The bigger picture: Filmmaking education in Scotland

Knowledge in sound
Knowledge in sound
The bigger picture: Filmmaking education in Scotland

Professor Nick Higgins dissects the integral role of Scotland’s higher education in shaping the future of Scotland’s booming filmmaking industry.

A person wearing a suit and tie
Professor Nick Higgins, Director of the Creative Media Academy, University of the West of Scotland

According to Screen Scotland’s recent report on the economic value of the screen sector in Scotland, the production spend in the Scottish film industry has increased by more than 80% between 2019 and 2021, resulting in over £600 million expenditure and 7000 jobs.

This period of exceptional growth comes as a direct result of Scotland attracting several big-budget feature films (Batgirl, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny) and high-end television dramas (The Rig, Good Omens, Anansi Boys). Such expansion is inevitably accompanied by challenges, some predictable and some unintentional.

One of the most pressing challenges is the availability and supply of skilled crew to support this boom in screen production, while one of the unintentional but more enduring consequences is the challenge to the sustainability of a still emerging cultural cinema for Scotland.

In both instances, the role of Scotland’s higher education institutions and humanities scholars is key to achieving any enduring future success for Scotland’s screen industries.

In the first instance, it is Scotland’s universities that deliver the majority of the filmmaking educational provision at the undergraduate and postgraduate level, providing the film and television industry with employees across the many varied roles within the screen industries value chain.

While at times this essential educational experience can be framed solely in terms of pathways to skills acquisition, the beauty and art of filmmaking is that at its heart it involves telling stories that make sense of the world we live in and offer us insight into who we are. At its very best, cinema deploys the unique combination of images and sound to move audiences in powerful ways that other art forms cannot.

Teaching filmmaking that aspires to this highest level of cinematic art – that seeks to contribute to a cultural cinema not only in terms of economic value or skills attainment – is no straightforward task. As with its literary bedfellows, it involves an iterative and collaborative process that strives towards something almost mercurial but instantly recognisable when manifest. Recent examples of a Scottish cinema that might be considered to have achieved this level of cultural significance, although in very distinctive ways, are Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun and Ben Sharrock’s Limbo.

Tellingly, both Scottish-born filmmakers were educated in the humanities before attending Masters-level filmmaking degree programmes; Wells in the US and Sharrock in Scotland.

Currently in Scotland there are only four institutions that deliver practice-based Masters teaching at a level considered professional preparation for the film industry. Our new research report has revealed that such institutions, while successful in many respects, also face challenges to offer sufficiently specialised teaching and skills pathways for craft and post-production roles.

A further challenge for universities is the increasingly difficult recruitment landscape for domestic students, leading in many cases, to the predominance of international students on the small number of advanced filmmaking Masters’ programmes currently on offer in Scotland.

Our research suggests that when combined, the challenges posed by both the boom in film production and those faced by the universities delivering filmmaking education in Scotland create an opportunity for universities to work together under a uniquely Scottish federated model and, working with government and key stakeholders, to secure financial support from the streamers to ensure Scottish students can benefit from the best filmmaking education possible.

Professor Nick Higgins, Director of the Creative Media Academy, University of the West of Scotland; Steering Group Member, Scottish Arts and Humanities Alliance.

This article originally appeared in ReSourcE winter 2023.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

You might also like