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Film School Without the Crippling Debt

By Terri Stone

There are a lot of barriers between you and your dream of making movies: expensive equipment, bewildering workflows, big egos, etc. That’s why RocketJump, a production company famous for a relatable approach to filmmaking, launched its Film School. The RocketJump Film School is innovative, welcoming, fun, and—amazingly—free.

Although it’s less than a year old, there are already a bunch of lessons on the Film School website. (At press time, the total was close to 80, but new videos pop up every week.) The tutorials are grouped into eight categories: directing, producing, cinematography, editing and post, sound, screenwriting, arts and vanities, and visual effects. The Film School also produces a podcast and a weekly spot on the RocketJump Twitch channel. It sounds like it requires a cast of thousands, but only three people work full-time on this flood of cinematic instruction: Lauren Haroutunian (dean of the Film School), Cherish Chen (producer at RocketJump), and Joey Scoma (editor/director for the Film School).

All three practice what they preach. “We are a professional production company, so we can share that experience with them,” explains Haroutunian. “We’re able to relate to the students as people and creators: ‘This is how we’ve learned, we want you to come on set with us.’ We hope that makes getting into filmmaking less intimidating. We want to get rid of the idea of the Hollywood gatekeeper.” The trio receives frequent help in this mission from subject-matter experts inside and outside of RocketJump.

Dry lectures aren’t allowed at this school. “Escape from (Dull) Exposition” is a great example of a Film School lesson. In the first few seconds, it defines exposition as the “ancient storytelling art of conveying plot information to an audience.” It could stop there; most textbooks would. But the lesson continues for another four minutes with a comic riff on the 1981 classic Escape from New York that makes the basic definition come alive as multiple examples of exposition, all woven together into one sly short.

Joey Scoma plays Snake Plissken in “Escape from (Dull) Exposition”, by RocketJump Film School

Click to watch Joey Scoma as Snake Plissken in “Escape from (Dull) Exposition.”

Since students can’t afford a lot of professional gear, some lessons show people how to work with readily available materials. In “Harnessing the Sun,” cinematographer Jon Salmon demonstrates how a white bed sheet, foam core, and natural light may be all you need to shoot outside. “Jon came up with the brilliant idea of using stuff you can get at home or the hardware store, but he’s also teaching about diffusion and bounce, professional concepts,” says Haroutunian.

That combination—practical advice and professional concepts—is an important one to the Film School. “We want to teach professional skills that will allow people to transition to professional jobs,” Haroutunian notes. “We also want to give them the context of why they would do something, and what will tell their story best. We don’t want people to feel like they can’t make a good movie because they only have an iPhone. You can still tell a good story.”

In “Harnessing the Sun,” Jon Salmon demonstrates how a white bed sheet, foam core, and natural light may be all you need to shoot outside.

Click to watch Jon Salmon prove that you don’t always need fancy gear to tell your story.

Another Film School resource for students on a budget: The free audio source clips that accompany some of the sound tutorials, such as “Sound Gun” episodes 3 and 4. Students can download the files and follow along with the lessons. Haroutunian says that the Film School plans to provide source footage for future editing lessons, too: “People who don’t have a camera but want to learn how to use film-editing software will still be able to learn. We’ll demonstrate using Adobe Premiere Pro CC, but the concepts we’re teaching should apply to any software they have.”

The forums section of the Film School website is busy with students asking questions and making connections. “We’re in the forums a lot,” Haroutunian says, “and we forward things to other RocketJump people, too.” Students also help each other. “If it takes me a little while to respond to something, usually other people have already supplied answers by the time I get there. We have such a good group in the forums. There’s no vitriol, and even the criticism is very supportive. It’s a community that has started nurturing itself. We have one group that live on different sides of the country, and they send files to each other and do editing and voice-overs for each other.” To go directly to a relevant forum, look for the “Discuss This Lesson” button next to each video on the Film School website.

RocketJump cofounder Freddie Wong shows you how to peel off one face to reveal another underneath.

Click to watch RocketJump cofounder Freddie Wong show you how to peel off one face to reveal another underneath. For the entire Premiere and After Effects workflow, see “Create a YouTube Video with RocketJump.”

Haroutunian is excited about what’s to come for the Film School in the next year. “I’m hammering out a curriculum that will create a solid foundation. We still want to jump around a bit so that we’ll have something for everyone—new videos won’t be only for beginners. But we’ve started laying out where we want certain tracks to go, what core concepts each one has to have.” The Film School will be on the set of “Dimension 404,”a new sci-fi anthology show that RocketJump is creating with Hulu. “We’ll get some unique tutorials by filming the process from the RocketJump viewpoint.” Students can also look forward to seeing field trips the Film School took to Dolby Laboratories' headquarters in San Francisco and History for Hire, a huge North Hollywood prop house with items from the 1980s and earlier.

“Film School isn’t just a bunch of online tutorials,” Haroutunian says. “It’s a deeper look at how to use tools, techniques, and practices to tell better stories. We try to avoid showing you how to replicate something—how to look like Tarantino or Spielberg, for instance. We want to provide the context of why you would make a decision, and what makes a good story, and how to figure out what stories are important to you. Tutorials and technology come into that, but our larger goal is nurturing the creator, the storyteller. Hopefully people of all ages and experience levels can appreciate that and use the Film School to their advantage.”