AFI Conservatory

Frankie takes AFI Conservatory Fellows from workprint to final cut.

The American Film Institute is world-renowned for educating the next generation of moviemakers. Below, senior lecturer Matthew Friedman explains how, in the midst of a global pandemic, Frankie’s web-based video review platform has brought the entire classroom experience online, enabled students and lecturers to connect, and empowered remote educational discussions around the language of cinema.

The scene opens on a gloomy restaurant and a family meal. A boy stands on a chair; his drunken father insists he make a toast. “I’m not drinking!” shouts the boy, the camera framing his angry resentment. The edit cuts back to the father, who is now staring at the ground, reacting to the filial rebellion with an expression of humiliation and dejection.

The movie freezes.

Film editor and AFI Conservatory Senior Lecturer, Matthew Friedman, uses Frankie’s review controls to skip back several frames to the boy’s initial outburst and the subsequent edit. Rather than cut to the father’s already downcast expression, he suggests, why not cut to an edit that shows the actual breaking of eye contact?

“Have the kid say his line, then cut to the dad before he looks down,” Matthew explains, emphasizing the father character’s submissive movement with Frankie’s virtual laser pointer.

The suggested edit requires a minuscule tweak to the film’s overall rhythm, but in those meager few frames of performance resides a micro-tale of paternal shame, one that immerses the audience further into the world of the film and the father-son relationship of its protagonists.

Thesis editing workshops such as this are what makes the AFI Conservatory so respected around the world. The AFI is, both literally and figuratively, an American institution, responsible for some of the greatest filmmaking talent to have emerged over the past 50 years. When COVID-19 hit, however, the Conservatory had to find new ways to keep training and educating the next wave of moviemaking talent. It did so by adopting Frankie; a new way to maintain the connection between teacher and student when the classroom exists entirely online.

An American tradition

Established in 1967, the American Film Institute is the nation’s nonprofit organization dedicated to educating and inspiring artists and audiences through initiatives that champion the past, present and future of the moving image. It opened its doors in 1969 to an inaugural class boasting such talent as Terrence Malick, Caleb Deschanel, and Paul Schrader.

The AFI Conservatory, nestled in the hills overlooking Hollywood, is the institute’s eight-acre picturesque campus. Even today, the Conservatory is one of the most effective learning environments for aspiring filmmakers. To understand the kind of success they can achieve, you need only look at examples of AFI alumni: Andrea Arnold, Darren Aronofsky, Ari Aster, Julie Dash, Sam Esmail, Brad Falchuk, Liz Hannah, Patty Jenkins, Janusz Kamiński, Matthew Libatique, David Lynch, Melina Matsoukas, Polly Morgan, Rachel Morrison and Wally Pfister being but a few.

The AFI’s two-year MFA training program offers practical education in six key disciplines: cinematography, directing, editing, producing, production design, and screenwriting. Students work collaboratively in a fast-paced environment, just as they will in the industry. By the end of their courses, each student will have actively participated in the entire life cycle of a film, from development to production and exhibition, and collectively creating up to 175 finished movies a year.

Key to every student’s education is the art of visual storytelling. In-depth film evaluation workshops like that described above leave no stone unturned, whether discussing how subtle lighting changes dramatically affect mood, or how a frames-earlier cutaway to a father’s downcast expression can tell the viewer so much more about a scene’s characters.

“In my Thesis Editing Workshop class, I often tell my students how even seemingly tiny actions can radically affect performance,” explains Matthew. “An actor’s blink and hesitation may only comprise two or three frames, but all have meaning. These reactions can make or break an audience’s emotional reaction.”

Illustrating the importance of each tiny detail helps students build a holistic understanding of the language of cinema. When COVID-19 hit, however, Matthew and his colleagues required a new way to teach the nuances of visual storytelling without a shared screen. At that point, Frankie entered the frame.

