By Premila D’Sa
The night of Sept. 27 was an unusual one at Dance Cave—the popular weekend dance spot above Lee’s Palace. The club’s regular indie rock playlist had been swapped out for psychedelic jams, and a few people were sporting some hot ‘70s attire. There were also an unusual amount of Ryerson kids on the usually University of Toronto dominated dance floor.
The theme and audience was planned. The night was organized by an RTA group promoting their final year practicum project.
The event killed two birds with one stone. The theme of the night was essentially an interactive ad for their film “Sonic Haze,” an animated comedy based on the psychedelic ‘70s, and your Dance Cave cover, if you went, was helping fund it.
This practicum group was one of many in Ryerson’s RTA program figuring out ways to make money to fund the projects that define their four years at Ryerson.
Practicum projects are final year creative projects put together by RTA students. They can take the form of a short film, a web series pilot, or in this case, an animated short. It’s an intensive process that starts before their final year even begins and spans over three semesters.
“It’s kind of your degree,” said Alexander Weiditch, a fourth-year RTA student.
“I’ve heard it reiterated throughout my four years here that you can show them a piece of paper but no one in the industry cares about that,” he said. “What they would care about is a short film that’s good. You do a good [practicum], it’s essentially your paper.”
“This is the one thing that you’re going to have to show for yourself,” said Shuli Grosman-Gray, another RTA practicum student.
But the process costs time and money. Incredibly large amounts of money—especially if you have an ambitious project.
“I’ve heard it reiterated throughout my four years here that you can show them a [degree] but no one in the industry cares about that”
Towards the last weeks of September, what seems like barely any time into the year for the rest of the student body, RTA practicum students were already stressing. Indiegogo, an online crowdfunding platform, consumed their Facebook feeds, their Instagram stories and their lives. Whatever platform they could ask you to donate on, they did.
There’s a big reason they sounded so desperate—the reality of practicums is that if you can’t figure out the funding yourself, you can’t make them, and Ryerson won’t help.
Practicums start at $500. But that’s a really low budget, usually only a reasonable budget for projects like “Sonic Haze”, an animated short that doesn’t need actors, location permits and expensive filming equipment. More commonly, practicum projects start in the thousands; usually hitting costs that sum up to more than a couple years of tuition.
“I’m spending more on this film that I have spent on anything,” said Hazel Ki, another fourth-year RTA student whose group is working on a 35-minute high school mystery thriller. Her group’s Indiegogo was set at $10,000. Their production costs have gone above that.
“It just kept adding up because there were just more things that we needed that we didn’t account for,” she said.
Ki and her group have paid a lot of their project’s expenses from out of pocket. They’re relying on their parents help with transportation, housing, food and more funding.
Family support is a big factor in how well an Indiegogo campaign can go, and if you don’t have a big one or any members that can spare you some cash, you’re pretty much out of luck.
“It’s almost nonsensical, the whole concept of Indiegogo,” said Weiditch. “No one’s Indiegogo goes viral and gets random people to donate—it’s all family and friends.
“It’s almost luck of the draw at that point that you’re going to have one project member whose parents are generous.”
Weiditch’s group had no such member. It meant some serious compromises for their project—they had to cut 10 pages out of a 30-page script because they couldn’t afford the location needed to make the scene.
Stephanie de Bem, a fourth year film studies student who’s working on two thesis projects—the image arts equivalent of a practicum—said she and her group members have been saving up for years.
“I personally have been setting aside money from my summer jobs since first year for this,” she said.
Another thesis project she’s working on is depending heavily on parental loans.
“It’s almost luck of the draw at that point that you’re going to have one project member whose parents are generous”
Ryan Bobkin, a member of the “Sonic Haze” project, said his group turned to Dance Cave as a fundraising alternative because of something he describes as “Indiegogo fatigue.”
“Crowfunding is just not as popular as it used to be,” he said. “I think we’re just less inclined because it’s so common now.”
Bobkin said their fundraising methods made sense because “Sonic Haze” was low budget, but he knows it wouldn’t be a feasible option for practicums with bigger budget goals.
“There was no one really to turn to if you just needed the money,” said Ki, recounting her fundraising process. She said the school doesn’t offer much in grants. Even with the ones that are available, the criteria are strict. Many grants given out by the faculty require the film’s context to touch on certain social issues.
“Which is perfect if your practicum is like that,” said Ki. “But ours is just a fiction mystery thriller.”
Bobkin, Weiditch, de Bem and Ki added that they found a lot of external grants didn’t qualify student projects as recipients.
“There always seems to be an eligibility criteria that disqualifies us,” said de Bem.
There is one grant specifically set out for RTA practicum projects, the ORT Micki Moore Project Award. But it’s only valued at $1000, given out to only three students, and requires a 3.0 GPA and a budget form proving the student is in financial need.
There’s also a personal contract that practicum participants have to sign, stipulating that they will put in a certain amount of money.
“They tell you in first semester you will not be greenlit if you do not have a contract that says what each of your members will be donating to the project,” said Weiditch.
Even the stuff the practicum students manage to get their hands on for free from the faculty comes with tight conditions. Groups can rent out equipment from the Equipment Distribution Centre, colloquially called “The Cage.”
But The Cage doesn’t promise availability. Students can book a certain time, but if a project before it extends their use or the equipment isn’t available for some other reason, they’re straight out of luck.
“[They] could really fuck someone’s project if [they] go all the way along,” said Grosman. “It’s literally the last possible moment where they could be like ‘just kidding [about equipment].”
On top of that, Cage staff isn’t available on the weekends. So if the equipment is faulty, there’s no way of getting your hands on a working machine unless you rent externally.
“You can be sitting there on a shoot day with a broken mic and all that money you spent starts to go down the drain because you’re not getting proper audio,” said Weiditch.
Weiditch’s group also found further financial trouble with The Cage’s strict fines. He said while returning equipment, the group lost a pouch for a recorder—a cosmetic item he said The Cage charged them $237 for.
“We were thinking we wanted to reshoot—but at that point it’s like do we pay the EDC or finish the movie?”
The practicum, for better or worse, is designed to emulate real life, something the students are reminded of. Ki said she’s “bitter” about the fact that they’re paying to make their thesis film (there’s the cost of the course on top of the production costs), but she said there’s an “unspoken” expectation and understanding in the program that you can’t make a film without “time and money.”
“It’s kind of something you have to accept because you need to move forward with trying to complete the project.”
Grosman said she has the same understanding, but wishes faculty was more straightforward about it.
“It would’ve been more responsible of our advisors to suggest that we don’t try these crazy ambitious things to begin with or give us better strategies of like how we can make projects that are really good looking but don’t cost a lot of money.”
“I feel like everybody deserves to have that at least one time, to pursue a project successfully and practicum is kind of like your one opportunity to be able to be allowed to make something guaranteed”
Weiditch thinks the whole concept of the practicum needs a redesign.
“I think everyone kind of having that level playing field of money would allow people to kind of just be creative,” he said. “And to trouble shoot technical problems as opposed to these kinds of production problems.”
Weiditch has heard the “that’s just the way it is” spiel too, but he said its pushes back to a bigger institutional issue in the industry.
“We spend a lot of time talking about the industry as a place that lacks diversity,” he said. “This is 100 per cent where those problems start. Right out of the gate that sends a specific set of people in the door.”
Weiditch said that he knows of fellow students in the program who didn’t even bother pursuing practicum because of the financial burden.
“I feel like everybody deserves to have that at least one time, to pursue a project successfully and practicum is kind of like your one opportunity to be able to be allowed to make something guaranteed,” said Grosman.
For students like Weiditch, who’ve still picked the practicum route, the learning experience has been bogged down by the costs— ones that forced creative compromises that drastically changed the original projects.
On Nov. 1, Bobkin’s practicum crew will return to Lee’s Palace to host their second fundraising event. Toronto-based musician Luna Li will be headlining. The event will draw the group members’ friends, the same ones enthusiastic enough to hit their psychedelic cave event in themed costumes. And they’ll bring more friends, who’ll willingly pay the $10 cover. It’s the cost of a couple acts, the cost of a fun night, the cost to fund a dream four tedious years in the making.