Towards a Hybrid Model of Moving Image Education 

Course(s):  FMA 366: Experimental Film 

Department: The School of Film and Media Arts 

Institution: Cleveland State University

Instructor: Dr. Evan Lieberman

Number & Level of Students Enrolled: 20 students, all Juniors and Seniors

Digital Tools/Technologies Used: Extensive use of in-class video as examples of the history and techniques of the experimental film; digital video cameras and editing programs as a significant aspect of the required coursework; the digitization and digital enhancement of celluloid film as an aspect of one of the class projects. 

Author Bio:  Dr. Evan Lieberman received his ABJ in Radio-TV-Film Journalism from the Henry Grady School of Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, his MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Film Studies and his PhD in Film History/Cultural Studies from the Institute for the Liberal Arts at Emory University. He has worked professionally as a screenwriter, producer, director and director of photography on a wide variety of works ranging from narrative feature films and documentaries to music videos, television commercials, and experimental films. Dr. Lieberman began his teaching career at Georgia State University before moving to Emory and then to Cleveland State University in 2006. He has published on an array of topics including Charlie Chaplin, Frankenstein, Cinematography and the Mexican Wrestling Film. 

Abstract: This essay proposes a solution to a problematic fissure in the arena of film education, which is the bifurcation of the field into distinct and separate realms of production and studies., producing on the one hand students with technical expertise but little understanding of theory, history and aesthetics and on the other students with a depth of knowledge in these areas but without a grounding in the practicalities of production. The answer to this problem lies in the development of a hybrid course model that bridges this artificial and deleterious divide. 


When students opt for track of study in film, they understand that they are entering an extremely demanding and competitive field, but the question arises as to whether we are best preparing our students for future success in this arena. Given the potentially treacherous career terrain our students are facing, it is incumbent upon all engaged in the endeavor of film education to carefully consider our methods, the underlying principles of our pedagogy and the efficacy of our approaches to ensure the highest quality of education and engagement. In this regard I would contend that we are often failing, not due to any professorial shortcomings but rather to structural problems in the field itself. To address this issue, I designed an innovative model for my course in Experimental Film that seeks to correct the most serious challenge to the field.

The Problem: A Brief History of Film Education 

There is indeed a serious and fundamental problem in the teaching and study of film, though the term “film” should be replaced by “the moving image” given the convergence of film, digital and video forms over the past decade. There currently exists a rigid separation in the field between the study of film production — writing, directing, cinematography, and editing, and that which is termed film studies —history, theory, culture and aesthetics. It is interesting to note that this troubling division of what are essentially two sides of the same coin is a distinctly American phenomenon, one whose causes can be traced back to the ontological roots of the field in this country. The world’s first film school the VGIK (S. A. Gerasimov All-Russian University of Cinematography) was established in 1919, the earliest days of the Soviet Union, under direct orders from Vladimir Lenin after he famously proclaimed that for the goals of the revolution “the cinema is for us the most important of the arts.” Given the shortage of film stock in the young country and the fact that almost the entire pre-Soviet Russian film industry had fled to France taking with them all film production equipment, the early program at VGIK focused on film analysis and reediting already extant films which unlike cameras were not considered valuable enough to take into exile. The first generation of VGIK students and teachers included such luminaries as Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Lev Kuleshov who are notable for not only being among the greatest filmmakers of the silent cinema but also for their groundbreaking work in film theory and aesthetics. Their writings continue to influence filmmakers to this day.

At VGIK no distinction was made between the technical production of cinema and the theoretical investigation and understanding of the form, between the techniques of cinematography and the cultural impact of the moving image work, and the result was extraordinary contributions to both fields. As film education blossomed across Europe over the next decades with Italy’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia leading the way in 1935 (one of Mussolini’s only positive contributions to Italian culture), followed by IDEHC in France in 1943 and the extraordinary Eastern European programs at FAMU in Czechoslovakia (1946) and Lodz Film Academy in Poland (1948), the study of production, history, theory and aesthetics were equally represented in the curricula. It is from this creative cauldron in which ideas about cinema met the technicalities of production that Cesar Zavattini, a teacher at Centro Sperimentale could first theorize the tenets of Italian neorealism before writing such classics of the movement as Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D (1952).

The State of Things: Film Education in the United States

So, if this approach to film education, one that did not draw a sharp distinction between the study of filmmaking technique and its theory and history is so clearly effective and productive, how did moving image studies in the United States wind up in such a sad state of division, a circumstance that benefits neither the student nor the field? The answer here lies in the parallel development of film production and film studies within the collegiate setting. University of Southern California began the first film program in the U.S. in 1929 with a single course taught by movie star and United Artists co-founder Douglas Fairbanks. The course called Introduction to the Photoplay, featured guest lectures from Charlie Chaplin, Darryl Zanuck and Ernst Lubitsch, and by 1932 the School, with encouragement from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, had established the Department of Cinematography with the goal of providing a “training school” for the Hollywood-based industry. Thus, the overtly trade/commercial basis for the development of film education in the U.S. was central from the very start. However, the real growth in film as an academic discipline began in earnest only after WWII and did not truly flourish until the 1960s with the core of the problem being that it grew from two very different sources and in two even more different gardens.

