A Guide to Studying Film Overseas

Also known as movies, motion pictures, cinema, or many of the other dozens of nicknames the industry has earned, Film is the artistic development of a series of still images to create the illusion of motion.

For anyone that has taken their phone out of their pocket to film something for a few moments, or for anyone that has had to sit through a family member’s holiday video, making a good film takes a greater degree of skill and practice than most people realise. But is choosing film a sustainable career path? Can it be affordable? And do all film students just want to be directors?

What is Film?

Film is a series of still images that, when shown on a screen, create the illusion of a moving image. This optical illusion causes the audience to perceive continuous motion between separate objects.

The process of filmmaking is both an art and an industry. A film is created by either: photographing something real with a motion-picture camera; by photographing drawings or models using traditional animation techniques, by means of CGI and computer animation; or by a combination of some or all of these techniques, and other visual effects.

The word "cinema", short for cinematography, is often used to refer to filmmaking and the film industry, and to the art of filmmaking itself. The contemporary definition of cinema is the art of simulating experiences to communicate ideas, stories, perceptions, feelings, beauty or atmosphere.

Why Study Film?

Working as part of the film industry is highly desirable. Success can lead to fame, fortune and power, while the jobs themselves are typically creative and rewarding. But of course, being so desirable means that roles in the film industry are very challenging to get, even at the very bottom of the pyramid.

The other option for budding filmmakers is to just avoid film school altogether. You can easily buy all the cameras and editing software you need in this age where even mobile phones shoot in HD. Why spend thousands of pounds when all the filmmaking guides you will study are available on Amazon?

Quentin Tarantino, among many other famous movie directors, have famously suggested that the best way to get into film is to simply make a film. Whatever you may spend on a film school or film degree, put towards making a feature-length picture. While there is a wisdom in this, some prefer the ‘safety’ of a film degree, during which you can learn how to make a film, in a structure that works you towards making a film, which can be quite the imposing task in and of itself.

And aside from Tarantino, tonnes of filmmakers got their start at a film school, like: Scorsese, Lucas, Lynch, Aronofsky, Bigelow and Coppola, alongside many others.

And of course going to a film school is a good option for those that don’t necessarily want to become film directors and require a more specific programme of study, such as cinematographers or script writers.

The real question is why should a filmmaker go to film school? Film school can open ones’ eyes to the possibilities of film. It can encourage you to think about storytelling and the language of film that teaching yourself may not be able to do. And of course the advantage of meeting and working with other talented and like-minded filmmakers can be immeasurably important for both support and collaboration for the rest of your career.

Job Opportunities for Film Graduates

In an increasingly media-saturated world, the study of film holds an integral place in our critical understanding of society. Film graduates benefit from a diverse array of career opportunities. These include those that specifically relate to film, like academia, the creative industries and arts administration, alongside other spheres, such as publishing, journalism, public relations and education.

Like all creative arts industries, starting your career in film production can be challenging as there's strong competition for roles. Work experience is essential for building your CV and portfolio, as well as increasing your networking opportunities.

A common entry-level job in film and television is as a runner, a person that supports production staff on film and television sets. This is a good way to learn about the production process and gain valuable contacts in the industry.

Film students will obviously typically look for a career in film once they have graduated. There are, however, few job options within the film and television industries that actually require formal education. Since they are generally creative or practical jobs, experience is typically far more valuable when establishing a career.

Jobs directly related to a film degree include:

  •         Film director
  •         Video editor
  •          Lighting technician
  •          Location manager
  •          Programme researcher
  •          Runner
  •          Sound technician
  •          Producer

Besides film and television production companies, job opportunities can be found across a range of sectors including:

  •         Advertising and other creative industries
  •         Charities
  •         Corporate business
  •         Marketing
  •         Universities

There also remains the option to be an independent filmmaker; many are starting their career now by making short films, and putting them online in places such as YouTube or Vimeo.

In the UK, just under 80% of film and television production graduates find employment within six months. 6-8% go on to further study, while around 10 percent remain unemployed after half a year. The remaining few percent did not disclose their destinations.

Of those that found employment, under half found it within the arts, design or media industries. A quarter entered retail, catering or bar work. 5% went into marketing, PR and sales. Another 5% became secretaries or clerks. The rest classified themselves as ‘other’. Since breaking into the film industry is so challenging, a film degree is by no means assurance of that type of career.

Life as a Film Student

What type of person should become a film student? To quote Danny Boyle, 'to be a filmmaker, you have to be relentless. You have to be psychotic in your desire to do something and keep working. People always like the easy route. You can’t. You have to push very hard to get something unusual, something different to stand out.'

