AUSTRALIAN FILM TELEVISION AND RADIO SCHOOL
The Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) plays an important role in ensuring that Australian stories, faces and voices continue to be heard on our radio stations and seen on our screens, and in assisting the broadcast industries to strengthen their skills base and achieve world-class standards.
In this new age of multi-platform consumption, AFTRS—like the industries it serves—faces the challenge of identifying what people want to consume and how they like to consume it. Always-on internet, digital delivery, mobile consumption, ubiquitous social media connectivity and multi-platform distribution have given audiences new ways to use media, with new consumption patterns forcing the film, television and radio industries to reinvent their business models and to seek more cost-effective and efficient ways of creating and delivering viable content to increasingly savvy and connected audiences.
AFTRS was born as the Australian Film and Television School in 1973, a key part of the Whitlam Labor government’s plans to revive the Australian film industry, which had stagnated during the 1960s. The school’s ground-breaking practical curriculum, combined with the capacity for highly motivated students to get their hands on professional equipment, brought new techniques to the practice of teaching film and television. Today, these innovative techniques can be found in many universities and colleges around Australia; however, the school is still known for having a closer understanding of the industry than most teaching institutions.
In 1973, the first classes began under the interim leadership of Storry Walton until the first director of the school, Polish film educator Jerzy Toeplitz, was hired. The first intake of students included Gillian Armstrong, Phillip Noyce and Chris Noonan. In 1975, the government created a new funding structure to support the industry and the school, which helped bring about a renaissance in the Australian film industry between 1970 and 1985, a period when close to 400 films were produced.
After years of lobbying from the radio industry, ‘radio’ was added to the school’s name in 1981 and a Radio Department was formed to develop new talent for Australia’s expanding radio industry. With strong support from individual stations and the industry’s representative body, now known as Commercial Radio Australia (CRA), students were quickly snapped up by stations wanting well-trained staff ready to hit the ground running. The Radio division of AFTRS has maintained better than a 95 per cent student employment rate since its inception.
In the 1980s, television production boomed thanks to new tax concessions, and AFTRS ramped up its television courses to help the industry satisfy the demand for new staff. During the directorships of Anne Deveson and John O’Hara, employment of television graduates increased and special training programs that were developed for Indigenous broadcasters helped the Aboriginal film, television and radio sectors come to life. In the 1990s, director Rod Bishop further expanded television training, giving the medium its own departmental status within AFTRS and introducing high-end digital production equipment to the school.
There are several reasons for the success of AFTRS. A primary element is its engagement with the industries it serves. Another is its commitment to having industry practitioners as teachers, within a supportive administrative structure. A third is its commitment to understanding and teaching new technologies to help industry keep ahead of the curve. And the fourth secret to success can be explained in marketing terms: while in many educational institutions education itself is the product, in an industry-facing institution like AFTRS, the ‘manufacturing process’ is education, the ‘product’ in marketing terms is the students and the ‘customers’ are the radio, television, film and now digital media industries.
The most important graduates from AFTRS are not just those who make award-winning films, television and radio programs; they are the people who have changed their industries in a way that builds a better, more sustainable, culturally rich future. Successful graduate employment is a key factor in the fortunes of the school. Student numbers generally have been kept low, and difficult selection criteria have ensured that a hot-house incubator factor is in play during a student’s tenure at AFTRS. While career paths in radio and television are relatively stable, the nature of film production is itinerant, short term and project based, sometimes making it difficult for newcomers to find employment easily.
The age of media convergence changed all that. Towards the end of the 1990s, when the methods of content creation were transformed by computer file-based production technology, AFTRS was part of efforts to change filmmaking practices through a series of initiatives that got the industry exploring new production models. During that time, under the directorship of Malcolm Long, the AFTRS curriculum was also reorganised to supply more multi-skilled practitioners to the converged workplace. For a school with so many award-winning ex-students, it was particularly gratifying at that time to see awards won that reflected the new teaching priorities. Andrew Lesnie’s Academy Award for his work on the ground-breaking digital effects movie The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and Sejong Park’s numerous awards for Birthday Boy (2004) are just two examples of that success.
Sydney-based, the school has moved premises three times: from the back-blocks of North Ryde to purpose-built studios on the grounds of Macquarie University in 1988, then to a new ‘digital’ building at Fox Studios, Moore Park in 2007, enabling the school to continue to innovate in new courses, technology and teaching methods more suited to the multi-platform converged media environment of today.
So what of the future? Should games be included in the storytelling craft being taught at AFTRS? Do the pictures on digital radio now mean radio broadcasters also need cinematography and graphic design skills? Should television producers be taught how to construct mobile phone apps? These are some of the many complex questions with which AFTRS must now grapple so that it can continue to have a positive influence on media education and Australian cultural life into the future.
REFs: A. Urban (ed.), Edge of the Known World (1998); http://www.aftrs.edu.au.