Despite being a film critic, I have to admit that I am far from an expert in the process of making a film. I know some of the titles and the general responsibilities of a few of the various technical positions, but I’m really only interested in the final product. The more I learn about the way the sausage is made, the less interested I am in eating it.
I need the movie magic to suspend my disbelief. When I see a film, I want to be engaged on an emotional level. I generally only make technical comments if the technical aspects of the film are glaringly obvious. I’m just more interested in story and performance.
I am aware, however, that the technical side of filmmaking is just as important—and a much more attainable career path—as the performing side. After all, there is no shortage of promising young actors with starry eyes and naïve souls, nor is there any lack of budding directors with delusions of becoming the next Scorsese.
I don’t know that many children who come away from their first movie experience wanting to be a grip. But grips are necessary to filmmaking, as are makeup artists—and electricians and lighting specialists and model makers and designers. The art of movie making is multifaceted and if one wants to learn many of the skills, it usually takes place outside of the film industry. And even if it doesn’t, students with an interest in the technical side of film may have to travel far to find a good film school.
Chattanooga is lucky. Chattanooga State offers classes in film beyond simple theory or history. These are classes with purpose. They are meant to provide support for a burgeoning film industry here in the South. This semester Chatt State has added a new course: art direction.
Kris Jones, the instructor and a member of the Chattanooga Film Society member, is teaching this class as part of the “Advanced Practicum” series of classes in the Professional Film and Television Training Curriculum.
“Art direction (or more inclusively, production design) is one of several areas identified as being in particular demand in the film industry both locally and in the growing film industry in the Southeast,” Jones says. “Film work is being drawn to our area as a result of runaway production—the high costs of labor and resources in L.A. are driving the work eastward and southward. In addition, a pre-trained crew base, such as the one we are creating at Chattanooga State, acts to add additional appeal to filming in the area.”
The art of art direction is, according to Jones, “the visual design of every aspect of the film: from sets to costumes to props and makeup.”
Students studying film and television production at the college learn practical knowledge about the inner workings of a film set. During the art direction course, they learn to use their surroundings as inspiration.
“Good art directors use their daily world as their ‘idea book’—gathering sights and sensations from the world around them,” Jones says. “Our students are required to journal their impressions and ideas via photographs and sketches they have created and later apply them to their final project, designs for an actual film script.”
Jones says that each of his students works from a classic film script, learning how to break down the scenes into screen time to decide which sets to build and which locations to scout.
“Later in the semester,” he says, “the students will be doing a location scout of the local area to determine where their practical sets could realistically be shot.”
Unlike many college-level classes, the film classes at Chattanooga State are decidedly practical. Students in the program learn by hands-on training by experienced instructors.
“Not only do I believe students learn better by application, but the film industry is all about practical experience,” Jones says.
In addition to basic breakdown, sketching and drafting skills taught in class, each student is placed with one of 63 production companies where they earn a total of 90 internship hours. After successful completion of the internship and the class, they are awarded a certificate from the Southeast Tennessee Film Commission.
If the Southeast can bring these production jobs to the area, the impact on Chattanooga could be as powerful as Volkswagen or Amazon. Programs like the Professional Film and Television Training at Chattanooga State are helping to make that a reality.