Film production as an academic discipline was driven by the widespread training of filmmakers in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during WWII. Upon returning home, these former GIs often enrolled in college and soon began teaching courses in film production supported by the availability of cheaper lightweight cameras like the Bell and Howell Filmo 70 DR and the Bolex H-16. These courses were generally housed in Communication Departments under the emerging major of Radio-TV-Film and given the military training that underlies the pedagogy they were short on theory, aesthetics, or history even if they were strong on instruction in technology. Film Studies on other hand grew within English Departments which began offering Film Appreciation courses in response to growing student and faculty interest and then given the success of these introductory offerings began scheduling a more diverse array of classes that included film theory (not that far from literary theory), film aesthetics which closely mirrored poetics and authorship classes that were again not so different from the classes in Chaucer and Shakespeare that formed the basis of the English curriculum. In fact, the enshrinement of the problematic auteur theory in academic film studies is entirely based in the way in which it replicates well established practices in the study of literature. And herein begins the litany of problems that come from this artificial bifurcation of the field.

Students steeped in an auteurist approach to analysis not only tend to overvalue the contribution of the director to what is in fact a multiply-authored cinematic work but wind up with a skewed vision of the production process itself, not understanding that it is the producer and not the director who is actually in charge of the film and that the look of the film is more a product of the collaboration between cinematographer and production designer than springing from the mind of the director. Space limits the ability to detail the pedagogical failures of this dis-integrated approach to moving image education, but there is a solution.

The Solution: Hybrid Course Design

In order to address this issue, I designed and implemented a course in the CSU School of Film and Media Arts, FMA 366: Experimental Film that employs a hybrid instructional model, combining history, theory, aesthetics, and culture with the practicalities of production, and the tremendous success of this course points the way to a fresh approach for our discipline. Superficially structured as a historical survey the class begins with the earliest history of experimentation in the film form and traces the development of the experimental film from its roots in the artistic movements of the post-WWI era and the golden age of the American experimental cinema in the 1940s-1970s through the rise of the European Art Film, the development of video art and finally more recent experiments in computer generated or assisted imagery.

The texts for the class are more theoretical and somewhat less historical with P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film (1974) and Gene Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema (1970) both foundational texts in the field with Sitney working from an Aristotelian mythopoetic perspective and Youngblood introducing concepts from Buckminster Fuller’s Futurism into the classroom discourse. Neither text directly follows the historical structure of the course but both work to challenge the students intellectually and provide a broader context for understanding the cultural and artistic significance of the the experimental moving image. While it is the case that students have occasionally found it initially difficult to adapt to this asynchronous reading/lecture relationship, the fact that they are able to productively utilize the ideas from the texts (which are woven into the class discussion) in their written close-readings and critical biographies demonstrates that they are absorbing the material in a meaningful way.

The Method: Creative Assignment Design

Thus far, however the description of the class sounds like a fairly traditional “film studies” course, but this changes with the addition of four film production assignments that force the student to take what they have learned in the readings/lectures and implement these ideas on screen. The first assignment builds of the early experiments of filmmakers like Georges Melies and the British Brighton School who began exploring the possibilities of the newly invented movie camera. For this film the students are introduced to the Sony A7s camera which represents the state-of-the-art camera technology of today but with which the students are unfamiliar as it is used in no other class in our program. The students are encouraged to similarly discover the capabilities of this camera by making a film that uses it to create a new reality. The second film assignment is based on the City Symphony genre that emerged in the 1920s and 30s blending geography, documentary and experimental technique, asks them to interpret a space that is important to them, which can be as large as a city or as small as their dorm room to interpret that space visually through the lens of their own vision, experience and imagination. For the third film the class has watched the classic American experimental cinema and are introduced to the Bolex 16mm movie camera used by such figures as Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage. This course is the only one in our curriculum in which the students shoot celluloid film and are forced to use a light meter and by doing so replicate the material conditions that produced the films they study in class.

The success of this approach is not only indicated by the fact the course is one of the most popular in our curriculum, but by the tremendous performance of these films in festivals, including the FMA annual film showcase, the acceptance of our students to graduate programs and the predominance of experimental work in our capstone Thesis course sequence. Given the extraordinary results for this hybrid class, it is my intention to use this same model in every subsequent class for which it is appropriate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *