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Advice for an interested high school kid?

Katryn Dierksen

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Hello there! I'm a junior in high school this year and it's just about time I start getting serious about what I want to do with my life. I'm trying to research different careers I'm interested in pursuing and college majors I might want to take. I've always been extremely interested in television and film, but I've just within the past year become interested in the production side of things, whereas before I was primarily interested in performing. So, with all that said, is there anyone around with sagely expereince who would like to share some advice with an eager young grasshopper such as myself? I'm wonding what public universities have good film study programs and what a good major would be for someone who would like to keep options in the industry open to several occupations (screenwriting, directing, acting, producing, etc.) And along with that, what are some things you all did that helped you along the way? What decisions did you make? What are some things that I could be doing to gain experience and prepare myself right now?

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Well, I suppose I"ll be the first to chime in here and say that you don't necessarily need school to work in film on the technical side. In a lot of ways it can be detrimental (note I have 2 college degrees already, one in Film, one in Anthropology). What is often better is to just work in the industry and save the tens of thousands of dollars you'd spend on going to school to live on while you get yourself established. To start in film, you really don't need any technical knowledge. Hell they have a PA Pamphlet which is quite useful. My advice would be perhaps, take the SATs so you can go to school if film doesn't pan out the way you want, but perhaps take a year or so off to work in the industry as a PA on the lower level. See if you can deal with the life-style. Take it upon yourself to learn all you can (as you are now) and perhaps in that time you'll find you 1) really love film and now have enough of a network build up that you don't need school, or 2) you hate film and want to take up accounting in which case you'd've made some money on the side, one hopes, and still can get into a college because you took the SATs.

You're young, now is the time to take risks, because as you get older, it only gets harder.


As for where the best film schools are, well they're where the industry is, LA and NY. While there are some other very good schools, Temple University, where I went, SCAD, Full Sail (I hear good things) the real "safer" bet is a film school where you are able to meet people already working in a vibrant industry around you.

For majors, it'd depend on the school and what you want to do; sufficient to say most film school diplomas are catch-all wherein you major in "film" and have a basic, very basic, introduction to the differing aspects of directing, producing, shooting, editing, acting sometimes.


The things which've helped me the most along the way, aside from thick skin, determination, and stubbornness, has been the willingness of others to share what they know. It always amazes me how often very high-up, successful DoPs, Gaffers, Colorists, et al have sat down and taught me things.


I've made plenty of choices, a lot of them bad. I'll say, if you're working in film, keep working and live cheaply. I did dumb stuff like buying a camera "just cause," without thinking it through, taking a day job here and there because I didn't have the gusto to be "uncomfortable" at times. I've also made some good choices, like working with my good friend Andrew from whom I always get something to shoot and he trusts me enough to do what I think should work.


To gain experience right the now, both try to get on a set, any set, any level of experience, even if you need to work for free (don't always work for free, unless you get something VALUABLE out of it), grab a camera which gives you some kind of control over settings, focus iris, ect, and shoot! Still cameras work great for this. And grab a notebook. Write down lighting you see, how it makes you feel, why it makes you feel that way, and how you could, IN theory, recreate it (e.g. Place 1 light outside and make it blue... things like that). If you can draw/sketch, sketch out those scenes.

Read. Read Film books, but also History, Philosophy, Narrative, The classics, Poetry. Suck up all the knowledge and experience you can, because hell, film is about life as we live it (in some way,) and you never know what your next project may be about. The last one I shot was about Korean Sex Trafficking and Priests, the next is Time Travel and Romance.... helps to have at least some point of reference on those things ;)



Also, never give up. If it's what you want to do, keep at it. Film isn't easy, and it's a lot of luck, but it's also a lot of being too damned stupid or stubborn to quit when everyone you know (outside of film) tells you you ought.



good luck.

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Thank you so much! I have to say, I was at one point last year decided that I was not going to college right after school. But then, I suddenly became overwhelmed by what my parents and all teachers were telling me. Basically, I'm the kind of smart kid who goes to college. Only dumb kids don't go to college. It's just a dumb decision. A college degree gives you security. At least, these are all things that I've been made to believe. But you have a point! I could be wasting time and money in school if it's not necessary. You make a VERY valid point. It just makes me so nervous to picture myself basically selling my soul to the industry at the ripe young age of 18 without any knowledge beyond high school. You're right though; now is the time for risks. I do feel as though there is so much I can learn from school though! I'm so glad you've given me some food for thought. Thank you again so much for your two cents! =D

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In the end, you have to let your heart, and not always your head, choose the right way for you. There's nothing against school, I am glad I went, most of the time; at least before I get my Student Loan bills.

