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I don’t believe in scripts. (1)

Story telling has always been a tool for people to make sense of life. It’s a way to boil reality down to a smaller and more manageable size. In a fast paced culture of constant communications film, TV and new media have gained a huge significance in our lives.

Yet these mediums, being based on story telling, are undergoing vast changes as a result of shifting attitudes, most notably in the teaching of the craft.

There has been a significant degradation in story telling through film and television over the last 20 years in Australia. I would like to explore this phenomenon from an academic P.O.V.… not academic in the “correct referencing system” sense of the word, rather a critical view of one of the more respected education institutions of Australia in the field of media and communications.

There has been a significant degradation in storytelling
through film and television over the last 20 years in Australia.

Contributing to this study are my personal experiences in this very institution a few years ago as a mature age student where I got my degree – UTS.

Firstly I would like to state that the technical aspects of digital filmmaking and television production at UTS are very well managed. The technical staff was very helpful and knowledgeable. In addition UTS has an incredible digital sound facility. This is a huge benefit to all students that attend the faculty of humanities and social sciences. The staff, facilities and equipment of the sound department far exceeded my expectations at the time of my attendance.

What I did find strange was that at no point during my time at the university did any of the lecturers outline to us the basic structure of a story. To that Crispy the Duckmatter never was there even an attempt to allude to the craft of story telling. When I asked for more hands on demonstrations of production technicalities the common reply was “this is not a technical training facility but an education facility.”

Yet, there was very little educating in story telling as part of the media arts and production courses. This poses a huge contradiction, as story telling is the fundamental craft that all film and television productions are based on. This very contradiction in philosophies persisted throughout my entire degree.

The first assignment we were given was to produce a 5 min film interpreting the theme “Places”. Camcorders, edit suites and technical training were provided but no guidelines of how to produce the content.

Fortunately, from prior work experience I knew what production documents were needed and worked with them accordingly. I structured a plot, wrote a script, broke it down, sketched a storyboard and produced a shot list. Armed with my production folder full of goodies I created a schedule for production and booked in the crew… my lonesome self.
Eventually I had a single day of shooting left and found my self at the edit suites digitizing footage. On a tea break I talked with another student about his assignment. He asked how it was going for me and I replied “good, I am only 3 shots away from finishing all of my shotlist”. Mortified he replied “SHOTLIST!!!?” I said, “yes, of my script” and these words came out of his mouth “Script? I don’t believe in scripts”.

Script? I don’t believe in scripts.

Normally I could leave that to hang for a minute or 2 and even let that little anecdote end my argument. But I have more.

The shear audacity that some people have to downright ignore the last 2500 years worth of study into the craft of story telling is astounding. Not having the basics such as step outlines, treatments, scripts, breakdowns and shot lists required as part of all assignments in a Media Arts and Production degree reflects a severe lack of appreciation of story telling and structure in both academia and industry alike.

This laissez-faire attitude had filtered through from course structure to assessment. How are students meant to tell 5-minute stories with out being taught story telling? Most of the shorts produced for this assignment ended up being portraits of buildings, streets and random thoughts. What were the assessors assessing?

I found an equivalent form of short film making at one of Sydney’s highly respected fine art schools, COFA, part of the university of New South Wales. A friend of mine who studied there would invite me regularly to their class exhibitions. Many of his fellow students explored other mediums than drawing, print and sculpture.

Filmmaking goes short of the technicalities
of operating the camera and editing the footage.

One of the common additions to the traditional arts in their exhibitions was video installation. To the most part I found these installations both literal and tedious at best. But one did catch my attention.

Duck punch game. It was a static shot, in the background was an ornate wallpaper – the faded maroon colour of the patterns gave evidence of its age. In the foreground, contradicting the background was a young pretty girl sitting in a chair who turned out to be the artist. She smiled and spoke to someone off camera. The audio levels were too low for her words to be audible. A fist bound with boxing bandages entered frame right and punched her in the face. The force of the impact was so strong as to be heard through the very low audio levels. More so it knocked her head back and forced her to take a second to recover. She gathered her thoughts and kept on talking, ignoring the fist. The fist came in again and punched her a second time this time she needed longer to recover. Before she had the chance to do so the fist returned a third time her head recoiled back from the force of the hit. She began to cry uncontrollably wiping away her tears as the fist came for another punch. This evoked an emotion in me as the viewing audience. I sympathized with another human in pain.

The clip alone had no story, though arguably she could be defined as the protagonist and the fist as the antagonist. Then her decision to brave on through the violence defying the perpetrator tells us much about her. But that would be a subjectively analytical view forcing this clip into a structure that I don’t think the artist had in mind. This was a spectacle for a spectacle’s sake provoking the viewer as any controversial artwork would.

How are students meant to tell 5-minute stories
without being taught story telling?

As filmmaking goes short of the technicalities of operating the camera and editing the footage, this was not a short film but video positioned as fine art. The artist argues for the validity of fine art to exist outside of its traditional mediums.

-Nir Shelter

(continued)

About the Author

Nir Shelter

Comments 6

  1. Unfortunately this is not an isolated case in Australian universities.

    My own experience of Australian university study in film, literature and related areas has been of very poor quality teaching and assessment standards, and often a primary focus on requiring students to adopt the ‘cultural politics’ stances of faculty members in assessment tasks. Often faculty are so commited to their pet political theories that they are very resistant to considering or acknowledging anything that doesn’t fit their pre-conceived speculative and untestable theories.

    This is the second blog post in a week I’ve read from an Australian lamenting not being taught basic storytelling skills in the course of completing a degree at an Australian university.

    1. I was also a mature age student at a university undertaking film studies. I too was horrified to discover students being sent away with various technical apparatus to shoot scenes and short films without first being taught the principles of story, let alone the principles of storytelling specifically for the screen. A correctly formated screenplay was a rare occurrence. The concentration on technical ability and achievement was left floundering when students could not produce a legible story. The university system spruiking and leaching from the thousands of students, both local and international, gleefully handing over many thousands of dollars for a piece of worthless paper are a disgrace. Needless to say the standard of film released from these institutions were poor and the ability of the graduates to find work in the industry was very low. Don’t waste your money – teach yourself.

      1. I couldn’t agree more Meg.

        Local and state Film schools are bullshit. I have 2 degrees in Film. I have known many others with certificates and diplomas and in almost all cases they are a waste valuable time. The teachers are ‘nice’ people but as far their industry experience goes, they never reached any level of success and certainly never enough to be even endeared as a ‘has been’!!!

        The only exception is the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. Like UCLA and a few other film schools in Russia and London, it’s a hypermega experience one can barely imagine unless you attended. The big difference is budget because that provides the amazing resources and quality of industry expertise involved in training. Unless you are one of the ‘choosen few’ to go there, going the path of private group training like as enthusiastic script groups run by people of knowledge is in my opinion, time productively spent.

        My degrees have NEVER assisted me in working in the film and TV industry, in fact quite the opposite as you are often discriminated by those in leading position who got there through the other ways and not a film and education path.

        Bottom line:
        politicians don’t respect the Arts and don’t see the Arts as a legitimate way to earn a living and ultimately pay those taxes. Politicians by and large are not ‘creative types’ or have a creative understanding. Paul Keating aside, because he was married to an artist who pulled is strings. The arts flourished for 3 years under his watch. Fortunately, she didn’t divorce him until after he was voted off the playing field.

        Unless politicians see that creative Arts have a powerful place in generating fiscal policy, their attitudes won’t change and investment in creative arts industry will always remain what it is – a token value.

    2. A few years ago, a friend asked me to help her with a film school assignment. She had to analyse camera movements in a scene from The Last Crusade and write down the director’s intentions with those.

      The task was clarified by indicating the exact dialogue lines where the camera movements occurred.

      It took me a minute to figure out something was very wrong.

      No wonder my friend couldn’t give proper answers:

      The teacher had used a PAN AND SCAN VIDEO VERSION and had included every automatic pan in the list of “camera movements”.

      Visual storytelling, indeed…

  2. I studied Film Production Techniques at North Sydney Technical college in the mid 1980’s and the teachers there had a very strong technical emphasis and discouraged anything ‘artistic’.

    When we asked why, they said the aim of the course was to provide technicians and craftsman for the Australian film and Television industries.

    We all thought that sounded fair enough and so set about teaching ourselves all the creative aspects of filmmaking. So we learned by watching films and reading interviews with Directors and cinematographers etc. In the 80’s + 90’s this was the best we could do but unfortunately it was totally inadequate.

    I totally agree that Australia doesn’t support enough education in story development but it must be remembered that the emergence and maturity of Hollywood style screenwriting is only a relatively recent phenomenon. 10 years ago there were hardly any books on writing structure but now there are hundreds.

    Hopefully Australian educators don’t leave it too long to catch up but it also means that Karel is in the right place at the right time, where hopefully he can ride the crest of a new wave.

  3. I had the misfortune of dealing with what was The Australian Film Commission and Film Victoria back in the 90s. Total pack of toffs, with an encyclopedic film knowledge but no film making skill, trying to replicate European cinema of the 60s. They never understood that since the Australian taxpayer was forced to pay for them, they needed to serve them at the box office.

    They once claimed that their service was vital to the preservation and celebration of Australian culture which was not negotiable. Unfortunately, the Australian movie-going public disagrees. When they have secure jobs and they are little more than film administrators and armchair film makers, they should be ground to a pulp and exterminated. I still impose a life time ban on them because of their gobsmacking public servant incompetence.

    They still believe that a 3% share of the Australian box office of their films is a good showing. Keep sending them hate mail and perhaps Kevin Rudd will shut them down once and for all.

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