Teaching the History of Film Craft (pt. 1)

Part 1 introductory postPart 2 scholarly books Part 3 video resourcesPart 4 student research projectsPart 5 the theory of craftPart 6 limitationsPart 7 Syllabi

This blog has lain fallow as I've put more time and focus into my documentary blogging. But I do plan to keep posting conference updates and calls for papers and to post on broader disciplinary issues.

One topic I've been meaning to write on is my experience teaching on the history of film craft. I've been teaching a series of upper-level undergraduate courses along these lines: History of Cinematography, History of Sound Design, and History of Screenwriting.

I've been lucky enough to have students - majors who are (mostly) filmmakers and mediamakers - with a fairly deep knowledge of the medium. The courses are meant to bridge historical and theoretical scholarship with their practical concerns as makers. This is certainly not the only pedagogical approach in a production-oriented film department, but I do think it can be an effective one. I have students who are aspiring cinematographers, editors, sound workers, screenwriters, etc. but who lack a deep history of their chosen profession. I have found they really appreciate gaining this knowledge. And I've been able to get curricular space for these specialized courses as part of our junior/senior writing seminar requirement.

The topics are self-explanatory, and I think at a fundamental level it's simply worth going through the history of cinema over a semester with an eye to a particular aesthetic element, such as sound or narrative construction. Film history surveys introduce some of this but these classes allow us to go more in depth.

But I approach these classes with a more specific agenda. For me, history of craft engages with a few overlapping questions. First, except for screenwriting, it dives into the history of technology. I don't expect students to know everything about the technology, especially antiquated technologies. I'm not a deep expert myself. But it's vital to know something about film stocks, or magnetic tape developments, to appreciate the craft in question.

Second, the history of craft examines, at least as much is feasible, examines the industrial developments which foster the craft. This means studio economics (in the case of Hollywood especially) but also the sociology of how crafts function as a trade and production culture.

Third, craft asks to engage with films differently. I'll discuss more later, but obviously one reason we want to study technology and industry is to understand the art better. And I think we do with a more granular attention to craft.

This is the schematic chart I often use at the start of the semester. This threeway relationship guides the syllabus.


None of this is particularly new for those who are researching these areas. In fact, my inspiration for teaching these classes is the recent wave of scholarship in the history of sound design, cinematography, and screenwriting. I'll cover these books and articles in another post. But suffice to say for now that when I first taught the history of cinematography class, I had to cobble together scholarly sources for the syllabus. Now I would have enough for three semesters worth easily.

But my pitch for those who are not specialists in the history of craft is how rewarding these courses can be to teach, particularly in the context of a production department. Ultimately I'd like to add a History of Editing class to our offerings, and of course there are other possibilities: acting, art direction, costuming - even direction or producing. A colleague of mine has started a course on special effects.

In future posts I will continue to reflect on what these courses do and can do - and to share my experience in them. I welcome your feedback and suggestions, especially since I'm always looking for new inspiration.

The Intro Textbook: A Comparison