Student Films Are A Good Thing

Upwardfailingactor
6 min readNov 23, 2020
a decent looking skeleton crew

Recently I was shown an advice column of Hollywood casting directors giving their opinions on how to create a good reel when you’re starting out. One of them said not to waste your time with student films. Their logic: the footage they give you is often poorly put together, the sound may not be there, and the footage will be sent to you months from now, or even not at all!

This…didn’t seem right in my experience. Of course, the reputation is somewhat earned. It isn’t uncommon to have to track down a student filmmaker to get footage, though they’re usually mandated by their schools to provide it.

Here in Los Angeles, over the ten years, I’ve probably done over 50 student films. Out of those 50 short films, one student completely disappeared on me (with the footage of course) and maybe one other didn’t manage to send me the footage until much much later. So that’s 2 out of 50, or a 96% success rate.

I’ve had worse luck with indie filmmakers, honestly. With students, I’ve typically gotten the footage between 3 and 5 months later. In many cases much much sooner.

The CD also made the point that that’s too much time! You’ll have grown into a different type by then, or grown horns or something! However, if you do a project on TV or Film, the timelines could even be greater, so I don’t really get the point their making, other than this…

You should be filming your own reels, instead of bothering with student films.

So here are my arguments against that statement & for doing student films, at least here in LA.

1 — They’re free.

Sure, you have to pay for gas, on a rare occasion a sandwich, but you’d have to do that for the reel footage you’re doing too, even if you get someone to do you a favor. Often, schools such as USC, UCLA or AFI give you a gas reimbursment too. Pasadena Art Center actually pays for the project, in cash. At least they used to.

2 — The footage can be consistently good to great

Here are some of the schools you have in the LA area

  • USC (Long considered one of the best film programs — BFA, MFA, even a Summer program)
  • UCLA (Very well regarded)
  • AFI (MFA Program only available to SAG actors but some of the best up and coming young filmmakers in the world. Their sets always act as professional sets, not skeleton crews like some of the other programs)
  • Chapman
  • NYFA
  • Art Center (Small but well regarded Pasadena school)
  • Loyola Marymount
  • CAL ARTS
  • LA Film School

And that’s leaving a number of others out. Sure, some have their more well-known alumni list, but in my experience you can’t be sure what you’ll get until you try. I’ve had some of my least favourable experiences at USC (though the majority were there so it isn’t quite fair) and my best at smaller schools such as Loyola and Art Center, leaving out AFI since they’re in a league of their own. To be fair, at this point, I have TV and Film footage on my reel, but the padding is still with AFI projects. When I was a non-union actor starting out, a project I did with a student production nearly always beat out or compared favorably with an indie project I was a part of. Not saying they were all winners, but more often than not I was glad to at least consider putting it in my reel.

Granted, once you have those one or two quality scenes that are the lead-ins on your reel, you have the liberty to be discerning with what student films you audition for. Look carefully at the class description to get an idea of the scope of the production. A Junior or Senior Thesis is going to be a safer bet than those class exercises quickly accomplished over the weekend at the beginning of the school year. Nevertheless, when it comes to reel creation, you’re looking for 30 second moments, so you never know — that passionate break-up scene with a shaky camera might just be your ticket!

3 — The Stakes are low, in a good way

The hardest thing for an actor is to go from something to EVERYTHING. The rush of being in front of the camera, acting alongside a huge star, on a major film or show is intense. Believe me, that was my very first “legit” job. I was shaking in my boots. What allowed me to get the job done? Well, I had spent hours upon hours in very low-stakes situations, i.e. student and indie films and had developed a sense of how to work in front of a camera. While a student filmmaker may be understandably stressed about their class exercise or even thesis, for you, the stakes are actually quite low. You can start to learn to manage those nerves and do what you do, to the best of your ability.

Additionally, a student film environment is a great place to be able to explore. Within reaon, you’re not going to get fired. You can talk to the camera man/DP and ask them to tell you how they’re framing the shot, something you would probably not be able to do as a walk-on role on a major show. On a student production, with some exceptions, you might be able to do a few takes and see playback, thus adjusting your performance, something you absolutely would not be able to do on a “legit” gig. You can pitch an idea to the director, again, within reason, in the spirit of collaboration.

In short, you can both feel really free as well as really dive into the minutae of the craft of filmmaking. You can build confidence, and also knowledge.

4 — Relationship building.

For most actors its a marathon not a sprint. You never know which relationship you make early on will bear fruit. As much as you’d like to meet and mingle with the bigs of the industry, you are better off meeting other folks who are starting like you and having positive collaborations than dreaming aimlessly of working with that big name. Keep the dream alive, but at least you’ll be proactive, and possibly build some relationships with the future of filmmaking.

Now, there are possible downsides. Student films are educational opportunities. Not every young person you work with have that aura of promise. You have to develop patience. You have to let them make mistakes and allow for those mistakes to be choices they make that you are in no position to over-ride. You can learn to advise in some cases, but you are there with someone who is in process, and allowing them their process is the best thing you can do as a professional. Student filmmakers often aren’t conclusively taught how to approach actors, i.e. direct. They will ask you to do weird things, or approach the role in a way you don’t like, or a method you think is outdated, or ridiculous or cliché. Patience is key.

The kicker is that these kinds of director “moves,” the ones that irritate actors and make them feel that they’re speaking a different creative language than you, don’t just exist in the world of student films, they exist in the professional world, oh yes they do.

So that patience you practice, will surely come in handy, someday, somehow.

In conclusion, this isn’t to say that there aren’t advantages to filming your own reel footage. Of course there are! There is no doubt a considerable chunk of actors who have that filmmaker friend (or expendable wealth)with an Alexa or Red Camera or even a DSLR with time on their hands who can help you craft the perfect scene or scenes that will perfectly position you in regards to your reel. There isn’t that promise with student films. You could get cut out. They could use the worst take, the list goes on and on. However, the great thing about student films is that if you are cast, you are most likely right for the part, and the amount of resources these schools have, in terms of costume, sets, locations etc, will no doubt improve your chances of having a piece of footage that stands out vs shooting in your friend’s house or at the park. Granted, there are many strata of student films, and the entry level (aka the freshman class exercises) ones will not have all those resources available, but even then, you don’t have to wear all these different hats as producer, crafty — etc, you can just show up, and act!

If you’re an actor (or a filmmaker) — let me know what you think in the comments! I created this medium because I’ve been in an acting studio for a long while now and often have beginning actors in my midst. Instead of boring them with an email if they had a question, I thought to create this medium to address issues as they come up.

Thanks for reading!

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