How to Replicate a First-Year Film School Project Without Spending $40,000

This is a guest post by filmmaker Seth Hymes, who runs Film School Secrets. He previously posted about whether film school is worth is in 2011.

Since graduating from NYU, I have met many DIYers who have expressed a desire to go back to film school to learn more about the craft of filmmaking. But they are typically surprised when I explain what is typically taught in the first year at any major film school. In this blog post, I’d like to share with you a very simple way to get a similar filmmaking experience to what a student at NYU, USC, or New York Film Academy gets -- without paying a lot in tuition.

USC and NYU share a very similar curriculum and approach to teaching young filmmakers about the craft. NYU students take a course called “Sight and Sound: Film”. USC Students take a course called “310″. The courses are virtually the same, and have been copied by New York Film Academy and any other school that still offers film based filmmaking.

The main ingredients are an Arri-S camera (or Bolex) and 16mm black and white reversal film. ((Editor's note: wait, seriously, they still teach shooting on film, even today?)) Reversal film is cheap, like slide film, in that the film that goes inside the camera is the film that actually gets developed and printed. There is no negative.

There is no “synch sound”, so the projects are either silent or dubbed. For those who grew up all digital, remember that film cameras do not record sound; the audio is recorded separately. The process of making sure the film and audio run at the same speed is called “synching”. These old cameras are “non synch” which means they cannot be synched up to run at the same speed as audio; the mouths move all funny like bad anime.

This is a Sight and Sound Film from NYU:

And this a film from class 310 at USC:

And this is a similar one from New York Film Academy’s $18,000 a semester course:

These silent, black and white films typically comprise a full semester at any film school. But if you’d like to make an old school film for a little less money, here’s how. You need to rent an Arri-S or Bolex camera. These cameras haven’t been in popular use since the 1960s, but you can rent them in many major cities including New York.

If you're in New York, go to Brooklyn and check out Hit and Run Productions. Rent one of these cameras for $150 a day.

Google  ”16mm reversal film”. Buy a roll, and you can rent a light meter for $10 and some lights for under $50. Ask the guys at the production house how to use the light meter and load the film. This may sound complex, but it’s as easy as learning to change a tire and only takes about an hour to learn. In fact you can also google “Robert Rodriguez 10 minute film school” and he explains how he used a light meter while shooting “El Mariachi”.

Go out, shoot your film with friends, and then go to (drop it off or mail it in) to have it developed and digitizied, then edit it on your home computer. Many students pay $40,000 to learn how to make this kind of film -- you've just done it for just a few hundred bucks.

My name is Seth Hymes, and I’m an NYU Film Grad and filmmaker living in Los Angeles. After graduating NYU it took me a long time to figure out how to actually start getting a movie made, and I did it all without a thing I learned in film school. I realized there was a huge disconnect between what is taught in these schools and what you really need to make movies, which is why I initially wrote “Film Fooled” and then put together Film School Secrets with some of my colleagues. My goal is to help young filmmakers get started on the right path towards realizing their creative dreams without wasting years of time and tons of money on school.

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very nice. Wasn't it Bill Gates that said that the University system was going away because of the internet?

May 25, 2011 at 3:49PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


What are the benefits of learning to shoot using actual film? Better quality? More realistic to how actual filmmakers work? Are there drawbacks to only using digital?

May 25, 2011 at 6:01PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I would feel that it's the same benefit as shooting film for a photography class. You need to learn to do it right or you have nothing. A sink or swim scenario. Every second you shoot costs money and that would make it worth more to you to get it right. Your other option is to shoot the whole thing DSLR and record sound separate and wipe the audio when you Transcode (if you even do that) so that way you edit in a more traditional fashion.

If you learn to drive stick before you drive an automatic, you only learn once... and you appreciate more.

May 25, 2011 at 6:16PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Save your money and just realize that the whole point of the exercise is to learn to visualize, rather than vocalize, your story. Making a video with no dialogue is a great way of learning to pare a script of explanations that slow the pace and can reduce some stories to "talking heads." Once you lose the crutch of being able to have characters explain your plot, you are forced to develop the visuals, soundtrack and editing to carry the narrative.

May 25, 2011 at 11:06PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


$18,000. For that you could buy your own equipment, go to a few workshops, and then just shoot shoot shoot lots and small projects. The more you practice, the better you will get. As long as you know the fundamentals of film making. You just write a story, shoot story, edit story, show people. Challenge yourself with ideas that you would not normally go for - for example, removing all audio, and try and tell a story that way. Maybe try and find a few other people in your local area who want to do the same, if 5 of you got together, thats $100,000 that you could use as a budget on multiple films.

May 26, 2011 at 12:19AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Tyler F

Thanks Richard, You seem to be the only person who got it right. The exercise is about taking away your ability to rely on "explanations" to move your story forward.

May 26, 2011 at 12:16PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


It's a great exercise, but not worth $20,000 a semester.

December 19, 2011 at 12:43PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Yes, I remember people learning to edit on film and them moving to AVIDs. If it is to make you student movie, film is great to teach you how many things can go wrong, after a days shooting and spending $$$ in processing.
Instead of using a GH2 with Cine Lenses. BTW you can buy a Beaulieu R16 with 12-120mm Angenieux for $200, so if that is the way you wanna go...

May 26, 2011 at 7:15AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I took an "Intro to Film" class at Art Center in Pasadena a little over ten years ago, as part of their Art Center At Night program. We made three short films that were extremely similar to the ones you posted here, except we shot them on Super 8mm. I was actually the one person in the class who shot mine on Hi8 video, as I had a system all set up for this at the time.

Our teacher stressed that the emphasis of the class was on visual storytelling. The Super 8 cameras were all auto exposure anyway. At this stage in our learning, the focus was on telling a story through images, not on the mechanics of shooting film.

Everyone would bring their films into class, along with a CD, and they would play their short silent film roughly in sync with a song they chose.

Even though color reversal stock film was available, he wanted us to use black and white film, as it was simply removing one more distraction. Film is a very visual medium, and by forcing us to avoid relying on dialog and narration to hold the narrative together, it forced us to tell the story visually.

As the class progressed, some people got fancy and started using color stock and whatnot, but as long as they were telling the story visually the teacher didn't mind.

The other cliche he instructed us to avoid was anything with guns. I think this was both so we didn't just choreograph some guys running around chasing each other with guns (not a lot of creative storytelling there), and also for liability reasons (what if it's loaded, what if someone sees you running around town with a gun and shoots you, the school's insurance may not have covered such things, etc).

May 26, 2011 at 7:29AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


The number of times I hear on set that someone went to film school but felt like they hadn't learned anything when they actually started working in the industry is staggering.

While the debate to go or not is still burning hot like wildfire, you can't argue with the numbers in this post. Sometimes if you want to direct, you put up or shut up -- even if the film sucks, at least you created something.

May 26, 2011 at 7:59AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


No way anyone could get me to go back to the traditional film schools. Or shoot on film for that matter.
We're in the digital age...plain and simple.

I'll put 20 or 30 grand into my own feature before I pay the wage and pension plans of film school
teachers who are so out of touch with the digital age and all its tech...and only have a financial vested interest for the high tuition prices much like the university corporations themselves.

And I can network all I need to on the internet and at movie fests.
Business and creative partnerships today...are unlike anything made at the old film schools.

And there are more than enough indie feature film prodcos who are always looking for a helping hand
where they only have to feed you if you let them know you'll intern a few weeks on a project without pay.

At the least; for small amount of go the weekend movie school no budget route or take you time looking at soooo many websites on line. Yes...especially this one.

Don't give the wealthy any of your hard earned money!!!
Just do your own thing and put in the hard work.

Like we're doing with my trailer for a feature to pitch to an investment group and then 2 more scripts and accompanying boards and artwork.
That way they know I'm serious for long term success -- creative content provider.


May 26, 2011 at 7:03PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

mark georgeff

"Those who can't do, teach. Those who can't teach, teach gym".
-Woody Allen

May 26, 2011 at 10:31PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Jake Jabbs

ok man, u are partly right, but what about learning the craft of all the things relating to the light, production companies.. ect.. does it all wourthless?
i think it depends...

May 28, 2011 at 4:22AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


You americans should really ask yourselfs why you pay so much for College studies.
Seriously, not trying to flame or anything but i can't understand how is it that we (europeans) have access to more or less the same conditions, work, equipment, etc in film college as in the U.S. yet pay around 5000 dollars for two semesters in a private college and in Europe that is already considered paying alot.
Ironically you guys pay as much to go to public colleges as we pay to go to private ones.

May 30, 2011 at 6:22PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


It doesn't make much sense to us either

May 31, 2011 at 8:18AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Funny I just did an interview with the animators of Kung Fu Panda 2 at Dreamworks and it was really interesting to see what their learning experiences were. Especially the one's from Spain. Most of them told me they learned from video tutorials on youtube because their are no schools for animation out there.

Learn by doing or learn by reading...

May 31, 2011 at 11:07AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Talk about a MASSIVE over-simplification of film school. While I agree that spending the amount of money it would cost to go to NYU or USC is not wise, there are plenty of affordable film schools out there. And, they are full of advantages.

I went to film school in the nineties, and I found the experience invaluable. Sure, you can get your hands on the equipment nowadays for a fraction of the cost..........which is great........but film school offered me things I could have never found on my own. (Also, college is about a lot more than getting an education in a specific field so you can get a job.)

It gave me a large group of like-minded individuals to discuss film, day-in and day-out. It gave me access to cutting-edge equipment. I could experiment and get legit feedback. The professors were experienced, smart and honest. Do you know how hard it is to go and find a dozen (ish) mentors to audit you're independent work? Also, you have a piece of paper at the end with your name on it. If you decide to change careers, that paper has value.

Sure, it's not for everyone. Nothing is a perfect experience there certainly wasn't. But, I wouldn't trade it for the world. So, to dismiss film school as tool of the past is just foolish.

June 1, 2011 at 11:58AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Seems like someone did a little spring cleaning in the comments section of this article. I understand that personal attacks should not be tolerated, and agree that they should be removed. However, there were a lot of good points made and by removing the dissenting opinions you give the false impression that there is a concession amongst readers with most certainly isn't the case.

June 8, 2011 at 4:19PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Frank W.