Dean Susan Ruskin Q&A: How the AFI Conservatory is Adapting to COVID-19 – American Film Institute


Dean Susan Ruskin Q&A: How the AFI Conservatory is Adapting to COVID-19

As we continue to evolve to meet this unprecedented moment prompted by the COVID-19 crisis, AFI turned to Dean Susan Ruskin to discuss how the AFI Conservatory has transitioned to online learning over the past several weeks and how Fellows, faculty and staff are adjusting.

We spoke with her about the state of the industry, assembling community resources and relief funds and how AFI alumni can help one another through this challenging time.

AFI: Can you talk about AFI’s transition to remote learning and what that looks like for Fellows?

SR: To take a curriculum that’s so based on hands-on training and to put it online in less than two weeks has definitely been a challenge – but a challenge that the discipline heads and faculty have embraced and been remarkably resilient in figuring out how to deliver the best education under the worst of circumstances.

The hardest thing for everyone ­– ­faculty, staff and Fellows – is that production is on hold until Los Angeles lifts the restrictions and the Film Office opens. It’s unclear when we will have answers to that, but we’re taking it day by day. We have a bunch of scenarios worked out on what to do once we are back open for production.

On the curriculum end, I actually think there’s going to be some surprising benefits to being on a digital learning platform, but transition is never easy.

AFI: How have the Fellows been involved in their curriculum moving to an online space?

The best part of this is that the Fellows are welcome to be a part of figuring out what the solutions are. I’ve been very impressed by the Fellows Advisory Committee’s representatives that have really stepped up to help us answer some pressing questions: How do we deal with this? What is important to us and what do we really want to carry over into this digital learning space?

Being a community and reinforcing that we are still a community, even though we’re a digital one online at the moment, is really important to continue. For instance, office hours with Faculty, that will continue. Mentoring on thesis projects even though we’re not in production, that will also continue.

AFI: With thesis production and cycle films disrupted, just like in the industry, what can AFI Alumni do to help Fellows during this time?

There is a sense of community and a sense of helping one another through this because this is a very difficult time for alumni too with all production being shut down. They are under the same pressures that our Fellows are, so sharing tips and ideas of ways to help each other through this is essential.

AFI: With your background in the film industry and in academia, you are uniquely positioned to understand the wide-ranging effects of the current situation. What advice can you offer Fellows, faculty and alumni during these uncertain times?

It is an uncertain time, but the fact of the matter is that this is not going to last forever. There will be an onslaught of productions picking up and work will be available and people will come back together to tell stories. The one thing I know is that it is more essential now and in times like this, to tell our stories that uplift the human spirit and bring communities together.

I think the industry will also take lessons from this and may be forever changed in the same way the Writers Guild Strike created change in 2008. Anytime there’s a shift, there is an effect and it’s not all going to be negative. A lot of what we could have been doing digitally, we are now being forced to do digitally. And it’s actually moving along that process of figuring out how to be effective and to continue working no matter where you are in the world. So, in some senses, I think it will bring people and communities closer together.

Some of the things I have been looking at for quite some time like block chain, game engines and artificial intelligence are important to think about — how these technologies can help us continue to do what we do, but more effectively. I think the next wave of the digital transformation is going to happen faster than anyone anticipated it would. That being said, I don’t believe that the traditional model of making movies is going anywhere. We will be back, but it will be enhanced by the online/offline experience, and I think it will make it easier for us to be even more productive.

AFI: Many recent and upcoming theatrical releases have shifted to digital platforms. What can AFI alumni do to show solidarity for filmmakers with new releases? At the same time, how can they help sustain their favorite movie theaters during this time?

The movie-going experience is going to come back, but it is probably going to have to be a must-see event. For exhibitors, they really have to start thinking about how we create an environment that gets people out of their houses to have a much more immersive and whole experience at the movies. I think that’s where we’ve been heading anyway, and we might just be heading there sooner. But I also think that streaming has been a part of the conversation for a long time and will continue to be a part of the conversation.

AFI: How can AFI alumni support one another right now? What AFI and community resources are at their disposal?

We are looking at a number of ways of helping our alumni. With SXSW and Tribeca being cancelled, many of our alumni are not going to have the opportunity of having their work seen as they would have had at those festivals. We’re looking to stay in constant communication with them and to continue promoting their work.

We have also compiled a list of alumni resources – of grants and emergency relief funds, as well as health and mental health resources ­– that are now available on our website. I’ve really been thinking a lot about our alumni who are freelancers on shoots, who make their living by going from set to set to set, because they’re the ones laid off who are really needing our support. On our website, we also have information on the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security “CARES” Act and answers to questions about the stimulus bill regarding student loans.

I think the mental health part of this is very important. I read an article in the Harvard Review that talked about this shared experience feeling like grief and how we have to go through this period of grief to accept this new reality. The good news is that it is temporary – it’s not going to be forever. We have to remind ourselves of that, but at the same time, we still have to go through it.

Additionally, we are inviting all of our alumni to join the newly launched AFI Movie Club to take comfort in great filmmaking at this moment. And we will also be facilitating Happy Hour digital meetups and other opportunities for our alumni to stay connected with one another.

Comments (1)

P.J. Matta

Thank you for the article. I love how quickly AFI responded to make this new reality a safe one. We’re only protected when our leaders act fast and work together for solutions. As I consider applying for Fall 2021, it would be nice to read another article with updated information from Dean Susan Ruskin. I’m sure that will happen at some future point. Until then, stay safe and make movies!

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