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arts education


the job-ready graduate: multi-skilled, self-sufficient

tina kaufman: film


Perfecting the Picture Perfecting the Picture
courtesy the Australian Film, Television & Radio School
THE AUSTRALIAN FILM INDUSTRY HAS ENTERED A NEW PHASE, WITH A NEW CENTRAL FUNDING AGENCY AND A NEW FINANCIAL SUPPORT MECHANISM OFFERING A SIGNIFICANTLY INCREASED LEVEL OF FUNDING. SCREEN AUSTRALIA, THE SINGLE ENTITY FORMED BY THE MERGER OF THE FILM FINANCE CORPORATION, THE AUSTRALIAN FILM COMMISSION AND FILM AUSTRALIA, FORMALLY CAME INTO BEING ON 1 JULY (ALTHOUGH EXISTING PROGRAMS OF THE COMPONENT AGENCIES WILL CONTINUE UNTIL THE END OF THE YEAR); IT HAS A NEW BOARD BUT THE INDUSTRY IS WAITING FOR THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE PERMANENT CEO. EMPLOYMENT PROSPECTS ARE LOOKING POSITIVE, ESPECIALLY WITH NEW TECHNOLOGIES OPENING UP JOB OPPORTUNITIES IN INTERESTING SCREEN-RELATED AREAS. SO IT’S NOT SURPRISING THAT THERE IS A SENSE OF CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM ABOUT THE JOB PROSPECTS FOR GRADUATES.

multi-platforming & multi-skilling

Associate Professor Gillian Leahy from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) considers that film and related production areas are expanding, and that even the depressed television drama production area “certainly looks as if it might climb back.” This offers opportunities for UTS graduates, especially as they have learnt management skills in the process of seeing a project through to completion, giving them the practical expertise needed by prospective employers. The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology’s (RMIT) Programs Director (Journalism and Media) Leo Berkeley sees employment increasingly opening up in related growth areas, such as the games industry and 3D compositing. “Our graduates are finding work in all sorts of unusual occupations, especially those where their multi-skilling is useful. They can communicate and operate well online”, he says.

John Buckmaster from the Sydney Film School (SFS) agrees that convergence of new media has led to an increase in the types of employment available. “Our graduates work either full-time, contract or casual. Full-time work is generally with production houses, television and post-production, while contract and casual is for TVCs, film productions and corporates”, he explains.

In WA, the Film and TV Institute in Fremantle (FTI) provides high quality industry based training with intensive, hands-on courses delivered by professionals, featuring guest speakers to provide practical and up-to-date knowledge. “All of our programs have a strong emphasis on the essential skills required for a successful career in the rapidly changing media sector, including team work”, explains Training Registrar Fern Nicholson, “and the job market has been looking good for the last seven to eight months. In fact, there seems to be an influx of new productions.”

transforming courses

Many educational institutions are restructuring both their undergraduate and postgraduate courses, including new and specialised subjects in response to industry demand. While RMIT has probably led the way in modernising its degrees, both the Australian Film Television & Radio School (AFTRS) and UTS are also making quite dramatic changes to both the way courses are structured and to the components of those courses. At RMIT, the changes have been quite extensive: “We’re essentially integrating theory and practice in a distinctive way”, explains Leo Berkeley, “getting students to explore the way boundaries have blurred, to investigate what it means to be a professional in this new environment. It’s not multimedia; we teach film, television and radio, but challenge students to think about those areas in a networked environment. And we’ve changed our way of teaching to student-centred learning, teaching them how to learn. We don’t focus on content, which changes, but on identifying their own strengths and weaknesses.”

simultaneity: education & experience

AFTRS recently moved to its new, specially designed and built premises within the Fox Studios complex, and will be offering a number of different ways in which students can enter the school. As Graham Thorburn, AFTRS Director, Screen Content, explains, “We now see education existing in parallel with experience, that is, work experience or self-made experience. We no longer think that our students need to acquire what had become a long list of skills, and we’d rather give them a choice of what to acquire; information on what is possible and the way to achieve it. We’re moving the responsibility from school to student to define what they need to know to become what they want to be, and we’ll offer a range of options for them to use to get there.” These changes have come in part from external pressure from the industry; pressure, as Graham Thorburn says, “that goes to the question: how do you make more inventive, low budget films that connect with the audience?”

promoting the student

Most institutions hold screenings of student films, which work both as marketing exercises and celebrations, shared with many from the industry. Sydney Film School has a staff member dedicated to distributing films through film festivals, student work has been sold to television stations and airlines, and one student documentary is being distributed nationally on DVD. At RMIT staff work hard to get students’ work online, and AFTRS has a unique claim: they’ve had three finalists in five years in the Best Short Film categories at the Oscars.

monitoring careers

The monitoring of the career trajectories of graduates is something that only AFTRS has done in a systematic and ongoing way; every three years it conducts an extraordinarily detailed survey of where its graduates are in their professional life. Most institutions keep in touch with graduates in an informal way, getting feedback on their success, or the lack of it. At RMIT, Leo Berkeley says, “the new structure has given us a very networked student group—they develop strong relationships both with each other and with staff. And they stay in touch after they graduate. There’s no formal mechanism, but it has given us a much better sense of where graduates are.”

