Student film: ‘notoriously difficult to penetrate’

Oxford’s student filmmakers give their takes on writing workshops, directorial debuts, and getting inside one of the arts’ most difficult industries.

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Four Oxford students. Two in the foreground and two in the background. Surrounded by filmmaking equipment including a microphone and a camera. They are in a small residential street with neutral toned houses.

Devon Armstrong, former Vice President of OUFF.
The world of film is notoriously difficult to penetrate as an up-and-coming creative – even more so when you’re a keen fresher with very little experience and an Oxford degree weighing you down. I was worried when I started my degree that my passion for filmmaking would be stunted during my time here.

Luckily, the Oxford University Filmmaking Foundation does a great job of providing informative workshops, inspiring speaker events, and that all-important funding for student shorts. As a society they’re a perfect starting point for those new to filmmaking and there is never a shortage of low-level shorts and videography opportunities to get involved in. I spent a lot of time in first year signing up to any and every project, until I realised I needed to start filtering out opportunities. You learn most when you’re working with people better than you, even when you feel way out of your depth.

As a third year about to launch myself into this unknown territory, this Oscars season leaves me feeling bewildered at the distance between my ‘canon’ of a few low-budget shorts and the exciting world of Margot Robbies and Spike Lees. I’m trying to get some roles on film school grad films, or – if I’m lucky – an independent short directed by a friend of a friend’s aunt. My limited experience has taught me that the world of film is still so much about who you know, and something that Oxford has taught me is that you need to seize every wild opportunity you’re given to get the most out of who you happen to run into.

Dominic Tomlinson, a winner of OUFF’s 2019 screenwriting competition.
For a while now, the idea of writing has always been something that has interested me, yet, it has rarely evolved beyond that, an idea. For that reason, even if my screenplay were complete rubbish, I could console myself with the fact I had finally finished something. Once I had the general outline of the film, I had to face the tricky task of putting it down on paper. My screenplay features two men sitting in a room talking with relatively little action. I had to put myself inside this small, self-contained world I had created, to imagine myself sitting in the same room alongside these two men.

An appreciation and respect of the medium was paramount; the script may read well, but whether it would translate well on screen is a different question. I would close my eyes and picture the scenes over and over again whilst reciting the dialogue to myself, always looking for moments that would bore me until I could honestly say it was the best I could do.

Breaking into the industry post-graduation is still very much a pipedream, and I am well aware that just because I’ve written one screenplay doesn’t mean I have any future in this game. However, the discipline instilled by the deadline, the practical experience of learning how a screenplay is put together, and the fact it was really good fun writing has whet my appetite; it has reminded me why the idea of writing is one which has always appealed to me.

Ross Moncrieff, Student Director
Shifting inside the world of film after working in the world of theatre
has taught me that, in many ways, they are two sides of the same coin. But how much interaction is actually there between these parallel
worlds?

The process of acting is very different. In theatre, the actors are the central element of the theatrical process, and shows will spend around 50 hours rehearsing. In film, on the other hand, an actor may find that most of their time is spent waiting for the director to line up the perfect shot. Whilst acting during a show flows naturally, film acting is a lot more stop-and-start. In terms of direction, an Oxford theatre director will most likely spend the majority of their time with the cast rehearsing; however, a film director’s central preoccupation will often be with exactly how a shot will look. That said, the two genres still obviously have much in common. The interaction between directors and actors is naturally still very similar when dealing with themes and character development.

In both media, directors have to lead large teams, which perhaps distinguishes them from the majority of other art forms in which the creative process is often more solitary. Having a skill-set from one medium therefore naturally makes getting inside the other a lot more doable.

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