Variety named the UW-Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts one of their “Stellar Film Schools in 2017.” Here’s what they had to say:
“The program places a dual focus on the theoretical and practical worlds of filmmaking. Because of the program’s commitment to transforming its students into expressive filmmakers with a mature grasp on creative, conceptual and technical skills, it provides students with the flexibility to explore all aspects of the industry.”
The Hollywood Reporter named UWM one of the 25 best film schools in 2011, saying that it’s graduate students shot nearly 100 episodes of CSI.Film Department Chair and Associate Professor Rob Yeo agrees with Variety’s statement, saying it’s the program’s mantra. Now the program is expanding with record enrollment, new classes, and a proposed Bachelor of Fine Arts in animation.
The film program was established in the 1970s when the second dean of the Peck School of the Arts, Robert Corrigan, came from the California Institute of the Arts to UWM to create the program after helping to establish film as a discipline at CalArts. He then hired Richard Blau in 1976 as the first professor and associate dean who then expedited the beginning of the film department. The Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film was then established in 1978. The graduate program was then established in the 1980s by Professor Cecelia Condit who is the director of the program to this day.
Today the program has between 350 and 400 majors. Yeo said that this year they’re looking at an increase of 25 percent in freshmen enrollment over last year.
Yeo got to know Rob Danielson at the program through a common friend while in the graduate program at the Art Institute of Chicago. Yeo visited UWM in August of 1978 before being hired that fall. He was attracted to the mission of the department as it wasn’t like any other mission like it. “There was a real sense of purpose to work as individual artists with the film medium,” he said.
Yeo now serves as the chair of the department, which involves interacting with and representing faculty and students, meeting with administration, and middle management. He’s also the instructor for Film 220: 16mm Filmmaking II. He said that it’s a hard job but it’s very rewarding.
“I get to see the university from all perspectives, from chancellor all the way down to students and parents,” he said. “It gives me the chance to learn from each of those levels.”
Yeo said that they knew that the program wasn’t going to have the resources to compete with industry-based schools that support a lot of specialization, so they decided to train people to become the “swiss army knives of the industry.” They teach a more general and practical approach to filmmaking with some specialization for those looking for it. Grad students can walk into any program and be placed into any number of responsibilities because they know the whole process.
The theoretical portion of the curriculum is a big component even though it’ not the primary focus. Yeo said that work needs to be informed by intelligence and creativity, which is why a historical component is incorporated into almost all classes.
“We’re not just training people to push buttons,” he said. “We’re teaching them how to think and develop a creative voice.”
What Yeo likes most about the program is the people and energy that’s brought to it. The works of the students continue to amaze him. He is especially impressed with students who not only arrive to the program with experience in filmmaking already but who pursue projects outside of the program, such as through student organizations like the UWM Production Club.
Students are also very satisfied with the program. The program conducts polls of students and the vast majority of them are very positive.
But there are a few students who are dissatisfied with the program. Two of which who wish to remain anonymous (let’s call them Johnny and Sandra), left the film program after one semester. While Johnny agrees with Variety’s statement about the program and loved some of the teachers there, he felt that he wasn’t allowed to express himself creatively as much as he could. He found that the way assignments were assessed was too subjective and that instructors favored works according to their own rules and preferences. Sandra agreed saying that there was an outline that you weren’t allowed to go out of. They both heard similar complaints from other students in the program they are close friends with.
Johnny had one instructor who really liked footage of nature, and so the people who put nature shots in their films got nice feedback. Johnny doesn’t know if grades were impacted but he definitely saw that the instructor wasn’t as interested in other works that didn’t feature nature shots.
Yeo responded to the statement by saying that each class has its own criteria for grading and a certain amount of subjectivity is applied to the grading matrix. He understands that film isn’t for everyone.
“Film is a difficult discipline,” he said. “It’s not as hard-edged as many disciplines are but art in general is a creative endeavor and in creativity comes subjectivity.”
Johnny and Sandra left not only because they were dissatisfied with the program but because they felt that filmmaking was more of a hobby for them than a career, and they enjoy the freedom of making their own films. They especially love the preservation aspect of filmmaking so they can look back at fun times with their families and friends even after they departed. Johnny recommended that students stick with the program is they really enjoy it and if they dream of becoming a big director one day, but he also encouraged them to explore things outside of the curriculum and make their own judgements.
Yeo understands what it’s like to find a discipline that’s a better fit for you than what you originally pursued. He actually started out as a psychology major and was exposed to film while assisting a professor with experiments on perceptual after-effects. He then grew an interest in photography and his instructor encouraged him to pick up a film camera. He felt that he had the perfect combination of interests and decided to go on to grad school from there.
“I knew from when I had my first roll of film that this was something I wanted to pursue,” he said.
Students are able to give evaluations as deeply as they like and each one is considered very carefully at the end of the semester. Students also have the opportunity to meet with advisors, other students, and him. The Black and Gold Committee also invites students to discuss the various needs of the program. They also have a standing curriculum committee as well as general meetings to consider the curriculum overall.
One of the changes coming to the program is the proposed BFA in animation. They always had animation classes from day one but they have been expanding over the last 10 years. Milwaukee Area Technical College has a two year program in animation, so UWM is working with them to have students pursue an extra two years at UWM for a four-year degree. The program also works for students who start at UWM. The proposal is going to be considered by the UW System Board of Regents this June and the major will hopefully start the following fall.
They also noticed that more and more students come into the program with a desire to produce narrative-style productions but without a sound basis of narrative and story development. That’s why they created Film 231: Concept Development for Film Practice last year and made it a required foundation course this year so that students have a much better understanding of storytelling. He looks forward to the seeing the impact of the class this December during portfolio review.
Yeo has also heard that students would like better equipment, as indicated by suggestions from the annual survey. While the budget cuts and constant obsolescence of cameras and computers makes it hard to replace things, they are investing in some new equipment. This includes motion stabilizer systems for cameras and digital tablets for animation, which were requested by students.
Yeo is glad that they are able to respond to the needs of both students and the industry.
“The program is at an exciting stage and we look forward to many good things to come,” he said.
Students interested in enrolling can apply through the program’s website.