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5 Lessons I Learned At USC Film School

USC Film School Campus

Attending the USC School of Cinematic Arts felt like an impossible dream, the pinnacle of success for a fledgling young filmmaker.


I applied twice, once straight out of high school (and was rejected) and then again from the USC Annenberg School of Communications as a junior transfer. The second time, to my amazement, I got in!


The two years I spent at the film school in the Film & TV production program felt surreal - the campus looked and felt like an expensive movie set (a little too glossy and perfect to be real). I was surrounded by uber-talented students I was told on day one would be hiring and firing me for the rest of my career, and taught by professors with Emmys and Oscars... so no pressure or anything.


It was one of the biggest learning experiences of my life. And now, four years after graduation, as an indie filmmaker in post-production on a TV pilot, it dawned on me just how much my current mindset and creative journey were shaped by my time there.


Whether you are curious about film school, deep in the trenches, or living the post-college life like I am, I hope that these little nuggets of wisdom can help guide you in your filmmaking journey, no matter your current stage.


Lesson #1 - It's okay not to be a film buff, even at USC Film School


One of my biggest insecurities going into film school was my lack of encyclopedic film

knowledge and cinephilic obsession.


Though I love films, I am admittedly not a movie buff. I haven't watched every Scorcese film and I can't carry an in-depth conversation about the motifs in Tarantino's work or the history of French film noir. In fact, I am more of a PIXAR person, but most people don't consider The Incredibles a form of high art.


When I first started at SCA, I assumed that all of my classmates had spent countless hours hunkered down in their youths, dissecting the greatest works by Kubrick, del Toro, and Allen, which undoubtedly made them more qualified to study filmmaking. And sure, those students did exist, but fortunately, for me, the Film & TV Production program focused more on making films and less on analyzing them.


We viewed and examined films as a way of informing our art, but most of what I learned about filmmaking in film school came from making films. From our first semester at SCA, we were pedal-to-the-metalling it, creating a mini-TV pilot, a narrative short, and a mini-doc in our CTPR 295 small groups. We didn't have time to analyze what we were doing or compare our work to Spielberg, we were just thrown into the deep end and hoped to make it out alive.


Dramatics aside, I learned that you don't have to be a 'film nerd' to get into film school or to become a skilled filmmaker. Just take your love of film, put in the effort, and make something you're proud of.


Lesson #2 - Don't let criticism derail you


I remember it vividly. That horrible, uncomfortable feeling when all eyes were on me, my stomach dropped, and all I wanted to do was sink into the floor and disappear. Afterward, I ran to my car, cried, and proceeded to talk myself down from a fantasy of ditching school and boarding a plane straight to Iceland.


We had rehearsed our scenes in our directing class with our actors a few weeks prior and mine had been pure magic. The actors were so believable and their chemistry was fierce and dynamic. The performance met a flurry of accolades from my fellow classmates and professor, who said it was one of the best rehearsals done in the class. They were excitedly looking forward to the final recording.

But then, when the time came to shoot, edit, and reveal the final scene on the TV in the classroom, I was met with nothing but criticism and obvious disappointment from my peers.


My professor criticized the camera work for being too static and boring, which I found unfair. I remember thinking, 'But, for the last scene that I made in this class, you told me that having so many camera angles was distracting and that cinematography shouldn't be our focus, so for this scene, I kept it simple to appease you.'


I was peeved. It was easier to be silently upset with him than to admit to myself that I could have done better. I was embarrassed by my failure and convinced that everyone else in the classroom was judging me.


After my downward spiral in the car, I slowly came to my senses. I realized that I agreed with the classes' comments- the scene felt static and awkward on screen, nothing like the free-flowing passionate movement it had in the rehearsal. I should have blocked it differently and not taken my professor's initial criticism to heart. I couldn't blame him for my mistake - I swung from being too camera angle intensive, to not enough, and in the process lost my creative vision for the scene.


Which brings me to the lesson of this story - not all criticism should be taken to heart. There may be a grain of truth in it, but don't be quick to overcompensate and lose sight of the way you want to tell your story. But at the same time, when facing criticism, try not to jump to your defenses and blame others for your mistakes, particularly when a lot of people are saying the same thing. There is usually truth in it.

Lesson #3 - Know your 'why'


The undergraduate production program at SCA wraps up with a senior capstone project. Most seniors choose to take the CTPR 480 track, which is deemed a quintessential part of the SCA experience.


Only three to four 480 short films get made, each with one writer, one director, one cinematographer, and two producers. Dozens of scripts are pitched, alliances are formed, and students compete against each other for the 'top roles' in the winning films. It's all about 'who you know' and how you pitch yourself and your project. We were told that our most famous alumni had all played large roles in 480s, and that, by earning a top role, you were joining a lineage of great filmmakers.


Needless to say, the 480 arena was an exhilarating, yet anxiety-ridden place to be.


After a rollercoaster of attempts and rejections, I was brought onto a chosen 480 project as a producer. It felt so good to be 'one of the lucky ones'. I had finally made it.


But then, just as we started to get into pre-production planning, I got an email from the lead professor of CTPR 486, the graduate-level TV series class, saying that I had been chosen as one of their episode directors.


The class creates 4 episodes of an original single-camera drama series, each with a different director, and it is the biggest budget production at SCA. I had applied to be a director the semester prior and had gotten so wrapped up in 480 that the application had completely slipped my mind.


Prestige vs. Passion

There was no way I could do both - 480 and 486 are all-consuming projects that leave little to no time for anything else. I would have to choose - the prestige of producing a 480, or the unknown of directing a 486 episode. I knew very little about 486, as 480 was the talk of the town in the undergraduate courses, but I was tempted by the prospect of directing. I didn't mind producing, but directing was what filled me with excitement and drive.


But what would it mean for me to leave 480? Most of my fellow undergrads didn't know what CTPR 486 was. I worried that they would resent me if I abandoned my position as a 480 producer, or worse, would forget about me if I left the undergraduate cohort.


I pondered this, calling my parents and consorting with professors. Eventually, I had to remind myself why I was in film school in the first place. Was it for the prestige? To feel accepted by my peers? To say 'I made it'? Or was it for something else? Something more meaningful to me?


'I had to remind myself why I was in film school in the first place'

It dawned on me that I wasn't in film school to play it safe. Being at USC Film School can easily lull you into a false sense of security because, underneath all of the competitiveness of the film courses, we've all already 'made it', right? It became clear to me that I wanted to grow and challenge myself as a director more than I wanted to join the 480 lineage.


So, I left 480 and joined the 486 crew as a director and it was one of the best, most challenging decisions I've ever made.


Lesson #4 - Your honest feedback is valuable


Once I accepted the position of episode director for CTPR 486, I had an introductory call with the lead professor (whom I had never met). I remember it was the winter break before my final semester at SCA, and I was pacing in the living room, phone to my ear, babbling on about what could be improved about the script.


My dad overheard me and once I was off the phone, joked about how direct I was. I responded, "Well, she asked for my opinion". He laughed it off and shrugged, but it got me thinking, 'Oh, crap maybe she didn't want me to be honest. '


When I got back to school, at the start of the class, I was shocked to find out that the professor had made me the director of the pilot episode. To this day, I'm still not 100% sure why she made that choice. Maybe it's because I was the only undergraduate director, so they wanted to use me as a guinea pig. But, I like to think it had something to do with my honesty on that phone call.


Sometimes telling people what you think they want to hear can be to your (and your project's) detriment. I learned that delivering kind, yet honest feedback can be valuable, especially when you are in a position where you feel you have to prove yourself.


Lesson #5 - Develop and test future ideas


Girl smiling at camera
Actress Aria Goodson in a still from The Disappearance of Violet Willoughby pilot episode

As an independent filmmaker 4-years out, I am thankful for the story ideas I was able to develop and test while still in film school.


I developed the concept for The Disappearance of Violet Willoughby (a project I recently completed filming) while at USC, and decided to use the story as a pitch deck presentation for one of my producing classes. The process of distilling my story into a logline, and outlining the mood, themes, and characters for a pitch brought me greater clarity about the show I wanted to make.


The feedback I received from my professor and classmates after my pitch was invaluable in the development process. I remember a girl in my class pulling me aside afterward and telling me how much she liked the story and would love to watch it. That was the boost I needed to keep chugging along with the project, which was intimidating in scope and taking a long while to get off the ground. Hearing from her reassured me that I was making something worthwhile.


Film school is truly a jumping-off point for your creative career. If you are a film student, do your future self a favor and take advantage of your professors and their knowledge while you have them in the room with you. Once you're out of school, it'll just be you, a camera, and a blank page, so be sure to share your ideas and get feedback on your stories whenever possible.

 

So there you have it folks! My 5 Lessons Learned at USC Film School. Thanks for reading my first-ever blog post (this is a big scary moment for me).


If you enjoyed this article, share it with your friends, classmates, or colleagues!

Also, I want to know... have you gone to film school? Or are you currently in the thick of the madness? I'd love to hear what lessons you've learned.


If you're curious about my work, check out the trailer for the pilot episode of The Disappearance of Violet Willoughby! After 4+ years of development, it is finally coming to fruition!


Plus you can follow @wanderlustfilms_official on Instagram for behind-the-scenes, sneak peeks, and pilot release updates!


Till next time!

Madison

 

Madison Campione (Founder and Creative Director of Wanderlust Films) is an award-winning screenwriter and director, and a 2019 graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts Film & TV Production Program. Her independently financed mystery/thriller TV pilot, The Disappearance of Violet Willoughby is currently in post-production and expected to screen in the next festival circuit. She and her team are currently looking for funding to create the 8-episode limited series and secure distribution with a streaming service for the world to enjoy.




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