day of class. The written part of the pitch has to explain the idea, and then provide three possible plots that might convey that idea on screen. The best one of those three is the one they will pitch to their classmates, in a bid not for money but for time, since we work in groups of two or three so only the best pitches can get made.

Teaching at a liberal arts college, I can use the above prompt knowing that my students have taken a broad range of courses before they arrive in my classroom. Students at Muhlenberg use about a third of their total credits taking general education requirements, and these cover all areas of the curriculum, from the traditional humanities to social science and natural science. I tell them that good ideas for films can come from “philosophy, psychology, physics, and everything in between,” and recent experience has confirmed this hopeful view.

The prompt was a reaction to a frustrating situation in the first few iterations of the course nearly 10 years ago. Students could pitch decent stories (sometimes), but even halfway through the semester they could not tell me what their film was about without simply reciting back the plot. This was not just an intellectual exercise. Given the million and one adaptations to chance and circumstance that must occur as a film gets made, filmmakers who do not know what they are trying to say, or what the point of the work is, find themselves unable to make decisions about what to do next. The only way to make sure their work had a theme was to make them come up with that first.

By the time they arrive at college, nearly all students are capable of talking about the themes or ideas underlying artistic works on at least a superficial level, and most can go relatively deep with a little prompting. In the film studies courses I also teach, this is how we spend much of our time. Despite this, they are reluctant to think about their own work as having a theme, since they seem to think of that as a synonym for making a social issue film or being directly political, and that seems both limiting and intimidating. Many of them have of course made films that are explicitly political, and this is encouraged, but the sense that tackling a “big important issue” was a requirement to make a substantial film was a bar too high for most undergraduates. This is why asking them “what they wanted to say” did not work. It made the message too direct, like a call to action, while most of the serious films we watch in class are better described as observations or commentaries on some facet of human experience. Thus, starting with an “interesting idea” broadens the possibilities considerably.

The proposals vary widely, but certain themes re-occur, and of course some are more compelling than others. A common “most interesting idea” is an unusual condition they have learned about in a psychology class, and the students want to turn these into some kind of psychological thriller. While a couple of these have worked well, as I point out in the original proposal assignment the goal is not to act out the idea literally, but to use it as the foundation for a story. So a psychological condition could be read as social rather than medical, it could be a way to consider individual isolation, or it could simply be a metaphor that undergirds a narrative about healthy individuals. It need not be a story about a person with X syndrome, and should not simply be a story about someone’s descent.

One of our more ambitious films came from a short story that a student had read in Spanish class (films can be found here) [1]. She didn’t adapt the short story itself – just one of its conceits, that a story that at first seemed to be constructed in flashbacks eventually became one in which it was impossible to tell if the protagonist was in the present day imagining the past, or in the past imagining a future. For the rest of the semester, this fuelled endless discussions about what elements of our society could have been reasonably imagined by someone 100 years ago. Two narrative films inspired by ethics courses examined the question of what we owe long-term friends from whom we have grown apart, and what the difference is when you become the medical caretaker of someone you are dating and to whom you do not necessarily have a long-term commitment.

The latter film was one of the strongest our students have produced, and we ended up talking a lot about making our films non-exploitative. Many of our students have taken a course on the ethics of documentary making in which they spend a semester thinking about what it means to decide you are going to tell someone else’s story [2]. These are the kinds of intellectual linkages for which the liberal arts curriculum was designed, and film making offers students a way to process and share ideas they have encountered in a way that requires them to translate those ideas into a new form, and think about the act of translation itself. While these are intellectual goals that are not limited to the liberal arts, liberal arts colleges are uniquely situated to develop and nurture them.

Although film production and the liberal arts are an ideal fit in many ways, this is not immediately obvious when one looks at the range of production programs in the United States. Most of the elite production programs are at large universities, and most liberal arts film programs are focused on studies rather than production. On the surface this makes sense, given that larger universities have the resources and the space to offer what can be a relatively expensive program. Liberal arts colleges have generally developed from a great books model of teaching and learning, and while there are now obviously a great diversity of approaches and styles, there can also be a greater reluctance to embrace programs that seem practical and skills-based rather than more purely intellectual pursuits.

Despite this general hesitance when it comes to skills-based programs, liberal arts colleges generally do not have a problem training painters, actors, and musicians, as art-making courses have long been part of art, theatre, and music programs. It can be a bit more difficult to find a place for filmmaking, given the perception, mostly true, that it is more commercially oriented than other art forms. In our screenwriting courses, which are taught in collaboration with the college’s creative writing program, some of the creative writing students expressed concern that the pedagogy was too focused on selling a screenplay rather than simply the craft of writing, inverting what they are used to hearing in their other courses on poetry or fiction writing. Screenplays are unique as a writing form in that they have almost no social use outside of trying to get the films made. There is no non-commercial audience for a screenplay in the way that there is for other kinds of writing. Even plays, their closest relatives, are objects of scholarly study in a way that screenplays rarely are. Given that this difference is real and substantial, bridging the gap is an ongoing process. Our film students want to write screenplays that someone will make into a film, but our pedagogy has to recognize the fact that other students might see them as simply an exercise. We have to support broader pedagogical goals on our campus rather than just benefiting from them.

That sharing also helps with more practical budget matters. We do not have the resources of a larger school (or a large endowment), but by shopping carefully have managed to build an equipment closet with most of what we need. We have several hundred thousand dollars worth of equipment at this point, much of which is represented by a production studio with up-to-date television cameras and professional lighting and sound. This investment made sense to the college because the space is also used by theatre and dance and art students for camera-oriented courses. The space is now used much more than it was before, and our students can form collaborative working relationships with students from across the campus. For campuses with more limited resources, the rapidly dropping price of equipment means that you could start a production program for $25,000 or less, assuming you don’t already own sufficient computers for editing. If you do, the price is much lower. With that and perhaps $5000 per year for new gear and maintenance, you could grow your program slowly over a few years. If demand outstrips the supply of places in your courses, that will be a good problem to have. It helps to be able to make the case that film and video production do not have to run alongside the liberal arts curriculum, but can be an integral part of it.


[1] The story is “La Noche Boca Arriba” by Julio Cortazar, and the film was Doll Face, originally conceived by Joanna Whitney and made by her, Nicole Machrone, Lara Pollack, and Jake Ramsay. This, and the other films mentioned here, are available for viewing on the Muhlenberg Film Studies website at http://www.muhlenberg.edu/main/academics/film-studies/

[2] This course is Documentary Research, designed by my colleague Lora Taub-Pervizpour. It is a required course in the Media & Communication major, which many production students are completing. The rest of the students are drawn from Film Studies and other majors.


Paul McEwan is Associate Professor of Media & Communication and Film Studies at Muhlenberg College, where he teaches both production and studies.  He edited a special section on “Teaching Difficult Films” for Cinema Journal in 2007 that included his essay on The Birth of a Nation. That film is also the subject of a BFI Classic volume he has recently completed, to be released later this year.  He is currently working on an annotated bibliography on film pedagogy for Oxford Bibliographies and is the author of a book, Bruce McDonald’s Hard Core Logo (2011) and a forthcoming essay on Griffith’s Intolerance for the Companion to D.W. Griffith.

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