How COVID-19 Changed Film School From Coast to Coast

Even in the days before the Delta strain wreaked havoc from coast to coast, we already knew that COVID-19 has altered the film industry — and permanently, some might argue. But it’s not just the method of film production and where films are being released that have changed. Going to film school is unlike ever before, and students and instructors alike must find innovative ways to learn and grow amidst the chaos. spoke with Stephen Galloway and Phumire Morare from Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts to understand how COVID-19 has changed film school in the greater Los Angeles area. In addition, we met with Jed Kaleko, Braxton Thompson, and Olivia Isable Comas Wood of the College of Motion Picture Arts (CMPA) at Florida State University (FSU) to explore how film school changed in Florida, one of America’s biggest COVID-19 hotspots and an unlikely foothold into Hollywood.

Chapman's Dodge College offers free workshops and prepares filmmakers for streaming

In 2021, Dodge College of Film and Media Arts was named a top film school in MovieMaker’s Best 40 Film Schools in the U.S. and Canada list. Its success is due in part to Stephen Galloway, Emmy Award-winning journalist and former executive editor of The Hollywood Reporter. Galloway has focused on diversifying their programs, providing scholarships, and, most recently, making changes that reflect how the film industry has evolved in COVID-19.

“The entertainment business is going through an extraordinary centrifugal change,” Galloway says, “and that means that […] film schools must do the same. My first job was to deliver safety and health above all else and send that message. No matter who’s happy or unhappy, it must be our top priority.”

Dodge has also found unique ways to fill in the gaps from lost time in a traditional classroom setting. “We started instituting free workshops on Zoom — we’re lucky we have donors to support that. We’re looking to hire a career manager. But I’m also not about to say that it’s been great, it’s all going to be great — I know that certainly, it was horrible for students. But I think that there are new things we’ve learned that will benefit everyone.”

Galloway and staff adhere to Orange County health and safety guidelines and the Screen Actors Guild, which designates how films are shot. They hired a full-time COVID-19 officer named Megan Murphy to supervise every student production. Every production also has a low-level COVID-19 officer. Their response reflects the startling number of COVID-19 cases that have rocked Los Angeles since the start of the pandemic.

The current number of documented cases is around 1.4 million, and upwards of 25,000 city residents have died. In July 2021, the LA Times reported an “alarming new coronavirus surge” with cases increasing at disproportionate rates compared to June. At one point, 2,551 cases were documented in one day.

“We’re very strict. We had a few situations where we suspended or shut down productions when a COVID-19 rule was accidentally broken," Galloway says. "We look at really tiny things — say, if this room doesn’t have proper ventilation, shut it down. We’re going to continue to do that right through the end of 2021, and then we’ll re-evaluate.”

Increasing ventilation and enhanced air flow were top of mind for Galloway from day one. “Each classroom has special ventilation and air conditioning systems. The university spent 10 million [dollars] on this.” Despite that, Galloway successfully secured an additional 750,000 dollars for extra COVID supplies, from staff testing to isolating equipment.

Galloway sees some advantages for film school students working around the constraints of the pandemic. “You’ll be shooting shorter scripts, sometimes in restricted environments, but that lets you focus on the story and character development. That was an important shift — a lot of students want to, you know, bring 50 tanks rolling down the street, but that isn’t better than zooming in on the drama between two actors.”

Moving forward, filmmaking will focus more on quality vs. quantity than ever before, which Galloway sees as a positive. “I had breakfast with students this morning, since I like to meet them,” he explains. “I said, ‘Don’t do a 15-page script — do a 10-page script. You need a budget and that affects what you can do.”

The biggest pitfall for most film students? Overextending themselves and their finances. COVID-19 has been a wake-up call for students to “not bite off more than they can chew,” which is a problem Galloway had noticed in the past. “Students need to focus on the narrative instead — the why and the who.”

Phumi (1).jpg
A chance to learn how to create and edit films online

Phumi Morare was working on an MFA in Film Production at Dodge College during the first wave. Originally from South Africa, Morare learned about Chapman’s film program from a friend in the film industry. After returning to South Africa to film her thesis film (Lakutshon' Ilanga), Phumi didn’t expect that the film industry — and the world of academia — would descend into chaos.

“The school was trying to be responsible and keep everyone safe while helping us go out into the real world. My professors still did that — they brought industry professionals into our Zoom classes. They tried to be flexible with the timing of those classes, since some people were stuck in other countries.”

Morare remarks on how quickly and compassionately Chapman and Dodge College staff worked to help graduate students graduate on time. “We received a longer timeframe to deliver [our thesis projects]. We were meant to finish by May, but they gave us until August. Our professors were still available for support, so I would have Zoom calls to get their advice about ways to complete it.”

Not having direct access to equipment and post-production facilities was a major challenge for Morare, and one that all film school students may face through the end of 2021, if not longer. For Morare, being in South Africa made long distance collaboration even more challenging.

Morare's experience also reflects a major industry shift: learning how to produce films for streaming. Today, streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and Pluto are more popular than ever before, and films and TV shows that can attract more subscribers are more sought after.

“There was a specific delivery requirement, which is that your film can be played in a theatre,” Morare says. “But you need the school’s facilities, which I couldn’t use. So what they did instead was, rather than requiring us to deliver a project we could play in theaters, we delivered a project that could be played on a streaming platform.”

Like many film school students, Morare felt that a major advantage of studying film in a pandemic was “learning to work with my team online.” The difficulties that came up — the sound not matching up with her footage, differences in how colors on her screen were displaying on her team members’ screen, and more — demanded creative thinking. It was a pressure cooker that forced Morare to brainstorm and rapidly grow.

“Now, I feel like I’m equipped to work with someone in a different geography,” Morare says. “I know how to work virtually, I know what the issues are and how to get around them.”

With the rise of the Delta variant, Chapman and Dodge College have taken an even more precautionary approach to students’ safety. Murphy will remain on the Dodge College staff for another calendar year to reinforce COVID-19 safety guidelines, and weekly testing will remain mandatory.

FSU's College of Motion Picture Arts ramps up collaboration and new post-production methods

With upwards of 3 million documented COVID-19 cases and anti-mask mandates, Florida has become a battleground for core issues that have divided Americans for 16-plus months. In Tallahassee, where FSU and the CMPA become hallmarks of the film industry in the South, hundreds of critically ill patients are hospitalized for COVID-19 daily.

Jed Kaleko, a filmmaker in residence and an instructor in Production Design, graduated from the CMPA and has 20 years of experience. During the first lockdown, Kaleko immediately recognized how social distancing and the resulting lack of synergetic work could set students up for failure. As a result, he guided other staff to help students streamline their screenplays or develop new projects to graduate on time.

“We took the white papers coming from the film industry. We took the version coming out of the unions, and we looked at what Florida required for COVID-19 safety. We also looked to Georgia, since they have such a large film industry, and LA, and New York. We thought, OK — this is the way that the industry is going to reopen, so what do we need to do next? What can we take from this?”

The CMPA continues to work with students during every step of the filmmaking process. “Instead of having them go find locations, we had a facility where we could just shoot all of our directing ones — we have our own generator trucks, so we didn’t need an outside agency," Kaleko says. "We assign actors from the theater here at FSU, so that way we could find out about their health status. We’ll keep making any compromises necessary to ensure students are safe.”

The pandemic has also helped Kaleko and staff develop innovative ways to teach the core principles of filming. “For post-production, [COVID-19] hasn’t entirely changed what we do. But it’s given us other ways of doing it. When students are cutting picture or sound, we really want to check in. Post-production has always been on a computer interface, right? Now, we can work with them on that computer [through Zoom] instead of in the same room. We use the website Frame IO to give everyone access to their work — the industry is already moving in a direction where an editor doesn’t have to be near the director, producer, and DP.”

OliviaCW_jpeg.jpegFinding new and better methods to make films over Zoom​

Olivia Isabel Comas Wood and Braxton Thompson are recent graduates of the CMPA's Motion Picture Production MFA and took classes with Kaleko. They plan to continue living together in Los Angeles with two other CMPA students. Wood credits Brenda Mills, Director of Industry Relations, for giving them a foothold to move out West. “(Brenda) helped us with sending our films to festivals, because our school actually has a budget for it. She brought in alumni for all the major cities — Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, even New Orleans."

Thomspon also speaks highly of Mills, who offered students emotional support during the lows of the pandemic. “Brenda was like, ‘Oh, please come to me, I’m here to help — what do you need? Do you just need to chill? Do you need someone to talk to over Zoom?’ It was great to have people like her at the CMPA."

Since spring 2020, the CMPA has required students to get tested for COVID-19 every other week; test results are validated by the dean, Reb Braddock. For Wood, regular COVID-19 testing “was a really good reminder for us to be careful on set and wear our masks.” For immunocompromised students like Thompson, it also ensures that the CMPA stays safe for filmmaking.

Wood says that the silver lining of going to film school in a pandemic was “learning to become incredibly proficient in Zoom” — a skill that she thinks that most future film school students will need. “We got to speak to a bunch of cinematographers and directors through Zoom while we were filming our directorial twos,” Wood says.” Our school did a really great job of adapting classes over Zoom, which is kind of crazy to think about since filmmaking is so hands-on.”

“For film students and filmmakers, one of the greatest […] advantages coming out of the worst of the pandemic is that we can just use Zoom for everything," she adds. "If I need to meet with someone, I don't have to be like, Hey, can you meet up at school this time? and figure out our crazy schedules. If one of my friends is having issues with creating special effects, […] we can go into Zoom and I can take over their computer and show them. As long as […] we remember the time difference, we can be incredibly creative and we can even be more productive with our time.”

“As much as people hate Zoom, it’s a useful tool,” Thompson agrees. “I was able to see my classmates — I mean, it was nowhere near the same as […] organic, face to face interaction, but it helped me hold onto hope.”

Thomspon and Wood recall CMPA staff were highly dedicated to helping students from the start of the pandemic. Filmmaking equipment packages with up to nine bags were scrubbed down before students could pick them up; students who had to return home had their equipment mailed at no extra cost.

“I was scared to go pick up [my package], since I was in my little isolation bubble,” Thompson says. “But I got in contact with one of our cinematography professors and one of the deans, and I went, ‘Hey, could I film my directorial two project over Zoom?’ And they were like, ‘OK, why not?’ And we did. It was really great for me to do that because I was able to […] collaborate with other filmmakers, but in a safe way until vaccines started rolling out. I never felt pushed outside of my safety zone.”

There were some elements of the CMPA film school experience that didn’t translate seamlessly into an online environment, however. But the CMPA followed up with concrete solutions.

“One of our cinematography classes had us on Zoom for almost four hours,” Wood explains. “We would talk to our professor and say, ‘We can’t do this — we need to break this up into smaller chunks. For two hours, let’s talk about how we light (scenes) with fluorescent light, and another day, we can talk about how we utilize shadows in lighting…’ Things like that. There was a constant flow of communication between the administration, faculty, and students.”

Building bonds through the production bubble

The CMPA also replicated a new norm in the film industry: the production bubble. Found behind the scenes on popular series such as The Great British Baking Show, a production bubble requires collaborators to undergo regular testing and follow COVID-19 safety protocols, as well as avoid high-risk settings during the filming process. Pods of three students from the graduate program collaborated on projects either in-person in a socially distanced setting over entirely over Zoom.

“Collaboration is such an important part of filmmaking — so we made sure that each student had two people from their class from the MFA I class as their collaborators,” Kaleko explains. “They would Zoom or FaceTime throughout the process and check in and make suggestions.”

For Kaleko, the most positive takeaway from the pandemic has been students learning the value of collaboration, no matter the circumstances. “I could see how wearing masks and sitting six feet apart made it more difficult for students to form relationships. After we introduced the element of having collaborators, I could hear the relief in their voices when I asked them about how their weekend projects were going.”

Currently, the CMPA is back to full-scale production. But with COVID-19 cases rising and the Delta variant still tearing through Florida, Kaleko and staff plan to reconvene about the best course of action to protect their students.

“If we were to run into a situation where we couldn't meet in person anymore, and we had to go back to shooting individual projects, then […] the inventiveness of our faculty and the willingness and determination of our administration would help us make that turn.

That's one of the beauties of working at the at Florida State University: everyone on the faculty is a filmmaker, and we’re a small school. And if a filmmaker is good at anything, it's figuring out five or six ways to get a project done on a dime.”

Towards a more diverse and digital film industry

As we shift towards a new film industry, one where filming and post-production occur more often over screens, many film schools will maintain a more distanced style of instruction. Virtual classes and individualized projects with collaboration from afar will remain the norm, and with surprising advantages - most notably, giving more aspiring filmmakers the chance to bring their ideas to life regardless of income, background, or geography. From free online workshops to learning how to produce for streaming platforms, today and tomorrow's film school students will be equipped to break ground in an increasingly digital industry.

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Alexa P.
Alexa Pellegrini (she/her) is a freelance copywriter, editor, poet, and essayist. Keep up with her latest musings on Twitter.


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