Lights, camera, lectures: Spotlight on studying film at university

Practical training in documentary and film making is providing students with a trusted route into the industry

While for decades the route into a job on a film-set began for many as a tea boy, runner or secretary, these days there are plenty of academic pathways into the same career. Many universities run undergraduate courses in film studies, which are often heavily slanted towards production skills, full of practical elements, and designed with the help of professionals working behind cameras themselves.

One such course is the Bachelors in film production at the University for the Creative Arts' Farnham campus, where Claire Barwell is the course leader. "Our students come to make films, documentary and fiction, and work in a team, taking on specialist craft roles, including editing, cinematography, sound, production design and producing," she says. "At one point in the course each student goes into one of those areas in more detail."

The Farnham course takes around 90 students a year, for which the competition is quite stiff. But the academic bar (240 UCAS points, equivalent to three grade-Cs at A Level) is not the only requirement. "We are looking for people who are curious about the world and who have some experience of film making and can talk about what they have done," says Barwell, a comment linked to the element of the course where students study and think about the theory of film.

Graduates from the Farnham course tend to go in a number of directions when they finish. "Some go to a production house in Soho; others straight on to a set, to work in the camera or sound department," says Barwell. "Or they get a job as an assistant director, and work their way up, or go into location management."

But we don't have to take Barwell's word for the success of the course. The achievements of recent graduates speak for themselves. One such graduate, from the class of 1996, is directing the remake of Godzilla; while others have gone on to work in varying roles, on the current James Bond hit, Skyfall, Tim Burton's Frankenweenie and the Harry Potter series.

What's more, over the years, there have been three alumni from UCA Farnham who have won Oscars. Many more have picked up BAFTAs and other international awards for their films and animations.

UCA is only one of nearly 50 universities and other arts institutions with undergraduate courses centred on film production, about half of whom are members of an umbrella body, the National Association for Higher Education in the Moving Image (nahemi.org). This organisation includes some of the most established names in the field, such as Bournemouth University, the Royal College of Art and a handful of London film establishments.

But just as important as choosing the right university is selecting the right course. For example, at Bath Spa University, the department of film and media production oversees three undergraduate courses, but only one of them is specifically tailored to provide an entry into the film industry. The three courses are: media communications, film and screen studies, and creative media practice. The first is close to a general media studies course; the second is predominantly based on the academic study of film, with some practical elements on film production and events management; and the third is the one that is 90 per cent based on working in film. It is hands-on from the outset. "The students start by making short films of five to 15 minutes," says head of department Dr Terry Rodgers. "In so doing they start learning the crafts, including sound, lighting script writing and camera work."

There are about 25 students a year on this course. The third year of which is spent working within a commercial company, set up by the university, called Arts Work Media. Significantly, this is based not at the university's Bath site, but in Bristol.

The aim is for the students to spend their final year working on a series of real commissions for firms in the west of England. For example, last year's cohort of third year students made a series of films about new books, for a local publisher.

"What's good about it is that it's located in a creative hub that contains lots of small creative industries," explains Rodgers. "Here they can imbibe the commercial atmosphere rather than being stuck on a campus. And by the end of the year, they are media savvy, with a knowledge of how the industry works."

And that sounds like as good a wrap as any for a course that's been designed to help people take their first steps in the film world.

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