The Sydney Film School monitors graduates through meetings and regular email contact; as International Relations Manager John Buckmaster explains, SFS is a small school, with a focus on its sense of community, mentoring and working together. International students number between 30 and 40% of each year’s student intake. Buckmaster keeps in contact with graduates internationally by visiting them in their countries, visits that coincide with the educational fairs and recruitment that bring in such students. He’s recently seen graduates in London and Istanbul, and in Shanghai he visited the two graduates who now run a post-production house with a staff of 20, up from the one-room operation they started two years ago.

Both Gill Leahy and Leo Berkeley believe thorough career surveys right across the sector would be really useful, and are something that the Australian Screen Production Education and Research Association, the peak discipline body for screen production institutions, could carry out. ASPERA, which represents the vast majority of universities that teach and research in the field of film, television and video production, is ideally placed to collect and analyse information about graduates and their careers.

ASPERA held its annual meeting of delegates from member institutions during July. With a key theme the relationship between the tertiary sector and the screen industry, the conference addressed issues such as industry expectations of prospective employees (proficiency in a range of technical skills, ability to work well as part of a team, without close supervision, and to respond to the demands of audiences); whether too many people are graduating from media courses expecting to gain employment in the screen industries; the contribution universities can make in providing critical thinking on the local industry; and the importance of gathering occupational data and identifying gaps in training for positions such as games designers, location managers and production accountants.

developing self-sufficiency

How do institutions help emerging filmmakers develop self-sufficiency, learn how to survive in the new screen environment? The new producing strand at AFTRS will consist of a series of weekend workshops and online assignments, covering models of production, financing, production development, creative teams, and understanding scripts. As Graham Thorburn explains, “We believe a better path is for producers to already be working somewhere in the industry and doing the course part-time; that way, it’s meeting the needs of a better quality of applicants.”

FTI runs short courses in production management, distribution, marketing, and even pitching ideas. “This allows past and current students to continually learn about this ever-changing and ever-growing industry”, comments Fern Nicholson. RMIT third-year students do research projects, where they interview people in the industry with a particular emphasis on how they have survived. And while Gillian Leahy believes UTS has probably not addressed filmmaker self-sufficiency as well as it could until now (although it has included a subject called producing which covers how the industry works, how to set up in business, and how to operate in the current environment), this will be emphasised more in the new degree. “We do encourage graduates to keep in touch, to tell their success stories, give warnings about difficulties they’ve encountered. It’s important to offer a range of experience.”

work experience

SFS offers an occupational training visa for international students; one student from India has worked in production on two Bollywood feature films made in Australia. In WA, FTI finds that production companies in Perth, and even interstate, are in constant contact regarding attachments and crew work on various projects. “These companies want to give students the opportunity to work on large on-set projects, where both paid and unpaid work is always required. There are quite a few large features coming up at the end of this year and we will no doubt be pushing for our students to get involved. It’s not just a great learning tool, it’s important for them to get out there and work in the industry”, Fern Nicholson argues. At RMIT, students are encouraged to find and organise work attachments for themselves, as important survival skills, while their course includes a range of projects with external elements. A number of students work with Melbourne’s community TV, Channel 31. “It has a very good community ethos”, explains Leo Berkeley, “and they get to make and broadcast their own material. It’s a fantastic educational experience that we have encouraged and hope to increase.”

industry contacts

Continuing industry contact is considered important. FTI is always in touch with film organisations, including documentary companies with projects in the pipeline, RMIT has Film Victoria represented on its film advisory committee, and has close relationships with industry organisations such as the Australian Directors Guild (ADG) and the Australian Writers Guild (AWG), while at Sydney Film School teachers, either part-time or as guest lecturers, are working practitioners. SFS graduates recently worked on Matthew Newton’s debut feature Three Blind Mice (selected for the Toronto Film Festival and in the Sydney Film Festival’s International Competition, p19); one graduate, Caitlin Stanton, was co-producer.

timing & readiness

Leo Berkeley comments that RMIT students are increasingly continuing with postgraduate work. “It’s often the more reflective ones”, he says. “It’s becoming a pathway for some students.” Meanwhile, at AFTRS, Graham Thorburn says that “our advice to students is not to immediately try and get their dream project made, but to enhance and develop their skills, in TV if need be, to build up a body of work, and to work on their own project until they feel it’s ready to deliver.”

Career opportunities in the film industry, particularly in the newer screen-related areas, are growing, as is confidence in the rejuvenated Australian film scene. However, much depends on the success of the new structure and financial support mechanisms, whether this can provide not only for the production of more and better Australian work, but for that work to connect with Australian audiences. To this end, education and training in the area should not only keep up with technological change, but also equip students with the mental and technical skills to contribute to the production of such work. As Gillian Leahy says: “What we do best is give students time and a chance to think, to look, to listen and to experiment in ways which challenge the norms of movie-making, of technologies, of ways of working.”

RealTime issue #86 Aug-Sept 2008 pg. 17

© Tina Kaufman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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