Bringing the classroom online

When the COVID-19 pandemic sent Fellows and Faculty into lockdown, Matthew needed to update his teaching methods. So much of his classes rely on collaboratively evaluating films shot-by-shot. Translating the experience from the classroom to the computer was not a simple case of cut and paste.

“Discussing the subtleties of filmmaking is much harder in a remote learning situation,” explains Matthew. “If you post a clip on Vimeo and share it, how do you tell the class to look at a specific four-frame pause the actor takes before speaking their line of dialogue? You’re forced to wait as students find the location, which can be slow and cumbersome. When you’re talking about something as nuanced as filmmaking, if you can’t quickly reference edits, the efficiency and quality of the workshop plunge.”

AFI’s lecturers tested several potential remote learning solutions before they found Frankie. Frankie’s browser-based, synchronized video review and approval platform quickly became the staple for remotely teaching all six production disciplines at the AFI Conservatory.

“I initially tried streaming directly from the editing software to the class, but encountered many technical issues,” says Matthew. “Students on slow connections experienced streaming problems, or there was a lack of processing power to run both platforms and the streaming software at the same time. In some scenarios, I experienced audio delays upwards of seven seconds. Lag isn’t ideal when discussing the milliseconds that comprise the rhythm of a movie.”

Thankfully, Frankie overcame these issues.

With Frankie, the AFI Conservatory runs workshops not dissimilar from the in-classroom experience. Lecturers can quickly upload student work into Frankie’s web browser UI, send a link to Fellows to join the review session, and get going.

“I can move the cut to a single, specific frame, and everyone in the class will instantly see exactly which frame I’m talking about thanks to Frankie’s synchronized review,” says Matthew. “I can focus on an actor’s hesitations or non-verbal body language, and even step forward and backward frame by frame as I discuss how individual frames alter the performance. Everyone sees the same frame without lag, which is so powerful in a remote education setting.”

From the student’s perspective

Frankie’s impact on the AFI Conservatory’s remote tutorial approach is considerable, and its students have reaped the benefits.

“Frankie has enabled our remote AFI classes to function in the same way as they did when we could gather in person,” says AFI Fellow Lily Judge. “Frankie’s synced playback function allows us to watch full cuts of our thesis films in our remote classes, re-watch specific sections, and discuss them in real-time with no confusion about the point of reference.”

“Frankie has become an integral part of the tutorial process at AFI,” adds AFI editing Fellow Krishna Sanchez. “Frankie enables us to interact and give notes as if we were in the same room watching films together. The platform works without lagging or pixelation and is so easy to use!”

Matthew’s AFI Faculty colleagues have also found Frankie a useful addition to their process. Stephen Lighthill, ASC Discipline Head of Cinematography, says, “Frankie is incredible! I use it to stop-start during the shot-by-shot analysis sessions I perform with Fellows on their first-year projects. The quality in Frankie is so solid, so I can perform a much more informed remote analysis of films.”

Writer-Director Marie Jamora has also adapted her teaching approach around Frankie. “I load four films into the session before each class and make some 20 notations per film. I send the link to Fellows at the start of the lesson, giving them our first discussion topics right off the bat. During the tutorial, I use Frankie’s synchronized screen content to talk about shots, framing, performances, mise en scène, etc. At the end of the lesson, I export the PDF of the review session and email it to my students. The PDF gives them reference to everything we discussed in one place.”

Empowering education

Education is all about connection: the connection between student and teacher, between scholar and subject matter, between initial inexperience and ultimate mastery of an art form. In an age where pandemics and lockdowns threaten to sever this connection, Frankie’s real-time synchronous review platform has proven to be a critical necessity.

“Frankie has facilitated some amazing discussions about story and performance at the AFI,” Matthew concludes. “The platform is utterly intuitive, requires no real training to use, media management is a breeze, and the uploading and processing time is lightning fast.

“Altogether, Frankie allows me to teach in the way I need to teach, during a time in which it would otherwise have proven impossible.”