Since beginning her studies in the Bachelor of Arts Screen: Production at AFTRS, 2019 graduate Serena Siow has captured many faces around campus and beyond. In addition to honing her craft, she has lent her talents in stills photography and cinematography to a multitude of projects from lensing AFTRS graduate film, Brittany Xu’s Like How I Remember to portraits of students for AFTRS’ Open Day campaigns. Reflecting on her experiences at film school, Serena touches on forging strong relationships with friends and collaborators, championing diverse, female talent behind the camera, falling in love with cinematography and finding her authentic voice.
I originally heard about AFTRS back in the day when Instagram was mostly used for photography. Funnily enough, I’d been following Ollie Ritchie (@ritchieollie) for a while and one day he posted about getting into the Bachelor course and something within me knew I was going to do the same the year after. Before this, I had never heard of AFTRS or that going to film school was a thing that I could actually do.
After this awakening, I knuckled down and spent my HSC year making two films as my major works for Visual Arts and Dance which I used in my application to the course. Blood, sweat and tears went into those films but they were well received and I’m still proud of myself for making them. You could also even say I put all of my eggs into one basket when I applied for the course but I wouldn’t have done it any other way.
When acceptance emails were being sent out, my nerves definitely got the better of me. 22 December 2016, 9.12 am. I can vividly remember trying to relax in a bath when I got the email; this was the beginning of my next three years. My mum and dog ran to the bathroom to check if my squeals and cries were of joy or sadness… it was joy, of course.
As is any transition from high school to higher education, being at AFTRS took some getting used to but I went in with an open mind and an open heart and was greeted by incredible staff and students who I still stay in touch with. People had moved to Sydney to take this course which was something I wasn’t expecting but if people were driven enough to uproot just to study here, I knew I was in a good place. Tegan from Wellington, Jasper from Darwin and Gabriel from Hobart and countless others. I felt grateful to be surrounded by such people and lucky that I didn’t have to move to study.
My time at AFTRS opened up many opportunities and experiences but I will say that this was due in part to what I put into the course. I was and am still a believer of what I put in, I will get out and so this mentality brought upon a camera attachment position for Australia’s first FaceBook Watch Series The Unboxing with Channel 7; assisting on set for the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and interviews for some jobs I may or may not have signed NDA’s for and I can’t speak to. These are industry jobs and professional levelled gigs that I was able to partake in because the hard work I put in was recognised by staff members.
I also learned early on that the people in my cohort will be the people I work with outside of my studies so I’ve now found enduring collaborators who I hope to continue having strong relationships with both professionally and as friends. During my first year at AFTRS, I was doing some pretty out-there things, participating in the World’s Greatest Shave and doing a year-long photographic portraiture project where I would take photos of someone new every single day. I soon was known as the girl who shaved her head and took pictures every day which led to me photographing some of the people I continually work with today. Alex Martin who produced my Year Two dance documentary, Claire Harmer who shot that film and taught me a lot of my camera knowledge and Angus Woodiwiss whose graduate film I collaborated on and shot. Not to mention the teachers who heavily impacted my experience in the course, some of which I also photographed.
Speaking of which, AFTRS was able to bring in incredible guest lecturers who brought new insights to how I saw the degree and the film industry. One of our guest lecturers was a compositor who was working on Peter Rabbit at Animal Logic and another was a Play School presenter. It was incredible to hear about their respective fields and see the processes of working on such productions.
Sidebar, you know that 1000 piece Monet painting jigsaw puzzle you spent copious hours figuring out in isolation? Well, that’s what a film crew is like. One of the first lessons I learned at AFTRS was that films can’t be made alone. Some might beg to differ but I believe every person’s role is as important as the next, just like each jigsaw piece. Through collaboration you will put together a masterpiece and perhaps there is a new approach to each work!
I also learned about how to take on feedback and what a compliment sandwich is. A lot of films are spurred from personal moments or events in people’s lives and so it’s important to approach conversations and discussions with your compliment entree and then serve feedback dinner and you can’t forget compliment dessert or your palate might taste off.
And on a personal note, AFTRS has taught me to listen to my gut. Opportunities will flourish in front of you if you make choices that align with who you are and don’t worry, we’ve all got years to figure that out. Higher education should be a place to experiment, play and take risks and if you make mistakes then they’re what you should learn from. Learn from bad scripts, set experiences and films you make and then go and make the next ones ten times better.
Something I am most proud of, in my time at AFTRS, is my graduate film, Like How I Remember. Our writer and director Brittany Xu, our producers Mimi Rosenbaum and Claire Ma created a beautiful short film about living as Asian Australians and our collective experiences coming from immigrant households. As heads of departments, we also took it on board to push for the representation of Asians on and behind the screen and budgeted for a sustainable set.
It was an honour to have complete gender parity in my camera crew and we were even able to budget for a set without single-use plastics and some crew members were even sent home with a keep cup! I am forever grateful to have worked alongside like-minded women who value representation, diversity and looking after the planet in our small scaled film and it has definitely set a benchmark for productions I’d like to work on in the future.
For those keen and determined people considering the course, I’ll give you three pieces of advice.
Be curious. Don’t be afraid of asking questions in class, your tutors and classmates have a wealth of knowledge there for you to pick from. Curiosity will lead you to subgenres of film, alternative theologies or even hacks for achieving blockbuster looking shots.
Be daring. Film school is where you should familiarise yourself with pushing yourself, challenging yourself and maybe participating in something other than your norm. In first year, I found myself acting in a film set in a dystopian world where people battled through handshakes and clapping routines. Shoutout to Andy Lam.
Be authentic. If you’re wanting to go to film school, you’ve definitely got a perspective which will determine the types of stories you’d like to tell. Surround yourself with likeminded people who can help encourage your unique voice. Whether that is in your writing, editing or in the way you dress sets.
In my years at AFTRS, I was extremely curious, daring and I’d like to think I was authentic. I remember starting the degree believing I wanted to be an editor but as I tried and learned about the different roles, I soon fell in love with cinematography. If I hadn’t been curious or daring enough to try cinematography, I wouldn’t have found my authentic voice by creating images.
There isn’t much that I regret about my time at AFTRS. I only wish that I wasn’t so shy in the camera department, to begin with. So I do just want to put a little something-something in here to encourage my ladies out there keen to get their hands on a camera. I see you and I am here to support you.