Discover the Best Film Schools in Chicago

When one plans a career in filmmaking, two cities leap to mind. If they want to work in the movies, they’ll go to Los Angeles. If they want to get into television, they’ll go to New York. But that type of thinking ignores America’s “third coast,” the country’s original entertainment capital. Home to stalwarts such as the Steppenwolf Theater Company and the Second City Improv Troup, Chicago has a history of popular entertainment that goes back to before California was even a state. 

That history includes film. Some of the greatest films of all time are associated with the city. Think about some of the most iconic scenes in cinema: Matthew Broadrick’s character dancing to the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Harrison Ford ducking into a St. Patrick’s Day parade to evade Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, or Christian Bale’s Batman speeding on his motorcycle toward Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. All of these films gain their power from Chicago’s grimy streets and recognizable buildings. 

Chicago offers history and character that other cities just can’t match, and that’s great news for filmmakers. It’s no wonder that so many fine directors, editors, and special effects gurus have chosen the city as their proving ground. 

But unlike New York and LA, Chicago’s best film schools aren’t necessarily household names. Anyone who wants to take advantage of the city’s offerings will have to do a little more digging to find the best film schools in the Windy City. 

Fortunately, College Gazette is here to help. Here are the five of the best film schools in Chicago, perfect for any aspiring filmmaker. 

University of Illinois at Chicago

University of Illinois at Chicago
Hied5, UIC East Campus Spring, CC BY-SA 3.0

As part of the School of Literatures, Cultural Studies and Linguistics, the Moving Image Arts program at the University of Illinois at Chicago is a unique minor that works in tandem with majors in any field. A student in any discipline can bring their work into conversation with others by taking Moving Image Arts courses are taught by faculty from across the University in a variety of fields.

Courses in the Moving Image Arts Minor range from the theoretical to the practical, giving students a well-rounded understanding of the field. In the latter category are classes such as Black Film, which examines the history of black people in cinema by looking both at films by Black people around the world and at the relationship between Black artists and global film industries, and The Reel Arab, which looks at portrayals of Arabs in popular films. More practical courses include Communication Technologies, which examines the history, development, and social impact of communication technologies such as print, broadcast, cable, satellite, computer, and internet. 

The school is making a name for itself in the world of cinema studies by winning awards and recognition. In March 2020, Professor Sara Hall won the annual Society for Cinema Studies Central/East/South European Cinemas Outstanding Essay Award competition for her article “Babylon Berlin: Pastiching Weimar Cinema,” published in the fall 2019 issue of the journal Communications.

That’s some pretty heady stuff, but this kind of academic approach makes filmmakers who fully understand the theory and power of cinema. With knowledge of film’s role within the larger culture, filmmakers have the understanding to craft unique stories, which are sure to have a lasting legacy. 

Columbia College Chicago

Since its founding in 1890 as the Columbia School of Oratory, Columbia College Chicago has been committed to training the best in the performing arts, both on the stage and behind the scenes. Initially, that goal involved creating respected orators and theater performers. Today, it means embracing new media and cutting-edge technology. 

One of the best examples of CCC’s forward-looking approach is its 35,500 sq ft Media Production Center, built-in 2010. The Center features two film production soundstages, a motion-capture studio, digital labs, animating suites, a fabrication shop, and classrooms. The Center’s quality has received national attention, earning a Distinguished Building category from the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects and LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Another example is the school’s partnership with YouTube and the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts to form the YouTube Creator Institute. Students looking to join the Institute must submit a two-minute video that showcases their creativity, originality, and technical skills. Those accepted will use CCC’s resources to learn about filmmaking fundamentals from a distinctly 21st-century perspective, including issues such as story arcing, cinematography, money-making strategies, and social media tactics. 

These technical attributes reveal CCC to be a film school with its eyes on the future. As the industry moves more into the digital and internet space, filmmakers will need to have both technical knowledge and an understanding of media trends to succeed. They can gain both while studying at Columbia College Chicago.  

University of Chicago

University of Chicago
Nicomachian, Harper Quadrangle, CC BY-SA 4.0

As part of one of the oldest and most respected universities in the United States, it’s no surprise that the Cinema and Media Studies Department at the University of Chicago has garnered such respect. Since 1995, the department has approached cinema and media with the same level of academic rigor on which the University has made its name. That scholarly focus drives every aspect of the Department, from its cinema studies major to those learning the practical aspects of the film. 

The Cinema and Media Studies Department views cinema as a means of studying the broader culture, from early technologies such as the magic lantern and photography to today’s internet-based hypermedia. Courses study everything from the historical and theoretical understanding of motion pictures as a mass phenomenon to the artistic and aesthetic dimensions of cinema and media worldwide.

Students in the department participate in initiatives such as the Mass Culture Workshop, which fosters conversations about “ongoing research that considers the aesthetic, historical, and political dimensions of mass media, including cinema, digital media, television, popular music, photography, video, advertising, fashion, social media, and other technologies of mass culture.”

They also enhance their studies with the Film Studies Center. Through the center, students have access to a large collection of 35mm and 16mm films, video, and DVD materials, and includes holdings from the Library of Congress Paper Print collection and Black Images collection. The Center provides and screening spaces for UC faculty and students, as while as individual viewing facilities and events such as lectures and screening presentations. 

Northwestern University

Northwestern University
© Jeremy Atherton, 2006, Ward Building, CC BY-SA 2.5

Located in nearby Evanston, Northwestern University is a respected tier-one research institution. The Radio/Television/Film division of Northwestern’s School of Communication examines the history, theory, and production of media, ranging from cinema to broadcast television to alternative media to new, internet-based technologies. Like the university that houses it, the RTF program emphasizes critical analysis and creativity in the form of both scholarly research and creative work. 

This focus involves several dedicated buildings on Northwestern’s campus. In the John J. Louis Hall, students learn professional production and post-production in the building’s classrooms and labs. Recently, the University updated Louis’s sound production studios for Foley effects, music, and voice-overs. These revisions enhance a facility that already boasts professional-level sets for lighting exercises and filming and a black-box theater. Students gain experience working with top-of-the-line production equipment in the building’s foyer, as well as technology in the student radio station and the Barbara and Garry Marshall Studio wing, a film sound stage.

While nearly every film school offers students the opportunity to hone their technical skills and gain an appreciation of media history, a respected institution like Northwestern also features generously funded research centers. One such center is the Center for Global Culture and Communication, an interdepartmental forum in which School of Communication faculty and students address the importance of globalization in the field.

With such resources, it’s no wonder that Northwestern is the alma mater of some of the most impressive names in filmmaking, including director Joe Chappelle, independent screenwriter and director Yvonne Welbon, and Hollywood legend Warren Beatty. 

DePaul University School of Cinematic Arts

DePaul University
Kris Gallagher, Richardson Library DePaul, CC BY-SA 3.0

The School of Cinematic Arts at DePaul University not only tops this list, it also places in the upper portions of rankings from industry magazines The Hollywood Reporter and Variety.

Several elements account for the school’s vaunted reputation, including its impressive list of alumni. Graduates include Alexis Auditore, Director of Physical Production at Marvel Studios Streaming, Saint Frances director Alex Thompson, Grey’s Anatomy and The Blacklist director Daniel Willis, and Nickelodeon animator Chaz Bottoms. 

These graduates go on to such success thanks to the excellent programs and resources offered by SCA. Students learn their trade in spaces such as DePaul Cinespace Studios, a 32,000 sq. ft. professional production facility. Students learn filmmaking skills in a professional environment, using industry-standard equipment that mirrors those used in high-profile network productions. 

At CSA’s equipment centers, students can work with professional-quality cameras and audio stock, as well as portable lighting kits and small grip equipment. The school’s Production Office assists students with tasks related to producing their films, such as casting, finding crew, securing insurance, and other logistics. At the post-production and animation studio, students can access one of five high-end post-production video editing and color correction facilities. Each suite features industry-standard software and hardware, including color grading control surfaces and 4K color-calibrated monitors.

With these resources, students get hands-on experience with the equipment and studio structures used by all modern filmmakers. With the help of their faculty mentors, future television and film professionals have space to experiment and grow familiar with the tools of their trade, making them fully prepared for whatever challenges they’ll face in their careers. 

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