Columbia University Directing/Screenwriting MFA -- 2021 Graduate -- AMA (1 Viewer)

Boethius

Well-Known Member
Hello, hopeful film school applicants. This site was my top go-to as I applied to film schools five years ago, and I know how anxiety-inducing the application process can be. I graduated this spring and still believe Columbia was the best choice for me. Please feel free to ask questions about Columbia's screenwriting/directing MFA program or application. I'll do my best to answer!
 

whoisTGW

Member
Supporter
Hey, thanks for taking the time out of your day to this something like this! I guess the main question i have is during the application process, did you feel like they emphasized any certain area of the application (Autobiographical Essay/Film Prompt/Visual Submission/etc) more than others when it came down to it? Like if someone has far less film work experience, but blew a certain other portion of the application out of the water, would they still have a high chance, etc?

Thank you, again.
 

Boethius

Well-Known Member
They absolutely put more weight into certain areas of my application than others.

I thought I had a very strong visual sample, one that I had worked on for years. I thought it was my ticket into Columbia. They quickly dismissed it in the interview.

What they really responded to were my 10-page script sample and my autobiographical essay. I had worked on those for a few weeks, but they were more authentic to me as a person than the visual sample.

My other stuff was decent, but more than anything else in my interview we talked about my autobiographical essay. The script sample had to prove I could write (and it was solid), but I think my essay was the selling point of the application.

I dug into very personal stuff in my essay, the kind of stuff that made me want to make movies in the first place. Why is film a life choice and how were you shaped as a person? kind of stuff. Identity, religion, family upbringing, etc. Instead of a point-by-point essay, I wrote a mini-memoir that included conflict (the "autobiographical" part) being sure to pepper in my creative influences and professional objectives so I hit all the essay requirements. The added bonus of this approach is that it gave me another chance to show I could tell a story, and it provided a lot of material for interview questions.

For my 10-page sample, I recommend submitting a short film script, which is what I did. It lets you show you can tell a complete structured story. I used Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! beatsheet as a jumping off point for the structure (not every story follows this pattern obviously, but I found it a pretty intuitive way to approach three-act structure for shorts). There were also minor ties from the script with my autobiographical essay, which might have helped make my application feel more cohesive.

There are as many ways to approach this application as there are people who've been accepted, but it's what worked for me.
 
Hi,
Thank you so much for your time and advice!

I was wondering what you were doing in undergrad before you applied (did you have a film background or not) and how diverse your graduating class was when it comes to experience and background.

I was also curious about how much work you created throughout the program, did you feel you were challenged, and biggest thing you took away/ learned from your time there.

Thank you!!
 

Boethius

Well-Known Member
My undergrad was in the humanities (basically English). I was part of my film club and did some crewing on very small budget films after graduating. While this practical crewing was valuable for on-set Columbia experience (mostly in how to hustle and set etiquette), we had some students straight out of undergrad with no filmmaking experience. The program has a way of evening out experience over the first year, to a certain extent. You do have people coming in with festival accomplishments and having shot features, but once you're a CU student everyone is using the same tools and classmates to make their directing exercises work. After the first year, even if you have no prior film experience, you'll have had the chance to direct two short films and seven to eight directing exercises, plus crew on each other's films.

An exception could be in postproduction, I think. You're so busy lining up your next exercise shoot, your actors' rehearsal, and your script pages, that learning a post workflow is very challenging on top of that, and unless you get plugged in early to Avid, Final Cut, or Premiere, you'll have a lot of work catching up on those tools. I got behind on the Avid train, and that set me behind a lot. There are training sessions and people who are there to help you learn Avid (or any of the other editing suite options), but you're going to have a difficult time scheduling that unless you're very proactive about setting time aside for it, especially if you want to keep writing past your first year (and you should keep up your writing classes, because that's an industry-known strong point of Columbia's).

Best suggestion: get a free trial of Avid and start teaching yourself how to use it before you come to Columbia. I eventually just fell back on my Premiere experience and kept using it. Premiere is an effective program, but the industry workflow is still heavily Avid.

The graduating cohort timing is a little odd because you can go through the program and spend three or four years in it (I was grandfathered in to the five-year plan), and you can graduate in May, October, or February of those years, depending on whether or not your thesis package is done. The student body is about half international and half domestic. Close gender equity. There have been active school-wide conversations about updating the film canon to reflect more diversity, but those started after I was mostly through and I'm not sure the current status of those conversations. There is a lot of racial and ethnic representation, especially on the international side, but Black students are underrepresented. I don't have access to specific numbers though.

I directed thirteen directing exercises, four short film projects (really finishing just my thesis though--the others got stuck in post, hence my suggestion to get post experience). I wrote two feature scripts (plus a complete revision) and four TV pilots. I also did an internship and hands-down extended my professional network in ways I couldn't have hoped for unless I had attended Columbia. Columbia has several masterclasses and ancillary opportunities you can also take advantage of.

I came in thinking I wouldn't be challenged, but in the first two weeks I was proven wrong. First of all, I didn't know anything about directing, even though I thought I did. It was like learning to read. Secondly, I came in with a strong writing background, but it was at Columbia that I was pushed to go much deeper in my sensibilities to reflect my own voice. The one area I didn't feel as challenged by was my training to work with actors--I had a hard time connecting with this approach, although other classmates have really appreciated this instruction.

One of the biggest things I took away is just learning how to direct with a camera. It was probably my biggest weakness coming in, and I feel much more confident now in my shot selection and planning. Another thing I took away from is a more intuitive way of understanding story structure and setting up expectations and delivering on them.

One more thing--it's good to have an idea of what direction you'd like your career to go when you're coming into film school. You don't have to be married to the idea, but it can be a helpful guiding light as you chart a course to take advantage of what you'll be offered. There are a few opportunities I turned down because they were ultimately not helping me reach my goal. On the other hand, it's always good to be open to opportunities that don't necessarily lead to where you want to go, because you never know what you could learn or connections you could make. So it's a bit of a paradox and case-by-case.
 
My undergrad was in the humanities (basically English). I was part of my film club and did some crewing on very small budget films after graduating. While this practical crewing was valuable for on-set Columbia experience (mostly in how to hustle and set etiquette), we had some students straight out of undergrad with no filmmaking experience. The program has a way of evening out experience over the first year, to a certain extent. You do have people coming in with festival accomplishments and having shot features, but once you're a CU student everyone is using the same tools and classmates to make their directing exercises work. After the first year, even if you have no prior film experience, you'll have had the chance to direct two short films and seven to eight directing exercises, plus crew on each other's films.

An exception could be in postproduction, I think. You're so busy lining up your next exercise shoot, your actors' rehearsal, and your script pages, that learning a post workflow is very challenging on top of that, and unless you get plugged in early to Avid, Final Cut, or Premiere, you'll have a lot of work catching up on those tools. I got behind on the Avid train, and that set me behind a lot. There are training sessions and people who are there to help you learn Avid (or any of the other editing suite options), but you're going to have a difficult time scheduling that unless you're very proactive about setting time aside for it, especially if you want to keep writing past your first year (and you should keep up your writing classes, because that's an industry-known strong point of Columbia's).

Best suggestion: get a free trial of Avid and start teaching yourself how to use it before you come to Columbia. I eventually just fell back on my Premiere experience and kept using it. Premiere is an effective program, but the industry workflow is still heavily Avid.

The graduating cohort timing is a little odd because you can go through the program and spend three or four years in it (I was grandfathered in to the five-year plan), and you can graduate in May, October, or February of those years, depending on whether or not your thesis package is done. The student body is about half international and half domestic. Close gender equity. There have been active school-wide conversations about updating the film canon to reflect more diversity, but those started after I was mostly through and I'm not sure the current status of those conversations. There is a lot of racial and ethnic representation, especially on the international side, but Black students are underrepresented. I don't have access to specific numbers though.

I directed thirteen directing exercises, four short film projects (really finishing just my thesis though--the others got stuck in post, hence my suggestion to get post experience). I wrote two feature scripts (plus a complete revision) and four TV pilots. I also did an internship and hands-down extended my professional network in ways I couldn't have hoped for unless I had attended Columbia. Columbia has several masterclasses and ancillary opportunities you can also take advantage of.

I came in thinking I wouldn't be challenged, but in the first two weeks I was proven wrong. First of all, I didn't know anything about directing, even though I thought I did. It was like learning to read. Secondly, I came in with a strong writing background, but it was at Columbia that I was pushed to go much deeper in my sensibilities to reflect my own voice. The one area I didn't feel as challenged by was my training to work with actors--I had a hard time connecting with this approach, although other classmates have really appreciated this instruction.

One of the biggest things I took away is just learning how to direct with a camera. It was probably my biggest weakness coming in, and I feel much more confident now in my shot selection and planning. Another thing I took away from is a more intuitive way of understanding story structure and setting up expectations and delivering on them.

One more thing--it's good to have an idea of what direction you'd like your career to go when you're coming into film school. You don't have to be married to the idea, but it can be a helpful guiding light as you chart a course to take advantage of what you'll be offered. There are a few opportunities I turned down because they were ultimately not helping me reach my goal. On the other hand, it's always good to be open to opportunities that don't necessarily lead to where you want to go, because you never know what you could learn or connections you could make. So it's a bit of a paradox and case-by-case.
This was incredible information, thank you so much for taking the time and sharing all of this knowledge!
 

jhea.e

New Member
Supporter
Thanks for this! I'm curious, how was your experience collaborating with other students in the program and building your crew for projects? I understand the experience would really depend on who's within your cohort (personalities, backgrounds, experience, etc), but how was the overall process of relationship-building with other students?

Also, correct me if I'm wrong, I heard there's a fee for hiring non-Columbia students to help with projects? How is the process like finding actors, crew, etc on campus?
 

Lupau

New Member
Boethius, I join the others here in thanking you for sharing with us all that you have. It's valuable advice and information. I don't know if you'll have a chance to answer it, but I did have one additional question for you. I read an interview wherein a Columbia film graduate mentioned that one of the shorts she made resulted from an assignment that asked that you focus on a childhood memory and flesh that out into a film. I was wondering if you'd be willing to share what some of the other assignment prompts were during your time at Columbia. Thank you for your time.
 

Boethius

Well-Known Member
Thanks for this! I'm curious, how was your experience collaborating with other students in the program and building your crew for projects? I understand the experience would really depend on who's within your cohort (personalities, backgrounds, experience, etc), but how was the overall process of relationship-building with other students?

Also, correct me if I'm wrong, I heard there's a fee for hiring non-Columbia students to help with projects? How is the process like finding actors, crew, etc on campus?
Sorry it took me so long to reply! I'll try to be on top of this a little more through the application season.

The collaborative experiences I had were excellent. With 72 students admitted every year, there are bound to be at least a handful of people you really connect with and build rapport. Even after graduation, I have several cohort members I'm still actively working with. Getting to know so many people also helps you see personalities, work ethic differences, and character strengths/weaknesses. This is all valuable information to learn on low-stakes projects for future post-graduation collaboration.

The first year you take several seminar classes with your entire cohort. You can chat it up in the hallway before and after and during breaks, but you do have to be proactive about developing relationships because a drawback at Columbia is no dedicated lounge space for film students. Students get together at local bars and restaurants, but it's self-initiated. A silver lining of this is that it's education for self-initiating in general, but a common complaint is the cramped space.

A big drawback of this cramped space is that it's difficult to get to know other film students in different years. For the first two years of the program, you can be pretty siloed. It's only after you get to research arts years that there is some overlap in the revision and thesis classes with upper-year students. So if you want to get to know other students in other years, you have to be even more proactive about connecting in the hallway, editing bays, volunteering on sets, etc. I highly recommend nurturing these relationships though because it just builds your network.

The absolute best way to build relationships is volunteering to help on directing exercises and shorts filming. You see people under pressure, you build bonds in that intense set space, and you walk away having gone through something together. (And if you have volunteers on your set, be sure to give them snacks and coffee and stuff--everyone volunteers for everyone else, but people will love you if you show you've got some craft services.)

As far as a fee goes, there is a Columbia worker's comp you have to pay for any non-CU affiliate working on your set. It's like $10 per person. It's super reasonable and just there to cover the bases. Like I said earlier, most students work on each other's sets as crew. Some also act for each other, but a lot of students like casting actors for their exercises. Columbia has an MFA acting program, so you have easy access to students there, plus the film program has (or used to have) a searchable actors database you could use to find talent you could invite to act in your exercises.

To be honest, the casting and crewing process for exercises freaked me out at first, but after one or two exercises it actually comes together pretty smoothly. Directing faculty aren't looking for great acting in your exercises as much as they're looking at shot selection, editing, blocking, pacing, etc. (Directing Actors, which is an actual directing acting class, is more proscenium style acting. You do want to use good actors if possible for those exercises, but those are done live in class. Sometimes students practice a scene in Directing Actors and then film it later for a Directing class.)
 

Boethius

Well-Known Member
Boethius, I join the others here in thanking you for sharing with us all that you have. It's valuable advice and information. I don't know if you'll have a chance to answer it, but I did have one additional question for you. I read an interview wherein a Columbia film graduate mentioned that one of the shorts she made resulted from an assignment that asked that you focus on a childhood memory and flesh that out into a film. I was wondering if you'd be willing to share what some of the other assignment prompts were during your time at Columbia. Thank you for your time.
Interesting. I never had this assignment. Directing faculty are given a lot of latitude for the kinds of exercises they assign their classes, so it depends on the professor. My first professor had us film two scenes from the same scripts, already written, and then show those in class.

Some assignments require scene selections from classic film scripts. Other assignments take scenes from the short scripts you'll be writing for your end-of-semester films to practice and refine your planned approach for the winter or summer filming seasons. Some exercises require no dialogue to practice telling narrative via shots, blocking, etc.

Often exercises are given with some kind of prompt, which you then go and write a little scene for. A professor might focus on a weak point in your own craft and give you a specific requirement to help strengthen that point.
 
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