thinking through film

tina kaufman: filmmaking as practice-led research

Notes for Walking, Megan Heyward, DCA, UTS Sydney

Notes for Walking, Megan Heyward, DCA, UTS Sydney

Notes for Walking, Megan Heyward, DCA, UTS Sydney


Experienced documentary maker John Hughes (After Mabo, The Archive Project), for example, is doing a PhD at RMIT. He’s making an essay film about the making of his earlier documentary Indonesia Calling: Joris Ivens in Australia, and how it relates to his own practice. It’s a more experimental film, one which will have a different life; it would be very interesting as a special feature on the DVD of Indonesia Calling, for instance. He’s also doing a written component, something that sits parallel to the film and is concerned with the historical research that went into the two films. Andrew Traucki (The Reef, Black Water) is making a found footage thriller feature film as part of his Master of Creative Arts at UTS, while writing about the comparison between the making and distribution of a privately funded and a government-funded film.

As Adrian Danks, Program Director Media, School of Media and Communication at RMIT, says, the screen project and the written work for such a degree do have to relate, and often they don’t. In that case, he says it’s easier if the problem is with the written component, since “if the problem is in the project that can be difficult to address, because the event the project covers may not be able to be revisited.”

why do practice-led research?

Why would an experienced film practitioner go back to university to do a post-graduate degree? Well, as Sarah Gibson, Senior Lecturer, Creative Practices Group at UTS, says, “Perhaps they want to make that project that they could never get funded, or perhaps they want a supportive workspace where they can bounce around ideas.” As she says, a university can provide a good model for creative collaboration, or somewhere to try a new direction, and, if that fails, to learn to make something better. (And a place where that initial failure is not exposed to public scrutiny.) A post-graduate student can come in with a question rather than a fully-formed proposal, and that question can be very broad, and lead to very creative exploration. In fact, as Adrian Danks says, “They can spend their first year working out what they want to do—and even finding out that they can’t do it.”

UTS also offers a Doctor of Creative Arts, which is a three-year course, but it can be part-time. While some students do a research degree as a pathway to an academic career, for some film practitioners it’s time to, as Sarah Gibson says, “take a deep breath, assess their position, and make that film they’ve always wanted to, perhaps a bigger project, or a more significant piece of work.” For younger practitioners it’s an opportunity for experimentation, for perhaps taking a different direction. They must make something, as well as provide a written component, but as well as long form or essay documentaries, DCA students have been working on new media forms and researching different aspects of screen production.

Gibson finds that the Master of Media Arts and Production, which covers three semesters, suits people who are interested in changing careers or specialisations, or who want to add media to their qualifications. People in science areas may want to use filmmaking as another way of publishing in their area, realising that short films can disseminate ideas better and reach a broader audience. Print-based journalists may want to explore documentary as a different, and perhaps more effective, approach to the issues that concern them. For those already working in film, a production designer may want to be a director; someone working in sound may want to work with images, or a film practitioner may want to explore new media.

At AFTRS, the new Master of Screen Arts is in its first year, in which it was only open to AFTRS graduates who had completed a graduate diploma between 2009 and 2011, but this one-year course will be developing and changing, using feedback from this year’s students. Neil Peplow, Head of Screen Content, says they will be increasing the size of the intake, taking students from more disciplines and from outside AFTRS. The course will still be aimed at helping students achieve mastery in their chosen area of specialisation, while at the same time investigating Australian screen history and the big philosophical and sociological ideas in action for context and meaning. Students will be supported to map out their own path in what is an increasingly competitive marketplace, but collaboration with fellow students will be an equally important element of the course. This year students included producers, directors, one DOP and one composer, and each had to complete either a short film or a short work that would lead to a feature; the composer, however, developed a composing app for educational use with children.

the assessment of research quality assessed

Just how do you assess the research quality of a creative work? This vexed question has been exercising the minds of many of those working in the screen production education sector, but the large-scale project headed by Dr Josko Petkovic from Murdoch University in Perth, in which a team of researchers from five institutions tested 45 short productions from 19 film schools, has now been completed, with the results confirming the hypothesis that screen production assessors are consistent and methodical. Given that students in Australian film schools have a qualitative form of assessment, the aim was to accumulate a body of evidence that demonstrated in quantitative and qualitative terms that evaluation of creative works is as consistent as evaluation conducted in traditional discipline areas. The project, based on the proposition that assessment of screen production is as complex and multi-faceted as the screen production process itself, used a multiplicity of criteria and ranks of assessors to conclude that the assessment process is valid, highly reliable and internally consistent. Collaboration amongst Australian film schools to generate shared information on standards, assessment and reporting, as well as enhanced understanding of standards, assessment and reporting practices for the screen production sector and for the Creative Arts sector as a whole, are additional expected outcomes of the successful project.

a challenge: funding research productions

A continuing problem within the sector has to do with the funding of productions. While the universities can provide equipment and facilities which greatly assist in production, there is still a substantial cost that the student filmmaker has to raise. The federal and state screen funding organisations do not endorse or encourage university-industry research linkage, with postgraduate practice-based researchers excluded from accessing production funding through government film financing. A number of academics recently raised this problem in their response to the federal government’s National Cultural Policy Discussion Paper, underlining the need for the establishment of strong research links between the creative industries and the university creative arts research sector. This linkage does exist in other areas, but not in the screen sector, perhaps because practice-based research in creative arts is a comparatively recent development and its importance is yet to be recognised by cultural organisations and policy makers. Academics are hopeful that this will be addressed in the final National Cultural Policy.

thinking bigger

Film isn’t only about working on individual projects. With post-graduate students already co-operating on each other’s work, and working in supportive, experimental environments, Josko Petkovic is excited about trying to inspire people to think collaboratively on a much larger scale. Given that there are so many visually literate post-graduate students, and that “we are now entering a world that is primarily image-anchored,” he believes that “we need to start thinking about work beyond the narrow industry base,” and foresees a time when students could contribute to “large, ongoing projects stored in a cyber-archive.” Something to think about?

RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012 pg. 19

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

10 August 2012