student films
Student films are often criticized for being unorganized, but they can be the key to aspiring film makers making it in the industry. (Illustration by James O’Toole, Grand Valley State University)

How Student Films Can Unlock Doors in the Film Industry

Wouldn’t it help to know your way around a movie set before you enter the real world of filmmaking?

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student films
Student films are often criticized for being unorganized, but they can be the key to aspiring film makers making it in the industry. (Illustration by James O’Toole, Grand Valley State University)

Wouldn’t it help to know your way around a movie set before you enter the real world of filmmaking?

Breaking into the film scene can be extremely challenging no matter what area of the industry you want to be a part of. Whether you dream of acting, directing, screenwriting or cinematography, countless other artists are out there trying to prove that they have what it takes to make it big, just like you. An invaluable way to gain critical, hands-on experience (and start filling out your resume) is through involvement in student films.

Student films often get a bad rap for being unorganized, unprofessional and shallow when it comes to themes and plot development. While this may be the case for some student-run film sets, these shortcomings can be true of any film, regardless of who is running the show.

The people you will most likely be working with in student films are beginners, but that doesn’t mean the project can’t be educational or have a significant impact on your creative career in the future. Everyone has to start somewhere, so keep an open mind as you dive into the dynamic world of student film!

Build a Support Network

Establishing a network of likeminded individuals is an essential first step to developing yourself as a filmmaker. You can build a support network whether you go to a school that specializes in film or a school with independent student clubs dedicated to making movies. You’ll want to surround yourself with others who are passionate not only about watching films but about the art of filmmaking, and joining student or community film clubs is a great way to make those connections.

Classes and clubs give you access to people with varying levels of experience and interests who are willing to help on projects, share knowledge and be taught by others in order to create a great piece of art. Instead of desperately trying to bully your roommate into holding a boom mic for your film, you can just ask Jill from film club who has held boom for three other shorts. She already knows what to do and is probably more than happy to help!

Not only that, you have access to alumni who were involved with these clubs and organizations in the past and may need volunteers to help with thesis projects or independent films they are working on after graduation. If they remember you from film club as that funny girl who acted in that one short film that one time, you might just land a role in some of their later work down the road. Student films are often submitted to film festivals as well, giving your work exposure and recognition in the film world and potentially landing you future work in your area of interest.

Gain Access to Resources

The world of student film gives you easy access to mentors in nearly every major medium of production. Teachers are available to mentor students in screenwriting, directing, editing, cinematography, sound mixing, soundtrack composition, costume design and acting. The list goes on and on!

You should never feel like you have to stumble through things on your own. The greatest resources to you as a student filmmaker are the impressive minds of teachers and student filmmakers around you and the experience they have from their own past failures and successes.

Once you write your first screenplay, have your script analysis professor edit it and get it produced in a student short film. The only way you will be able to tell if your work comes across effectively is by seeing your story as it comes to life on-screen for the first time; this helps you clearly see both the strengths and the weaknesses in your work. You scribble down some notes, remember that advice from your TA you thought was dumb at first but now sounds exactly right and begin working on your second project with your newfound discoveries tucked away in your back pocket.

In regard to physical resources, students often have free use of high-quality filming materials and access to editing software and studios designed to teach students how to navigate those different forms of software. Your school most likely has a media center where students can use pre-downloaded editing software, such as Adobe Premiere Pro, to work on films independently or for class.

These centers may also allow students to check out or reserve film and sound equipment, and clubs can make such resources available for student members as well, often after they pay dues to help contribute to the upkeep of the equipment. The ARRI ALEXA digital camera system, the same camera used on set for “The Avengers,” is being used on a film project I am working on this spring with a graduate student, courtesy of our filmmakers club.

Gain Useful Experience

You can gain experience in each technical and artistic area of film on student film sets, and the projects are often small enough that you can dabble in several areas of production to figure out which one is right for you.

Actors, who probably have more experience on the stage than in front of a camera, gain critical auditioning experience and become accustomed to the more intimate nature of a film set. Along with practical on-set time, actors can gain usable footage to add to video reels that can then be sent along to future audition opportunities. It is also a great creative outlet to work those acting muscles and try out different roles and acting techniques.

Writers develop a voice as well as learn the proper formatting for writing screenplays. You learn how to write with nuance, the art of showing instead of telling, and the universal power of storytelling. A common trap student writers often fall into is the use of too much exposition. You try to tell the whole story through dialogue instead of letting visual images tell the story for you. Writing a good screenplay is challenging, but it is the foundation for a high-quality film. Making a good film without a good script is nearly impossible.

Directors get to test different methods of rehearsal and the directing styles that work best for their leadership type on each film set. They also learn how to audition actors, some of whom may not even be students. This is worth noting, especially because many student directors don’t give as much time to casting actors as they should, often giving roles to friends or to people they know. This can be a huge mistake and is often the unfortunate cause of many cringe-worthy student films.

Producers quickly learn the many complexities of a film set. Just a few of their tasks include but are not limited to the following: scheduling rehearsals and shoots, organizing the different technical crews, booking locations as well as equipment, being creative with limited budgets, ordering food for the cast and crew and being patient with actors and directors who are working together, often under time constraints and less-than-ideal situations.

Other technical roles include sound design, lighting design, hair and makeup and costume design. All are necessary for the success of any film, and student film sets are an excellent way to start gaining knowledge and experience in all of these various media of artistic expression.

These are just a few of the multifaceted responsibilities necessary to make any film successful, whether it be a five-minute student film or a full-length blockbuster. The resume-worthy experiences and credit gained from student film projects are incredibly useful tools to have under your belt before you enter the “real” world of filmmaking.

These ventures allow you to explore innovative ideas and put them to practice. You can mess up, make discoveries and find what you are passionate about, all without the pressure of a multimillion-dollar budget hanging over your head.

Student films help you build lasting connections and stand out amidst the sea of young hopefuls who all want a chance to share their stories with the world. Your story is worth sharing; you just need to let the rest of the world know that first.


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