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Tuesday December 19th 2006, 1:06 pm
Filed under: FilmHelp,Writing

So you realise, a little late in life, after wondering around a bit that you really want to be a movie director, but you have no idea how to get started. With all the buzz surrounding the setting up of the Graduate NYU Film School in Singapore perhaps its opportune to reflect on the notion of film education. Starting from nothing, if one wanted to work in film industry, be a director, is film school the best place to learn about filmmaking and to get into the film industry? Or does it make more sense to apprentice oneself to a filmmaker/editor/producer to learn the chops from them which was how most people learnt about filmmaking in the pre film school days. I was faced this forked path when I realized that I wanted to become a filmmaker in the mid 90’s. At that time, no tertiary film school existed in Singapore (Ngee Ann Polytechnic had just opened, but I felt too old to be making films with 17 year olds). I decided that the best way for me to learn about filmmaking was to throw myself at the feet of Hou Hsiao Hsien hoping that some of his skill would percolate down to me or to apprentice myself to the drama department in Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS, the only TV station in Singapore). The former did not work out so I joined the latter.

Later when I realised that working in television making Triple Nine and Under One Roof did not further my filmmaking dreams did I apply to study for an MFA in film at Northwestern University. Since I learnt the craft under different regimes, I can shed some light on the film education process.

In the best case scenarios, film schools (or education for that matter) allow you to find your voice and they also provide a supportive environment to help you develop it. That was why, although I enjoyed my time making Under One Roof, I had to leave Television. The harsh daily grind of TV-making was killing my voice I had and I had leave to save it. I decided to enroll myself in film school, to not just learn the technical side of things, but to set time aside to help me define, refine my filmmaking voice in a structured environment.

If you are not an autodidact like me then which film school should one go to? Obviously cost is a factor and I will come to that later. The other factor is fit. Different film schools have different emphases. Some are strictly narrative where it is not uncommon for thesis films to cost USD 30,000, be shot in 35mm film. Others are less rigid. The best way to decide which school is for you is to see their students’ graduation films to see if you identify with it. For example, a person like Wong Kar Wai, had he gone to film school would NOT have come out of a film school like NYU, Columbia, UCLA (those schools have a strong focus on script which would have beaten the lets-make-it-up-as-we-go-along inclinations out of him in year 1). He would probably have come from a school like the Art Institute of Chicago which is also the school which Apitchatpong (Blissfully Yours) graduated from. So if you find yourself with a WKW personality, an Art Institute type school would have supported that way of filmmaking.

My references are USA-centred, but one should certainly look to UK, Australia (Unversity of Technology, Sydney has a great films coming out of it), Lodz Film school, Poland, the Beijing Film academy and Hong Kong City Unversity Film School, just to name a few. I myself wanted to go to film school in Japan but I blew the scholarship interview. The other film school I also explored was in Cuba, because I was very impressed by the films of Santiago Alvarez, he who could out of a few stills make the most moving polemical documentaries. At the back of my mind, I was keen on film schools set in cultures I was unfamiliar with, had small or non existent film industries but a thriving underground one. This meant that its filmmakers were more creative in not just getting their films made, but shown as well. They could out of necessity, like Santiago Alvarez say a lot more with a lot less and I wanted to learn from them.
In the end, I decided that Northwestern was best for me, not just because of the scholarship that was offered, but that I fell in love with Chicago. Still, I wonder what kind of films would I be making now if I went to film school in Japan or Cuba.

The other thing is cost. Unlike an MBA from a tier 1 university, which pays for itself 2-3 years after graduation. When you graduate from film school with a Tier 1 MFA, you start at entry level salaries of a fresh graduate or lower. So, if you are going to have to blow a USD 120,000 loan going into a Tier 1 MFA film school in the USA, don’t do it. It will take you many years to pay off the loan and that delays any further plans of auteurship that you may have had in mind, plans that led you to going into film school in the first place.
There are other ways of course, you could find a cheaper film school or win a scholarship. For me, if I didn’t get the Northwestern scholarship, I would have used a fraction of that money to make films and to learn from them. To become a filmmaker, observing others doing it, making one’s own films and watching and reading about films is really the best way. You could do this in a film school (has equipment, crew) or you could do this outside. For every Spike Lee who went to film school, there are others like Amir Mohammed, Martyn See, John Woo and WKW who didn’t. Point is, the benefit has to be balanced with cost, in terms of money and its collary, time.

And so, I ended up in the US, at a school which has a very strong industry focus, but interestingly it also had a very strong experimental niche within its ranks. Added to that, we were surrounded by a world class film history faculty due to our close proximity with the University of Chicago. In searching and refining my filmmaking voice, I was exposed to the best of different kinds of films and non-films so my filmmaking world view expanded exponentially. No longer was film just about what one saw in the cinemas, it grew to encompass installations, new media, theatre and various other expressions of life. I learned how amorphous rules are and how often they are the product of historical and cultural factors that are constantly being re-exammined and changed. I also learned that I could be a force in that change. Through Northwestern, I found myself at ease in the art world, in the film world and also in the TV world. The breadth of my filmmography, award winning documentaries with Discovery Channel, installations (80kmh, 9th August) and also independent documentaries (Singapore GaGa, Invisible City) is a result of this exposure.

