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DVD: Film School 101

28 Aug, 2006 By: Holly J. Wagner

John Sammon said DVD extras are good for educating the masses, but he uses film clips on DVD to teach budding filmmakers in his classes.

While much is made of how DVD has changed the way people consume entertainment, little attention has been paid to how DVD could change film education and, ultimately, filmmaking.

The plethora of bonus materials, which often include commentaries, behind-the-scenes featurettes and storyboards, are creating a generation of film students who are much wiser about the filmmaking process,

according to instructors and administrators. In some cases, materials find their way into classrooms to illustrate instructors' lessons.

“I look at them as a visual textbook,” said Russell Gray, New York Film Academy producing teacher and a working casting director (“Sex and the City”). “If we want to learn something, we go to a book and figure it out. In the same way, you still have to take what you learned in that book and do something with it. It's a great learning tool, but you need the application and the discussion of what you have learned.”

Even VHS changed the film school landscape, Gray said, because students have access to films that in earlier years might have been overlooked or missed.

“I think it's good for the art form,” said John Sammon, director of education at the New York Film Academy's Universal Studios campus. “The more filmmaking becomes accessible to the masses, the more we are going to find that next diamond in the rough.”

Robert Rosen, dean of the School of Theater, Film and Television at University of California, Los Angeles, agreed. “It's changed the self-teaching process of people consuming films,” he said. “They have all that additional material on there that helps contextualize it. You are getting viewers who are more literate and educated about film.”

Students bring a love of film to school with them, and the vast selection of videos available feeds their desire to make movies. Bonus features help them understand the process.

“I have used it for my own personal learning experience,” said Alex Mora, a first-year student in New York Film Academy Universal's Master of Fine Arts program. “If I find a DVD that I really like and it has the commentary, I usually tend to listen to it with the perspective of the director because it tells you why things were chosen. That's what directors do. They are making choices constantly.”

Mora points to Quentin Tarantino's commentary on Pulp Fiction as an example. Before every deleted scene, Tarantino explains why the scene was cut.

Instructors also have used storyboard extras to show how the movie transitioned from storyboards to a finished product, Mora said.

“There are people on our faculty who make those films — the behind-the-scenes and making-of films,” said producer Michael Taylor, who works in the production division at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television. “We bring anything into the classroom that will help.”

About 90% of the instructors at the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California choose DVDs to show a film in class, said Stephen Hanson, head of Cinema-Television Library and professor of librarianship at USC.

“It is the ease of transportation and screening,” he said. “The first thing they will do is show the feature once in the classroom. The second screening usually takes place in the library, especially when there is a voiceover by a film critic, film scholar or the director.”

Faculty members often are called upon to provide the film-scholar commenting, but most tend to use others' work in class, Hanson said.

“I don't think they put a premium on using their own commentary because they will be talking about it for two hours after the movie,” he said.

All of the instructors said bonus features help students understand filmmaking, but some said students primarily use DVD features on their own.

“Class is based on interaction,” New York Film Academy's Sammon said. “I would only rarely teach from bonus features of a DVD. We will watch film clips and talk about what they mean, break down the essence of a scene.

“We might turn to the special features to show what a director was feeling. On occasion, we will use commentaries. But that is really something the students should be doing on their own time. We would assign that as homework, too.”

“I figure they are doing that on their own,” said Nancy Richardson, who teaches at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television and was the editor on such films as Selena, Lords of Dogtown, When Billie Beat Bobby and Thirteen. “In my classes, students will pipe up and say, ‘Yeah, the DVD commentary is about that.' I will show clips from a DVD, but whatever the commentary is, it is not usually pertinent to what I am doing.”

California Institute of the Arts has been revamping its film education program, and DVDs are coming into classrooms more and more.

“I do hear a lot of students discussing, ‘I heard Coppola talking about why he did this,’ said Deborah Levine, co-head of the film directing program. “I have a friend who was working on the making of the making-of.

“They were going to turn that into a horror movie.”

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