DIY Learning, Part 1: Free online resources, books and courses about film

Curiosity flows in my blood. Maybe that’s why it’s been so difficult for me to pick one discipline to pursue; I get excited by concepts, ideas and new things to learn, just like a magpie that gets distracted when it sees something shiny. Sum homo academicus, that is. Consequently, when I encounter individuals whose work I love and find out that they’ve experimented to get it right too, my heart grows bigger. Recently, I’ve discovered the biographies of the artists that followed similar routes – “multipassionates” as one of my favourite bloggers calls them, or simply people with broad ambitions and interests, often self-taught.

Let’s start with the mastermind behind Twin Peaks and cult classics like Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway or Inland Empire. David Lynch was a painter before he became a filmmaker. With time, he branched out to music, acting and photography. Claire Denis studied economics, of which she said, “It was completely suicidal. Everything pissed me off.” Thankfully, she didn’t commit to the life of misery and decided to become a director. Pedro Almodóvar, the writer-director behind Oscar-winning Talk to Her and All About My Mother, moved to Madrid to study filmmaking. However, the national film school was closed under Franco’s dictatorship, so he learnt the craft on his own. In the meantime, he worked for Telefonica for over a decade, buying his Super8 with the first paycheck. Ava DuVernay, the creator of Selma and the recent adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time started as a journalist, spent a few years in PR, and finally got her big break making her brilliantly observed, bold films. Before he got to make the vengeful bride epic Kill Bill and Palme d’Or winner Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino dropped out of high school, worked as a cinema usher and video store clerk for a bit (can we get a cheer for former ushers?!) and recruited people for the aerospace industry (that’s a bit extra though…). And don’t even get me started on Greta Gerwig.

Their experiences, their hardships, their attitudes inspire me. They push me to pick up books and join courses that broaden my perspective. They motivate me to give up my time off and schedule sacred time after work and on the weekends. They encourage me to put what I’ve learned into practice, even if it’s a project that definitely ain’t a cinematic epic. It gives me hope that one day, my hobbies could become something more. And to be honest, I’d choose people who are truly enthusiastic about something, no matter what it is, as conversational partners any day. Their outlook is infectious. It’s stimulating. You learn by just opening up and listening to them.

Okay Kasia, I've had it with your stories – take me to the resources!

It’s such a satisfying feeling when you can connect the dots and see the bigger picture when analysing the topic that you’re truly interested in. For me, it’s always been the arts – talk about choosing broad interests! I’ve been passionate about literature since I can remember. The unconditional love for film came a little bit later: I was working in a cinema for a while as a student, and I was more than eager to use my staff pass to overcompensate for the lost time and watch just about everything that screened across London. I never had the chance to do it as a kid: going to the cinema was an occasional experience, I didn’t have the Internet access at home until I was sixteen (imagine that!), and there weren’t many places to find interesting films in my hometown. I did cherish the rare trips to the city with my friends when I saved up, and I bought DVDs sold with magazines when I could. On the other hand, because of the circumstances that didn’t depend on me, I never followed film in a capacity I do now. When it finally captured me, there was no turning back, and I became my own teacher.

But it wasn’t the first time I trusted in being self-taught. I did learn a bit of technology on my own, but it was out of sheer need rather than passion: I created platforms to practice lowkey graphomania since I was thirteen, and I needed to become a jack of all trades to maintain them. I started my first website – thankfully, it wasn’t an online confessional, not yet – with a library computer. I blogged about celebrities every afternoon after school, and I was actually pretty dedicated to it. If it wasn’t for the bankrupting hosting provider, you could’ve been able to access it (okay, I was devastated because of it at the time, but maybe it’s actually better you can’t; I’ve been so done with being a butt of a joke for my online shitposting recently, so thank Zeus for taking that server down). But back to the topic: I taught myself basic coding and graphic design and even considered it as a formal career path under some external pressure when it came to choosing my degree, but I’ve never had it in me to go down that route. Though ending up designing stuff for a living is one of my life’s greatest ironies so far, it’s been always a bunch of rather helpful skills acquired on the side rather than something that I was entirely serious about. Words always came around to claim me back. And isn’t it better to be passionate about something and have the ambition to devour it rather than just miserably wing something you don’t truly care about?

