Creation through constraints

I recently gave a talk at Kunstnernes Hus Kino in Oslo at their symposium “Kunst er best på kino” (literally translated as “Art is best in a cinema”). The subject was education for artist/filmmakers, and I was very much the “industry” representative. It was fun meeting a new audience, and a useful reminder that the gap between film/video artists and film industry is not as great as we sometimes make it out to be.


My slides from the talk are linked here.

Three thoughts as I transition from reading to writing…

At some point one has to stop reading and start writing… This is a hard one for me, as I – as a “non-academic” academic – do not have the training for this.

However, the time alloted for the NORDICIL working group to develop a film school pedagogy course is nearing a temporary end, and now is the time to produce. I have managed to create a draft outline for an introductory module (2.5 ects, 5 weeks) which I hope to receive some feedback on at our meeting in Stockholm at the start of April. The next module to tackle is the one on assesment I was assigned at our last meeting.

In addition to this, it’s time to review the descriptions of our BFA programmes and introduce several new teachers to the arcane business of teaching at the Norwegian Film School.

So, what I have I learned in all my reading the past months (well, years)?

1. While no one has really written about film school pedagogy specifically, there are many resources out there

An obvious place to start is John Dewey. The pragmatist approach, so well summarized in the quote “Learning to know by doing, and to do by knowing” is very apt for our programmes.

Experiential learning is another key for us. The Kolb learning cycle (or spiral, as it is also described) is naturally a simplified model of learning but it is a good model to illustrate how we want our students to learn.

In addition, both constructivism and social constructivism provide useful tools for understanding our own pedagogical approach. Also valuable is Danish learning theorist Knud Illeris’ work on developing a comprehensive and contemporary theory of learning.

2. Measuring artistic development is challenging

Which is probably why we do not measure it at all! Central to this is that we are working with tacit rather than explicit knowledge. While many forms of explicit knowledge indeed are necessary for filmmakers, especially when it comes to the technical aspects of the different disciplines, we are not a technical school and do not measure technical aptitude.

I would contend that what we do “measure” – how the students develop and reflect on their own artistic expression – is very much in the field covered by tacit knowledge.

3. Continual feedback and assessment is key.

We spend a very large amount of time on feedback and formative assessment, and these are integrated into various teaching activites. As an art school we firmly assert that we must constantly check that the activities we plan are in fact having the impact we plan, and the students are developing both their technical skills and their artistic abilities.

This is an area where much has been written in recent year, notably by John Hattie and Paul Ramsden (the latter in his book Learning to Teach in Higher Education)

Considering “Personal Learning MOOC” – aka. #NRC01PL

As part of the "The Artist as (Film School) Teacher" project, I intend (time permitting!) to take the Personal Learning MOOC offered by Stephen Downes starting February 22. While taking a course like this is personally interesting to me given my longstanding interest in connectivism and MOOCs, the particular insentive for this course is the focus on the "personal learning environment".

In the intro to the course, Downes writes:

Course objectives: participants will develop an appreciation of different models of online course delivery, ranging from the traditional LMS through connectivist MOOCs to potential future models of personal learning and performance support. (my emphasis)

This is a key as I see it in developing a distributed course for Nordic filmmakers. We are attempting to create a learning environment that not only will give filmmakers working as teachers the formal competence they require in order to teach at higher educational institutions, but more importantly provide filmmakers in 4 countries (and 8 film schools in 7 cities) with a peer network for ongoing discussions and support.

There are some premises to be considered:

  • Given the geographic and linguistic challenges involved, online technology is a necessary element.
    • Given the increasing requirements for formal qualifications imposed by European education bureacracies, some form of standardised outcomes are necessary
    • Given the vast gap between individual experiences and pedagogic competencies among the filmmakers teaching at the different schools, a focus on creating a personal (as opposed to personalized) learning environments as well as fostering the development of PLNs is key.
    • Given the lack of formal expertise in this area – film school pedagogy – the course will in large part have to rely on peer learning. To me, this is an advantage rather than a handicap, as I have previously elaborated on.

Structurally, the course will end up being a bit of a hybrid between a personalized and personal environment. We will design modules with pre-defined learning outcomes and leading to some form of assessment that yields standardised ECTS points. This may be easier if we start with some pre-determined "content" the particpants have to "master". On the other hand, the actual need is for an ongoing framework of peer support, where the participants can build their own personal learning environment.

Our challenge will be to marry the two. I don’t know if the Personal Learning MOOC will help me towards this goal, but even if it doesn’t I am sure it will provide interesting new insights and, hopefully, connections along the way.

What is “theory”?

Recently I attended a one-day conference at Lillehammer University College, arranged to mark the launch of the Film Studies programme’s new centre for audio-visual media research. There were 4 presentations covering different topics, but a common theme for all was the tension sometimes found between theoretical film studies programmes and practical filmmaking programmes.

The final session made this theme explicit, with the title (my translation) “Can theory and practise be reconciled?”. The discussion, between filmmaker/writer Morten Hovland, tv-producer Eda Syvertsen and film studies professor Søren Birkvad was interesting enough, but the whole day left me wondering: what do we mean when we use the word “theory”?

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (iOS version) defines theory as:

theory [noun(1)]
1. A mental scheme of something to be done, or of a way of doing something; a systematic statement of rules or principles to be followed. l16.

2. Mental view, contemplation. e17–e18.

3. _
a. The knowledge or exposition of the general principles or methods of an art or science, esp. as distinguished from the practice of it; Math. a set of theorems forming a connected system. e17.

b. A system of ideas or statements explaining something, esp. one based on general principles independent of the things to be explained; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment and is accepted as accounting for known facts. m17.

4. (The formulation of) abstract knowledge or speculative thought; systematic conception of something. Freq. opposed to practice. e17.
A. Dillard A terrifically abstract book of literary and aesthetic theory. in theory according to theory, theoretically. loosely.

5. An unsubstantiated hypothesis; a speculative (esp. fanciful) view. l18.

In general, I think it would be fair to say (though, of course, an oversimplification) that traditional academic education tends towards definition no. 3 when discussing theory, somtimes including no. 4.

At the Norwegian Film School, however, when we speak of theory, it is almost exclusively in the sense described in definition no. 1. We could possibly be better at flagging this; theory is important for filmmakers, but it is an approach to theory that is distinct and different from the approach to theory favoured by academic programmes. In fact, we have found the term so problematic that we tend to use other terms, preferring instead to talk about constraints, intentions, critical reflection and the like.

From Artist To Teacher – outline notes

developing a peer-based training programme for film school teachers


Film Schools in the Nordic countries, like in most other parts of the world, face a particular challenge in ensuring a highly qualified teaching staff. Most film school teachers come from the ranks of the film industry, where they have been active artists in their field. Their background may or may not have included a formal education, and their selection as teaching staff is most often based on their professional and artistic qualifications.

A teaching staff with artistic and professional qualifications is a core value for these film schools. In order to train the next generation of filmmakers and storytellers, it is necessary to give the students constant exposure to active professionals who bring the latest developments and impulses into the classroom.

The nature of filmmaking being what it is, it is difficult if not impossible to combine filmmaking with the kind of academic preparation that is normal in other forms of higher education. This, combined with the imposition of requirements for qualifications demanded under the European Bologna Agreements, creates a need for a new, specialised form of teacher training for filmmakers.

Today this need is met through a variety of more or less adequate means, ranging from more traditional academic pedagogic training to informal discussion groups and peer networks. However, due to the fragmented nature of this training, there is a great deal of duplication and lost effort – a situation the project “From artist to teacher” will endeavour to improve.

the project

The idea of a training programme for film school teachers is not new. In 2005, The Norwegian Film School published, with the support of CILECT, the package Training the Trainers by Dick Ross. The final booklet in this series, “Back to the future”, outlined a proposal for a European Teachers Training Institute, a proposal which has not (yet) come to fruition. The new proposal “From artist to teacher” has a similar ambition, but aims to start on a somewhat smaller scale and will take advantage of recent developments in communication technology and digital pedagogy.

