“Teaching isn’t about grades, it’s about knowledge.”
Exclusive interview conducted by Jody Michelle Solis
Upon returning from the 2016 UFVA Conference (University Film and Video) in Las Vegas, StudentFilmmakers Magazine talks with New York and New Jersey-based Director of Photography and Lighting Designer David Landau, who speaks with us after working all day on the set of “Project Runway Juniors.”
Following 30 plus years of professional lighting experience in film and video, Landau started teaching lighting and cinematography at Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) and travels nationwide giving lighting seminars. A five-time Telly Award winner for lighting and cinematography, as well as a member of IATSE local 52 and the University Film and Video Association, David continues to work in the lighting industry, shooting indie features and corporate videos, designing lights for theater, and working as one of the gaffers on the TV series, “Project Runway All Stars.”
How do you feel about receiving the 2016 Teaching Award from the UFVA?
David Landau: This was a great honor, as it is awarded by my peers in an international organization of film and video teachers. I have learned so much from being a member of UFVA, and I can say it really made me the teacher I am today. The members are extremely generous in sharing what they have done and how they have done it as well as encouraging and supporting each other in all efforts not only in teaching, but in growing as an artist and a professional.
What is your approach and philosophy to teaching?
David Landau: My approach and philosophy to teaching any course is to motivate and inspire my students, encouraging them to stretch their own learning goals. I engage students with real world assignments and hands-on challenges and try to make the learning process a fun adventure. Because of my professional background and experience, I am able to bring in concrete examples of films and videos that I have worked on, using them as examples to be analyzed. I also believe that students respond and retain lesson plan goals best with hands-on activities. It is important for students to read and understand the information from the assigned text, but the learning experience is even more effective when combined with practical in class work and supporting outside assignments. This, accented with group critiques and discussion, helps to foster a more pro-active learning environment that involves and excites students.
Can you share with us some of your unique teaching methods that you’ve used in your classroom?
David Landau: Some of my unique pedagogy includes giving a final exam in cinematography class which is a camera framing scavenger hunt (along with a final paper on a noted cinematographer and their work). Students each get a camera and have the two-hour in-class time to go around the building and studio and complete a list of 20 shots, such as frame-within-a-frame, OTS, counter dolly shot, closed frame, Dutch tilt, closed frame, a shot that conveys loneliness, etc. Senior and alumni cinematography majors have always volunteered to help administer the test, critiquing their underclassmen’s shots as they rush back and show their shots then venture off again to do more. I almost always manage to get free Cooke Lens T-Shirts for the first five to complete the list successfully. Students have all told me this was the most fun and most educational final exam they have ever taken.
Another unique approach I take to teaching is evident in my Screenwriting II class. I give a mid-term which is a list of 15 short essay questions about the mistakes in screenwriting evident in the movie, “Jewel of the Nile.” I show segments, pause the film and the students have ten minutes to critique the segment against the elements of screenwriting they have been learning in class. Often students can learn just as much from watching examples of mistakes as they can from watching examples of success. On the third meeting of my Film Noir class, I divided the students into four teams, giving each a bell. Then we played a film noir game show where I would read a question and they would compete to be the first to answer it correctly. This was an involving method of reviewing the covered material so far in class.
What qualities characterize outstanding teachers?
David Landau: I think first and foremost it is someone who respects their students, while challenging and inspiring them. Respect is a two-way street, we’ve all heard that before, but it’s true. If I want my students to respect me, I need to respect them, and part of that is accepting the best they can do. Sometimes there might be a moment when tough love is needed, but by and large it is letting them know it’s ok to fail, so long as they push themselves. I always allow them a second chance. Teaching isn’t about grades, it’s about knowledge.
What do you see as current trends, both positive and negative, in education in general and filmmaking education in particular?
David Landau: A positive trend I see is having students work more in real world production categories as they create projects with larger teams. Film is a cooperative medium. The credit “filmmaker” doesn’t exist. A jack of all trades is a master of none. Certainly the more one knows the better they will be at their chosen area of specialty. But making art for the sake of the artist really isn’t art at all. Art needs to have a viewer to communicate to.
Another positive I see is more and more programs reaching out to media producers in their area, from local TV stations to corporate video producers. I feel it is very important for students to stay connected to the real world of film/video. Because of my work in the industry I am able to accomplish this by bringing in professional guest speakers, camera and lighting manufactures and vendors. I have seen other programs doing that as well.
A big negative I have seen is the misuse of the DSLR camera. While it is a great tool for experimenting and learning, it really doesn’t teach students professional filmmaking procedures or techniques. Many students get great images solely by accident. That isn’t something to be celebrated. They should create, not just capture, good images. It seems that some programs, in a rush to be able to offer classes and even major, have for one reason or another actually turned away from the professional equipment that is common in film, internet, TV, commercial and corporate video production. At the same time other programs may devote too much importance to the technology. Technology is only a tool to the storytelling process and must be looked at through the lens of craftsmanship to connect with an audience. Students need more than information and training, they need inspiration and encouragement in order to achieve their goals – and thus for us teachers to achieve our goals as well.
Can you share with us a few words about your experience at the UFVA Conference this year in Nevada? What did you find most important or informative?
David Landau: It was hot – 105 degrees! But I did have a good time hobnobbing with my fellow wizards (a reference to The Wizard of Oz for those who didn’t get it). There are always good panels and great workshops to attend and good company to share. I found very informative a panel about BFAs and MFA programs, are they right for you? Studies found that there is no career success different between graduates with a BA, BFA or even an MFA in the actual work force – and no salary difference either. Studies have all shown that no one in this industry really cares what degree a student earned. They care about their work ethics, their reliability, their dedication and their resourcefulness. They like people that can apply their knowledge but are always open and eager to learn more. I think that’s an important thing for everyone, especially students and their parents to be aware of.
If you can share a piece of advice for student filmmakers around the world, what would it be?
David Landau: Knowledge is great, but it is what you do with it that counts. Filmmaking is about cooperation, collaboration and concession. It is about the delegation of responsibilities and trusting others to do their best. It is about recognizing, accepting and encouraging ideas from others, and giving credit where credit is due. Film/Video/Internet content is a working community where people are respectful, polite and helpful to each other. If you make a great film, but anger and alienate everyone around you – it wasn’t worth it. Eventually, no one will want to work with you anymore. It never hurts to be nice and it makes life so much more interesting.