Teaching the History of Film Craft (pt. 4)

Teaching the History of Film Craft:

The Craft Auteur Research Project

Fourth in a series of posts about teaching the history of below-the-line film artists (cinematographers, sound designers, etc.) and of screenwriting.

Part 1 introductory post
Part 2 scholarly books 
Part 3 video resources
Part 4 student research projects
Part 5 the theory of craft
Part 6 limitations
Part 7 Syllabi 

Since I teach the history of film craft courses as upper-level undergraduate writing seminars, the students' research projects form a major part of my pedagogy.

Each semester I have students pick one practitioner of their choice (cinematographer, sound designer, or screenwriter) and develop an extended research project that examines trade press coverage, relevant secondary scholarship, and at least three films of the artist to provide context for her/his work.

Students share their research, either in paper workshops or in class presentations, so the studies become a way for the class as a whole (including me) can learn more about the history of the given craft.

I'm generally not an auteurist, and there are definitely some problems with picking out one individual for cinematography, sound, etc. But focusing on one practitioner asks students - and us as a class - tor reflect on how others beyond the directors may be responsible for a film's artistic vision and final product. "Craft" is often juxtaposed to "art" but the research projects show the interconnection of these ideas in a studio system.

I may impose restrictions on their choice - for instance, only one student per artist, no uber-famous people like Walter Murch, or no screenwriters who also direct their screenplays - but I do want them to follow their own interests and find a project that will be useful for their own development as filmmakers.

Partly because of the specific context of our writing-intensive classes, this larger project may entail smaller assignments: an annotated bibliography, a précis, or a shorter paper responding to primary or secondary research.

The Media History Project is an invaluable first stop for trade press materials prior to 1965. It compiles links to publicly available digitized trade press periodicals, from general news like Variety to technical journals. The runs of American Cinematographer and Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers are particularly useful. Additionally, The Media History Project provides data visualization tools (Arclight and Lantern) that can help students make new discoveries in the resources.

Screenwriting is not a technical area, but I direct students to production memos where available. (To my knowledge, Rudy Behlmer's compilations of 20th-Fox, WB, and Selznick memos are the main book compilations.) Many of the Production Code Administration files are not digitized and online. These alone would make the good basis for a research assignment. For the original screenplays, my library subscribes to Alexander Street Press's collection, which I use to find scripts for the syllabus, too. Drew's Script-O-Rama provides a great database of more recent film and TV scripts.

There are a few websites helpful for bibliographic research:

- FilmSound.org
- Screenwriting Research Network

These can serve as as the springboard for students' research projects, too.

One challenge students face is that unless they pick a particularly famous artist, like James Wong Howe or Alan Splet, they won't find too much scholarly material on their person. Pre-1965, even non-scholarly material on below-the-line artists is hard to come by. So I do need to work with them to suggest ways to find material that helps with their project even if it's not about X or Y person. (This Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos essay on their video essay process is a nice argument for old fashioned research, even for production.)

For students working on non-US artists, it's trickier. I often let them do primary research on some aspect of the American context, since the trade press resources will be there for this - and to use secondary sources for their artist.

I want to develop/strengthen research skills, so I do not wish to spoon feed students sources. But I do find that providing a working list of possible sources helps them and produces a better final paper.

History is important to me. The premise of the course is that we gain a deeper knowledge of the medium by looking at its history, but students' natural inclination, for the most part, is to pick a recent or contemporary practitioner. So I may have two assignments, one pre-1970 and one post-1970 (other dates would work of course). One will be the larger research project, but they are still engaging with some material from the studio era.


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