By Justin Fenner
Edited by Lindsay Wolfe
Posted March 4, 2010
Amanda Etheridge transferred to the University of South Carolina after two years at Anderson University with one goal in mind: to learn how to make films.
But two years of classes in USC's media arts department haven't done Etheridge that much good, she said.
"We sit in class and we discuss things and we're shown PowerPoints," the senior said. "It's just not teaching us what we need to know."
Specifically, Etheridge said she isn't learning the technical skills necessary to work on film or TV crews in class. She said MART 552, narrative production, is the only class that comes close to replicating the work scene on real sets.
It's a problem that she and other students (some of whom did not want to comment for fear of offending their professors) have addressed with Thorne Compton, the interim head of the media arts department.
"In my conversations with these students, it's really clear that they want some more hands-on experiences," said Compton. "And we're trying to provide that."
Compton said the department is trying to reorganize curriculum and is working with a curriculum committee over the next few weeks to address some of these problems. But, he said, the problem with technical training is that technology changes at a breakneck pace.
"We don't want to focus all of our energy on teaching people to work with things that aren't going to be here three years from now or five years from now," Compton said. "But we are concerned about giving people the artistic training that's going to apply no matter what the technology is."
But Etheridge said that on a film set, artistic training isn't as valuable as technical training. And most of the technical training she's gotten has been informal – either self-taught or learned from friends.
"I can honestly say that 95 percent of what I've learned here, I've learned outside of the classroom," Etheridge said.
One of her classmates, media arts senior Thaddeus Jones Jr., wants to change that. He's the unofficial leader of the group that went to Compton with these complaints. While Jones said he thinks the theoretical aspect of the media arts classes is satisfactory, he said he agrees that technical training leaves much to be desired.
"Unless you're doing things and finding projects and doing projects on your own and making the mistakes outside of class, you're not getting the full benefit of the degree that you're earning," he said.
For Walter Hanclosky, a media arts professor who said he's been teaching for decades, technical training is a lower form of instruction.
"Media arts is the study of media and the practice. When you're just dealing with practice, you tend to lower the quality of instruction," Hanclosky said. "We seek to raise the caliber of instruction from that of a high school program."
While Compton said he largely agreed that artistic training should be the program's focus, he said the department is working "as quickly as we can" to address student complaints. "We are in the process of training people to work with the technology."
Outside the classroom, however, there are opportunities for some real-world experience. The school's partnership with the South Carolina Film Commission, for example, makes it possible for students to work alongside film industry professionals during the production of a short film.
"We're working at this point with media arts to make sure that the students are getting a more hands-on or applicable job skills so that when they walk out the door, they can go onto a film set and not look like a deer in the headlights," said Jeff Monks, the commission's director.
The commission can grant the program up to $100,000 to produce a short film through its South Carolina Film Production Fund. The money pays for Hollywood film professionals to train and mentor students who get to work on the project.
Last year, steadicam operator Dan Kneece, who graduated with a bachelor's from USC in '78 and a master's in '80, came to work with students on the film "Civil," about a Civil War soldier who is ordered to burn down a church and wrestles with whether to do it.
Though Etheridge said she relished the opportunity to meet and work with Kneece, who has worked with David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino, she said she doesn't think the commission's projects are enough to substitute for classroom instruction.
"With those film commission movies, that's a small class of us," Etheridge said. "Only 15 of us have an opportunity to take that class."
Richard Sampson, who graduated from the media arts program in 1985 and started his own production company, Shadowlight Pictures, in Atlanta in 2002, said the best thing students can do is keep going after projects outside of school.
"That's how you learn this business. Not necessarily on the set of a big movie, but actually doing it," Sampson said. "You have to get out there and put it into practical use."