Learning by Doing – The Concept of the American Film Institutes Conservatory

Artists are always working to balance craft with artistry. And there has to be a balance; too much concern over craft, too much labor with the intricacies of technique, can diminish artistic qualities of the work. In the same way artistic voice – to be found, nurtured, and sustained – cannot develop and flourish without attention to craft. Without craft there is no art.

This constant balancing act is so often accompanied by another: the conflict of aspiration and resource. Finding just the right amount of money, or time, or effort is a difficult exercise and one that consumes a great deal of activity in the work of artists. The same is true in the challenge of educating artists. Choices about programs and curricula always involve an attempt to find a balance between theory and application.

Having faced these problems in the abstract and in a very real way as a professional director and producer, this is my challenge as an educator:
how to train filmmakers in a disciplinary model with a very low budget.

George Stevens Jr., the Founding Director of the American Film Institute, observed at the opening of the Conservatory in September of 1969 that “… while it may not be possible to train people to make films, it is possible to to create a climate in which people can learn to make films, where aspiring artists can absorb, in a relatively short, intensive period, insight that other men have wrested from the experience of an entire career.” This was the core of what he called the Tutorial Idea – an idea that has come to be the fundamental organizational principle of the Conservatory: learning by doing.

Learning by doing follows a basic structure that has proven to be both durable and flexible, and is one that is fundamentally predicated on a lot of doing. In their first year, Conservatory Fellows do a great deal of shooting. They start immediately with a six-week bootcamp where the particulars of production at AFI are introduced. Two weeks later they are shooting their first short exercise made in collaboration by teams of Fellows from each of the six Disciplines taught: Producing, Directing, Screenwriting, Cinematography, Editing, and Production Design.

Then three more exercises are shot in the first year – these are called Cycle Films One, Two, and Three and are also made in collaboration by teams of Fellows consisting of a producer, director, screenwriter, cinematographer, editor, and production designer. All cycle films are discussed by the whole cohort – 128 fellows – in a class called Narrative Workshop. The experience is rooted in critique: you learn to see what you produced, what worked, and what didn’t from the observations of your peers. In the second year, the focus moves to a Thesis Film. Again in collaboration with a team, each Fellow contributes her or his talents to a complete short film project suitable for distribution.

Over time this model has proven that a lot of shooting in quick succession improves skills exponentially rather than incrementally. And while all of this production is going on each Fellow is specializing in one of the six Disciplines that comprise the courses of study offered at AFI: Producing, Directing, Cinematography, Screenwriting, Editing, and Production Design. Academic courses provide discipline-based perspective and analysis that reinforces what is learned in production.

In the first year Narrative Workshop serves as the hub of each year’s class of Fellows – it is here where critical and observational skill is honed. Every Cycle Film is screened over the course of Narrative Workshop, and following each screening a discussion among all of the class is moderated by a faculty member. The team who made the film sits in front of the class and cannot contribute – they can only listen to the conversation. While this has been a difficult situation for many Fellows over the years – the opinion of your peers can be affirming at times and devastating at others – it has come to be the experience that bonds everyone in the class to one another and provides the foundation upon which instruction in the discipline and work in production is built.

Conservatory faculty serve more as mentors and coaches than teachers. A construction metaphor is apt here – they scaffold support for Fellows that is more involved and intense in the early parts of the program. As Fellows progress in their craft and artistry, take calculated risks and learn from their successes and failures, tutorial support lessens over time and Fellows increasingly lead their own education and transition from pupil to professional.

The entire experience is much like living in an artists’ colony: a place where you live among, learn from, and collaborate extensively with peers of commensurate talent and potential. These principles endure after Fellows graduate and continue throughout their careers – AFI trained filmmakers tend to work with other AFI trained filmmakers. Learning by doing sounds straightforward enough – it is a simple premise, but its educational implications and the meaning Fellow make as they navigate the process are profound. You try, and try again. You suffer failures and celebrate successes. You persist. And at the end – and often many years later – you realize how much you’ve developed and the depth of the lessons learned as your skills evolve with each successive project.

American Film Institute: