Reflections Halfway Through MFA

Image Credit: Andrew Wingert

After four days of twelve plus hour days on a film set, I am halfway through directing my MFA thesis. We have three more days of principle photography, and then the week I’ve spent the past eighteen months preparing for will be over. (Well, I’ll still have to edit, but the moment, the capture, will have passed).

There’s something inherently magical about the process of filmmaking, particularly the production portion. Sure, you have multiple takes of a shot. You can go again if something isn’t right. You can cheat this piece of furniture, tweak the lights for this angle, redirect the emotion of the delivery —essentially craft your product. To some, that may cheapen the outcome, knowing it was manufactured. But for me, learning the art of creating a moment in a world that doesn’t exist, with characters who have only ever breathed inside my head, is remarkable. It’s more real than reality because I’ve spent time to consider and understand my fiction’s existence. The why. The how. The when. The what. Whereas most “real” moments are random and pass without a blink of acknowledgment.

The most simple things are often the hardest to recreate. The accidental bumping into a person on the street. The subtext of a conversation between people with years of history. Feelings.

I’m only just starting this life-long study. One underlined with empathy, highlighted with wonder, and emboldened with curiosity. The further exploration of humanity through telling of their stories.

The reason I chose the program I did was because it’s hands on. Don’t get me wrong, this philosophical, metaphorically addicted writer is all about theory. It’s my happy place, in fact. But, feelings, true moments of connection that affect viewers are not just intellectualized ideas — they’re physical people doing practical things that cause reactions in space. So I found a program that did the same. I’ve spent the past year and a half making over forty short films with twenty-two other people (also students). We’ve failed, we’ve cheered — together. We were taught how the equipment worked, explained why films are made the way they were, and told to go tell a story. The first few times, what we brought back was sloppy at best. But, we learned to finesse our tools.

Often, the most challenging tools to master were our voices: how we spoke to one another. When to speak up, when to stay quiet. When to encourage, when to suggest. When to reiterate, and when to trust our friend to do the job without being micromanaged.

I’m fairly certain it takes a lifetime to obtain a masters degree in that.

But we’re getting better.

And now we’re here. Thesis. Twelve minutes of a created reality on a two-dimensional screen that could define our futures.

No pressure.

At the halfway mark, it seemed important to take a breath and reflect on what I’ve learned, so that I may better tackle the rest. I’m writing them here so that, should I forget, someone can pull it up, stick my nose in it, and hold me accountable. I have a feeling these will end up being lessons I carry with me beyond set.

  1. If you didn’t get it right, do it again. Even if this means you have to re-set up the next day. Take the time. Do it right. It’s easy to balk when you don’t want to inconvenience people, but if you value the project you’re working on, and the time of the people who are working with you, then you will stand up for the best scenario possible. Because that is your job on the set — to declare the standard of quality.
  2. If you want to learn how to problem solve, filmmaking is your best bet. Between broken water mains that cause lunch to not be ready for pick up, unannounced parades that prevent you from being able to park within three blocks of set, missing this, breaking that, illness, etc. you will find yourself saying “Okay, what if we try this instead?” So much so, that you’ll say it about fifty times before arriving at a working solution. But the satisfaction when you solve the problem, and everything comes together is indescribable. You begin to suspect you could handle almost anything.
  3. To add to that, the people around you make the project. You can’t solve every problem on your own. It would send you into cardiac arrest. Surround yourself with passionate people who are dedicated to making a great working environment, even if things get tough. (Now is my time to brag — I have the BEST team. My producer is half angel, half dragon. She will make everyone feel cared for and then go to bat when the goings get tough without being asked. She sees a problem and attacks it. My cinematographer is obsessed with communicating the emotion of a moment. He will research all night, every night until he understands how his tools inform the characters’ inner lives. He wants to know it all because he wants it to mean something. My production designer has spent the past two weeks scouring the earth for the most perfect pieces to bring a world to life. She’s always there ready to adjust a frame by a millimeter, man a snow machine on a ladder, or move a giant dresser to get a better shot. She also happens to be the co-writer of the script and my editor and my foley artist. The girl is the definition of dedicated. Then there’s my 1st AD. Naturally, she prefers a leisurely pace but has turned on superhuman powers for this show. She is kind, patient, yet stern. She will do whatever it takes to make sure we get the shots we need to tell this story and defends my time with my actors as if she were directing — because she knows that if the emotion isn’t there, the film is nothing. And that’s just the people I interact with directly — there is still the whole rest of the crew that has given so much effort for a story they hadn’t read until a few days ago).
  4. Ask yourself why — a lot. If you cannot back up your choices, you do not deserve the right to call the shots. You have not earned the time of the people investing in your project. You have no business telling that story. The why is the reason. It matters. Practice being intentional. Practice being thorough.
  5. Be flexible. Sometimes things will not go the way you intended. Whether it’s because of the laws of physics or something simple like none of the outlets on the porch of the century-old house you’re shooting in work — you get the privilege of deciding what the next move is, and that move defines the tone of the working environment. Choose carefully. Does the sacrifice the issue is pushing matter? Even if it does, if it can’t be fixed, negativity will not change the scenario. If it can be fixed, negativity won’t help the change come faster.
  6. Take other opinions into account. Guess what? You’re not always right. In fact, often you’re not. You chose the people around you because they’re talented. They’re training to be experts in their field. Take the time to listen. If you choose to go with an idea (or not) know why you made that call. Know how it affects the moment you’re building.
  7. Do not change to please someone else. The problem with surrounding yourself with creative people is that the air becomes static with ideas and opinions. That’s fantastic as it gives so much fodder to the project’s possibilities. However — it can be very easy to lose sight of your original vision and the reason why you made your choice in the first place. Don’t make a decision out of fear of disappointing someone. Don’t give up what you know to be right for the moment because another possibility is more shiny.
  8. It’s okay to be wrong. It’s okay if your original idea doesn’t work. It’s okay if what’s best for the scene (or movie) is something not what you had originally died on a hill for. Have the humility to admit that and move on to something that will work better. And if you aren’t sure, have the courage to ask for help. (See 2, 3, and 6.)

I didn’t expect to come to grad school. I applied to one, got in, and decided “now or never.” It has proven, despite the lack of premeditation, one of the greatest choices of my life.

Absolutely, there have been tough sacrifices. The year-round, practical nature of the program means I see the people I love rarely. But the amount of growth in such a short period of time, the people I’ve met, the life/craft lessons I’ve learned are invaluable.

I didn’t notice them growing in me. But as we unfurl the carpet that is our thesis semester, and shoot sixteen films to define our class’s progress to the world, I see what we have become since arriving. Competent. Giving. Passionate. Confident. Diplomatic. Flexible. Dedicated. The craft is beginning to feel like a process instead of a scramble — and you can see it in the way we discuss our approaches and the footage we capture.

I have three more days of filming my thesis project. Perhaps, they will be riddled with headache (or, maybe, they’ll be smooth sailing). However, the first half has shown me how far we have come as filmmakers, as people, and that is our thesis — our mark of progress and accomplishment to share with the world.

If you’re interested in keeping up with our thesis production process this semester (and post-production next semester), I’ve recently discovered instagram story and may be slightly obsessed. @katherine.oostman