In 2020, The Wrap News ranked FSU College of Motion Picture Arts no. 13 out of the best 50 film schools in the America. Notable alumni include writer-director-producer Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk), editor Joi McMillon (Zola, American Woman, Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk), and director-visual effects artist Wes Ball (The Maze Runner series).
FilmSchool.org spoke with Juliana Lee White (FilmSchool.org Member @jn0pe ), an MFA in Film Production (’22), about her journey from applying to film school with zero experience to learning how to direct and collaborate with other filmmakers. Juliana is currently brainstorming her second year thesis film, a surreal, suspenseful 15-minute short inspired by Florence + the Machine’s “Breaking Down.”
For me, it was more of a gradual realization. I majored in Art History at the University of Chicago. At the last minute, I became a double major and added on Cinema and Media Studies. I ended up liking my film classes more.
After graduation, I spent three years teaching English in South Korea. I went to the movies all the time. [In Korea], they show a lot of Hollywood movies with English subtitles. I was happiest when I was doing that, so I started researching film production programs.
How did living in South inform your journey to becoming a film school graduate student?
I lived in Bucheon, which is like a suburb of Seoul with an urban feel. I used to go the Bucheon International Film Festival every year—they would screen films like from around the world, including East Asian films subtitled in English. My friends and I went to the midnight screenings and camped out until 6 a.m. Filmmakers came and talked about how they made the movies. The festival inspired me to move forward with [film school]--it was one of the best things about living in Bucheon.
Why was FSU College of Motion Picture Arts the best program for you?
FSU is very craft-focused, and students learn how to do everything in the industry. I came in with zero film production experience, so that was ideal. The small class size means more individualized attention from the faculty, too. I liked the familial vibe. Before my direction project last fall, I talked to my directing professor after I started having doubts. He arranged a one-on-one call with me and after that, my attitude changed from ‘I can’t do this’ to ‘why CAN’T I do this?’
I also like that you get to declare your specialization in your second year. It gave me the time I needed to decide what I wanted to focus on. If FSU doesn’t have a specialization in your area of interest, you have the flexibility to try and make one.
Has FSU adjusted training for film students in response to COVID-19?
In the first year, MFA students do two projects: the first one is in the fall and the second one is shot in the summer. FSU actually chose our fall filming location for us. Every student filmed their first project in the same office building. Due to COVID-19, we have a lot of limitations surrounding how long we can shoot and how many actors can be on set.
I also like that FSU offers a hybrid schedule and only requires in-person classes that really need direct instruction, like camera work. They also paid for us to get certified in COVID-19 officer compliance training. We learned how to work with the officers and streamline the production process, since check-ins take extra time.
Were you happy with the work you did on your first year film?
I created a short, surreal film about an artist who meets his muse. It was very satisfying to see my name listed as the director, and it made being at FSU feel more real—like, ‘OK, I’m here, and this is actually happening!'
I think I would love to become a show runner for a TV series. There’s a huge creative component to the job, since you get to interact with the writers and steer the production in the direction you want it to go.
If you had to summarize going to film school in one word, what would it be?
'Nonstop.' There's always something going on! In the first semester, you're registered for 10 classes. You also have weekend projects that you have to shoot with your group, so you don’t really have off days. But that’s a perfect fit for my personality, because I always want to be working.
How does FSU prepare film students with little to no experience for the technical side of the industry?
In terms of using the equipment, FSU offers an intensive class in the fall called Below The Line. In BTL, students learn the nitty-gritty, practical side of film production. Think driving the grip and generator trucks, practicing knots, and becoming familiar with the equipment needed for roles such as Key Grip or Best Electric. We also learn about the responsibilities of other crew positions, such as 1st/2nd AC and script supervisor. The second year class serves as mentors for students enrolled in BTL.
First year MFA students serve as crew members to second year students developing their thesis films—that’s what I’m working on right now. Through the mentorship, you support higher level students, and they help you in return.
It’s really benefited me to directly learn from other students on set. As an example, I think lighting is really difficult, so I reached out to one of the second year cinematography specialists. He was excited to walk me through how to improve my lighting skills for my [Director of Photography] role.
How has your perspective on making movies changed since you enrolled in FSU College of Motion Picture Arts?
I think I didn’t realize that [making a film] is such a collaborative process. You depend on your classmates to get your work done and vice versa. Before this, I planned making movies around doing it all myself, so my process has definitely changed.
My favorite filmmaker is David Lynch—his work is very my aesthetic. In my little office, I have a framed picture of him by my computer. He watches over me as I do my work.
How is your program preparing students through internships or student organizations to excel in the film industry?
The MFA program runs straight through the year, so students can’t take on internships. But second year students can take on teaching assistantships and work directly with our professors.
We also have a pretty strong alumni network. Every student gets to have a one-on-one meeting with the Director of Alumni and chat about their goals, interests, and background. [Meryl Warren] knows every single person who has graduated from our program since it began, so she connects students with alumni that might be a good fit.
What advice would you give a film school hopeful who has little to no experience making movies?
When I put together a short film for my applications, I had nothing. No portfolio, no educational training. I called up a friend from work and asked them to come over for the day and shoot with me. It was pretty awful, compared to my recent work. But I had a finished product, and that was what mattered—and even though I hated the movie, it got me into FSU.
In my interviews, I talked about everything I learned from filming my sample. I suggest that even if you don’t like your reel, express that you got something positive out of it and emphasize the high points.
Another important thing: don’t take rejection personally. If you do that, you’re going to start doubting yourself. If a student or professor cares enough to give you thoughtful feedback, it’s because they want to help you get better. Utilize what you can from critiques and keep moving forward.
To learn more about Juliana (FilmSchool.org forum name @jn0pe) visit her website and follow her on Instagram and LinkedIn.
You can also ask her a question on her AMA here:
Let me know if you have any questions about the MFA film production program at FSU and I'll be happy to answer!
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