The Australian Film Television and Radio School is to receive a bit of a shakeup from new director of screen content Neil Peplow.

Due to the ever-changing nature of the screen industry, there is a constant need for innovation and change in curriculum. That's something that British-born Peplow obviously believes. 

From next year, one of the major changes to the school is the introduction of a documentary graduate diploma.

Ruth Cullen, who last year received an AFI Award for doco You Only Live Twice – The Incredibly True Story Of The Hughes Family – will run the 32-week course, offered in both semester 1 and 2.

“The fact that we didn’t have a separate documentary course I think was a big hole,” Peplow tells IF during a conversation at the school.

He says the course – which will focus on the future of non-fiction storytelling – will be beneficial due to upcoming content creators needing a documentary “skill-set”, particularly if working in television.

With Screen Australia providing investment for documentaries – the latest being such projects as Who Do You Think You Are? Series 5 and Mutha Truckers, he says it was a wise move.

“And it’s something that industry said 'we need to find people who understand factual TV and documentary'.

“It’s not only about the individual who comes with an idea that they want to turn into a documentary – we also teach them about documentary TV formats and how they work.”

Students will work on four short-filmed exercises: a cinema-style doco, a hybrid exercise utilising a mixture of fiction and non-fiction techniques, an observational exercise, and a re-enactment.

There will also be five new “fundamental” graduate diploma courses introduced from next year – in the areas of directing, documentary, producing, story development and screenwriting, and cinematography. Students interested in sound design will be looked after with three new courses: sound studio practices, screen sound recording and post-production sound.

Peplow, who was most recently the director of film at the UK's creative media skills and policy council Skillset, says the graduate diplomas are all about focusing on developing craft skills through practice.

Two new masters programs will also be introduced, entitled Master of Screen Arts and Master of Screen Arts and Business.

The Master of Screen Arts course, only open to AFTRS graduates who completed a graduate diploma between 2009 and 2011, will be “tailored, in-depth and intensely-practically focused”.

Filmmaker Peplow, who has 16 feature film credits to his name, says the course aims to “springboard” outstanding students into the industry.

“And what we’re looking at: if you’re a screenwriter and you’ve got an idea for a TV series or a film project, what will you need in order to get noticed by the industry?

“This is where they can start to innovate and get noticed. This is where they develop those craft skills within the kind of restrictions we give them and here is something where they bring something else to the mix.

“Our industry is based on innovation – people that do things slightly differently get noticed.”

He gave the example of Dublin’s National Film School graduate Gary Shore who is now turning his CGI online short/trailer The Cup Of Tears into a feature film after it was picked up by Universal.

“The trailer is like 300. And he did that as a final-year project – and you look at it and go ‘wow – I get that as a concept’,” Peplow says.

Centre for Screen Business founding director David Court will lead the Master of Screen Arts and Business course, which is looking for the next generation of leaders in the media and screen industries.

Texts studied include politics, economics, philosophy, finance and the public arena, and insights into leadership and senior management.

Funding for the new courses has come from additional enrolments and from open courses, Peplow added.

And for those just starting out, the foundation diploma – which was introduced three years ago – will stay as is after constant positive feedback. The undergraduate full-time “generalist” course is designed to allow creative students (the average age is 19) to explore their own interests before specialising.

“If you think of it as a pyramid – that’s the base of the pyramid,” Peplow explains.

“That’s where we get students in to introduce the basic concepts and skills of what you need to know to work in the media industry.

“So it’s not film specific – it’s looking at TV, new media opportunities and games and it’s less siloed than the more traditional specific courses.

“An aim for me is for the individual to understand a clear career path.”

When Peplow arrived in Australia in May, he looked at what was already being delivered and how that compared to other international schools. He made sure to consult with industry to see what they expected from the national screen arts and broadcast school.

“It didn’t need a revolution, it just needed a kind of evolution…” says Peplow, who took over from long-serving director of screen content Graham Thorburn.

"I think the students who come here have an unbelievable opportunity to develop their skills and also to get industry to notice that they’re there. And compared to the film schools in the UK and Europe, they aren't going to get any better resources anywhere."

Applications are now open for 2012 and the school’s open days will be held on September 10 and 11. For more information on the school, click here.

For a full feature on AFTRS and how it's changed over the years, check out the June/July issue of IF Magazine.

Neil Peplow announcing the course changes at AFTRS.

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