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.

Film school pedagogics

Some initial thoughts about developing a training programme for instructors in film training at the BFA and MFA level

(originally published Nov. 19, 2012)

In Norway today all universities and høgskoler (University Colleges) provide pedagogic instruction for newly-hired teaching and research staff. Typically these courses will run part-time over the course of a year and yield 15 ECTS points. An example is the course in høgskolepedagogikk provided in collaboration between the Lillehammer, Gjøvik and Hedmark University Colleges which can be found here (Norwegian only).
These types of courses are designed to introduce the newly-hired (and anyone who wants a refreshment) staff to some of the issues and challenges facing teaching staff in modern higher education. They cover topics like «dannelse» (derived loosely from European classical education in the Humboldtian tradition), digital tools in education, ethics and so on.

Central to this type of course is a solid foundation in academia and the academic relationship to knowledge.

A question that has arisen for the Norwegian Film School recently is whether this kind of pedagogic training is appropriate for higher arts education in general – and film school education in particular. The reason the question comes up is that the kind of fine arts training offered by the Norwegian Film School does not have a relationship to knowledge in the academic sense. This form of fine arts training is wholly concerned with developing an artistic talent, and while the emerging artists need to develop certain skills within their chosen discipline, their academic knowledge about that discipline is irrelevant in the context of the training they receive.

What does this fine arts training look like?

The current programme at the Norwegian Film School is an intensive three-year training for artists within seven disciplines in filmmaking: screenwriting, directing, producing, cinematography, production design, editing, and sound. Six students are accepted into each discipline every second year, following a rigorous admissions process. the students are selected based on only two criteria:

  1. Does the applicant have talent in the chosen discipline? and
  2. Can that talent benefit from the education offered at the Norwegian Film School?

Once accepted, the students enter an intensive programme where they receive training within their chosen discipline – where there is, among other things, an emphasis on teaching them to become storytellers and artists within their discipline. They also work on production exercises with members of all the other disciplines (in teams chosen by the school), and attend classes in subjects common to all the disciplines, including dramaturgy & storytelling, artistic awareness, and visual storytelling (called «cinematurgy»). There are no elective courses; all workshops, projects, lectures, etc., are obligatory.

All of the education the students receive has one purpose and one purpose only: to guide them towards realising their talent as filmmakers. Any knowledge they might gain from, for example, film history is only interesting if it makes them more aware of the context in which their own artistic production occurs. As a result, there are no tests along the way, only evaluations, and – at the end of the third year – a final examination based on the presentation of both group and individual work.

The school is built around some basic pedagogical principles, including «the right to make mistakes» and «restrictions (or constraints) breed creativity» and filmmaking is a collaborative art. The application of these principles is most visible in the frequent production exercises.

Another tool used in these production exercises is the declaration of intent; a document each student in a film team must write before beginning their main contribution to the film. At the final screenings, the finished productions are measured, not against any subjective standard of quality, but purely as to what extent each individual member of the team was able to carry out his or her intentions.

What effect does this have on teaching?

All the teaching staff at the Norwegian Film School are filmmaking professionals, and none come from an exclusively academic background. Most have never taught before coming to teach at the Film School, but are highly regarded artists within their fields. Some have a background from academia but more do not.

Teaching staff in this form of intensive arts training must ensure that the students are closely followed up constantly; the role is much more like mentoring than traditional teaching. Often specific skills will be taught by external specialists, while the teaching staff guide the students to help them apply these skills in the production of their art.

Another challenge comes from the fact that as many of the teachers are working professionals, and continue to work while teaching, they share the responsibility for the students in their discipline with other part-time teachers. This makes it necessary for them to communicate closely with each other in order to ensure each individual student’s progress is monitored and appropriate feedback is given.

The primary duties of the Norwegian Film School teachers can then be summed up as follows:

  • Identify the emerging talents in the admissions process
  • Map out the existing skill level among the students, and use this to construct a training path appropriate for their skills and artistic development
  • Ensure the students take responsibility for their own development and challenge themselves outside their comfort zone
  • Give feedback which helps the students identify areas needing further development, and design and organise activities that will help the students develop these areas
  • Coordinate with colleagues in other disciplines both to identify and organise collaborative workshops and to ensure the common production exercises present the optimal challenge for all the students
  • Give feedback in the group evaluation sessions of the production exercises
  • Throughout all of the above, be responsible for helping the students realise their own potential as creative artists and storytellers

Things like lecturing, assigning readings, setting and marking written assignments, and the like are conspicuously and deliberately absent. However, the teachers are expected to have a solid grasp on their discipline in the Nordic film industry and be able to bring in guest lecturers and workshop instructors as needed.[1]

What training do these teachers need?