Do not join a film school unless you are: prepared for hard work; enjoy collaboration and team work; listen to others and communicate well; and have a hunger to learn and a passion for storytelling.

Film courses are often structured to mirror the real film industry to prepare students for that lifestyle as closely as possible. Tutors will often work part-time within the industry which leads to up-to-date knowledge and hopefully the luxury of having many big-name guest lecture visits.

One of the biggest attractions of film courses is the equipment. While it’s possible to shoot good film on a phone these days, nothing beats real film, whether it be 16mm, 35mm or 70mm. While shooting on film is cool, it is also good educationally, as since it can be so expensive, shooting with film stock encourages good discipline and planning.

Depending on your course choice, your work could either be more focused on the practical side of things, or more academic – lots of book reading and essay writing on film history and theory. Make sure when investigating courses you choose the type that you think would most benefit you. Whichever you choose though, there should be both practical and theoretical units to study.

Your first year will typically cover the fundamentals of filmmaking. Experienced film directors will have some experience in each department of the industry and these initial units will cover all of your options. During this time, you can choose an area of production to specialize in for the rest of your time on the course. The options will often include: Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Production Design, Directing and Producing.

Students will then work together on projects, like a mini film industry. As a final project you will work on a feature film, working much like a dissertation in other courses, to show how much you have learned. Final projects will be screened at the end of the year, and often sent to film festivals in the hope they capture someone’s imagination and get noticed by a wider audience.

Most Recognised Institutions for Film

  1.      American Film Institute – USA

  2.      University of Southern California – USA

  3.      Beijing Film Academy – China

  4.      New York University Tisch School of the Arts – USA

  5.      University of California, Los Angeles – USA

  6.      California Institute of the Arts – USA

  7.      The Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague – Czech Republic

  8.      Columbia University School of the Arts – USA

  9.      Wesleyan University – USA

  10.      The National Film and Television School – UK

Applying for an Overseas Film Course

Studying Film in the United States

International students who want to study film in the USA will find specialist schools that provide very reputable degrees and give students the opportunity to gain exposure to all areas of the industry. Most of these colleges and universities are located in New York and California, as both are close to the industry. While California is home to many major film studios, New York City is also aptly placed for beneficial networking. 

After doing lots of research and finding the course that you think would be best for you, be prepared for a somewhat lengthy application process. Most colleges or universities require well-written essay applications, while the film school within said college or university will typically require its own application.

For example, in order to get into the University of Southern California's School of Cinema Arts in the Film and Television Program, you must supply the university with a Cinematic Arts Personal Statement, a writing sample, a visual sample such as a video or photo, a portfolio list, three letters of recommendation, high school transcripts and TOEFL test scores. This is all in addition to the university's regular application.

When applying to film schools in the U.S., look out for deadlines and start gathering the required materials for your chosen school a year before you want to attend. The requirements can be found on school websites or by calling an admissions counsellor – they're typically happy to answer any questions for you.

The cost of studying in the United States varies wildly depending on your choice of course and institution. Tuition fees can range from $5,000 to $50,000 (USD) per year. The average annual cost of tuition fees in the US was estimated at $33,215 in 2016. Most undergraduate degrees last four years, so, on average, students are graduating with $132,860 worth of debt.

While some countries differentiate pricing for home, EU and international students, American universities differentiate between in-state and out-of-state students. A typical four-year public college charged in-state students $9,650 per year (£7,372) in 2016-17, while out-of-state students were charged $24,930 (£19,046). There are private non-profit colleges too, which charged $33,480 (£25,578) on average in the same year.

Studying Film Internationally

Although the United States is home to the world’s most recognised film schools, just as it is home to the world’s most recognised films, you can often make a good saving by studying elsewhere. Beijing Film Academy, for example, is very highly regarded and costs around $7,000-$8000 (USD) per year in tuition, far less than comparable United States programs. However, the difficulty with the Beijing Film Academy is that the vast majority of courses are taught in Chinese. This is at least a difficulty if you can’t speak Chinese, of course.

As mentioned, getting a job in Film is highly competitive. This is no different when applying for film courses. Each requires a long application involving lots of essays, but by doing your research, you can find courses that are very affordable as well as highly regarded.

La Femis is France’s most prestigious film school and comparatively affordable compared to studying in Los Angeles or New York. The Polish National Film, Television and Theatre School has a similar tuition fee and has produced directors such as Krzysztof Kieslowski.

If your heart is set on the United States though, some more affordable options include the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, the University of Texas at Austin, the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts and the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee.