Industry education: best of both worlds

Students working at an Open Channel courseDifferent schools at different levels provide vastly different experiences for their students, but there are common elements that become evident when discussing trends with the heads of the sector. Miguel Gonzalez reports.

At a time when anyone can grab a camera to create and distribute an audiovisual work, it is essential for the industry to remain rofessional and ensure that those amateur practitioners get the chance to polish and develop their natural talents and interests.

The industry has come to accept that the traditional path of working your way to the top and the road of formal education don’t have to be divergent or mutually exclusive.

Trends in the sector aim to close the gap between education and industry, to prepare students for the realities of the market and make them a little more ‘job ready’. Among the common denominators is an emphasis on story development, audience awareness and business skills to build a sustainable industry; the importance of new media skills which are no longer an extra, but a requirement; the need to balance practice and theory by working together with industry players and listening to their needs while still retaining autonomy over their programs; the advantage of general courses that train people in a variety of skills; and a demand for flexible courses.


Change is inevitable, particularly in an industry that is reliant on technology for its production, distribution and consumption. But adapting to change is not an easy process for tertiary institutions; they have to be educators and prophets all in one, meeting the needs of the industry, present and future, even if that future keeps changing form.

New media not only offer technical and creative opportunities for film and television production, but they can also provide students with a wider range of employment opportunities. Trends change quickly, and universities must ensure their courses remain current.

“You can construct your program to allow for that sort of change,” explained the former ABC TV head of development and current head of film and television at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Geoff Portman. “The skill sets aren’t changing but evolving, so as long as you construct your units of study to be able to respond to that evolution, it’s not that hard to keep yourself relevant.

“The days of being too narrowly defined in your area are in the past,” said Portman. “That’s why courses must be flexible, so people can shift their goals and areas of specialisation as they go along.”

In his transition from television to academia, Portman considers himself fortunate because he’s found that people have a respect for the practitioner.

“Equally, I have a great deal of respect for what others bring in terms of academic knowledge and research. We must get rid of the divide between practitioners and academics and realise that both bring valuable elements. It’s a good marriage between both.

“It’s important to have a good mixture of people with practical and academic backgrounds. The two have to learn to inform each other, and one should not necessarily be given a priority over the other.”

QUT students recently started the Pilot Project, collecting television pilots made independently around the country and screening them in front of an audience and commercial operators and producers, as a kind of open test screening. This is one of many initiatives that aim to connect students with industry professionals, a network of which the university devotes time and resources to develop.

“I hope that at some level they understand we’re bringing a commercial perspective to what we teach, one where the audience is very important in the whole process,” said Portman.


Change has remained a constant force at the Victorian College of the Arts since its integration with the University of Melbourne. Earlier this year, the Faculty of the VCA merged with the Faculty of Music. Further changes at the VCA have generated concerns, with figures such as Geoffrey Rush joining protests to ‘Save the VCA’ from what is perceived as influence from the university to force students into more generalised, theoretical subjects that would reduce their ability to specialise as part of the “Melbourne Model”.

According to Ian Lang, head of film and television, the school will remain a stand-alone unit within the university, retaining its autonomy. The curriculum development process for new degrees to include film and TV has not yet commenced, but industry professionals will be invited to participate in it next year.

 “The choices are all going to be in the service of producing well-rounded filmmakers who are going to be competitive with the best and brightest around the world,” he assured.

That level of expertise, he says, takes years to develop, so VCA is “not for everyone”. For the school, it is important that the graduates’ contribution is long-term

instead of producing “flavour-of-the-month button-pushers”. That might be the case, but the VCA needs to make sure they have the latest buttons for their students to push, with a recent $5 million HD upgrade and the imminent arrival of Red camera kits.

Another fear that has been publicly expressed, even by the former film school head Chris McGill is that of staff cuts. Lang told Encore that although there had been “no involuntary staff cuts” within the school under his watch, the university recently offered voluntary redundancy opportunities for all staff. At press time, Lang did not know if any of his staff had accepted the redundancy.

A different kind of change has taken place at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), with a restructure of its curriculum resulting in a model that, according to the director of the screen content division Graham Thorburn, is still being polished. Liz Hughes has been appointed to a new position, director of open program, to develop new courses at all skill levels. The wide-ranging evolution took place because AFTRS had become a very industry-focused and technical school; it was felt that the school should head towards creative autonomy and storytelling.

“We quite deliberately moved the school towards creative freedom and responsibility for our students. It’s partly a generational thing, and partly a response for the need of self-starters in the industry,” he explained.

In terms of a generational shift, Thorburn says that students are now more entrepreneurial than their predecessors, creating an “interesting tension between their desire to self-express and explore their own interests, and the desire to be noticed and have a career”.

AFTRS does not have a preference for either side of the spectrum and prefers to keep a balance between both opposing yet complementary forces, because it’s beneficial to have people who are keen on developing projects with a clear market and audience, as well as those more keen on exploring ideas.

“We’ve freed up the ways in which people choose what they want to make so that like-minded people can come together,” said Thorburn.

This fine balance between art and business is a constant struggle. Artur Kade, director of Participate Film Academy, says it’s essential to teach students that film and television are a business. “It’s a very tricky issue as you need creativity but you must also be very savvy in business, and if you’re successful it’s easier to start applying your own art.”

Participate is going through its own cycle of change, as it will soon offer an accredited feature diploma for the first time since its foundation in 2006. Previous generations of graduates have produced a feature film over the course of the non-accredited feature program, but Kade recognised people’s desire to obtain a certification that might help them go into other areas of business. Kade is also planning special filmmaking courses for people over 55, and collaborating with the

University of Technology Sydney on a number of education initiatives.

Change has also hit the Television Technical Operators College, which will be transitioned to TAFE NSW – Northern Institute (NSI) next year, for long-term sustainability. General manager Peter Musgrove explained that economic conditions undermined the TTOC’s funding model, but its training model is “an undisputed success”, having produced 50 graduates in Television Technical Operations and 1150 participants in their short courses.


Claire Morgan, training manager at Metro Screen in NSW, has noticed that individuals are taking more responsibility for their own up skilling, something that employers would have usually taken care of in the past.

“With higher levels of ‘casualisation’ of work and more freelancers, people are more responsible over their own education.

“People are making the most of any spare time they may have to up-skill. There’s an entrepreneurial element, where smaller companies spot an opportunity to undercut a larger competitor and they want to repackage their services as long as their people can learn new skills quickly.”

Metro Screen will launch its Advanced Diploma next year, 90 percent funded by government. Its main focus will be television production in a multiplatform context, not only because of the influence of board president Marcus Guillezeau and his award-winning work in that area (Scorched), but also due to industry requests through the tailored training provided to large organisations such as the ABC, which have demanded courses for that particular area.

Meanwhile in Adelaide, another member of Screen Development Australia (SDA) currently lacks the resources to provide development opportunities in television. The Media Resource Centre (MRC) has indicated to the South Australian Film Corporation that their lack of resources to provide a TV production initiative is a development problem for the state.

MRC director Gail Kovatseff says that almost all of the state’s emerging, mid-career and established filmmakers have been involved with the MRC in various capacities. However, the organisation has chosen not to confine itself to providing course-based training – which AFTRS and TAFE deliver in Adelaide – and has instead looked at the gaps to offer focused development. The MRC is currently looking at moving out of general training altogether to focus on script and project development which would lead into their production initiatives.

Another SDA member, Melbourne’s Open Channel, will soon complement its Certificate III in Media with an Advanced Diploma of Screen and Media aimed at film

school graduates in directing and producing, to provide them with development, business and marketing skills.

Additional short courses are available across disciplines such as set protocols and safety, CGI, cross-platform, writing, directing, script supervision, production management, location and post sound, cinematography and television studio.

Vocational education and training manager Daniel Schultheis believes that “education and industry were disparate for too long, with education focusing on meeting the desires of students rather than the needs of industry”, but the situation has changed.

He cites the Victorian resource centre’s responsive attitude to identified skills shortages as an example of this change, with programs such as the Trainee Lighting

Apprenticeship developed in 2008, which provided apprentices with skills in both film and television lighting/electrics and domestic/commercial electrical contractor industries. The program is one of 40 job areas developed in conjunction with industry

practitioners, which will be published soon as a guide for the VET sector of training courses that can better meet industry needs.

Metro Screen’s Morgan is a firm believer that the current government is behind the vocational sector as a means to create and maintain a healthy industry.

“There are signs of significant reforms and a future where vocational colleges converge with tertiary, where they’re both in the same continuum rather than being seen as quite different organisations,” she said with a hint of hope in her voice.


Beyond universities and VET institutions, there are others offering non-accredited courses that also serve a segment of the population who want to have a taste of filmmaking.

Among them, Templar Films’ Jeff Purser and Ranko Markovic decided to share the knowledge and experience gained from making Cedar Boys and other projects by creating a school offering a five-day short film course and workshops focusing on acting and presenting one weekend, and filmmaking the next.

“What I learned at film school was the theory, and how to understand and identify my strengths and weaknesses and what I actually wanted to do in the industry,” says Markovic.

Purser adds that nobody knows how to make a film until they make one.

“And when they finally do, they learn how much they didn’t know.”

According to Purser, some participants have never done any screen work but expect their first project to be a $5 million movie, waiting to be ‘discovered’ instead of developing their skills step by step.

The modules have been developed by identifying gaps in their students’ knowledge, which became apparent after running the first workshops. One that Purser and Markovic deem essential is presentation and pitching, to express and sell an idea to others.

“Prior preparation prevents piss-poor performance,” says Purser.

Other areas covered in the workshops are script development, fundraising (with an emphasis on private financing and product placement), and general problem solving and business plans.

According to the producers, Templar Film School’s courses are competitively priced for what they offer, which has helped them develop a niche in the sector and be well accepted by their peers. Their point of difference is offering their students the opportunity to work with them on their existing projects, offering a real life experience. In return, they get extra hands to help keep production costs down.

“A music video we made was the video of the week on Video Hits, and many of our participants were involved in it. That goes on their showreel, and once you start working, it gets them a foot on the door,” argues Purser.

“Especially the good ones.”

“With some of our budgets, we could not afford to have all industry professionals,” admits Markovic. “We integrate professionals with beginners to keep the quality of the project. The students get the experience they need and they’re quite happy to do so.”

“We’re very lucky because it’s a two-way street,” adds Purser. “We’re giving to the filmmaking community, but we’re getting a lot in return. We’re getting scripts and projects that we could potentially develop, and our network has exploded. Every week we have six filmmakers coming into our lives!”


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