This project also indends to build on the longstanding relationship between the Nordic film schools, through NORDICIL, to further improve the quality of teaching at all the schools. All the institutions face a common challenge: how to ensure that the teaching staff, who primarily come from the professional film industries in the Nordic countries, are prepared in the best possible way for using their expertise to develop the next generation of filmmakers.

The project goal is to develop a peer-based training for film school teachers, which will give them the practical and theoretical tools to effectively guide the development of student filmmakers. The intent is to use the principles of peeragogy to combine face-to-face gatherings with digital technology for both synchronous and asynchronous collaboration. The course will consist of a general section, that focuses on ideas and concepts that are common to all the member institutions and an institution-specific section where the particular and unique needs of the individual institution can be addressed.

The first phase of the project involves, in addition to developing the course, choosing the digital tools to be used for the on-line components, creating a syllabus, the creation of the institution-specific components of the course, using online collaboration tools for the follow-up of the planning and prepare the final course plan for approval. The outcome will be a formally approved course of the Film School Pedagogy, including both the common and institution-specific parts, ready to start in August, 2016.

overarching principles

Film schools draw primarily upon the ranks of working filmmakers for their teaching staff. It is not unusual that filmmakers have very limited experience in academia, and also little or no experience with teaching. Often they will have started working in film in assistant roles, and worked their way through the ranks while learning and honing their skills and artistic sensibilities on the job.

Given this situation, planning a heavily theoretical/academic training programme would be counterproductive. Many filmmakers, like the students they are teaching, often have a practical background and are neither interested in, nor necessarily prepared for, a heavily academic-theoretical course of study. A course in film school pedagogy will have to take this into account and give the participants a practical experience while also introducing them to the theoretical tools necessary to develop their pedagogical skills.

Any course in film school pedagogy will also necessarily be directed towards the needs of a particular school. Even within a small area like the Nordic countries there is quite a wide divergence of tradition and practise at the different film schools; a shared course in film school pedagogy will need to build on the shared challenges while also allowing each school to form parts of the course for it’s particular needs. The challenge when developing a course to be used by the various NORDICIL schools will be to find the common challenges and approaches while balancing that with ensuring the course still allows each particular school to maintain its identity.

In any film school, there are a wide variety of teachers with different experiences and expertise in teaching. This fact, combined with the lack of trained pedagogues among filmmakers in teaching position, is one of the primary reasons for utilising the principles of peeragogy – a situation where the primary instruction and coaching participants receive is from each other.

The working group may find inspiration in the existing pedagogical training at art schools across the Nordic countries and Europe, but will in the end develop a training programme that is specifically tailored for filmmakers becoming/working as film school teachers.

basic structure and learning outcomes

Finding a functional structure will be one of the major challenges. Coordinating film school teachers, many of whom juggle teaching with an active professional career as filmmakers, across four countries and five institutions with very different timetables is not a task to be taken lightly. At the same time, for a course of this nature to be successful there must be ongoing participation from as many teachers as possible. It is not unreasonable to expect those taking the course for credit have an attendance requirement, through a combination of ftf and online gatherings, of 80%.

The distributed nature of the course depends on a significant online component, both synchronous and asynchronous. In addition, given the different institutions presently use different, and in some cases incompatible, LMS-platforms, the tools chosen need to be open, accessible and (preferably) free. They should combine the possibility of video and audio conferencing, discussion fora, file upload/download, commenting and sharing, etc. These things can be achieved either through the utilisation of a variety of tools, or the selection of a common provider such as Google (with G+ communities, hangouts, documents/drive, etc.).

Another structural consideration comes from the different pedagogical approaches and needs at the various schools. An important aspect of the mandate for the working group will be establishing a division between the common topics all participants will find useful and the specialisation focussed on the approaches that are unique to certain schools or group of schools.

