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There is no one clearly delineated path to ‘learning film’. Film is art, and is different things to different people at the same time. People go to film school, but it is important to know that film wasn’t fully institutionalized until the second half of the 20th century. Up until then, films were made by people who mastered the craft without academic film studies. Nowadays, there are many institutions and universities offering courses in film studies, possibly integrated in a larger context of social sciences (I, for one, am currently enrolled in a one-year Master of Film Studies and Visual Culture at the University of Antwerp in Belgium). While going to film school is, no doubt, incredibly helpful in understanding the medium, there is also a lot of things you can do by yourself to learn film. In fact, none other than Quentin Tarantino is famous for saying ‘I didn’t go to film school, I went to films’. In this do-it-yourself post, I thought I’d list some ways of increasing your film knowledge all by yourself. I am by no means an expert, and I still have much to learn, but now that I’m enrolled in an academic film course, I realised that I was able to understand a whole lot of things more quickly since I taught myself about film over the past few years. So let’s get to it, then!
- Books and YouTube
If you want to learn something, you have to find teachers. Teachers don’t have to be actual persons, though. There’s so much you can learn by reading books on anything you’re interested in, be it screenwriting, cinematography, editing, film history, acting, etc. Books by Syd Field, for example, are a good starting point for anything related to screenwriting or story structure. Read them, but don’t ‘just read’ them. Get to its core, not necessarily by learning it by heart but by trying to really understand the information that’s offered.
We live in a digital age now, though, which means that a vast amount of information can be accessed online. On YouTube, for example, there’s been a great emergence of video essays (look for Nerdwriter1, The Closer Look, Lessons From The Screenplay, Every Frame A Painting, HoustonProductions1, and many more) breaking down entire movies or particular movie scenes. These video essays are often very well argumented and fantastically put together. Listen to what they have to say, and try to apply what you learn to your own film experiences. Those interested in producing and directing themselves will also find what they are looking for on YouTube. I’ve already given D4Darious the Spotlight treatment, and there’s many more like him out there. In fact, Darious has done a video on his personal top 20 filmmaking channels on YouTube, all of whom are worth checking out:
FutureLearn is a free online teaching platform with courses spanning a multitude of subjects, including a number of film-related ones. Their courses are provided by universities from all over the world and are well put together. I took the ‘Introduction to Screenwriting’ class a couple years back, and I can confidently say it enhanced my knowledge of the subject and gave me some fun exercises to do (reading and breaking down scripts, writing a five finger pitch, etc.). It also gives you the opportunity to be a part of a larger online community of people taking the same course.
- Watching films/Reading scripts
You can’t learn how to swim without actually getting in the water. The most important thing, of course, is watching films (or reading scripts, if you’re more interested in screenwriting). Watch films, and really watch them: why does a shot look the way it does? For example, in the movie Silence (2016, Martin Scorsese), what is the point of depicting the protagonists’ ship through aerial shots? It’s directed that way, I think, to symbolize the gaze of God, which seems plausible in the film’s religious context.
Look for the meaning of everything you see—or the lack thereof in lesser-quality movies—and try to figure out which production, directing or editorial choices were made and how they contribute to a larger whole. Often there’s no one right answer, though. Also, try to select films from different genres, countries, directors, actors, and so on. It’s also important to watch ‘bad’ films, as they are good examples of how not to do certain things and what possible consequences are of making mistakes. What is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is inherently subjective, of course (though in a lot of cases a certain ‘consensus’ exists; I’m looking at you, The Emoji Movie (2017, Tony Leondis)), but confronting yourself with as many examples of both as possible is never a bad thing and essential in developing personal artistic taste.
- Film journal
Having a written film journal is crucial to learning film. They are very cheap and don’t have to be anything special; it can be any type of notepad or notebook that you use to write down thoughts on every film or instructional YouTube video you watch. Many posts on Screenanigans are structured after my own personal notes. By writing down your thoughts on whatever interests you, you’re building a written and mental archive or catalogue of films that you can access easily (I number every new entry and try to write at least one page every time) and in which you can efficiently save information that you would otherwise forget over time.
Doing everything I just listed should allow you to rapidly increase your knowledge of film and everything related to it. This list is, of course, short, and if you have other tips, please let me know in the comment section below!