Monday, March 2, 2009
Thesis Films, Advisors, and Students...Oh My!
(Note: Image above from Chris Conforti's award-winning SVA thesis film, "Frog.")
The thesis film is an important thing. It is supposed to be the summation of a student's total animation education. Ideally, it also aides the student in discovering what it is they may wish to do in this industry. Its hard for anyone, student or pro, to make a really good animated film, so a student film's first objective should be to show effort. A lazy or sloppy student film suggests that the student might make a lazy or sloppy employee.
The big fear of this year's SVA thesis students seems to be on the content/subject of their films. Some of them are worried that their films may not be effective commercial samples after graduation. In truth, no one film can be all things to all people. An edgy and violent film won't assist you in landing a job on a preschool series, but, it might be just the thing you need to work on an Adult Swim series. Students have to simply make the films they choose to make. Super Jail co-creator Christy Karacas advises that students make films that reflect what they might want to be paid to work on. Playing to your interests seems like good advice to me and that might ensure that you make a film that is personal to you.
As a teacher at SVA since 2003, I've served as a thesis advisor four times. I am a very strict advisor. I only take one student a year, if any, and I try to only select students who's films match my own areas of interest and expertise. Two of my four students were fantastic. They were ready and excited to work hard. I helped them manage their deadlines and guided them through the creative process, and hopefully didn't get in the way of the films they sought to make.
After speaking to other thesis advisors, I can say that our bad experiences have a lot in common. All included students that did not, could not, or would not put in the time needed to make a thesis film. It is quite baffling, and no amount of patience, encouragement, inspiration, time, and advice from their advisors could change this. For an advisor, this can be very, very frustrating. One student actually broke contact with their advisor after the advisor confronted them with the reality of the situation. There was only six weeks left till deadline and the student was months behind schedule. After the meeting, weeks went by and the student would not answer the advisor's calls or e-mails. Finally, a meeting was set up with the SVA thesis department, and that seemed to do the trick. The student finally spoke to their advisor on the phone. "You didn't believe in me," was his explanation for the radio silence. Months after he graduated, the student visited their former advisor and apologized, adding, "You were right, and I was wrong."
"The advisor replied, "I didn't want to be right. I just wanted you to listen, understand, and have a shot at finishing your film."
Not surprisingly, the film was never finished and the student, who happened to be a nice and talented fellow, didn't work in the industry after graduation.
I think many animation students are shocked by how much work it takes to make a film. Once they are confronted with that reality, they have the choice of putting in the work or not. No advisor or best thesis program in the world can turn around a student that has decided not to put in the work.
Some students have a creative way of letting themselves off the hook.
Someone else's thesis student once remarked to me, "My advisor gave me a lot of notes, which I followed, but now I am not as into making the film as I was originally."
I asked, "So, what does this mean?"
The student replied, "I'm not working on it that much."
I explained to the student: "What do you want people to think when they see your film at the student screening at the end of the year? Are they to assume, 'Oh, I guess he wasn't into making that film because of changes that his advisor suggested.' Or, will they just see another student film where the student didn't put in the time required to make a good film. And, what will potential employers think after that? Who loses when a student doesn't do the work they ought to?
**on a side note: wanna check out a whole evening of animated student films? Join us for the ASIFA-East jury screening on March 10. For details visit www.asifaeast.com