Flinders University students are making short films remotely.

Talk about a baptism of fire: on Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) CEO Nell Greenwood’s second day on the job, the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

One of Greenwood’s first tasks was to implement AFTRS’ pandemic plan, with the initial step to close the school to the public, and postpone industry events.

The next was to think about how to run a screen and broadcast school – that by its nature involves high-touch production activities and shared equipment – while enforcing social distancing measures.

Eventually, the school moved to online delivery, though what that looks like depends on the cohort.

For Masters students, theory has taken precedence, with production pushed back until later in the year.

However, for students in the more conceptually-focused BA program, AFTRS is looking to try to keep some production elements in the course. For instance, directing lecturers have looked to partner with acting school Screenwise to set up workshops so that they can facilitate teaching how to work with actors remotely.

“It’s been amazing looking at some of our teaching staff grappling with this. Necessity is the mother of invention,” Greenwood tells IF.

Further, for AFTRS, which has a national remit, it’s forced Greenwood to look at how the school might further engage in the online space into the future.

“We have been traditionally more production-focused in a way that seems to require being in the building. But that, of course, limits our remit and our reach. We are the national screen and broadcast institution. This has given us all a lot of ideas about how moving forward, beyond this, we can actually have a much wider reach and have a more developed online strategy.”

Many schools, like Bond University, which will resume coursework after a trimester break on May 25, have made the decision to push hands-on production subjects like cinematography, broadcasting and sound production to later in the study program, while prioritising subjects like producing and screenwriting, that can be delivered online.

At Swinburne, many of the practical elements of coursework have similarly been delayed – semester two starts in August. Film and television lecturer Mark Freeman notes it has been particularly hard on fourth year students who were about to shoot their major work. However, he’s been impressed with their resilience, and their shift of focus to writing future work. And for first years, the school’s keen to get them to shoot short 90 second films themed around quarantine on their phone.

Griffith Film School staff have had to think about how they can continue deliver their production courses in different ways.

“For instance, I’m teaching into a documentary course and remote filmmaking and accessibility restrictions are really not new in the documentary field. So the students just have to explore those now,” says senior lecturer and curriculum coordinator Nico Meissner.

“A lot of them are actually now making documentary films reflecting on the situation and the impact that has on them or people around them. So they’re using Skype for interviews, they’re using FaceTime for interviews. I think students get more creative in terms of documentary, there’s more observational work now. There is more poetic work. So that is quite exciting.”

In fiction film, Meissner notes some students are exploring pre-visualisation and animatic technology, including a cinematography game called Cinetracer.

SAE Institute head of film Magali McDuffie admits going online is not ideal, as obviously the aim is for students to have access to equipment – they will have to catch-up on some aspects of their technical education at a later date.

However, she thinks there are some positives. For instance, students will likely be experts in remote practice by the end of the pandemic – a skill required in many post and VFX houses. Learning how to shoot an interview remotely is a skill many a documentarian needs to have. Students are also learning to be resilient in a crisis, that is, to be flexible and adaptable in how they work.

And in her documentary classes, McDuffie has asked her class to collaborate on a project about life as students during coronavirus, remotely shot.

At Flinders, undergrads are filming short films and music videos in isolation, and collaborating remotely during post-production. The short film themes are isolation, home-sweet-home, dreams, hope and the apocalypse. The music videos are in collaboration with Australian artists and bands also in isolation.

The Flinders staff are also taking on the remote filmmaking challenge, says lecturer Tom Young, who recently shot his first short film on FaceTime.

The WA Screen Academy director Cathy Henkel says students are using this time to further develop scripts.

“We’ve also commissioned a “Life at Home” series of 1-minute clips that students are making and sharing at the start of class. We will assemble the best of these into a Life at Home half hour special to screen at our showcase and upload to online platforms. Some of our students are also working with a leading broadcaster on a COVID-19 special they are putting together.”

The shutdown has also enabled them to bring in more leading practitioners as special guests via Zoom, such as cinematographer Don McAlpine and documentary producers/directors Tom Zubrycki and Janine Hosking.

UTS’ Animal Logic Academy has had to launch an IT project in order to continue coursework for its Masters of Animation and Visualisation students, in order to allow remote access to industry hardware and software through a bespoke VPN network.

“In terms of preparing our students for the real-world, it is important to note that most production companies have adopted a similar mode of working. In Animal Logic’s case, it is over multiple projects and time-zones, so our students should be well-prepared for the future,” says academy head Ian Thomson.

Not all options for technical learning will be lost. At RMIT, the technical services, studios and facility team has developed a portal that will allow students to have one-on-one consultations about different kinds of technologies.

Dean of the school of media and communication Lisa French says: “It’s been amazing how resilient people have been and how fast we’ve got it up. Obviously doing it the way you conceived it is better. But I think potentially it could cause changes in how people do things because everyone’s going to get a solid digital lift. There is potential innovation and new ways of doing things that might endure later.”

This story appears in IF Magazine #194 as part of a broader feature looking at how screen education has kept pace with changes in the screen industry. 

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