On the Creative Side: A History of Film and Media Production Courses at Yale

On the Creative Side:
A History of Film and Media Production Courses at Yale

Yale’s Film Studies Program recently went through an external review–the first such review in its twenty-five-year history.  In preparation for this occasion, the faculty authored a self-study.  John MacKay did most of the heavy lifting, and my principal contribution was to write a history of media production at Yale.  I don’t see this history as particularly controversial or confidential, so I am publishing it here.

A.   Film and Television Courses in the Drama School 1943-1970

In the spring of 1940, the Department of Drama sent a one-act play, Hospital Scene, to New York City, where it was televised over WNBT.[1]  Out of this grew Yale University’s first media-related production course: Drama113, Television Program Production, offered by Edward C. Cole.  It was initially listed under the general rubric “Play Production” in 1943-44.  Professor Cole offered the course each year until 1965-66.  In 1950-51, he added a new course: Drama123, Television Seminar, which he taught as a course in “Television Writing.”[2] Cole thus offered pioneering courses in the field and, according to Yale historian and archivist Judith Schiff, he advised NBC as it began to produce teleplays for what became known as the Golden Age of Television.[3] By 1953-54, these seminars were listed under their own heading: “Courses in Television.”  When the Department of Drama was organized as a separate professional school in 1955, little changed.  In 1955-56, the Television Seminar was taught by Cole and Edward Barry Roberts, a visiting critic who had written two teleplays for TV in the early 1950s.[4]  In 1956-57, Drama123 was renamed Playwriting for Television (no instructor was specified). Tad Mosel, who had a very substantial career as a writer in film and television taught the course in 1957-58. In 1959-60 and 1960-61, it was taught by Catherine Blankenship, who wrote the one-act comedy Murder Is Fun (1943).[5]  In 1961-62, 1962-63, 1963-64, 1964-65 and 1965-66, Drama123, was taught by Kay Arthur, who had authored several plays and TV adaptations for “Armstrong Circle Theatre,” “Matinee Theater” and “The United States Steel Hour” in the early to mid the 1950s.[6]

Cole, who had studied with the Drama department’s founding director––George Pierce Baker, was Acting Dean in 1965 and 1966.[7] A new course, Advanced Seminar in Television Writing, was added in 1965-66.  In 1966-67, with the arrival of a new dean, the Drama School offered the Yale –ABC Playwriting Program: Writing for the Camera taught by Michael Roemer and Robert Young, co-filmmakers of the renowned Nothing But a Man, which premiered at the 1964 New York Film Festival.[8]  In 1967-68, the course was taught by film and drama critic Stanley Kaufman and Murray Lerner, who had just made the Oscar-nominated documentary Festival (1967).[9] Roemer and Young returned in 1968-69 and 1969-70, after which the Drama School divested itself of courses in the film and television fields.   Although there was an undergraduate Drama major (one needed permission from the Dean of Yale College), we can only speculate as to the extent that Yale undergraduates took such courses.

B.   Filmmaking Moves to the School of Art

The dynamic for Film Studies at Yale changed quickly in the late 1960s with parallel efforts in the School of Art and Yale College.  The School of Art offered a single course in experimental filmmaking in 1967-68, taught by Robert Jergens, an Assistant Professor of Drawing. Although the School of Art failed to publish a catalog for the 1968-69 academic year, by 1969-70 Howard Weaver, Dean of the Faculty in Art, had introduced an MFA in Filmmaking, initially within the Graphic Design rubric (which also included Photography).  Professors included Murray Lerner, Jay Leyda, John Strawbridge, John Hubley, Nick Doob and Peter Rosen. By 1970-71, Roemer had left the Drama School and was also a member of the School of Art Filmmaking faculty.  Arthur Penn and George Roy Hill each taught for a semester in 1971-72.  By 1975-76, Michael Roemer was teaching the course Art 19a and b, Language of Film.

On the critical studies side, a film studies position was created and based in History of Art: it was occupied by Assistant Professor Standish Lawder, who taught Modern Art: History of the Cinema in the fall of 1967.[10]  Lawder, who received a Ph.D. from History of Art in 1967 with his dissertation Structuralism and Movement in Experimental Film and Modern Art, 1896-1925 (later published as Cubist Cinema), was then a prominent avant-garde filmmaker. His films––including Necrology (1969) and Corridor (1970)––are still important milestones in the experimental film tradition. Jay Leyda was hired in 1969 (in part to fill in while Lawder was on leave) and became the second full-time film studies professor to be hired. Leyda was both a prominent film historian and a pioneering documentary filmmaker: his city symphony film A Bronx Morning (1930) is on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

Although Lawder and Leyda worked informally with aspiring undergraduate filmmakers, Yale College students committed to filmmaking were sometimes able to take graduate courses taught out of the School of Art. Students could also take creative writing courses in the college seminar system, which allowed for students to pursue screenwriting and other interests. Although there was no official Film Studies major, undergraduates often created their own Division IV major in Film (the Division IV major allowed students to create their own major when it did not otherwise exist).  These early Film Studies majors included Bob Slattery (’73), now a psychoanalyst; Charles Musser (’73), and Warrington Hudlin (’74), producer of House Party (1990), who made Black at Yale as a scholar of the house in 1973-74. Other committed film students such as Alexis Krasilovsky (’71), who made a film as her senior project (End of the Art World, 1971) and currently teaches filmmaking at UC-Northridge, majored in History of Art with a film concentration. The situation was not always as sanguine as this might suggest.  There was no one to teach students the most basic technical skills.  Prominent directors worked with cinematographers, lighting designers and editors and did not know how to thread cameras or sync dailies.  (Some, like Peter Davis, the director of Hearts and Minds, who taught a college seminar in the fall of 1974, did not even know how to thread a Steenbeck!) Musser, in fact, was sufficient frustrated so that he left Yale after his junior year and worked in the film industry for two years before returning to write his senior essay, “Russian Formalism and Early Soviet Film Theory.”

Although Leyda had left Yale by 1973, Roemer began to offer critical studies courses in Yale College, including American Documentary Films and American Film Comedy.  His teaching thus continued to integrate interests in critical studies and filmmaking. By the 1976-77 academic year Roemer was formally offering The Language of Film as an undergraduate course taught in both the fall and spring semesters.  Although Annette Insdorf began teaching courses at Yale by 1974 and Annette Michelson also taught a Film Studies course at Yale, key faculty continued to work in both the areas of theory and practice.  This equilibrium shifted somewhat when Standish Lawder left at the end of the 1974-75 academic year and was soon replaced by Don Crafton, a Yale History of Art Ph.D., whose dissertation Emile Cohl and the Origins of the Animated Film was completed in 1977.  Crafton was a more straightforward academic.

C.  The Film Studies Program Begins with the 1985-86 Academic Year

By the 1980-81 academic year, the School of Art had abandoned its MFA in filmmaking.  Roemer’s Language of Film became an explicitly undergraduate course renamed Art 141a and b, Language of Film Workshop and in spring 1983, he began to offer Art 441b, Film Workshop (subsequently offered both semesters in 1983-84).  The Division IV major was still a popular option; and although Language of Film Workshop was generally only open to Juniors and Seniors, a few managed to take it in their Sophomore year, then repeatedly took Film Workshop and even pursued their senior project in Roemer’s class. (One student was rumored to have taken the course seven times.) This situation continued as David (“D.N.”) Rodowick was hired in 1984-85.  Rodowick was a film theorist with a Ph.D. from University of Iowa but also had made experimental films in his student days. He became the first DUS (Director of Undergraduate Studies) of the newly created Film Studies Program in 1985-86.  Although the course of study insisted that all majors take at least one filmmaking course, it also emphasized the major’s critical studies side—allowing for the making of a film as a senior project only in exceptional circumstances.  The first “exceptional circumstance” was created by Sandra Luckow (’86), who made the documentary Sharp Edges (1986) as her senior project. When she was honored with the Sudler Prize as the outstanding artist graduating in that year’s senior class, she gave credibility to the new Film Studies Program and its production component.

Production offerings for undergraduates continued to be the two Roemer courses and Art282a, Storyboard Design taught by Faith Hubley in the School of Art, as well as a variety of film-related offerings in Yale’s College Seminar system.  College seminars in screenwriting were not uncommon. When Charles Musser filled the Rodowick position in 1992-93 (after a two year hiatus in which the courses were taught by adjuncts and a one-year appointment), undergraduates remained interested in the creative side of the major.  Many were extremely upset about its shortcomings and felt that the university had failed them.  They complained vociferously––even abusively.  Musser’s only response was to sympathize with their frustration and admit that he had left the university for two years for exactly the reasons that they expressed.  Rather than encourage students to follow his own example, he vowed to develop a major that more adequately responded to their interests.  He believed their frustrations were justified and very much echoed his own disappointments as a Yale undergraduate.

Although filmmaking courses were largely based in the School of Art, Film Studies majors were much more likely to take Roemer’s and Hubley’s courses than Art majors.  The School of Art did not then view filmmaking as central to its mission, and so the Film Studies Program had to take the initiative if substantive progress was to be achieved.

D.   The Creation of Senior Workshops Inside the Film Studies Major

Although the Film Studies Program’s course of study imagined senior projects to be exceptional, they quickly became routine.  Obviously one basic problem was: how can faculty allow one student to make a film or write a screenplay and deny another.  Students who are unexceptional in their junior year often excel in their senior year, and vice versa.  Such evaluations are inevitably arbitrary in a liberal arts curriculum in which students may suddenly be inspired to become film majors at a relatively late date. Moreover, if a student had no interest in filmmaking but wished to focus on the critical studies of film, other majors could meet this demand: for instance, American Studies and Literature have had film studies concentrations. Were, as some faculty wondered, senior projects a way to avoid writing a senior essay?  In fact, many Film Studies students double majored and wrote a senior essay in their other major.  One way to address this issue was to enable students to become intensive majors, who undertake a creative project and write a senior essay. The Intensive major in Film Studies was introduced in 1997-98.

Overall, the development of three senior workshops for creative projects—in screenwriting, documentary and fiction film––was a crucial step forward in the Film Studies Program’s undergraduate curriculum; these year-long courses have become the keystone to the major for those particularly interested in the creative side of the Film Studies Program (roughly 90% of our majors).[11]

1) Screenwriting.  The lack of a screenwriting course for Film Studies students was particularly galling for many aspiring film majors. Moreover, it was a problem for the major since it generated a psychology of scarcity.  Students never knew if they were able to get into a College Seminar in screenwriting and so were in a constant state of anxiety.  Inevitably they took such courses whenever they could, not when it was best for their course of study. And if a college seminar in screenwriting conflicted with a required course for the major —there was havoc!  The DUS thus encouraged students to petition the Dean of Yale College for a screenwriting course inside the major.  The petition was successful and a screenwriting course was added for the spring of 1994, taught by Marc Lapadula who had previously taught college seminars of this type (he was chosen by Michael Roemer from several candidates who had previously taught screenwriting or playwriting at Yale).  The number of majors jumped from 6 graduating in 1993-94 to 15 in 1994-95.  Immediately the size of the major began to challenge the capacities and structures of existing courses.

As Film350b, Screenwriting was institutionalized, many more majors wanted to write screenplays as senior projects.  When this situation had arisen in the past, which was relatively rare, coursework was done inside Roemer’s Film Workshop.  But there was no room. Lapadula thus began to teach an informal workshop of seniors writing screenplays as their senior projects.  It would meet every other week throughout the academic year. By 2002-03, Lapadula was teaching the basic Screenwriting workshop fall and spring and Film487a and 488b, Advanced Screenwriting was introduced as a year-long course in which seniors wrote a feature-length screenplay and met every week. When Lapadula was hired as a full-time lecturer beginning in 2005-06, he began to teach a fifth course. In 2008-09, this became Film395b, Intermediate Screenwriting. While previously majors would take Screenwriting in their junior year and Advanced Screenwriting in their senior year, Screenwriting was now open to sophomores with Introduction to Film Studies as a prerequisite. Junior Film Studies majors would take Intermediate Screenwriting in the spring in preparation for their senior screenplay.  It is safe to say that some students become Film Studies majors specifically to take the screenwriting sequence with Lapadula.  The courses are always filled to capacity—sometimes overcapacity.  Lapadula has routinely had 14-16 students in Film350a or b, Screenwriting and has sometimes had 14 students in Advanced Screenwriting (when 8-10 would normally be considered a good-sized seminar). In 2011-12, Marc enrolled 11 Film Studies seniors in Advanced Screenwriting, turning down many requests from nonmajors (and one underprepared Film Studies major).

A limited number of screenwriting courses exist in other parts of the university.  John Crowley, who teaches creative writing in the English Department, has also taught ENGL461a, Writing for Film: Voice and Vision, a one-semester screenwriting course since 1997-98: some particularly committed Film Studies majors have taken his course as part of a concentration in screenwriting. Crowley has worked closely with the Film Studies Program and routinely functions as a second reader for screenplays that are senior projects.  The College Seminar system has also continued to offer occasional screenwriting courses such as Suzanne O’Malley’s Writing the Television Drama.

2) Documentary Filmmaking.  Documentary filmmaking was a second area that needed to be addressed.  Musser had worked on the Oscar-winning documentary Hearts and Minds for two years as the First Assistant Editor and had produced, directed and edited two award-winning documentaries, including Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter, which premiered at the 1982 New York Film Festival.  Brigitte Peucker, the chair of the Film Studies Committee, asked him to supervise a student’s senior project during his first year: a video documentary on Black Detroit. In 1994-95, as the major expanded, Musser created and supervised an informal workshop of Film Studies majors who were making documentaries as their senior projects.  In 1997-98, he formalized this arrangement by introducing a new course, Film455a and Film456b, Documentary Film Workshop, which he taught as an overload.[12]  When Musser went on his senior leave in 1998-99, renowned cinema verité filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back, 1967) took over the course.  Soon, Pennebaker shared teaching responsibilities for the course with his co-filmmaker and partner Chris Hegedus: she taught in the fall, he in the spring–-though they overlapped at crucial points.  (Hegedus had won major awards for such documentaries as Startup.com (2001) and Al Franken: God Spoke (2006). After Pennebaker and Hegedus stepped down, Laura Poitras taught the course in 2008-09. Poitras, who had been nominated for an Oscar with My Country, My Country (2007), received universally “outstanding” student course evaluations.  Nevertheless, in the face of Yale’s budgetary crisis, funding for the course was terminated, and Musser resumed teaching the course: no longer as an overload but as half of his teaching responsibilities. (As part of his efforts to meet these renewed responsibilities, Musser also returned to documentary filmmaking.)

Documentary Film Workshop enrolled 10 students in 2009-10 and 2010-11 and 12 (plus one post-doc auditor) in 2011-12.[13] In 2010-11, this included two Film Studies Ph.D. students, who had previously demonstrated their commitment to documentary studies by taking at least one graduate critical studies course in documentary. Beginning with the 2011-12 year, the course was given a graduate number in Film Studies as well as in American Studies as part of its MA in the Public Humanities.

Foundational or preparatory creative courses for Documentary Film Workshop include Art342b Intermediate Documentary Film Workshop in 2008-09 (see below), and ANTH402a Visual Anthropology and Ethnographic Film, a documentary filmmaking course taught somewhat irregularly by Karen Nakamura in Anthropology.

3) Fiction Filmmaking. The third area of expansion was in the area of fiction filmmaking.  Advanced course work in fiction filmmaking was increasingly concentrated in Roemer’s Art441a or b, Film Workshop.  One complicating factor was that Roemer began to teach only in the fall semester in 1997-98.  Sandra Luckow, who had received an MFA in Filmmaking from NYU and made the documentary feature Belly Talkers (1996), began to teach his spring courses, starting in spring 1998.[14]  This has continued until the present with two significant innovations.  By 2000, Roemer increasingly felt that students were ill prepared to make a fiction film as their senior project and was reluctant to admit these students into Art441.  When funding from Art282a became available, the Provost Office provided addition funding via the Film Studies Program to make possible Art442a and 443b/Film483a and 484b, Advanced Fiction Film Workshop. In 2002-03, this was taught by Tom Noonan, a New York-based independent filmmaker whose feature films What Happened Was (1994) and The Wife (1995) had received awards at the Sundance Film Festival.  Although Noonan taught courses regularly out of his New York City theater, the student-teacher relationship proved somewhat fraught on both sides; in 2003-04 a last-minute replacement was found in Jon Andrews, a Yale Film Studies major who had graduated in 1996.  Andrews’ senior project, the 16mm film Short Change had won a Student Academy Award as well as the Sudler Prize.  This proved more successful: a student Andrews supervised in his first year of teaching also won the Sudler Prize. Film Workshop then became Art 341a and b, Intermediate Film Workshop.  This meant that students were able to take Language of Film Workshop in their sophomore year, Intermediate Film Workshop in their junior year and Advanced Fiction Film Workshop in their senior year.  In the last few years, Fiction Film Workshop has averaged fewer students per year than the other senior workshops: typically 3-4 students.  However, in 2011-12, it has seven students (when 6 would normally be considered a full workshop).

E.   Other and More Recent Developments

When Robert Storr became Dean of the Art School in 2006, courses in film and video production found renewed support in the Art School.  In 2008-09 Intermediate Film Workshop was split into two courses. Art 341a and b became Intermediate Fiction Film Workshop, taught by Roemer in the fall and by Andrews in the spring, while Luckow began to teach 342b Intermediate Documentary Film Workshop in the spring. In addition, the School of Art has offered new courses that have helped to fill a serious hole in the Experimental/Avant-garde film and moving image tradition: since 2007-08 this has included Art145a and b, Introduction to Digital Video and in 2010-2011, Art541b, 16mm Film.

The Film Studies Program has been able to offer additional filmmaking courses through the Yale Summer Film Institute, directed by Charles Musser since 2003. Film202S, Intensive Filmmaking Workshop taught by Sandra Luckow and Film 203S, Acting in Film taught by Peggy Flood, have run for eight or nine years. Since 2010 Jon Andrews has taught FIlmS144, Yale Summer Film Institute at FAMU. Luckow and Andrews’ courses have provided many students with essential preparation for advanced filmmaking courses at Yale. FilmS208, The Business of Hollywood taught by Greg Johnson is a course on the nuts and bolts of film producing in the contemporary Hollywood industry.  Marc Lapadula also teaches FilmS350, Screenwriting.

Although the College Seminar system has been greatly reduced in the number of its offerings, it still provides occasion creative courses that are pertinent to the major.


Much of this history is drawn from Yale University bulletins published by the School of Fine Arts, School of Drama, the School of Art and Yale College.  Some courses never appear in a bulletin and it is always possible that a course listed in the bulletin did not run.

[1] Edward C. Cole, “Teaching Television Programming at Yale,” Television, Fall 1944, 34.

[2] See also Edward C. Cole Papers, Add 4/8/1980, Box 2, File 95 “Course Notes for Television Writing, 1950-51,” and Box 2, File 80, Course Notes Television113 for 1944-45.

[3] Judith Schiff to Charles Musser, 12 July 2011.

[4] Edward Barry Roberts (1901-1972) wrote Walt and Lavinia for “The Silver Theatre” in 1950 and Make Your Bed for “The Bigelow Theatre” in 1951. He had co-written the play Forsaking All Others (1934), which quickly became a movie of the same title directed by W.S. Van Dyke and starring Joan Crawford.

[5] Murder Is Fun was produced by the Drama School in 1945.  See: http://images.library.yale.edu/drama/oneitem.asp?id=267

[6] http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1497202/

[7] “Edward C. Cole, 79, A Teacher of Drama for 41 Years at Yale,” New York Times, 3 April 1984.

[8] Bulletin of Yale University, School of Drama 63:4 (15 February 1967), 42.  Nothing But a Man was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1993.

[9] Lerner later won an Oscar for his documentary Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China (1980).

[10] Yale University, Yale College Programs of Study: Fall and Spring Terms 1967-68, 179.

[11] For a variety of reasons, students interested in the creative side of the major do not end up doing a senior project (but write a senior essay instead) since senior projects are year-long undertakings and generally are done fall and spring.  A student taking an unexpected leave may not be able to take a year-long course.

[12] Courses have gone through some renumbering.  Documentary Film Workshop was thus Film455a and b and only recently became Film455a and Film456b.  With some exceptions, this document reflects current numbering practices.

[13] Musser was on leave in the spring 2010 and Ashish Chadha officially taught the course that semester.  In fact, both teachers were in the classroom throughout the school year.

[14] Email correspondence with Sandra Luckow.

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