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Home - Academic - The YIN and YANG of Teaching Short Film Production by Prof. Richard Raskin

24Frames: All film students, at one point of their studies, have felt discouraged, downhearted, or simply have felt that that they’re not enough after a production meeting with their tutors; some have even gave up after making one or two student shorts. In today’s world, there has been a major focus on how filmmakers should deal with feedback, digest criticism, and select what is in favor of the project, but there hasn’t been much discussion on how the feedback and criticism should be delivered to an artist at the early stages of their career. Today, guided by the hand-on teaching experiences of Professor Richard Raskin, we explore the art of teaching short film production.





The YIN and YANG of Teaching Short Film Production

Written by Professor Richard Raskin







First my apologies. Despite every effort to respect the true meaning of the YIN/YANG concept, my use of it here may still be perceived as presumptuous or reductive by Taoists or specialists who have studied the Tao te Ching – a work I have returned to for inspiration repeatedly over the years since I first read it in 1959 in a course on Asian philosophy with Wing-Tsit Chan.


What follows is a discussion of pedagogical principles based on 30 years of experience with teaching hands-on short film production courses at the university level, but possibly applicable to courses involving other art forms as well.





I am calling the YIN side of the teaching process the one that holds back, that refuses to encroach upon or take over the student’s project. This is the side that respects even the most tender sensibilities and vulnerabilities of the student and makes sure that the student feels in charge of his or her own work. 


And I am calling YANG the side that not only lets the student know where there are storytelling problems that need fixing but also offers suggestions as to how they might best be fixed – but with an understanding that the student will never feel expected to follow your suggestions. 


If there is a lack of balance between the YIN and YANG, the teaching will be defective. Too little YIN and the student feels you have appropriated his or her project as your own. Too much YIN, and instead of doing your job, you have taken the easy way out by playing the Freudian analyst who just listens, on the grounds that offering suggestions would be intrusive. Too much YANG, and you have robbed the student of the creative possession of his or her own project. Too little YANG and the student feels you aren’t helping to improve his or her storytelling as much as you might, even though you know – or should know – exactly what would help.





1. In setting the parameters for the project, make sure there is plenty of room for many different kinds of storytelling.


2. When giving feedback on the students’ brainstorming, let the students present their thoughts without interruption or signs of impatience or inattention on your part. Practice deep listening.


3. When spotting what you see as a storytelling error on the students’ part:

          a. First try to find something positive to say about the choice the students made. Point out

          justifications for it, ways in which it would make sense for the project.

          b. Then and only then, mention some possible drawbacks in a way that doesn’t sound

          dismissive and that leaves room for disagreement.

          c. Suggest what you see as a solution to the storytelling problem but in doing so:

                       – Say it is just what you would do if it were your own film.

                       – Tell how it connects to an underlying storytelling principle.

                       – Point out drawbacks to the possible solution you describe.

                       – Say you wouldn’t expect the students to make the same choice.

                       – Remind the students that you see the project as their film, not yours.





Students may complain that there is not enough theory in your teaching. This may stem from a belief that you are enabling your students to put into practice the theory they have learned in other courses. To preclude this common misconception, you might explain from the start that:


1. The goal of your course is for students to learn to think like filmmakers, while the goal of courses in film theory is for students to learn to think like theoreticians – to learn what I have described elsewhere as “the logic and vocabulary of theoretical constructs and their analytical applications.” 


2. In learning to think like filmmakers, your students are learning storytelling know-how, not to be confused with anything covered in courses on film theory. Storytelling know-how includes as I have described elsewhere:

          a. an ability to spot and resolve storytelling problems;

          b. an ability to see and develop missed storytelling opportunities in any given narrative;

          c. an ability to imagine alternate ways of moving from Point A to Point B in a narrative, and to

          carry out a kind of cost/benefit analysis for each of the options;

          d. an ability to foresee whether viewers are likely to experience any given shot as intended;

          e. an ability to make the storytelling qualities of a given film so fulfilling that viewers will

          consider the film to be worthy of sharing and of watching again.





The abilities mentioned above will inform virtually all of the feedback you give during script development and post-production – the YANG side of your teaching. However, you won’t be explicitly framing it that way because of the YIN side of your teaching. So if you are teaching your course effectively, the students may not even be aware that they are learning storytelling know-how from you. And you may even find that they think of as their own ideas some of the suggestions you made when giving feedback.


 Accept this lack of credit as a sign that you are teaching well.


Note. The “elsewhere” mentioned above is an article entitled “Thinking film production. On why film theory has no place in film production courses.” SRN [Screenwriting Research Network] Newsletter, No. 21, July 2018, p. 3. 

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