Educating The Educators
The Television Foundation's Annual Faculty Seminar brings together industry professionals and teachers from across the country.
Back in 2003, Anitra Lawson was a Television Academy Foundation student summer intern, working on the NBC drama The West Wing on the Warner Bros. lot.
Fourteen years later, she returned to the lot, and to the Academy Foundation, this time as one of 25 instructors chosen for the Foundation’s annual Faculty Seminar, touring the studio during an eventful week of panels, demonstrations and field trips.
Lawson didn’t see any actors on the tour, but “To me, all the producers and directors we met were the stars!” says Lawson, a filmmaker herself, referring to the entire experience.
And no wonder. Each November, the Faculty Seminar gathers producers, writers, directors, craftspeople, executives and other television pros to give teachers from colleges and universities around the country an insider’s view of the industry.
Click here for a photo gallery from the week-long event.
The school roster includes junior and community colleges, often overlooked by faculty programs: Lawson is a broadcast technology instructor at Oxnard College and an adjunct film/video professor at El Camino College Compton Center, both in Southern California.
This year’s seminar, held primarily at the Academy’s Saban Media Center in North Hollywood, included panels on below-the-line jobs, diversity, directing, network programming, unstructured realty production, immersive storytelling such as virtual reality, the making of a limited series and securing rights.
There was also a conversation with producer Suzanne de Passe, an ad sales research case study, an introduction to Entertainment Partners products, an overview of the Foundation’s education programs and oral history program The Interviews and a mixer. Besides the Warner Bros. tour, excursions included a visit to Fox11 News and a taping of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars at CBS Television City.
The “Unstructured Reality Production” panel featured the A&E series Born This Way, which follows seven young adults with Down syndrome determined to live life on their terms. The show won last year’s Emmy Award for outstanding unstructured reality program, and this year won for casting and cinematography.
Joining creator-executive producer Jonathan Murray on the panel were casting director Sasha Alpert and editor Jacob Lane; Bob Boden, executive producer of the syndicated and Comedy TV game show Funny You Should Ask, was the moderator.
“We’re always interested in putting people on television who haven’t been on television,” said Murray, who with his late producing partner Mary-Ellis Bunim is widely credited with ushering in reality television via the long-running The Real World on MTV. “There are lots of untold stories out there.”
He had done a pilot several years earlier which A&E had turned down, but with the success of its Duck Dynasty, the network was seeking to continue innovative programming, and asked for a second pilot.
While this is the first generation of people with Down syndrome who have been raised to be independent, the creative team soon realized that the young adults’ relationships with their families was a crucial component of their stories, and made the cast more relatable to viewers. “We realized we were casting more than seven young people; we were casting families,” Alpert said.
That part of the process differed from other show casting, as did the fact that the principals don’t always speak clearly. Some elements were similar: “They have to be able to talk about their emotions, their feelings,” Alpert said. “And they have to be telegenic. It’s television.”
Murray elected to film in smaller hourly chunks over a longer period of time, which helped cast members not up to the usual 12-to-14-hour shooting days and also allowed stories to emerge more naturally. “Because of the unique challenges this cast faces in everyday life, some of the stories we tell aren’t huge stories, but they are huge to [the cast],” he noted. “Our viewers see someone going on their first job interview, their first date.”
Unlike most reality shows, Born This Way doesn’t look for cliffhangers at the end of episodes, though there are still enticements at act breaks to keep viewers on board through the commercials. In determining the balance between cast member screen time, Lane says, “Jonathan says in meetings, ‘What is the most entertaining?’” He looks for the story threads most true to the show and to each cast member, and likes to end episodes on a feel-good comedy tone.
The very first scene of the series shows two of the young men in a sports bar, saying they need girlfriends; they approach a woman at the bar, retreating in embarrassment when it turns out she’s there with a date. “That was a very conscious decision,” Lane said. “We wanted viewers to say, ‘Oh my God, people with Down syndrome drink and go to bars and are interested in women?’ We wanted viewers to think, this could be fun.”
The next morning’s panel brought a whole new way of looking at television: “Immersive Storytelling: 360 Video, VR [virtual reality], AR [augmented reality] and Beyond,” whose panelists were Jake Sally, director, immersive development at the media company RYOT; Eve Weston, CEO and creator of realities at her company Exelauno; and Sam White, business development executive at VR game studio Survios. Frank Scherma, president of RadicalMedia, was the moderator.
“RYOT is using technology to expand and explore the human [experience],” Sally said. “A lot of it is, how do you put the viewer in the middle, rather than in a 2-D, separated experience?” That is, of course, if VR or AR is the best way to tell a story; Sally said that decision comes during the development of a project.
Cinematic-style linear storytelling utilizes such devices as whip-pans and montages. But once a viewer dons a VR headset, “You’re no longer confined to one direction. You can look in different directions, including backwards,” though most viewers still tend to look front and center. “You get to explore slowly; it gives you lots of agency to explore the story yourself.”
That exploration can require creating twice as many cuts as those used in traditional visual storytelling. As far as involving the viewer more, the company is working on a murder-mystery project where the viewer can choose his or her own experience in the solving.
Weston, who comes from a television comedy writing background, has been working on such projects as social media VR, where headset-wearing users feel they’ve entered a room with other users, and Human/Art/Object, which uses 360 video and VR headsets to explore the definition of art and what it means to be human, set in a virtual art gallery. She has also been shooting a VR sitcom, set in the shared workplace locale known as a coworking space.
“360-degree filmmaking can be more like theater than film; it’s more like immersive theater,” Weston said. “The viewer is a member of the co-working space and so are the characters, so the action plays out around you. It’s an opportunity to use different kinds of comedy: vocal intonation, joke structure, physical comedy.”
For all its benefits, there’s a downside to VR: People who aren’t accustomed to its particular type of motion effects can become nauseous. “Any physical action you do will reduce the nausea,” White advised. He believes it could be seven years before there are fully functional VR screening facilities; Sally forecasts three to five years.
After the panel, faculty members had the opportunity to try on VR headgear and experience the panelists’ projects.
The Born This Way panel was one of Lawson’s favorites. “It was so transparent, the panelists sharing the truth of how they feel, the obstacles they faced and how they overcame it and are paying it forward,” she enthused. “They’ve [shown] characters who are not stereotyped, who speak to the culture and are not exploited.”
The VR panel was exciting, too; Lawson plans to research facilities where students can try out VR for themselves. Keeping up with new technologies was one reason Max V. Grubb, PhD, wanted to take the Faculty Seminar. An assistant professor in the Dept. of Communication at Youngstown State University in Ohio, Grubb says, “I’m trying to stay current, to give the students an idea of where the business is going. I’ve been trying to get my teeth into VR. This panel was so pertinent.”
Born This Way “blew my mind. I’m always looking for ways to use media for positive social change.” As for the behind-the-scenes aspects, “All the students know is what they see on television,” Grubb adds. “They don’t know about the back end, the below-the-line positions. One thing that I want to bring back to them is that there are a lot of possibilities, such as development, and production design.”
In fact, on his first day back in class, Grubb scrapped his lesson plan to focus on the voluminous supplementary materials the faculty members received. Fellow participant Jennifer A. Machiorlatti, PhD, will also use the material once she processes the extensive information, and also utilize the wealth of information provided by industry pros in The Interviews.
A professor and undergraduate director in the School of Communication at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Machiorlatti particularly appreciated what she calls, “the diversity of content. Even though I’m an active filmmaker, there’s so much I don’t know!
One element that made a particular impression: a video clip in the Directing for Television session of panelist Alan Carter’s high-octane directing of the live final of NBC’s The Voice. “It was awesome!” she says. “My students would learn so much from that short example – and it’s also a brilliant 'reality check' on how much energy one needs to work in the industry. Seeing a master performing his craft with such intensity was incredibly impressive.”
Adds Machiorlatti, “This seminar gave me a new, more solid foundation from which to teach the next generation of television and new media students. It was one of the most transformative experiences of my career.”