Master the art of movie-making

If youÕre tenacious and talented, an MA in film could help you to break into the industry.
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The Independent Online

It's not every postgraduate whose final project gets screened at the National Film Theatre and televised on BBC 2. But that's what has happened to Chris Hooper, 24, who graduated from Canterbury Christ Church University last September with an MA in media production.

The short film that he produced as part of his course, Stung, eavesdrops on an eccentric beekeeper reminiscing about her youth. It won first prize in the drama category at the Exposures film festival in Manchester, and the British Council chose the film to be promoted at film festivals around the world. All this is heady stuff for a rookie filmmaker, fresh out of graduate school.

But in spite of being garlanded with laurels, Hooper doesn't plan to rest on them. Competition for a job in the film industry is stiff for future movie moguls, he says, even with a postgraduate degree.

"I was under no illusions that my MA would be a ticket to a dream job," he says. "There are so many people trying to do this, that although a qualification can help, getting a job in the film industry after graduation is still mainly about sheer bloody-mindedness."

His tutor agrees that film students should be prepared to put in a lot of hard work. "It's not all glory. There's a lot of guts that you have to put in first," says Eddie MacMillan, senior lecturer in film and video production at Canterbury Christ Church University.

"You have to go out there and make your mark in the world. You have to network and push yourself. But having a master's shows that you're not afraid of hard work, and that you're willing to go the extra mile to learn and get extra skills. It won't guarantee you a job at the end, but it may help you to get one."

Before signing up for an MA, it's worth mulling over which course is the best match. "Think about exactly what it is you want to do," says Karin Farnworth, of the National Film and Television School, which has trained such silver screen luminaries as Nick Park, the triple Oscar-winning creator of Wallace and Gromit, and Roger Deakins, whose cinematography includes Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, and Jarhead.

"At first, people may think they want to do something obvious, such as directing," says Farnworth. "But if you look on the credits of a film, there are often hundreds of people doing different jobs. You might find your talents lie in cinematography, production design, camera work, or creating visual and special effects."

Alternatively, there are benefits to taking a more generalised film course. "I found my MA was a really good way of understanding the filmmaking process as a whole, and finding out what my strengths are," says Hooper, who wants to write and direct. "The course ran theory and practical filmmaking side by side. We all studied lighting, sound, and cinematography, wrote scripts, found casts, auditioned actors and managed budgets. It gave us an insight into the different areas."

Hooper says the practical experience of making a film on his MA was invaluable. But there were less glamorous aspects, too, requiring steely determination and ingenuity.

"There were mountains of paperwork involved in the preproduction stage. I had to work out how to find the right actress to cast for the lead role, which involved trawling through agents' websites. Then I had to persuade people to work on the film for free. Most were incredibly helpful, but some agents just slammed down the phone."

Budding Spielbergs need not despair if they don't have a previous degree. This is a field where experience and talent count for more than an orthodox career path. "It would've been a pretty dull year if everyone had a BA in film," says Hooper, whose MA classmates included a social worker and several international students. "The course had a really good mix of people."

Farnworth suggests getting prior experience by working as a runner for a production company, or taking a film and video workshop. Wannabe film students can get more information on how to snag work experience from Skillset, the sector skills council for the audiovisual industries, at www.skillset.org.

It's also worth considering what your financial options are. The Arts and Humanities Research Council offers professional preparation grants and funded Hooper's master's in film. But to pay for his bachelor degree, he did things the old-fashioned way - working behind the deli counter of Sainsbury's.

So what final piece of advice would Hooper give to new film students?

"You notice when you come out of the course that it's hard to get hold of really nice cameras," he says, ruefully. "So while you're studying, really throw yourself into it and make the most of it."

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