The Chairman and The Maestro walk into a bar…

“There are a million ways a girl can walk into a bar,” Ben Ferris once told my Advanced Thesis class. “But how does your girl walk into your bar?”
To me, this was a pretty clear intimation that the how is just as important -­‐ if not more so – than the what.
There are a million ways to grow a film school. Upon learning how the founding members of Sydney Film School originally planned to grow theirs, the first question one may have asked is; “are you insane?”

I sat down with the SFS Maestro (or more formally; Ben Ferris: SFS Artistic Director – though I prefer Maestro) himself, and separately, SFS Chairman, Mark Allen to discuss how their girl walks into their bar.

Nine years ago, it was a disagreement with the Sydney University union over the how, which led to what one may euphemistically call a “parting of the ways”. Irreconcilable differences arose around how the Diploma course (then a Certificate IV) was structured, and the type of student the production-­‐based model attracted.

This forced SFS out into the world alone to establish itself as a stand-­‐alone institution. The Maestro highlights this as the first of many key moments for the school

Sydney Film School is always “in production”; thesis films, documentaries, major dramas and even the occasional animation. It strikes me as counter-­‐intuitive that one would enter a never-­‐ending production, though I suppose it helps that the output of films at the end of each semester is immense.

It is this “acclimatize or die” scenario that – rather than being the actualization of the flight of lunacy to which I previously alluded – is conducive to making mistakes and learning from them.

When I imagine the future of SFS, invariably I am ensconced by some starry-­‐eyed vision of some film school utopia, where artists run free from the banal realities of everyday life and all that exists is artistic discipline and self-­‐betterment. Unfortunately, as I’ve learned, it takes a lot of work to achieve such aims, as well as a hell of a lot of “existing in the real world”.

An artists impression of Sydney Film School in the future

An artist’s impression of Sydney Film school in the future

I wanted to know what the Chairman and the Maestro had in mind as the “ultimate vision” of the school, and there was very little disparity in the non-­‐ committal responses from both of them (although this is certainly a symptom of asking an impossibly broad question, I would have preferred the answer “world domination”). What it comes down to, according to both, is the school’s core values – articulated succinctly by the SFS motto: “Courage, Curiosity, Compassion”.

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 3.57.33 PM Screen Shot 2013-11-11 at 4.33.25 PM
The SFS logo was designed by Ben Ferris’ sister, Willea using 3d animation software, Maya.

The whole purpose of the school, according to the Maestro, is to instill those values in the students. In order to do that, those values must, in turn, be innate to you.

The Chairman echoed this sentiment; adding that there has been no dilution of those values in the years he has been involved with the school.
“It’s about valuing the students as people, and instilling an ethos of educating people,” he says. “Unlike certain other schools, we don’t see students as economic units.”

The success of the school, according to Maestro, will ultimately be judged by the quality of the films it produces and the success of its graduates. He points to the recent introduction of the Advanced Diploma and the marked increase in production values it has already brought to the Sydney Film School Festival as a sign of progress.

Whilst both the Chairman and the Maestro admit to moments of satisfaction, both agree that there is always more to be done, and too few hours in the day to do them. Nine years ago, SFS went “into production”, nine years later, all that’s changed is the size of the cast and crew; and they’re still shooting. They must be insane.

T O M   E A R L S

Tom Earls is a graduate of the Advanced Diploma and Diploma at Sydney Film School

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