Upskilling in Isolation: Making Use of the Time

Masterclasses, podcasts, free micro-skilling sessions and a bunch of AFTRS short courses online. Here are some ways to continue learning inside your bubble.

It’s tempting to stay glued to social media right now, watching the pandemic unfold. As jobs in the screen industry collapse, you’d be forgiven for sinking into despair. Alternatively, you could channel some of that anxiety and enforced time indoors into learning new skills.

All organisations and groups are rushing to reach out with online content at the moment. They’ll be a mixed bag, and over the coming weeks we’ll try to highlight the best of them.

For a good start  Sundance Collab have just opened their live Member Q&As and 3-hour monthly masterclasses, making them free to help support artists. You’ll need to subscribe to their newsletter. They’ve always offered terrific free resources, so from their archive you could be learning the basics of Crafting a Web Series, Comedy Writing for Features, or Creating the Soundscape for your Film. Filmmaker and actor Victoria Thaine, who alerted us to all of this, personally recommends the one on Episodic Writing for TV with Glenn Mazzara (The Walking Dead).

In podcasts, there’s always the Screen Australia Podcast to catch up with. Useful episodes include Finance Plans Explained, Distribution 101, and Plotting and Writing 30 Episodes of TV with Romina Accurso and Hannah Carroll Chapman, screenwriters on the second series of the ABC’s The Heights. Screen Australia are continuing to process funding applications as usual, so keep applying in preparation for the future, hopefully very soon, when we all emerge from our bubbles.

Don’t Panic. Micro-skill!

The urge to help and do something, anything, was part of the thinking from Media Mentors’ Esther Coleman-Hawkins and Denise Erikson, when they came up with the idea for ‘Running Free’, a series of free online workshops to help people in the screen industry pick up some new micro-skills.

What exactly are micro-skills? Everything from basic lighting for beginners, interviewing techniques and documentary storytelling, to finding work as a freelancer and repurposing your archive.  

‘I spent a whole day while my daughter was at daycare just scrolling through disaster stories and looking at the appalling statistics,’ says Coleman Hawkins on the phone to Screenhub. ‘It’s way too much information for the human brain to cope with. I started to become completely pessimistic about future of the human race, and of course on a smaller level it’s devastating for artists and production crew. I don’t know how they’re going to survive.’ 

She woke up the next morning determined to avoid the horrifying rabbit hole. ‘That was when Denise and I thought, “right, what can we do? What skills have we got to actively help people in our community?”‘

Based in Melbourne’s ACMI X shared working space, Media Mentors is a coaching, career development and training company that started at in 2018. It’s run by Coleman-Hawkins, who has a history in production, and Eriksen, whose former roles include Head of Factual at the ABC and Head of Production and Development at SBS. They work with both individuals and organisations, and their most recent initiative was the Make it Monthly networking industry events run with AFTRS and ACMI. Such live events are not going to be possible for a while with the Coronavirus crisis, so April’s event will be run as a trial online. 

In the meantime, there’ll be the ‘Running Free’ online micro-skills workshops, starting from Friday 27 March. Each of the ten sessions will consist of a prerecorded Q&A, made with technical assistance from ACMI, which is then uploaded to ACMI’s Youtube channel at 10am each Wednesday & Friday, and afterwards for an hour, Coleman-Hawkins, Eriksen and the expert involved will be available on social media for chat and feedback. 

Since she floated the vague idea on Tuesday, Coleman-Hawkins has been overwhelmed with more than 300 expressions of interest. All are welcome to sign up.

AFTRS: a long history online

On the more formal end of training options to consider at home, there’s the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS). For now, all public events have been suspended and graduations have been postponed. On the day of writing this article (Thursday 19 March), the entire AFTRS school buildings were closed with staff working remotely to trial delivery of all courses online in the wake of Coronavirus isolation measures.

‘Everyone’s trying to be very nimble at the moment,’ said Wendy Gray on the phone to us yesterday. She’s AFTRS’ Head of Industry Program, which encompasses short courses and industry certificate programs. ‘Fortunately we already have quite a number of online courses that are well established, because we’ve always tried to make training available to people all around Australia and in regional areas. We’re using this time as an opportunity to tweak it as quickly as we can to offer quality online.’

The Sydney-based school has been delivering online teaching for about ten years, especially in its short courses but also in components of its industry certificates and to a lesser extent, the higher education and postgraduate degrees.

Right now, Gray says she’s looking at all the short courses that would have been delivered in the classroom and working out ‘how to convert them to something we can offer online and make it a good experience.’ She says that a number of the industry certificates have already been offered as ‘mixed delivery’ with online and classroom components combined, but for example, one of the new ones, the Script Assessment Industry Certificate was originally going to be 90 per cent online, and now it will be 100 per cent online. ‘We’ve been moving into this space for quite a while, so the good thing is that we already have the technology. But we do need to assess what courses will work in that environment and which ones won’t.’

Gray says that anything that involves groups working together, or hands on use of equipment is more challenging, ‘but having said that you can deliver training for anything online these days – even very serious things like medical consultations. It’s just a matter of how to do it effectively.’ In the eight years since she started at AFTRS, online education has become much more live and interactive, and less static and synchronous. In terms of limits, theoretically you could have a class of 100, but it all depends on the level of interactivity and the amount of feedback the tutor is giving to the students, so for example, our writing classes are capped at 20.’

For writers, podcasters and directors

Perhaps more than any other profession, it’s writers who know how to use solitude and isolation productively. And its the online short writing courses that Gray says continue to be most popular, including the ten-week Screenwriting for Film with Anne Brooksbank, and Writing a TV Series with Susan Bower. Other options that will might be especially useful at this time of social distancing are Radio Fundamentals and Podcasting Fundamentals

For directors looking to develop skills, Gray’s keen to highlight a new offering, The Director’s Journey with Elissa Down (The Black Balloon), who is working in LA and Canada. ‘She’s very involved in the industry over there and a gorgeous person and a great teacher with good career advice too. This course will involve a weekly teleconference with Elissa and online coursework during the week.’

These are challenging times indeed. As Gray says, ‘Everything depends on how good our internet connections are.’

Fingers crossed, and stay tuned for many more articles on upskilling at home.

In the meantime, you could read author Louisa Deasey’s very practical piece that applies to anyone in the creative industries: 7 Simple Steps to Move Your Work Online.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram