Ella van den Hove about teaching cinematography

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As the first conference of IMAGO’s education committee took place this month, we thought it would be interesting to ask a few question to Ella van den Hove, SBC member, DOP, teacher at INSAS and the HELB and member of IMAGO’s education committee.


Could you tell us more about your career as a teacher and director of photography ?

EvdH : I went to the INSAS 33 years ago (time flies by!). When I got out of school, I did the common career as an AC, and then as a camera operator, mostly on french shows and today I am a DP, mostly working on documentaries. Besides that, I teach at the HELB (former INRACI) and at the INSAS. I manage to do one documentary a year on average. I just finished the teaser of a series for which I actually worked with some of my former students from the HELB, it was really fun!

I do really like to teach of course but I have to be honest, you usually start teaching because you work less. For ten years I worked for the HELB with a SMART contract.

Then, as the time went by, I initiated an exercise and took more responsibility. At that time, I decided to switch to a real contract but to get it, I had to take some pedagogy classes and to validate my CAPAES.

I couldn’t imagine to be only a teacher, because if you don’t work in the field, what can you teach ? And in the same time, the balance is fragile, the HELB wants fewer teachers, but they want them to stay for a long time. I have one of the lightest schedules there but it is already huge. And then you have to add the exercises that I teach at the INSAS.

How long have you been working for the INSAS ?

EvdH : It’s been six years. Their way to organise the teachers’ schedule is way different for the HELB’s. The teachers come for a short but really intense period of time and the rest of the year, they just get busy with their other jobs. In the meanwhile, at the HELB, we are fewer teachers but we are more solicited throughout the year, and the you add all the paperwork such as checking that the students are up to date with their assignments and reading the final dissertations, etc. And it requires a lot of time to go and see what’s going on on the different shootings.

And how do you manage to shoot documentaries besides teaching ?

EvdH: Well, it depends on the project, one of the last documentary I shot was about an old woman who kind of hosted a refugee family. We shot it for two months, two or three times a week and for really short periods of time (2 or 3 hours) because the woman was old and got tired pretty quick. It didn’t interfere with my work at school and also matched with the director’s wish, because it wasn’t easy for someone who has the pay their bills to be available for such a long time. I like to think that I was the good person for that project. I also did a documentary about the Genocide in Rwanda. We shot that one during the summer vacations. We did it with nothing, just a small photo camera but it was such a nice experience!

Can you tell me more about the IMAGO conference ?

EvdH : The conference was organized by the education committee of IMAGO. I like to say that the fathers of this committee are the belgians of the SBC, and more specifically Marijke (Vankets) and myself. Marijke is kind of my flemish alter-ego at the SBC: we both got out of our own school at the same time, we did our first feature film together, we are both women, directors of photography, belgian, members of the SBC, teachers (she teaches in Singapore where she lives and a little bit at the RITCS). We used to be in the tech committee but we realized that we both talked more about education than pure technique. She had done a thesis on the use of the lenses and she wanted to share it with the belgian students, so we organized a meeting with all the belgian schools, through the other members of the SBC who are also involved in the different cinema schools of Belgium. We did that at the HELB but in the end, very few students from there came, as they were busy on a shooting. We had a lot of students from Sint-Lukas and from the NARAFI though. The public was kind of unbalanced but it was great.

Mark de Backer came to the conference as he is a teacher at the IAD, and at that time, he had the project to launch a big meeting with the European image teachers and he asked us if we wanted to help him with that. So two years ago, the IAD in collaboration with the SBC, organized the first conference on image education that wasn’t in the beginning an IMAGO conference even though they helped the project. At the meeting, Tony Costa gathered the interested DP’s and presented them his project to create the education committee of IMAGO, which he became the president of. Since then, we met two times to discuss on how we would organize the first conference, which happened this month. Besides the meetings, we did engage ourselves to share some informations, but I have to say that we do it pretty lazily.

To me, the real interest of this committee are the conferences because they allow people to meet with each other and to discuss about education and how they see the future of the DP’s job. Of course, in schools there are some practices that get established and then spread out in the professional world, and inversely.

Could you give an example ?

EvdH : The switch from film to digital is the best example. More specifically, the question of the data manager. Should the job be part of the camera crew or the editing crew. The question was asked on set, but schools also had to make a decision. This was one of the sensitive topics at the Louvain la Neuve conference. It was funny because it is a problem that every teacher had had on set before, but then had the same problem at school. In Munich, it was different, the idea was to launch new ways of reflexion on specialized technical topics such as photography in 3D, or even in video games and also some more general pedagogical topics

And what topic do you propose ?

EvdH : I suggested to my group to talk about the way to initiate the artistic collaboration between the DP and the director. I didn’t come with answers but with questions and I imagined that we would organize the debate around the different steps of production (prep, location scouting, shooting, post-production) I thought that we would end up with a recipe book full of good pedagogical recipes, but it didn’t turn out that way at all! The members of my group were all really different, age and career wise. The participants resisted and didn’t talk about their professional experience that much. There was a real reflexion about the artistic collaboration though and it led to some interesting exchange between the only student of my group and the other participants. Three keywords were highlighted: Story, Respect and Trust. At the end, during the reports in the plenary session, I let the student talk about the word : Respect. It was one of the nice moments of the conference. For the written conclusions of the conference, you will have to go to the IMAGO website where they will be posted soon!

How was the education committee of IMAGO created ?

EvdH : We are a small dozen of members around Tony Costa (AIP). Marijke Van Kets and me are representing the SBC, and the other members are from all around Europe. I’d like to say that we are 50% of women in the committee, which is not at all representative of the profession. I think it is because we are interested in the topic but also because we have more career difficulties…

And what is the goal of the conference ?

EvdH : It is hard to know how a conference served. It allowed a debate from which we can take some ideas that we will go back home with. I always use the same example of that english woman, two years ago as I was leading a debate on color correction, who said : “When I take my students in the color correction lab, I forbid them to whisper.” At the first sight, it didn’t look really relevant and it was a little too poor to be an idea that you keep at the end of a conference. But she was totally right, because behind that, if you whisper, it means that you are not sure of what you want. So the ban on whispering means the obligation to concretise their image intentions out loud. So we don’t know what will be kept at the end of a conference, but sometimes, even small details can turn out to be really useful, even in our own career.

Let’s go back to the image education in Belgium. Can you tell me what are the different possibilities for the students.

EvdH : Some schools offer a three years program and do mostly train technicians. They are the oldest cinema schools in Belgium : the HELB and the NARAFI. At the beginning, they were training the television and radio technicians. They didn’t have any wish to train artists. Of course, it changed since then and opened more to an artistic level but it stays a technical training. For example, there is no Directing class. The students who wish to, can write a script but with no guarantee to be chosen amongst the 3 or 4 selected projects. This is really different from the other schools in Belgium (INSAS, IAD, RITCS) where they train artistic collaborators. In La Cambre and Sint-Lukas, it is also different, they are complete artists and they use the image as a media, whether video or animated movie. So, for such a small country, we have tons of possibilities and schools. To me, what makes the difference between each school, is the students who go there. At the INSAS, we have a lot of French students coming with another culture(and usually, they have already studied after high school) On the other hand, at the HELB, we have more students who just got out of high school and who are from Belgium. The motivations of the students from each of these schools are different. Unfortunately, I can’t really compare the other schools because I don’t teach there but it would be an interesting comparison. A lot of the SBC members teach in the different schools and are well involved in the education so it would be a nice topic to discuss about.

The difference between the students of each school also resides in the way the are selected. None of the schools do the same : at the IAD, they accept more students than at the INSAS but they have a selection at the end of the first year. At the HELB, everyone is accepted and the orientation is taken during the first year; some fail, some quit, some chose to go in the image department 3 months before the end of the year… That is what makes the color of your school: the way you select the students. At the INSAS, we do re-question the way we run the selection every year : do we keep what has been done for decades ? Do we add any criteria ? Do we delete anything ? This is exciting!

I suppose that the State investment is different for each school.

EvdH : Education in Belgium is a real thing… When I did my training to become a teacher, I had a whole class about it! In reality, every school I quoted above is financed by the State. I believe that some private schools exist such as the ESRA but I don’t know them. The IAD, the INSAS and the INRACI are all subsidized by the french community, but with different status. For example, the IAD and the INSAS both have the same program but they don’t belong to the same network. One is in the free-network and the other one is in the official network. The INSAS, La Cambre and the Conservatories are directly organized by the french community, with no intermediate. The IAD, on the other hand, has an organizing power between the two, it is less direct and it belongs to the free confessional network. It is a catholic school, but they are all ESA (Art School). In the free network, you have confessional and non-confessional schools, the HELB is part of the second category but is not an ESA. To conclude, it is a real administrative maze and it might explain the fact that we have so many schools.

Is there a specific Belgian way of teaching image ?

EvdH : Of course not, it depends on the schools, on the students and their ambitions but I think that we learn more by practicing during the different exercises throughout the training than by the education of the teacher. Another way of learning is through the analysis, but again, it depends on the school and on the culture of the student. (There is more analysis at the INSAS than at the HELB). Then, what is tough for the teachers is to criticize the student’s work and to make them think about it, because due to their weak experience, the students will most likely be really attached to what they have done and thereby, will take offense pretty easily. A good time to make them think to what they have done is during the color correction.

Do you think that there are too many students who graduate from cinema schools every year?

EvdH : That is a good question, because it is true that in Belgium, there is not enough jobs as DP for all the one who get out of school. There are still jobs, but as grips, electricians, AC’s, … But does it necessarily mean that you want to become a DP because you graduated from the image section of a film school ? At the HELB, I have students who don’t want to do that at all, for example, I had a student who wrote his final dissertation on the slow-mo’s in the football games, he came to this school because he wanted to be a sports cameraman, and he was at the right place!

There is a big amount of French people that go back to France after they graduate, mainly from the INSAS and the IAD. It frees up space. It would be an interesting question to ask why is there such a big fascination from the french students for the Belgian film schools.

EvdH : In reality, the phenomenon does not only concern film schools. Higher education in Belgium is in general pretty attractive for the French students.

That is true, but I still feel like the French students in cinema don’t come and study here by default but for the quality of the education, like the ones in medicine for example.

EvdH : Yes, but it is not specific to Belgium and France, the same phenomenon exist for Germany and Austria. By the way, it is a tense topic when we talk we our German colleagues who organize the conference in Munich. We can feel that they are kind of reluctant about organizing a conference on how to improve the educational system. They have so many film schools and so many DP’s that a lot of them do not live well.

Well, it is understandable. Actually, the one who are teaching are the one who work less, so they teach to get some money, but by teaching, the train the next generation and these students will become concurrents.

EvdH : I think that you are right, but there is a time for everything. When I got out of school, I worked for 25 years and then, the teaching vocation came from a double report : on one hand, I didn’t want to make cuddles in front of the production companies to get a second camera operator job on a french TV show at a time french productions in Belgium were not numerous anymore and on the other hand, I had started to teach trainee on sets with a real pleasure! When I received the opportunity to work for the INSAS, I realized that I had more fun doing the remakes(some exercise where the students have to replicate a sequence from a movie) with the students. I like to use the analogy of the salmon who was born in the river, grows up and plays in the sea, and at the end of his life, goes back to the river. But it came step by step. At the beginning, I was only teaching at the INRACI when I had some dead times in my career, but as soon as I had another project, I let all the teaching down. It is the INSAS that got me completely into it, around the exercise of the remakes that really interested me. At that time, I decided that whatever the project would be, I would be busy in december. It is also important saying that at that time, the INSAS was full of new teachers, who graduated from the same school at the same time, and there was a real dynamic to renovate the education, around the question of the switch to digital for example. So I think that we have to be able to be proud of our students. plus, school teaches a lot, even for the teachers. It allows us to experiment new techniques on set and it is useful for the professional world.

By the way, it can be frustrating for the students because they sometimes feel like their teachers don’t know everything. But in the same time, I assume that it is part of the learning to realize and understand that a school isn’t there only to compensate the student’s lack or the teach them to be the perfect DP.

EvdH : Yes, a school will always be imperfect. It simply gives you the weapons. Learning image might actually consist in learning how to find the infos, how to look at the world that surrounds you and manage to do what you have to do with nothing.

For a few years on now, Masters have appeared in film schools, what do you think about it ?

EvdH : I think that not everyone has to do a master. It is not because a student doesn’t do a master that he will stop improving. Anyways, from a legal point of view, the school has to deliver a certificate, at the end of the students’ three years of bac, that guarantees the student is ready to work. What is sure is that the master is used as a safety net for the ones who are afraid of jumping in the working field because they think they are not ready to work and will not find any job, but in reality, they are more than qualified for the job! I want to say that we could rethink the way that the masters are organized though. Today, it is more like a half of the third year, we should think it as a real year of research.

But I suppose that we need more financing for that ?

EvdH : Yes! The studies got longer but nothing changed money-wise. The the precision has to be made: before the masters were created, the training was too heavy! Specifically with the new era of digital. The goal was to keep teaching film, in addition to digital, all at the best level. By learning all that in three years, the student would become crazy. But I think that we found a sense to the master because the general trend is to make the studies longer. There is still one thing that I wish the students could make but it is not the trend at all : they should be able to leave school, work for a year or so and then come back for the master, because that way, by making their own professional experiences, they could find and choose a topic for the master that really matters and interests them. Same for the specialization, I wish they could for example specialize in color correction for the master.

I speak with my own experience (I graduated from the INSAS no long ago), I see a lot of students who don’t finish their master in one year, because if they turn in their memoir the year after, they keep the student status for a little longer and it allows them to work without paying any taxes because the first years out of school can be tough, what do you think about it ?

EvdH : The problem is that they don’t contribute. Anyways, you are right, the precarious employment and the insecurity don’t help to push the students out of school. The ambiguity between work and studies is bad for the profession, whose salaries are broken by these less-expensive jobs but mostly by the fake students who manage to survive that way, but do not integrate themselves in the system.

The studies are getting longer, but when they finish, the students usually do jobs they could have learned in one month of on-the-field training.

EvdH : Yes, I feel like less people get in the film industry by chance, like if the film school was a must go to get to the jobs. Nowadays, we don’t meet people who didn’t go to film school and learned on the field anymore. When I started out, the grips and electricians were not from film schools, they came from other corporations. This might be a consequence of “the massification of higher education”.

How do you imagine the future of the image education in Belgium ?

EvdH : Today, the careers are more original and depend more on the person who does it. When I got out of school, it started out but the typical route was third AC, second AC, first AC, camera operator, DP. Now, some new jobs appeared, DIT, DATA manager etc. And also some new industries, like the TV series. Twenty years ago, the DP’s who did them would never have been members of the SBC, while today, they are a lot. The future of the school is highly related to that, we have to the fact that the students have different ambitions for their careers.

Translation : Gaston Struye