Teaching at an arts education is not a matter of ensuring the students achieve learning outcomes at certain levels of skills, knowledge and understanding, as outlined in the international guidelines relating to the European Qualifications Framework. The learning outcomes are much more intangible, given the primary goal is to develop each given student’s creative abilities. As a result, while there must be standards in use to measure the progress and development of each student, these standards are highly flexible as they are based on the starting point of each individual student rather than a more objective standard laid out in a permanent lesson plan.

At the same time, there must be some permanent standards by which the students are judged to have passed their studies and qualified are qualified to receive their BFA degree. This is done, not by judging the quality of the final films they make in their third year, but by measuring their own intentions for the films up against the final result and also by examine the process that led to the final film.

In order to achieve this, there are four areas in which teachers at the Norwegian Film School must be proficient.

  1. How to use their own experience
  2. Scaffolding the creative artist: theoretical frameworks
  3. The triangle method and connectivism
  4. The role of the mentor: tools, challenges and ethics

All four are naturally closely related, but could still be considered distinct topics of study for the new or potential film school teacher.

1. How to use their own experience

In all arts eduction, teachers are expected to be practitioners of the art they are training emerging talents for. They may or may not have attended some form of formal training at the start of their own careers, but the most important thing they bring with them to the institution is their own practice and experience.

In 2005, the Norwegian Film School published a series of booklets and DVDs by Professor Richard Ross called Training the Trainers (there’s a review of the booklets on p. 11 here). The main thrust of this publication is to assist members of all the key creative disciplines of filmmaking become more effective teachers and communicators of their accumulated experience and knowledge.

This publication is aimed at one of the main challenges facing instructors at film schools: how to take the knowledge and experience gained through a career in the film industry and use it to assist emerging talents start building their own experience and confidence. This is not easy, especially for those who may not have attended film school themselves. There is a world of difference between telling «war stories» and being able to use hard-won experience to guide students through their own process of making mistakes and developing their talent.

This must form the foundation of any pedagogical instruction aimed at helping film artists becoming proficient at teaching emerging talent. At this level, arts teachers must be able to know when to show something, and when to stand back and let the student try (and possibly fail) on their own. In the film world in particular there is an ethic of «getting the film made», where the temptation is to do whatever it takes to get the shots needed for the film. This ethic can lead instructors – particularly when mentoring in production situations, but also in discipline-specific workshops and instruction – to step in and assist the students. Sometimes, however, the students will learn more from not being successful, and the instructors’ challenge is to stand back, allow the mistake to be made, and help the student see what led to the mistake and how to avoid it in the future.

2. Scaffolding the creative artist

In her 2009 article Constraints in Film Making Processes Offer an Exercise to the Imagination, Danish researcher Heidi Philipsen[2] writes,

I would like filmmakers interested in thinking «outside the box» to recognize that they can benefit from being placed «inside a box.» In others words, to work with the help of the didactic tool «scaffolding,» which in short is defined as support through constraints applied at different levels (Wood, Bruner and Ross 1976). The scaffolding employed at The National Film School of Denmark helps the students to cope with the pressure of creating film, find inspiration, and attain a flow experience (Csikszentmihaly 1996).

Like many other film schools, the Norwegian Film School operates with constraints (or restrictions) as a method for promoting creativity. The students are never given an production assignment where there are no constraints, although as they progress through the course of their studies the constraints become fewer and looser. At the most basic level, the constraints are designed to remove the panic of «What shall I do?» from the students, and instead get them thinking about «How do I do this?».

Philipsen has clearly explained how the deliberate use of constraints in a film school can be understood through Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and the further refinements of this through the discussion of scaffolding. Very simplified, the students are given a defined space in which to test their own boundaries, and the teachers act as mentors who assist the students in acquiring abilities and skills they did not have before.

Because these constraints are given to the students in their production exercises, they are tool both for developing the individual and the group; at its very core, filmmaking is a collective activity and all members of the collective must operate under the same restrictions and understanding. This places a special onus on the teaching staff, as they must be unified in their understanding of the constraints placed on any given exercises and able to apply these constraints in a consistent manner.

At the Norwegian Film School, the teaching staff discuss the parameters and constraints of each given exercise before it is given to the students. While there are pre-determined guidelines and themes that are followed from year to year, the exact assignment is determined based on the perceived need of the particular group of students at their particular level of skill. The key is to design a set of constraints and challenges that will fall within the zone of proximal development; that challenge the students to attempt things outside their own comfort zone, but are still achievable.

In order to encourage the students to focus on their own learning, and to test and expand their own boundaries, the Norwegian Film School uses «declarations of intent». For each and every production exercises, each member of the filmmaking team must write her own declaration of intent: «What do I intend to learn / improve / discover / etc. on this particular exercise?» The content of this declaration is worked out by the student in consultation with the head teacher / mentor for her discipline, and is completed and handed in before the primary creative work begins. All teammembers are expected to be familiar with the declaration of intent of all other teammembers.

At the evaluation of the final film projects, when the whole school is assembled, each individual teammember reads his declaration aloud, and feedback and questions must relate only to the declaration of intent. Judgements of taste about the quality of the film are not permitted. This truly places each student’s learning and development in focus.

This unit focussing on the theory behind scaffolding and the zone of proximal development will give the teachers the tools to be effective at this pedagogical approach, and be able to arrive at a common understanding and approach with their colleagues.

3. The triangle method, nodes and connectivism

Many film schools work according to the «Triangle method», a method of working in film that emphasises the collective nature of the filmmaking process.[3] Sometimes misunderstood as a belitteling of the importance of the director, the triangle method focusses on the filmmaking team as a team of creative artists working collaboratively to achieve the creative vision of the director.

Each student, then, is at any given time in the production process (which occupies a great deal of their time at film school), a member of (at least) three different constellations – they are a member of their own discipline along with the other students of the same discipline; they are a member of a film team along with one member of each of the other disciplines; and they are a member of a triangle focussing on one particular aspect of the film. On top of this may come any other cooperative workshops between disciplines that may place the students in other constellations.

In order to understand and guide the learning process the students are in when in these constellations, it is useful to turn to connectivism.[4] While this theory is designed to explain distributed learning through digital networks, there are some useful elements that can help understand how learning is spread among nodes in a network, where the «nodes» can replace the «constellations» referred to above.

A broader discussion of how connectivism relates to film school pedagogics is a subject for another time, but it is clear that much of the learning achieved by film school students is in the nodes and networks in which they are placed throught their time at the Film School. Not only do they learn directly from each other independent of their instructors, they also learn simply from the fact of being in their different node and networks. They are constantly having to adjust to new situations and relationships and find ways of expressing their creative talents within these situations.

The challenge for film school teachers is understanding this type of learning, and being able to identify when and how it is happening; and using the results of this learning to help the students be aware of their own progress.

4. The role of the mentor: tools, challenges and ethics

At the Norwegian Film School, an instructor works closesly with the same group of 6 students over the course of 3 years. This is a completely different scenario than at almost any other regular academic programme, where the instructors have more students and see them less frequently. Combined with the fact that filmmaking, like any creative process, can be very instensive, the personal bonds that develop between teacher and student is much stronger at film school than at most other programmes.

In addition, there are the same issues of confidentiality faced by all educators and the question how to handle critical feedback of (potentially) sensitive artistic students. Both the close relationships that develop and the fact that the work being evaluated can be of an intensly personal nature places makes a focus on professional ethics and an understanding of the role and tools available to a mentor of prime importance.

This final topic area of instruction for film school teachers must give them the tools to handle these situations, and, more importantly, the tools to handle situations for which there can be no set protocoll but that must be handled on a case-by-case basis.

  1. Launching a proposal to train film school teachers is not a new initiative from the Norwegian Film School. In the booklet «Back to the Future: Where to We Go From Here?» in the Training the Trainers package, Professor Richard Ross makes an argument for a European teachers training institute, which would be responsible for training filmmakers who are entering the teaching profession. The challenge is most acutely felt at the film schools where the teachers are recruited from active careers in the film industry, and expect to return to these careers; in other words – teaching, for them, is temporary activity and the training they receive must reflect this fact.  ↩
  2. In 2004 Philipsen published her seminal study of the Danish Film School called Dansk films nye bølge, afsæt og aftryk fra den Danske Filmskole (The New Wave of Danish Film – Influences and Imprints from The National Film School of Denmark), which examined the effect of the pedagogic philosophy of the Danish Film School on the so-called «new wave» of Danish filmmakers. She places this teaching philosophy squarely within the constructivist tradition of Vygotsky, and the definition of scaffolding that has arisen out of that tradition. This study has had great influence on film schools, among them the Norwegian Film School whose current Dean, Danish film producer Thomas Stenderup, also attended the Danish Film School concurrently with some of the leading filmmakers of the new wave.  ↩
  3. The Norwegian Film School works with three «triangles»: what is called the first, or «story» triangle, consisting of the Director, Producer and Screenwriter; the second or «visual» triangle, consisting of the Director, Cinematographer and Production Designer (and Producer); and the third, or «post» triangle, which brings together the Director, Editor and Sound Designer (and Producer). At the Norwegian Film School, each one of these disciplines is trained as a creative artist and storyteller in their own right but they are also taught to collaborate in order to achieve the director’s vision. The challenge of the director, in this situation, is to communicate her vision clearly and to lead the team in such a way that each member is able to make the best possible creative contribution to the film.  ↩
  4. Connectivism as a learning theory was launched in 2005 by Canadians George Siemens and Stephen Downes as a way of understanding how learning is distributed through digital networks. With the subsequent rise of MOOCs in recent years the theory has found increased purchase, although it is not without critics.  ↩