As part of Beesum Communications involvement with the Weeneebeg Aboriginal Film and Video Festival, we will be printing various articles about the filmmaking process by Paul M. Rickard, the Executive Director of the festival. This is part two of a six part series that The Nation will publish.
Part Two: School and Training
There is a saying in the film business: “you’re only as good as your last job”, which is quite true. If you do a good job on one production, you are likely to be hired on another, but if you do a bad job (for example, bad lighting or sound) word gets around that you screwed up and won’t to be hired again!
So it’s a good thing to practice your art to become even better at it. If you’re doing camera, sound or editing, its a learning process and one should continue to practice and learn from experience, which I think is the best way to become a even better filmmaker. This way you learn what works and what doesn’t. It’s also important to review your own work and be your own critic.
But learning from experience is just one part of improving your craft. There are other options, such as training or schooling. These two options offer different things in filmmaking. For me, I always wanted to be a director or a screenwriter. After high school I decided to apply to film schools, such as York University or Concordia in Montreal. As part of the application process I had to write essays on why I wanted to be a filmmaker, critique a documentary and feature film of my choice. I chose a documentary called Pixote about homeless children in Mexico and the feature film was one of my all time favorite films, Blue Velvet directed by David Lynch. I also had to attend a meeting with directors of the film departments, where they basically asked why I wanted to be a filmmaker and reviewed my essay. But for one reason or another, I didn’t make the cut. I was devastated. I didn’t know what I did wrong and thought I would never make it as a filmmaker. Also it meant I had to wait another year to try again and reapply. But I decided not to give up. I looked at my options and looked at journalism programs, and applied to the Program in Journalism for Native People at the University of Western Ontario in London.
Although it wasn’t what I had planned, I thought journalism was an alternative that was close enough to become a filmmaker, as they both use the visual medium to tell stories. Although television journalism focuses on non-fiction stories, documentaries and news reporting, I am glad I took this road.
The course ran for 12 intensive months that learned writing, photography, radio broadcasting, interviewing, sound editing, television camerawork and on-camera reporting. Of all the courses and programs I found my calling: camerawork, shooting and composing with the camera, which was real exciting. The only thing I can say about schooling is that it provided me an overview of the different professions one can pursue as a career. Many of the people I went to journalism school with, most became reporters for newsprint and magazines, with a few radio broadcasters. Of 15 students that attend the journalism program I was the only one to pursue camerawork.
Following university, I decided to become a cameraman as my profession and its still is to this day, but schooling was the only first step to becoming a successful filmmaker. Getting a job is another. After graduating, I applied to various news stations throughout the south, but was unsuccessful in getting a job, mainly because I didn’t have the experience of real work outside of school. People are reluctant to hire students out of school, and if they do, you usually start at the bottom or on a training program. My options were limited back in the early 80’s and it was tough to get any breaks.
One thing I learned looking back at going to university was that it provided a great opportunity to learn other trades in the fields and its a good idea to come out with a technical skill such as camerawork or sound recorder. These are the jobs that pay your rent. Being a director is something you strive and work hard towards, and it’s hard to get hired without experience. But a technical skill is something you can take with you anywhere and if you do a good job, it’ll lead to others. I have worked as a cameraman for three years at Wawatay Native Communications in Moose Factory where I improved on my profession. I still feel very fortunate to work at Wawatay, not only to do camerawork, but also to work within my own community and with the Cree language. In fact, the work I did at Wawatay opened my eyes to what I wanted to do as a filmmaker – make films about the Cree people and other Aboriginal people.
At Wawatay, I also learned to be an editor. For example, as a cameraman you learn to compose different shots to make a story flow visually when assembling the footage. After three years at Wawatay, I felt I had to move as I learned all I could at Wawatay. I then applied to the National Film Board of Canada to a three-month internship program at the camera department and shoot real film stock. I received a training grant by the Moose Cree First Nation for half the training and the National Film Board Contributed the rest. This also meant I had to move to Montreal – that was 13 years ago.
The training program was supposed to focus on using a 16 mm film camera and learn to shoot film. But after two months all I did was carry the tripod and equipment for other cameramen, which was a disappointment because I thought I was supposed to shoot some actual film stock. But that wasn’t the case. So when my training contract came up, I made a complaint against the camera department that I did not learn what I was supposed to during my three-month training. After a few sessions with the camera department, they agreed to extend my training another three months and promised that I could shoot film. Not long after I got to do some camera test and practice using a light meter and different lenses and film stock. It was a lot different than using video camera that tends to be automatic and you really on that somewhat when shooting video. But using a film camera, you have to use various new tools to get the right exposure, just like using still camera in manual mode. It was exciting! I love shooting film, as its something you can actually touch, feel, see and smell all at once, unlike videotape. My original three-month training program ended up being three years.
So what does this all mean? It means that learning your trade in film/video is a long and exciting journey and you’re always learning something new. Schooling is just one part. I don’t think most people become successful filmmaker/cameraman overnight. You learn for others, watching films and from your own work. I learned that you only get better with time and with a lot of practice. So keep practicing with what you choose to do, either being a cameraman, editor, writer, director or a sound person.
Paul M. Rickard is a filmmaker from Moose Factory, Ontario who has been involved in filmmaking for over 15 years. He directed “Okimah ” and produced the series “Finding Our Talk” for APTN. In the next issue Paul will discuss directing his first film “Okimah” for the National Film Board of Canada and the struggles and rewards that came with it.