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When it comes to getting into a top film MFA like NYU Tisch, not all materials are created equal.  What can you do to make your application stand out?

NYU Tisch is a top five film school in America, producing graduates like James Franco, Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone, along with many recent independent and studio filmmakers.   So what does it take to join their hallowed ranks?  Well, first, you have to get into the school -- no mean feat, as top film schools have become more selective every year, with Tisch's hovering at around 15 percent.

The most important component of your application is going to be your creative portfolio.  Simply put, if it's great, you're in.  Here are the required elements for the 2014-2015 Tisch MFA in filmmaking.

  1. Visual Submission: a sample or samples of your work presented visually. Material done in collaboration with other artists is acceptable provided you were the major creative force (i.e., director, producer, writer, camera operator or editor) and you explain in detail the exact nature of your contribution. Choose ONE of the following formats (i.e., do not combine video and photography):

    Video: The submission can contain one or more selections as long as the total running time does not exceed 30 minutes.  Video footage of staged plays or theatre performances are not acceptable. Please be clear about your specific contributions to the video sample. You may upload up to ten minutes of video on to the media page within Slideroom. If the total running time of your video sample exceeds ten minutes,  a link to your work must be provided on the media page. Please test your video prior to submission.  If you are submitting a link, please be sure no downloads or passwords are required.

    Or


    Photography
    (Stills): no more than 10 prints on any subject, black and white or color, with or without commentary. The photographs may also be a presentation of work in other media, such as painting, illustration, sculpture, set design, costume design, etc. (Still images and scans uploaded to tischfilmandtv.slideroom.com should be a minimum of 72 dpi).
You see that phrase, "major creative force"?  That should be your mantra here -- love it, live by it.  This material is being used to assess your abilities, not whether you were peripherally connected to something famous or interesting.  Don't waste this submission on attempts at name dropping or self promotion!

Another important warning here -- ONLY SUBMIT YOUR ABSOLUTE STRONGEST WORK.  This might sound obvious, but you'd be amazed how often people are seduced into thinking more is better. It's not.  Less is better.  You can make a remarkable short film in five minutes or less.  Many people have.  Heck, you can make a great short film in 30 seconds -- just watch the super bowl ads if you don't believe me!  Show your ability to tell a story with pictures, and take advantage of your time limitations.  Embrace them rather than struggling against them.

 Don't get too bogged down in technical details like production value.  If your sample looks amazing or stars that kid from that show, hey, that's nice, but its ultimately beside the point.  Tisch wants to see that you have the raw materials and capabilities to be a storyteller, so that they can then mold you into their KIND of storyteller.  Particuarly a visual storyteller, someone who knows how an image can send a message.

2.  A story synopsis for a four-minute silent film. Only exterior settings should be used, without description of camera angles. There should be a visual story line and characters, but no voice-over, dialogue, or music.  No more than three double spaced pages describing only what we can see designed to play as a four-minute movie.

One important principle in screenwriting is the ability to limit one's writing to what one can see and hear, present tense.  That skill is what is being tested by this prompt.  Simple pictorial storytelling.

You could almost think about this as a picture book project -- give yourself a short, limited story to tell, and don't push yourself to be new or original, just focus on being clear, direct and specific.  Originality grows out of limitation and specificity.

Listen up, post-MTV generation -- this is not, or at least should not be, an exercise in fast cutting and showmanship.  No one cares that you know what a dolly shot is, and there should not be any camera angles.  Instead, your sentences should correspond to shots, and your paragraphs to scenes.  Think of something evolving step by step.  Include detail.  Slow the pace.

3.  A dialogue scene between two people. Write an interesting conversation that reveals something about the two characters.  You can give a one sentence description of each character, but please only essential details.  No back story. A maximum of two pages, in screenwriting format.

There is a principle in dramatic writing known as a 'fulcrum' -- the idea that every scene is a miniature conflict, and that it resolves (in one way or another) at the fulcrum, or climax of the scene.  It's imperative that the scene COULD have gone either way, but it WOUND UP going XYZ direction.

Whether or not you agree with the idea that every scene functions in this manner, for THIS assignment and this scene, you should write in this manner.  It will give you a framework, an objective to reach, and quickly -- don't waste time with introductions and setting the stage.  Get to the meat!

4.   Describe one concept for a feature-length script, narrative, or documentary that you would like to develop. No more than one page, typed, double-spaced.

Concepts, or treatments, should be written in present tense format, just like screenplays.  They should be limited to what we see and hear.  

The other distinctive and important aspect of writing concepts is that they must be segmented, IE broken down into acts and sequences.  This not only helps your reader to understand the order of events, it also helps YOU to understand them.

Another challenge of concepts is deciding what to include and what to leave out.  The most important things to include are key characters, including descriptions, and important locations and plot transitions, which typically grow out of characters.

A personal statement.

 The personal statement is easy to overlook -- after exhausting yourself trying to come up with amazing creative samples, who has the energy to devote to explaining one's personal background and motivations?  You do, that's who.  You do.  

The thing that you are forgetting is that YOU are a character.  YOU have an important story to tell, and it's yours, the path you took to arrive at NYU's door.  There should be twists and turns, surprising revelations.  Exciting and dramatic insights.  And of course, there should be strong and plausible reasons why this, of all things, is what you have chosen to dedicate your life to.

 You might be thinking, yeah, but my life is really not that exciting of a story to tell.  I beg to differ.  You just have to learn to look at it like a screenwriter does.  Start pulling out the little conflicts and conversations inherent to each life and teasing them into longer pieces.  You'll have yourself a rich story in no time.

And that's about it!  If you have more questions, of course, you can always ask me -- happy submitting!