A little caveat, film school is not for everyone. If you already have a very strong voice and know exactly what you kind of films you want to make, you may find school’s structured environment oppressive. I had friends who hated the film history or film theory class requirements. They felt that these classes got in their way of filmmaking. If you have a one-track mind, find a one track film school, or just make films and get on with it.

The above post pertains to film school at graduate level where the applicant is alot clearer about what she wants from life. My views on film schools at undergraduate level deserve another post

10 reasons to go
10 reasons not to go

or …if you are looking for short film courses, apart from those conducted by DMA, Objectifs‘, look to the plethora of short film/video courses conducted by Australian Film and TV School . I attended the course by Rob Marchand on directing using Mike Leigh’s Method of improvisation, it is highly recommended. He was able to articulate the craft very well. NFTRS (UK) has a similar short course programme. Singaporeans can apply for MDA’s capability Development scheme for partial funding.

10 Comments so far
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This was a fascinating post. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I’ve been wondering which path to take too — go be an apprentice or to save up for film school.

One of my biggest regrets was not watching enough film when I was studying at Chicago. Doc Films was on campus! I never even went to the Gene Siskel Film Center :( On hindsight, I should’ve studied less.

Comment by strangeknight 12.20.06 @ 2:54 pm

Thanks for your insight. I’ve personally been dabbling with filmmaking in the past two year and a half, but didn’t actually receive any formal training until I went to do this one-year postgrad diploma course in filmmaking at Murdoch University, Perth. It was a fine experience for me because not only was I allowed to develop upon the self-taught skills I had (acquired when I was making my own short films for fun), I was also exposed to other film students of other countries (okay, mostly Australians) and study the culture that influences their styles and voices.

So yeah, it can really be frustrating to see some who are less passionate in films doing film courses (it makes you wonder why would they want to do this if it’s only a job they’re searching for, and it’s not their passion), but often, it’s fascinating to run into people who share your dreams and see how they intend to forge their own path.

Comment by Swifty 12.21.06 @ 10:16 am

Hopefully you can write about how you decided to become a filmmaker in the other post at undergraduate level. I am studying something that I do not really like and it seems that I do not know what else to do about my future.

Comment by Sumgai 12.22.06 @ 1:52 am

Sumgai, not knowing much about you here\\\’s what I think, if you aren\\\’t sure what you want to do, take a course that requires you to think and write clearly eg history, law, maths, engineering etc etc. This skill is useful for anything you decide to later, filmmaking or not. Of course, history, literature also need you to re-interpret and mine texts/data for other meanings which is even more useful when working with the arts.

Comment by Pin 12.23.06 @ 11:07 am

Hi TPP. How are you doing? I don’t know if you remember me (Zan Azlee from Malaysia) but we met briefly during the 2004 Asian Film Symposium at the Substation. My film was shown under S-Express Malaysia, titled R.A.H.M.A.N.

Anyway… I was just surfing around and stumbled upon your blog and I’ve been quite entertained reading your entries! I don’t remember when or where I saw Singapore GaGa (i think it was in KL), but I thought it very nice. The tune that lady selling tissue (one dollaaaarrr!) was singing has been in my head to this day!

So (here it comes! heheh!), I’m working on personal documentary project right now. It’s about east-coast Malaysian women… anyway… if you’re interested… I’m documenting the making of via a video blog (

Good luck and thanks for the inspiration.

Comment by zan 12.23.06 @ 7:44 pm

Thanks for sharing this. I’ve been musing over the idea of going to film school, and this has definitely shed some light. :)

Comment by Ruok 12.25.06 @ 11:57 am


stumbled upon your blog and what a find it was~ I’m fresh out of University and I think I wanna be a film-maker. All you talked about I’ve considered, and it really is a tough decision that I’m struggling with. I’m kinda encouraged, hearing your opinions; I have one question though: where did you get your scholarship opportunity for the japanese film school? Was it for the Tokyo Film School? They have such great directors as lecturers and it would be awesome if I could head there not worrying about cost.

Comment by Shijie 12.26.06 @ 1:00 am

It was a JCCI Singapore Foundation Scholarship to Musashino Art University, also check out the Takashimaya NAC Scholarship

Comment by Pin 12.28.06 @ 1:03 pm

Greetings. That was a really good commentary on the value of film education. My background is in architecture, and the debate between apprenticeship and formal training is no different. I expect it to be the same in any creative field of work.
I can’t agree more about the importance of exposure in the formation of a creative identity.
The idea that rules and formal teaching methods can hamper a creative mind is self-contradictory. Creativity itself is, after all, knowing how to make these same rules work for you.
I just did a summer course at NYU myself in 2006, and am thinking of going into editing (major shift in career since I’m in my 40′s). TPP, I’d love to continue the discussion on breaking into the industry, if you’ve got the inclination to do so…

Comment by Luke 01.13.07 @ 12:37 pm

[...] Well, here’s some very insightful reflections on Graduate School for filmmakers (not film studies folks) by a friend of mine who’s become a successful filmmaker in the Asia-Pacific region, Tan Pin Pin.  Here’s a link to her blog entry on FilmSkool CONFIDENTIAL [...]

Pingback by Film and Digital Media @ Messiah » Blog Archive » Graduate School for a Filmmaker? What’s that about? 06.02.07 @ 12:58 pm

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