A possible foundation for the learning outcomes of this course is:

In the end, the working group will develop specific learning outcomes that satisfy the needs of formal evaluation for the award of ects credits for the successful completion of the course.

  • participants will gain an increased facility in planning and executing lessons and workshops
  • participants will gain increased insight into how students learn, and how different pedagogical approaches to teaching, mentoring and feedback will effect their learning
  • participants will be exposed to different teaching styles and approaches, and from this be able to develop an approach of their own
  • participants will develop an peer network across the Nordic countries, and feel comfortable utilising this network even after the conclusion of the course.

Initial Thoughts on Artistic Research in Film Schools

I had the good fortune to attend the seminar “Research in film schools” at La femis on April 16th and 17th. Good fortune because it was a marvellous opportunity to discuss artistic research with international colleagues and, not least, visit Paris in the springtime…

Artistic Research at the Norwegian Film School

The Norwegian Film School has participated in the Norwegian Programme for Artistic Research since 2005. In that time was have seen 3 fellows – two screenwriters and one director – successfully complete their research periods and achieve the official title of Associate Professor (“førsteamanuensis”) although the programme does not presently confer a Ph.D. (or any formal Doctorate). We also currently (spring 2015) have a cinematographer in her first year of a Fellowship, and have recently submitted an application for a Fellow working with visual effects.

Artistic research is a new beast for film schools. In part, this development has come about through the Bologna process in Europe, where formal credentials have become increasingly important, even in arts schools. One can debate whether this is a benefit or not (personally, I am sceptical as the focus increasingly seems to be placed on form rather than content) but it is a fact of life for all of us who work at institutions classified as part of higher educational systems and we have to adapt to it.

The notion of “artistic research” is also very new in the film community, but in the 10+ years of participation we have seen an increasing awareness among filmmakers in Norway. This includes our teachers, who are all working filmmakers, hired at NFS on fixed-term contracts. Most work part-time and maintain an active career while teaching.

At the same time, support for artistic research can be a very liberating thing. Film can be a very commercial art form, with large amounts of money involved, and it can be difficult for artists to find the creative freedom to experiment and explore while making a living. Doing artistic research gives filmmakers the time and freedom to experiment and reflect on their own practice in a variety of different ways, even when this practice is connected to commercial projects. One example of that is the work of director Erik Poppe on his theatrical feature film “1,000 Times Good Night”.

Critical Reflection

At the Norwegian Film School (as at all the members of the Programme for Artistic Research), the key to artistic research is critical reflection. For us, this is the idea that the artists are able to clearly articulate their creative intentions in a way that can be used – both by themselves and by others – to learn from their successes and failures, and clearly show the ways in which they are expanding their own horizons as artists in addition to pushing the boundaries of their art. This is a skill we start developing at the BFA level.

Critical reflection is a requirement of the Programme for Artistic Research, although there has never been a very clear definition of it. In their guidelines, PAR describes it as:

Reflection is part of the artistic work. Material shall be submitted that communicates this
reflection, particularly in relation to:

  • the process (artistic choices and turning points, theory applied, dialogue with various networks and professional environments etc.);
  • the research fellow’s personal artistic position/work in relation to the chosen subject area nationally and internationally;
  • how the project contributes to professional development of the subject area, including any artistic innovations.

It is up to the research fellows themselves to select the medium and form in which to
submit material that communicates the reflection aspect of the work and any other
documentation. The institution decides which languages can be used for the reflection and

In this description it is apparent there is no formal requirement for the critical reflection to be presented in the form of an academic paper. It has been quite important for the members of PAR to allow artists to find the best mode of presenting critical reflection themselves rather than conforming to the conventions of an alien academic culture. The rationale is quite simple: artists are trained to to their art, not to be academics, and as such they must be given the freedom to present their work and reflections in a way which makes sense within the context of their art.

This does not mean writing a paper is somehow forbidden. On the contrary, many chose to present their reflections in a written form that is quite recognisable to members of academic disciplines – but often this has more to do with convention than conviction. It is interesting to see how other media are starting to make an impact, through things like the video essay, performance, podcast, and also influenced by currents like #remixthediss.

One controversial aspect of the critical reflection is the question of “theory applied”. Different art forms have radically different approaches to theory – so different is can sometimes be challenging getting a productive discourse going between practitioners of the different arts. PAR gets around this by avoiding a definition what constitutes “theory applied”, but every new group of research fellows encounter this issue the first time they attend a meeting of all the fellows.

At the Norwegian Film School we have developed a somewhat pragmatic attitude to theory. We are not associated with an academic film theory department, and this is by conviction and choice. Theory becomes simply that which is useful to the filmmaker in the making of the film and development of the self as an artist. Reading Metz, Mulvey or Deleuze, for example, may be useful for individual filmmakers but need not be part of a filmmaker’s education. The only necessary theory is that which is useful for the artistic development of the filmmaker and the artistic project.

Or, as one of the participants at the “Research in film schools” seminar stated during one of the discussions;

It is the artist’s prerogative to abuse theory.

Comparing Artistic Research to academic research

One of the ongoing discussions in many parts of the world is the relationship between academic research and artistic research. We are lucky enough in Norway to have a situation where artistic research is recognized as something separate yet equal to academic research by law. This formal status, which came to pass in 1995, is what has allowed artistic research to grow and flourish. Artists do not have to conform to or compete with academics when seeking support for research projects, as we have our own research council in the Programme for Artistic Research.

At the same time, the definition of artistic research has remained vague at best both in Norway and internationally. The present Norwegian definition, from 2007, can be simplified as “artistic practice combined with reflection on that practice” (it should be noted there is a working group with a mandate to, among other things, update this definition in the spring of 2015). That means, for example, that when one of our teachers works on a film project, that counts as artistic research and can be registered as such in the national research database CRIStin. This is a huge benefit for institutions where the majority of teaching staff are practicing artists, as it allows us to log research that falls within the natural activity of the milieu.

Not everyone is as lucky as we are, and many of the film- and arts schools I have encountered are subject to academic departments with a much more narrow understanding of research. Often it seems the crux of this is the traditional notion that research, for it to be valid, must produce new knowledge. In the present European environment of standardization and bureaucratization this requirement of producing knowledge has become more rigid.

This has led a number of prominent voices to proclaim, as Henk Borgdorff does in his seminal The Conflict of the Faculties, that

In sum, the knowledge embodied in art, which has been variously analysed as tacit, practical knowledge, as ‘knowing-how’, and as sensory knowledge, is cognitive, though non-conceptual; and it is rational, though non-discursive. The distinctive nature of the knowledge content has been analysed in depth in phenomenology, hermeneutics, and cognitive psychology.

(my emphasis, from Borgdoff, Henk, Conflict of the Faculties p.49)

In other words, in order to protect the status of artistic research within the academy, it has become necessary to employ the language of the academy to define artistic production as knowledge production.

Borgdorff and others have made this argument convincingly, but I find myself unsure of the ultimate success of such a strategy. For one thing, it seems like one is creating such a broad philosophical definition of knowledge that the entire concept is in danger of becoming meaningless. It also subjects artists to the language of the academy in a way that can be used to enforce critical reflection that is bound to that language; a most unfortunate circumstance.

I much prefer the use of the word understanding. Artistic research gives us an increased understanding of the nature of artistic practice and the boundaries of the art, and it does this both for the individual artist, the community of peers and the outside world.

These are initial thoughts, sure to be developed further both in my own thinking and in the ongoing collaboration with other film and arts schools. I look forward to the continuation.

Film school pedagogy – a preamble to some musings.

(Originally published on another blog in 2011, I find these musings are still at the core of my work in developing a film school pedagogy)

In the last few months I find myself increasingly engaged in discussions about film school pedagogy and, more specifically, the dearth of literature devote to this topic.

From what I can tell there are three published works about Film Schools and how they structure their education.

  1. Heidi Philipsen of The University of Southern Denmark published in 2005 her PhD thesis “Dansk films nye bølge” (The New Wave of Danish Film) about the pedagogical principles at the Danish Film School.
  2. Canadian filmmaker Paul Lee published in 2001 his PhD thesis “The FIlmmaker as Artist-Educator” submittet to The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
  3. In 1990 American Sociologist Lisa Henderson submitted her PhD thesis to the University of Pennsylvania entitled “Cinematic competence and directorial persona”, a study of an unnamed Masters-level filmmaking programme in New York City.

The three works are quite different, although the Henderson and Philipsen works are both field studies of established film school programmes.

What I find interesting is how little bearing these works have on my own experiences working at Film Schools before I came to Norway. As a result, through the discussions I have it becomes apparent to me that I should mine my own experience in order to write a contribution to this area.

The three film schools I have worked at – Vancouver Film School, the Canadian Film Centre and The Norwegian Film School – are wildly different, and an attempt to integrate what I have learned form the three will at very least be interesting to me. With any luck it will be interesting to others as well…

Returning from Göteborg

On January 28th and 29th, NORDICIL organised the annual gathering of Film School teachers in conjunction with the Göteborg International Film Festival. This forum has slowly grown over the years, and this year it expanded to two days with a focus on film school pedagogy.

Naturally, I could not resist presenting what has become a bit of a pet project lately: an organised course for film school teaching. The title of the presentation was «From Artist to Teacher: Developing a Peer-based Training Programme for Film School Teachers».

The background for the proposal is this: there is suprisingly little in the way of organised training for professional filmmakers who are getting into teaching. This means that filmmakers have to, in large part, find their own way when they enter the teaching profession – with varying degrees of success. In addition to this, film schools (and, in fact, arts schools in general) are facing increasing pressure to formalise their programmes and accreditation of teachers under the unrelenting pressure of the Bologna agreements.

Given this situation, it makes sense both from a teaching perspective and from a «keep the education bureaurats at bay» perspective, for film schools to design and run a formal teacher training programme themselves. And, given the lack of (formal) expertise in this area, it makes sense to adopt the principles of peeragogy.

In the coming weeks and months I will be elaborating on this, as I – along with (I hope) several Nordic colleagues – further develop this idea and plan and launch a blended, distributed, film school teacher training programme.

On Creativity

This was originally published on my personal blog on August 4th, 2014.

I read Stephen Downes’ blog regularly; I always find it thought-provoking and interesting. Today was no exception.

Today’s entry, entitled No Paradox Here (go read it at the source) inspired me to think about my own work at The Norwegian Film School, where creativity is our bread and butter…

Specifically, Downes quotes Spencer, who writes:

Creativity: It happens when students have freedom and limitations

His response is:

Creativity is possible even if there are limitations, but only if there is freedom.

Well…not exactly. And it depends on how you apply limitations and freedom.

We are a school for creative artists (filmmakers), and the entire programme is built around the conscious application of limitations in order to stimulate creativty. It’s not our own invention by any stretch, but we have over the years refined teaching methods that enable the students to both explore their own creativity and push the limits their own abilities through the imposition of limitations.

In our experience, too much freedom stifles creativity rather than encouraging it. (And yes, we do realise misguided use of limitations can also stifle creativity.) By specifiying a series of condititions for each film exercise the students are given we give them a well-defined area to explore, encouraging them to make mistakes and take chances within those limits.

There is theory for this, and we lean on Vygotski with his development of the concepts scaffolding and zone of proximal development, and also conscious of the importance of letting the students reach a state of flow. Being an arts school where all the teaching staff are practicing filmmakers, not trained educators has led us to set up weekly staff meetings where we discuss the students development, future teaching plans and the practical and theoretical aspects of this pedagogy.

So, in this case, Spencer is correct: creativity will only happen where there are both limitations and freedom — the limitations designed to encourage creativity and the freedom to explore within these limitations.

But Downes is also correct: this is no paradox. Rather, it is a necessary condition for creativity.