The “NYU Film” approach to teaching filmmaking / and teaching entrepreneurship?


Making a film is quite a lot like starting a business and making a product, so I was interested to hear how film schools work.

Apparently there are some west-coast schools where you show up an ‘major’ in a specific role like Director, Producer, Acting, Cinematography and that’s all you do. These seem a variation on business school really, where you show up and focus on Marketing or Finance so you can go work in the department of some big company.

What’s interesting about NYU Film is that the approach is “do everything”. The core learning happens in constantly shifting teams of 5 around projects. You form a team, you choose roles to play, and you learn to do that job. Everyone at NYU writes, directs, shoots, does lighting, edits, produces again and again. (I may have this a little wrong, but that’s what it sounded like.)

They even end up acting and doing gruntwork and other parts of the craft.

Once you have studied there a bit, you have real knowledge of what it takes to do various things. So when you are directing you can understand what the person shooting needs to do, how long it takes, what could go wrong, how they feel about the situation, etc.

The result of this “lab” approach where people get out and make things is they learn to make things. They have few resources and so they emerge with plans that can work at smaller scale (i.e., indie not studio) and perhaps because they are smaller can be more creative (not mass market).

So, it’s a learning by doing thing.

Second major observation about all this — it’s a team thing.

They work in teams, switch roles, talk about and learn about teamwork as a fundamental concept (“directing” is directing *people*) and explore different styles. Herzog made you feel it was real (in Fitzcarraldo’s filming they traveled the jungle and nearly died together while trying to shoot the real), Bergman intimidated you, Mamet reminds you to “stop thinking, just say the words and do the actions”, etc.

Having done some work teaching entrepreneurship at Columbia this year, I have been thinking a bit about how to teach stuff that hasn’t been taught much in the past.

Entrepreneurship is a newish area for universities to tackle, but it can be done. You see lots of people embracing “labs” inside and outside the classroom as a form of “make teams, do something”. This looks a lot like “the NYU Film approach” to me.

But hanging around Film, Writing, Visual Arts folks lately it occurs to me there are some fine schools of “art” (making creative things), “engineering” (applying science to making thigns), “professions” (heavily-trained jobs, including “business”). And these are rightly in the mandate of great American universities which both try to find new knowledge (the German research university template) and educate young people to go do good things (the English residential college model).

And while in engineering or professions there is a well-established doctrine or canon of what you must know (or even laws dictating what doctors or lawyers must know to practice the profession), in the arts there is far less. And *this* last detail is what makes entrepreneurship more similar to Film School than Law School.

And another post by me about Alan Kay and how education can work in the digital future.