Peter Hawley – Educating the Digital Creative Class

Peter Hawley, Dean of Tribeca Flashpoint Academy in Chicago

Peter Hawley, Dean of Tribeca Flashpoint Academy in Chicago

Should I go to film school? Like most vexing questions of our day, the answer is, “Well, it depends.” The “what” it depends on is up to the individual student, the parents, the location, the cost, and a myriad of other factors. There are people who claim that everything a student can learn in a film school can be learned through experience. There are well-known online courses that take a strong anti-brick-and-mortar-film school stance and generate their revenue by advocating this viewpoint.  Some people would rather use their potential tuition money  for cameras, lighting gear, microphones, and computers and just start filming. Others will read books about screenwriting rather than take a class. And some of these people will do very well for themselves in this chaotic media industry that is consuming and reinventing itself faster than we can watch a season of “Rectify” on Netflix. But for people who choose film school, there is a path for them that will definitely make sense in the context of the return on their investment in the form of future career opportunities. And beyond even the instruction and access to equipment, a school like Tribeca Flashpoint Academy provides structure and a main lodge for young people (and  some older ones too) to socialize while offering them the opportunity to share their knowledge, experiences, and perspectives. There they can embrace the fact that they are all members of a tribe known as the digital creative class as they get to know each other and work together in a common physical space.

Peter Hawley, Dean of Tribeca Flashpoint Academy, was starting a new semester as a teacher at a different institution about a decade ago, and he found himself asking the same question about the relevancy of film school; albeit in a different context. He was taking over for another teacher’s class when he came to a troubling realization. After polling his students, he learned that  their knowledge and capabilities with digital cameras and filmmaking techniques were beyond the information listed on the syllabus. Not long after that experience, Peter was offered the opportunity to join a team that was building a digital media school, then known as just Flashpoint Academy, in Chicago from the ground up. For Peter this was the opportunity of a lifetime. Not only was he going to be an integral contributor to the founding of a new school, but the school would focus on the digital tools and education that his students deserved. He joined the group and became the head of the film department and has been a part of the vibrant rebirth of film in Chicago ever since.

Before Peter became the head of the film department at Tribeca Flashpoint Academy and eventual dean, he was and still is a filmmaker. As you might expect from someone who intersperses teaching with an active career, Peter has developed himself over many disciplines. He has contributed to the media industry as a commercial director as well as a documentary filmmaker. In his film “What’s Two + Three?” Peter points the camera at his sister, his parents, and himself as he follows his family’s physical and emotional journey to the 2003 Special Olympics in Ireland where his sister was competing. It is a film that, despite its low-tech approach, works because of the raw honesty and truth that Peter sought out for himself and that he eventually delivered to his audience. You can watch the movie for free on YouTube.

The digital era of content is upon us. There is no way to rewind back to the days of analog except for those who have the luxury of having indulgent benefactors with unlimited budgets. Conversely, what sometimes gets lost in the sheer  accessibility and ease of use of our generation’s digital tools and the wizardry they provide, is that they cannot turn a poorly executed story or piece of commercial work into a gem. We live in a time where almost every movie ever made is accessible, legally or otherwise, at the touch of a button on a device that fits into our pockets. This content is available to over a billion people with more coming online everyday. Our brave new digital world will provide countless opportunities to the great grandsons and great granddaughters of the architects of our physical world. It is however imperative that those who wish to succeed in the next great evolution of our society learn not only the tools of their trade, but the underlying principles that will never fade. Hard work, commitment to excellence, and community have provided a foundation for success in every age when and where they were applied. People like Peter Hawley and schools like Tribeca Flashpoint Academy understand this fact and they provide the resources and guidance that the students require to reach their full potential.

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Show Notes and Links from Curious About Screenwriting – Peter Hawley

  • The lesson that Peter learned in the third grade that he still uses every day
  • How the Screen Actors Guild strike helped Peter pivot into making documentaries
  • How Peter worked with The Chase House to film his first fully-funded documentary
  • How his personal truth and storytelling ability helped Peter overcome technology limitations in his Special Olympics film “What’s Two + Three?”
  • How self-imposed parameters can help create focus and a sense of urgency
  • Peter’s “learn-on-the-fly” documentary filmmaking technique
  • Developing a sense for key moments of a documentary while filming
  • Tribeca Flashpoint Academy was one of the first digital media schools in the country
  • TFA was the first new college in Chicago in 50 years
  • Disciplines; Film, Recording Arts, Game and Interactive Media, Visual FX and Animation. More to come
  • TFA started as a two year program. Now a four year program; students can earn a Bachelors Degree
  • One upside of recessions is that many people go back to school to sharpen their skills or learn new ones
  • Great ideas + Great execution; a recipe success
  • Building a digital media school from scratch in 100 days
  • Starting equipment; Panasonic HVX 200 with only 8 GB cards, $5000 a piece
  • The necessity for the digital generation to be “multi-hyphenate”
  • Why his lack of famous film students doesn’t bother Peter
  • The lesson that Peter learned in the third grade that he still uses every day
  • How the Screen Actors Guild strike helped Peter pivot into making documentaries
  • How Peter worked with The Chase House to film his first fully-funded documentary
  • How his personal truth and storytelling ability helped Peter overcome technology limitations in his Special Olympics film “What’s Two + Three?”
  • How self-imposed parameters can help create focus and a sense of urgency
  • Peter’s “learn-on-the-fly” documentary filmmaking technique
  • Developing a sense for key moments of a documentary while filming
  • All stories are about characters
  • Why there is continued interest in both making and watching documentary films
  • How making documentary films can turn into a career in media
  • The value of an unproduced screenplay
  • Is the movie Nightcrawler a nod back to the films of the 60’s and 70’s?
  • We are living in the new golden age of television
  • Are apps the future of TV?
  • How relevant is a film school today? Where does Tribeca Flashpoint Academy fit in?
  • The marketing of your film starts the moment you have the idea
  • Why Peter makes everyone of his student launch a Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign
  • The relevance of the  launch date of the iPhone to Flashpoint Academy
  • What does it cost to go to Tribeca Flashpoint Academy and are scholarships offered?
  • Students should think of their first day of school as the first day of work
  • Students at TFA get to work with clients as part of their school work

Movies / Television Mentioned in this Episode

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