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Why Film History is Important to Creatives

Film history is an important part of arts and humanities education. Movies have become integral to the way we think and communicate with each other. If you have made it through college and haven’t once said “here’s lookin’ at you kid,” (Casablanca, 1943), “we’re on a mission from God,” (Blues Brothers, 1980), or sprinted up a massive outdoor staircase to the theme song from Rocky (1976), I don’t think I want to know you. To not know about movies is to not know what it is to be human. I am glad that I took Intro to Film History (RTVF 82 at San José State University) because it has increased my appreciation of film, given me insight into what makes a presentation entertaining and successful, and given me a better understanding of popular culture and storytelling in a visual format.

My appreciation of film has increased because of Intro to Film History class. I had not watched any of the movies in our viewing list before, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed watching most of them. I used to watch movies with a somewhat informed and critical eye—I knew how to appreciate things like good acting, casting, pacing, design, and writing—but now I feel that I can better understand the reasoning behind these things from the producer’s and director’s point of view. They need an excellent understanding of film precedent in order to deliver something that executes their goals. Sometimes, the goal is to make something entirely unoriginal and formulaic in order to get the most profit. Other times, the care of a great craftsman is applied, with the goal of taking past influences and synthesizing them into something fresh and exciting. The latter is more nuanced and has more risk of not being a success, but if it does succeed, the payoff is a treasure that will stand the test of time.

All successful movies have something in common—they are entertaining. Beyond that, the steps to success are complex. It was interesting to see how studios and directors built the filmmaking process incrementally, and how they influenced each other's work over time. Most importantly, I have learned that a big budget, huge movie stars, and excellent writing can still lead to a dumpster fire. It seems that the most important factor is how the director is able to bring all these things together in a way that is entertaining, which reflects the director as auteur philosophy. I have also noticed that the most revolutionary and groundbreaking work is usually not fully appreciated until much later. I especially like this notion because it means that I might be a genius, but the world just doesn’t know it yet.

Learning about the beginnings of the film industry helped me to understand the current state of things. The shift from having actors who were virtual unknowns into the “star system”, where the stars would make or break the movie, continues today. Popular films continue to be limited in number because of the immense cost and amount of labor that it takes to produce them, which is something that has carried over from the past. This is interesting because technology seems to have advanced exponentially since the beginning of filmmaking, yet this has not made much difference in the amount of blockbuster films being released each year. Lastly, the fact that movie making is a business explains the vast amount of forgettable movies that continue to be made. Movies need business-minded people to help fund them, but when businesspeople control creative people, mediocre results are likely to ensue.

Going forward, the study of film history will help me in my career as a graphic designer and voice-over actress. I can use the knowledge I have gained about styling, editing, shot set up, and character development to inform the way that I present my work and the messages that they contain. This is especially important to motion graphics work. I have also been very inspired by this class to start creating my own creative video content on YouTube. “I have a certain set of skills,” to quote Liam Neeson’s character in Taken (2009), that can help me to succeed, at least in getting a few subscribers. Never mind that the subscribers will probably all be related to me—the algorithm cares not for such details. I learned about visual storytelling and scene blocking through many years in musical theater, and about voice acting through my work with Funimation. This past semester at SJSU has helped me to become proficient at using motion graphics and video editing software, while burning through coffee-fueled, nightmare inducing projects. It’s a semester to graduation, I have a new iPhone, a MacBook, half a cup of coffee, it’s dark and I’m wearing sunglasses. And…action!

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