It all began over frothy pints in a pub in Sweden, in the summer of 1998, when Bo Landin of Scandinature Films and natural history filmmaker Ronald Tobias got into a discussion about bridging the gap between scientists and the public. Says Tobias, "If anyone is responsible for launching the idea of the program, I would give credit to Bo Landin. I picked up the ball at that point and approached Discovery about six months after that." Two years later, the result is the world’s first Master of Fine Arts in Science and Natural History Filmmaking program, which is set to begin fall 2001 at Montana State University.
The Career Objective
According to Tobias, program coordinator for this new addition to the MSU Department of Media and Theatre Arts, "Science filmmaking in broadcast is growing in America. We’re getting out of this five-minute ‘gee whiz’ science and the demographics are starting to indicate that people are interested in one-hour, in-depth programs on science. But, there aren’t people qualified to make those programs. We’re hoping to produce the first generation of filmmakers who are qualified in both science and filmmaking, and can do this level of production in the future."
The program is launching with the help of two major corporate sponsors: Discovery Communications and SONY. Discovery gave the university US$1.4 million to launch the program. Tobias explains, "Discovery has given us enough operating funds for seven years. At the end of the fifth year, we will be reviewed by an external source and on successful review, Discovery will begin negotiations with us for endowing a Senior Chair." The grant came with no strings attached; MSU retains full autonomy over the new program. Discovery is, however, involved in the curriculum. Students will pitch their films for potential broadcast on one of Discovery’s affiliated networks and Discovery offers graduating students optional paid apprenticeships. But, there is no requirement or expectation that students will work for Discovery. Says Tobias, "Discovery is treating this like an academic program, not an acquisition. They’re not just giving us a check, they’re partners in the program."
SONY has also come on board as an official sponsor, donating two hd packages, to ensure that graduates learn to use the new technology. MSU has the latest cameras, including SONY’s F900 – the new 24 frame progressive video camera. Says Tobias, "I expect that because SONY is coming in as such a major partner, we will be the premiere academic video production facility in the U.S."
What will prospective students need to take advantage of this state-of-the-art facility? Besides US$10,000 per year for out-of-state tuition ($3,000 for in-state), applicants to the MFA must have a degree in science or engineering and preferably one year of research experience. But, a few of the 10 to 12 available spots per year are open to those with undergraduate degrees in film. Preference is given to women and minorities, especially Native Americans. The university also plans to recruit two African or Indian students per year.
The Job Description
The 60-credit program takes three years to complete. The first year consists of film and video production and highly individualized science courses. The program then becomes more hands-on.
The first semester of the second year is the "Real World Program," in which students are placed in either a lab or national park – probably in the U.S., but potentially in Africa or India – where they will work on a particular project. At the end of the semester, students enter the "Science Film Rotation" phase for which they propose a 10 to15-minute broadcast-quality film, first to an internal committee, then to Discovery. At Discovery’s approval, students then pitch directly to funding sources such as the National Science Foundation, nasa or the National Park Service (all of which are involved in the program) to underwrite the cost of producing the film, which students will then spend the rest of the year making. The focus is on gaining real-life experience, both in the field and in the boardroom.
The third year is spent doing a thesis film that can be shot anywhere in the world. Says Tobias, "Right now, we are making plans with several South African universities – the University of Capetown, the University of West Cape, the University of Stellenbosch – and the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania." At the end of the third year, one of Discovery’s heads of production will come to critique the film one-on-one with the student filmmaker.
MSU is in development on a second track for the MFA that will give students the option of concentrating on either broadcast or museum studies. The latter is geared toward those who want to develop educational materials, such as slide shows, cd-roms or new technology
for schools, museums or other like institutions. Tobias adds, "To the best of my knowledge, this track is also unique. There are certainly museum studies programs, but there is nobody developing the talent to do visual and educational programming in this area."
The overarching goal of the MFA is to augment public understanding of science. Says Tobias, "The whole point of the program is to bridge the gap between science and the public." He acknowledges that this ideal, shared by both MSU and the program’s sponsors, comes alongside a business objective: "Discovery will be looking to hire the best and the brightest out of the program and I would imagine that Discovery’s competitors will be as well. That’s the practical point of view. But, there is an ideal operating here too." He concludes by saying that MSU is the perfect location for the new program. "We have an unique convergence of three elements [at MSU] that makes it the ideal place for a program like this. One – we already have an established, top-10 film school; two – the film school is located in a strong science university; and three – we’re on the border of Yellowstone National Park and we’re not too far from Glacier Park."