I’ve written about learning on my own before, but I’ve accumulated so many interesting resources recently that I thought I’d share a little curriculum I’ve composed for myself. It was a little too long to include everything, so I’ve split it into two parts: one for film, one for journalism/content creation. It isn’t comprehensive by any means, I always welcome suggestions. The below lists cover film. Rest assured that I’ve taken the majority of the courses I mention (and I’ve noted when I didn’t) and accumulated the books I recommend, so I speak from experience. Spielberg I am not (yet), but if I help someone with these resources, it was worth it to spend the time writing this post. Ready?

Lights. Camera. Let’s go.

free film resources online courses film school

Film school on a budget

Many people will tell you that nothing will replace practical experiences you gain in film school. Same goes for the network of connections you develop there. The decision is yours, but if you can’t afford it, fancy some extra resources to support your studies or just want to pick it up as a hobby, here’s a little list.

Free resources

  • FutureLearn is a free website that runs a variety of different courses – from arts to science and business, so there’s something for everyone. I found their courses to be packed with information and delivered by industry professionals, explaining topics in engaging ways and often bringing interesting guests on board. When you’re done, you can even purchase a Certificate of Achievement (prices vary course-to-course). The website has also great discussion forums, so you get to interact with other learners and exchange knowledge, too.
    The courses I’ve completed, or plan to complete, are listed below:

    • The Business of Film (delivered by the Open University in collaboration with the British Film Institute and industry experts) explains how a film grows from an idea to a finalised project. It illustrates different stages of production and describes the variety of roles that help to deliver the project, comprehensively explaining financing, production, marketing, and exhibition.
    • Explore Filmmaking (delivered by National School of Film and Television) dives into the process of film production. Aimed at people who would like to start with their indie film but aren’t quite sure what steps they should take, the course presents a variety of creators explaining their creative process and shortcuts they’ve used to deliver an interesting project on budget and on time. It boasts a variety of great complementary resources, too. It’s a good start for absolute beginners.
    • Hispanic Film and Culture (delivered by Purdue University) was a course that really drew me in because of the three fascinating individuals it used to introduce us to Hispanic cinema: Luis Buñuel, Pedro Almodóvar and Guillermo del Toro. When it finishes, you wish it was longer than three weeks and explored the works of a few more directors! The themes in their work and their connection to the culture of Spain and Mexico are explained in detail. It also touches upon some film theory, so if you need some grounding in understanding what genre is or how to distinguish between the variety of shots and how they can be creatively used, they’ve got you covered.
    • Film Distribution (delivered by Film Distribution Association) answers the questions you might’ve had about film acquisition, release and marketing. In a month’s time, you can successfully polish your knowledge about the side of the business that helps films find its audiences, and it’s a great complementary course to The Business of Film mentioned above.
    • An Introduction to Screenwriting (delivered by the University of East Anglia) helps you put your script together. It teaches you the basics of plot structure and characterisation, as well as script formatting. You’ll find some advice on the workflow, too.
    • Gender and Celebrity Culture (delivered by Lancaster University) is a course that doesn’t address film theory or filmmaking craft per se, but it’s a really interesting opportunity to engage with the implication of the star personas of the actors and bring a new dimension to their onscreen performances. It covers some aspects of gender and media theory that’ll transform how you look at interpreting the films you watch.
    • Effective Fundraising and Leadership in Arts and Culture (delivered by the University of Leeds in collaboration with industry experts) is a course I haven’t tried out, but I’ll try and complete it sometime in the future. My guess is it will be right for you if you’re more business-minded and interested in managerial roles in creative industries, or simply if you want to understand how to attract audiences and build partnerships while working for a cultural organisation. And if you wish, you can actually get a CPD-accredited certificate upon the completion of this course. Also, check out Cultural and Creative Industries on Coursera, the website we’ll discuss in-depth below.
  • Coursera is another free resource that delivers a variety of courses from recognised academic institutions on different topics with development path and certification options. They’re insanely comprehensive and include the list of external resources for your own research, too. You can apply for financial help if you can’t afford the certificate and if it gives you a chance to progress academically or find a job.
    • Scandinavian Movies and TV (delivered by the University of Copenhagen) explores the history of the film industry and the filmography biggest names of Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish cinema and television. It covers certain characteristics of individual directors as well as time periods they’ve worked in. If you want to know more about Dreyer, von Trier or Bergman or a plethora of Scandinavian filmmakers, this is the place to start exploring.
    • Creative Writing specialisation (delivered by Wesleyan University) allows you to broaden your toolkit when it comes to plot, characterisation, setting and style, dedicating a course to each of these topics. You might find it helpful as an add-on to the scriptwriting course presented by FutureLearn, mentioned above. I haven’t tested it yet since I’ve got a degree in creative writing, but I’ll probably explore it sometime in the future just because I’m curious.
    • Scriptwriting: Write a pilot episode for a TV or web series (delivered by Michigan State University) is another course I’m saving for my next step. It’s promisingly hands-on: centred around a project, it helps you to write a script for your very own TV pilot while learning about the craft of screenwriting.
  • edX functions exactly like the online learning platforms mentioned above. Boasting an impressive list of educational institutions and a multitude of categories, it’ll help you get some grounding in the film industry, too.  
    • Hollywood: History, Industry, Art (delivered by Penn University) takes you on a journey through one of the biggest, most impactful film industries in the world. From the silent era, through the studio system, the transformation brought by colour to modern Hollywood cinema, it covers the changes brought to Hollywood with technology and new creative approaches.
    • Hong Kong Cinema Through Global Lens (delivered by the University of Hong Kong) was the only free course on Asian cinema I was able to find. It investigates international stardom of actors such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, beloved directors hailing from Hong Kong, as well as their technique. It’s definitely something to consider to broaden your world cinema knowledge!
  • BAFTA Guru boasts a rich archive of interviews, event recordings and articles for the aspiring filmmakers and career advice for people who wish to enter the film industry. Also, there are listings of events to attend (hey, somebody mentioned that network?!) and opportunities to jump on board.
  • NoFilmSchool does exactly what it says on the box:  it delivers industry news aimed at the independent filmmakers, largely about the equipment or the industry events. They’ve got a collection of tutorials, however, and their cinematography e-book is an excellent starting point for making your own film.
  • Film Independent blog often features tips from filmmakers or movies to inspire you, so it’s definitely a good one to add to your favourites and/or follow or social media. If you’re living in LA or travelling there, keep in mind that this non-profit organises a variety of film-related events too.
  • MIT Open Courseware is a platform that shares some of the archived course materials prepared by the university, but they aren’t any less relevant. I haven’t had the chance to explore many of these yet, but I’ve looked at some of the reading lists and topics and they look madly impressive! French Film Classics, post-WW2 German cinema, Japanese literature and cinema, and Studies in Film look particularly interesting to me but feel free to explore.

Paid resources

  • Udemy is a website that allows experts in their field create courses centred around the topics they choose. There is no subscription, which is the case with Lynda.com for example, but you usually pay a one-off fee to get lifelong access to your course of choice. It’s worth it to explore different keywords and watch intros to see which style of presenting and skills level is right for you. Keep hunting for promotions – the website organises sales quite frequently and you’re likely to score a bargain. My courses of choice are featured below:

Books

Perhaps you’ll be able to find some of these in your local library, get used copies on eBay, or find a deal on Amazon. I’ve listed some of the books that I own. Feel free to pick according to your personal preference.

  • Looking at movies. An introduction to film by Richard Barsam, Dave Monahan – an absolute primer on theoretical aspects of film analysis and how they’re used to create a certain cinematic impact on the audience. It’s a great textbook but quite expensive too, so I’d advise buying it used, or even go an edition or two back.
  • Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder – a good book to start with when it comes to screenwriting, written in a very digestible way – if you decide to take one of the free screenwriting courses above, it’s a great supplement.
  • Screenplay. The Foundation of Scriptwriting by Syd Field – written in a slightly different tone than Snyder’s book, but also a little more advanced. If you’re seriously into scriptwriting, that’s your bet.
  • The Cinema Book edited by Pam Cook – an absolute must-have, though largely theoretical. A wildly extensive guide to world cinemas, the star system, genres, authorship and a variety of film theories.  Definitely something that will help you find and explore new influences and styles, which is crucial at the end of the day.
  • In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch – from Francis Ford Coppola’s film editor comes an essay on film editing that will give you a new understanding of why cuts work, and how to use them efficiently. This book has strong word of mouth – my friend recommended it to me, I found it amazing and recommended it to another film fan, who found a Polish translation on her bookshelf. Let that be your guide…
  • Talking Pictures by Ann Hornaday – written by a film critic trying to give an ordinary cinemagoer a framework to talk about films in an informed way, it’s a great book to begin with when it comes to analysing different layers of a film – particularly of interest to a budding film critic. It’s laced with many examples and quotes from the creators, too. It’s similar to Looking at Movies in a way, but written with a different audience in mind, so a little less complex.
  • Directing by Michael Rabiger and Mick Hurbis-Cherrier – the book covers the entire directing process from the very beginning to the end of the project. It includes so much practical information that I’d risk the statement that you literally don’t need much more on technique and process than this book at the beginning. Again, it is pricey, so buy used if you can!
  • On Directing Film by David Mamet – this book might be thin and small, but it is packed with useful, concisely expressed info. It’s a collection of notes from university lectures Mamet gave, derived from his personal expertise. Easy to understand and without much jargon, though you might need to understand some of the basic technical terms. A great prelude to Directing when you want to start slowly.
  • The Filmmaker’s Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide for the Digital Age by Steven Ascher and Edward Pincus – it’s easy to see why it was called “the filmmaking Bible” by the Guardian. Super practical, it takes you from pre-production through your equipment choice, lens, film stock, lighting, cinematography, editing and sound to distribution. And it works very well as a reference book for refreshing your knowledge over time.
  • The Filmmaker’s Eye by Gustavo Mercado – here’s one more book that was recommended to me. This time, it’s about breaking down various shots and their compositions, workshopping famous film scenes. It helps you to familiarise yourself with the terminology and puts you in the right position to start visualising how you want to shoot your own scenes.
  • Film Marketing into 21st Century by Nolwenn Mingant – see below
  • The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies by Ben Fritz – both of these books cover different aspects of modern film distribution and exhibition, with different examples. The first one focuses on international case studies too, where the second gives you an insight into the world of digital distribution and future trends. A great compendium if you take the distribution/film business course above.

Films

It goes without saying that you should try and watch as many films as possible, from different periods of time, parts of the world and genre categories. A film subscription such as Amazon Prime, MUBI, NOWTV, BFI Player or FilmStruck helps immensely. Netflix gets better and better with their indie catalogue, but they still lack in the aspect of films made earlier than the 1970s…

For Londoners

Londoners are in luck – there’s always something good going on when it comes to film screenings, events.

I’ve attended three courses at Holborn-based CityLit so far, and I’ve really enjoyed the experience. The topic range is truly impressive, and one look at their prospectus can make your head spin. So much to choose from! Sessions range from two hours to the entire day, on weekdays and on the weekends, so it’s likely you’ll bag a deal when it comes to one of their theoretical/technical courses.

For one-off events, it’s essential to be around the British Film Institute in Southbank, Institute of Contemporary Arts just off St James’s Park, Barbican and Raindance London in Charing Cross. Occasionally, Picturehouses host one-off courses (I’ve seen a handful at the Hackney Picturehouse before).

Ever tried to learn a skill on your own? How did you approach it? Share your experience in the comments. If you want to add any extra books or resources to the list above, feel free to tweet me @k_kwasniewska or reach out on Facebook!

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