period of adjustment

tina kaufman: creativity, assessment & screen production education

students from AFTRS and NIDA on the set of their co-production, One More Day

students from AFTRS and NIDA on the set of their co-production, One More Day

IT’S WHAT COULD BE CALLED AN `INTERESTING’ TIME FOR THE LOCAL FILM INDUSTRY, WITH THE NEW PRODUCER OFFSET IN OPERATION AND SCREEN AUSTRALIA UP AND RUNNING. BUT HOW IT’S ALL GOING TO WORK AND WHAT IT’S GOING TO PRODUCE IS STILL TO BE REALISED. THIS PERIOD OF UNCERTAINTY IN THE LOCAL INDUSTRY IS REFLECTED IN THE FILM INDUSTRY AS A WHOLE, WHERE BIG CHANGES ARE BEING BROUGHT ABOUT BY TECHNOLOGY, THE GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS, AND EVEN BY THE WAYS IN WHICH PEOPLE EXPERIENCE FILM.

It’s not surprising, then, that the screen production education sector is also experiencing a sense of change. At two conferences in July the topics centred on new methods of assessment, new terminologies, ways of using the new technologies and ways of working with the new ERA (Excellence in Research for Australia) regime for universities which credits academic staff for their creative output. The sector’s relationship with the industry, and the need to establish a better dialogue between the two, was also highlighted.

aspera: beyond the screen

Beyond the Screen, the 2009 conference of the Australian Screen Production Education and Research Association, held in Adelaide, is ASPERA’s annual forum for academics within the Australian screen production field to discuss shared issues and exchange ideas. As the outgoing president Leo Berkeley said, “since it began in 2004, the ASPERA Conference has had a major impact on the profile of screen production education…(bringing) into sharp focus the scale and significance of a discipline that had previously been receiving far too little attention.” With screen production programs now forming a major component of the tertiary creative arts sector, co-convenors Alison Wotherspoon and Jennifer Stokes talked about “the balance ASPERA strikes between industry, research, teaching and learning” and the opportunity it presents to look at the way “screen and media courses are multiplying and converging in many universities, the challenges we are facing as creative practice researchers, and the impact of the economic downturn on often fragile budgets.”

media arts congress

At the Media Arts Congress, held in Melbourne, a panel discussion was held to address the way in which practice-led researchers could have their creative works recognised under the new ERA regime. Senior Lecturer Alison Wotherspoon, from Flinders University, says that it seemed from the discussion that “finally everything was working towards an understanding of film as creative work, of practical outcome research.” However, she wonders whether such research “should be more aligned with the social sciences, where everyone is part of a team, and everyone’s name is on the project. Film, as a collaborative medium, would seem to fall more naturally into that alignment.”

assessing creativity

The problem of assessing image-based work, generally considered to be subjective and therefore difficult to measure and evaluate, is something that is being addressed by several projects, especially a large-scale one headed by Dr Josko Petkovic from Murdoch University, in which a team of researchers from five ASPERA institutions will test 45 short productions from 19 film schools. Currently, students in Australian film schools have a qualitative form of assessment; the aim is to “accumulate a body of evidence that will demonstrate in quantitative and qualitative terms that evaluation of creative works is as consistent as evaluation conducted in traditional discipline areas.”

Associate Professor Gill Leahy from UTS (University of Technology, Sydney), in her paper at the Media Arts Congress, argued that it’s possible to establish guidelines for assessing screen production works, group work, peer review standards, festival and publication standards, that equate with more conventional scholarly output. She compared and contrasted criteria used to assess creative work at four universities in a preliminary study, working towards a model for criteria for the assessment of screen-based work.

As Alison Wotherspoon says, “there is a need to establish criteria by which to evaluate film—it needs to have some sort of peer review process. Where written work has publication in peer-reviewed journals, film could use acceptance by festivals, events, awards. But such criteria need to be quantified, to establish the standard expected for an MA, or a PhD.”

The relationship between the screen production education sector and the industry is one that needs to improve. Wotherspoon, as newly elected president of ASPERA, argues that universities could play a larger role, especially in connection to research in an industry that is seen as statistics rich but research poor. She says that ASPERA believes there should be a role for universities in industry research; with18 universities teaching screen-related courses, they could identify issues relevant to the industry, and students could approach them as graduate projects.

As Wotherspoon says, “it’s interesting that research in the film industry into relevant areas seems to be lacking; TV has got its act much more together, especially about audience research and about what the audience wants.” (Screen Australia has just announced details of its marketing support to the industry, but there doesn’t seem to be any research planned into audience and, especially, into the disconnect between Australian audiences and Australian films.)

skills shortage

Gill Leahy comments that Richard Harris, CEO of the South Australian Film Corporation, said at the ASPERA conference that what the industry really needs is first assistant directors and continuity and make-up people, and that universities are not supplying them. She believes that what are really needed are mentorships and attachments to such specific areas. “They could work very well, as the students would be insured by their university while they are still students, which could allay some costs.”

Alison Wotherspoon agrees. As she says, “the industry wants people who’ve been trained, but there’s no money in training, and the organisations that used to train large numbers of young people—the ABC, Film Australia—don’t do so any more. But if universities and the industry developed a more integrated relationship, part of an honours year could be an internship, whereby the student could learn the craft, and the university would cover the insurance. We need to have conversations about these possibilities, get recognition from the industry that this would be a sensible and mutually rewarding development. It’s understandable that people are still threatened by the idea of free labour (although the industry has always operated with a system of attachments and learning-on-the-job placements), but the industry has an ageing workforce; this is an issue that has to be addressed.”

the phd feature film

While students in screen production courses have always made short films in various formats, the production of feature films is a new and emerging trend. Flinders University has a practice-led low budget feature being made by three PhD students. The project addresses a number of different research questions about writing, financing and how such a project would work in the university environment, and the making of the film will contribute towards the doctorates. The three main people involved are working as writer, director and producer, and each has a separate area of research, while a number of undergraduates who work on the project will also be credited. As Wotherspoon explains, “this model has the potential to develop into a PhD program, using different mixes of participants.” As she says,”universities provide great models for student creative collaboration; at university you can try something and fail, and what you learn from that is important, you learn to make something better. But that failure is not exposed to public scrutiny.”

new formats, new audiences

However, Wotherspoon doesn’t agree that emphasis should only be on feature films. She argues that, “there is a greater need for screen content than ever before, but it covers a wide range of content style, use and format. Theatrical release might still be the jewel in the crown, but there’s an ever-increasing, younger audience which has a very different relationship with the screen, and what they want is woefully under-researched and little known.”

Wotherspoon also argues for the importance of the craft of making educational and training documentaries, which are actually more in demand in the new world of online education. “If a short film on an issue fills a need, it can go on being used for a long time, and can eventually be seen by far more people than a feature film”, she says.

aftrs transformed

The Australian Film, TV and Radio School is well into the first year of the dramatically changed course structure that accompanied the school’s move to Fox Studios. AFTRS Director of Screen Content Graham Thorburn says that the changes have really transformed AFTRS, “the energy and activity is amazing.” He reports that students are currently making a feature film [pictured above]; “81 students volunteered, it was shot in their four-week break (on the RED camera) and is currently being edited, with an October 26 screening planned. All NIDA’s graduating students have a speaking part (and that was a challenge!), and it is made up of four stories with an overarching connection.”

AFTRS is including in production and small business courses its analysis of the producer offset and how it works. “We see the division in the industry becoming more pronounced, with high budget productions, often with some overseas money, using a Hollywood style production method, and a low budget, very local production style. So we’re trying to teach how to make compelling stuff for less money”, Graham Thorburn says, adding that AFTRS should exist alongside and complement industry experience.

“We’re concentrating on story, without ignoring AFTRS’ traditional contribution to technical excellence. Our focus is on finding and developing great screen storytellers. The writing course restructure (divided into intermediate level and advanced) has made it more accessible to people with life experience, and this year’s intake included a number of people with existing credits as novelists or journalists, who already could write.” That’s for the intermediate program, which is six-months part-time taking place in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. “The idea is for them, when they’ve finished the intermediate level, to go off and do some work, and come back when they’re ready to enter the advanced level.”

AFTRS is about to appoint a national director for its Open Program. Graham Thorburn says, “we want the courses to satisfy the demands we know are out there, demands from both television and film, for the specific skills that are needed. We’re hoping that some courses will start later this year all around the country, but there will be a big summer school in Sydney.” AFTRS new foundation diploma is at more of an entry level, and has 52 students this year, probably 100 next year. “It’s constructed around intense two week workshops—before you’re ready to decide what specific role you want to follow— and it’s not discipline based but provides a focused look at specific aspects of filmmaking—things like story and audience, character, script and performance, juxtaposition and rhythm, distilling the essence of ideas.”

Thorburn adds, “We’ve been approached by some universities to discuss the possibilities of students doing the AFTRS foundation diploma and then going into the second year of a related university course. Otherwise, we anticipate our foundation diploma graduates will go off and work in the industry, and come back to AFTRS when they’re ready to specialise.”

the future: symbiosis

Clearly, with the impact of ERA, the growth of creative post-graduate and film school student feature filmmaking alongside work in new formats, there is potentially a richer interplay between the tertiary education sector and the film industry. It will require discussion, negotiation and, within universities, a realistic approach to the complexities of peer review of creative output.

RealTime issue #92 Aug-Sept 2009 pg. 23

© Tina Kaufman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2009
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