If anything, try to get onto a few sets, get your feet wet. A lot of people don't go right to school, bright or not. There are plenty of paths through life Katryn. Glad I could be of some help.

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I mean this sound obvious, but watch lots of movies. Get DVDs with special features...interviews, making of docs, director commentaries, so you can see what is going on the set, how they're lighting and pulling off shots the way they do.


After you've watched the movie, read the scripts. You can often find them online for free. If you can, find drafts and treatments. This will show you how a film evolves through the creative process.


Next, technical manuals are great. Depending on what your interests are, they've got everything for cinematography, sound, editing...you name it. "Making Movies" by Sidney Lumet is the best by far on the nuts and bolts of film-making.


Start making films. Just have fun, don't worry about art or originality. Experiment. Try everything and see what you like. I originally thought I wanted to direct narrative films, but discovered I hated working with actors. But I loved running camera, and I loved non-fiction, so I got into shooting docs. You won't know til you try.


Finally: DON'T study film as an undergrad...at least, don't major in it. If it is that important to you, see about a film minor. Get your degree in something solid, with applications across many sectors...whether it's business, econ...whatever. I studied history as an undergrad, pursuing film on the side, and resolving that I'd study film as a grad, if I was still wanting to pursue it. And that's what I did. And you know what? I owe much of my work and my clientbase to my history degree. I got my first job because of it, because I had a relatively unusual skill for a company that produced history films: I could do research, I had a base of knowledge, so I became an in-house consultant and fact checker...soon I was writing scripts for them, and it was off from there.


Because you're going to find that your ability to shoot or edit will do you little good competing against hundreds of other young people, and hundred more with years of experience ahead of you. Much of this industry is about WHO you know, and that takes time, and in the meantime, you've got to fall back on something. Figure out what your niche is, what you can offer that other competitors can't. Figure out how you can make yourself INVALUABLE to a producer, and you'll do fine.

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I don't think he was giving you general advice not to go to college.

You absolutely should.


The entertainment industry is one of the very, very rare professions where college doesn't matter that much, like 99.99999% of the 'real world jobs' out there.


I would highly suggest sticking with the college plan, and I'm someone who did NOT get a degree, and I'm suffering for it now!

Don't fall into the trap of 'just follow your dreams' and give up thinking about doing anything else for a living.

(You only hear that from people who are the extremely small minority who 'got in').

It is HIGHLY unlikely that you will make a living in this business (I'm not).


You don't have to ONLY know one skill to make it in the entertainment industry.

There are many examples of people with other careers, even very difficult ones, who have also done very well in the industry, but the example I like to give is Michael Chrichton.

He went to Harvard Medical School & was trained to be a doctor before getting into the entertainment industry.


Check out his resume as writer/director/producer:



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  • 2 weeks later...

Come check out The University of North Texas...shameless plug over...


There are a ton of books out there to help you with the technical side...

Box's "Set Lighting Technician's Handbook" is a great example... "The Grip Book", "Sound Effects Bible", and even the "ASC Manual" all give great technical information...

Like they said, watch a ton of films, not just the good stuff, but the really, really bad stuff... The bad stuff can teach you almost as much as the good...

Find a camera (Super 8 or video) and start shooting...It doesn't have to be great, but as you start getting better, you'll want better gear...


There is one thing missing in most students who get to us... You could call it "perspective" or "vision"... I tend to bend more towards "experience"... They just don't know what they don't know... Film, and The Arts in general, is an experiential field... Yes you can talk theory and technique all you want, but until YOU do it, it probably won't click... Most students come to us wanting to be directors, because that's all they know... There are SO MANY different careers in the industry where you can make a really good living and more importantly, love what you do...


Take your time off, but if you do, you need to move to LA or NY and be ready for a ton of NOs and some not very nice people... Hopefully you can push through that and start to make a living... It has to be a drive for you... We have some grads who did great things and were successful in their classes, but once out, they just said eh, I need money, and now they work at Best Buy or McDonald's... Nothing wrong with that, but you need to be more driven...



I guess what I'm trying to say is that school is a great place to make mistakes that don't cost you money (much money anyway)... In the real world, you'll be judged by those mistakes and it will probably hurt your career... You can get good critique and good perspective from fellow students and faculty... You can also form friendships with like minded people with whom you can now use as mutual resources...


Good Luck to you and have fun...

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