Ben Lopez and Gloria Calderón Kellett
(Clockwise from top left) Bob Boden, Harry Friedman, Kevin Fortson, Michele Loud, Shelley Ballance Ellis
Jason Ma and Ivana Kirkbride
Jenelle Riley and Matt Strauss
(Closkwise from top left) Monica Castillo, Jorge R. Gutierrez, Sandra Equiha, John Aoshima, Kristal Babich
During this year's Faculty Seminar: The Conference, attendees had the chance to move from table to table to network with their colleagues. Doing so at such an event isn't particularly unusual — but in this case, the tables were virtual, and so was the table-hopping.
Presented annually by the Television Academy Foundation to educate college and university instructors about television programming, trends and careers, the Conference repeated last year's pandemic-required re-imagining to become an online gathering, this time using a platform called Remo that was better able to replicate an in-person experience.
"The events and production team really pivoted to find a virtual conference platform that would allow us to continue to network and build strong and meaningful ways to connect with our faculty partners," explains Miracle Bizira, who joined the Foundation in the newly created position of senior director of programs just six weeks before the conference began and hit the ground running. "From a technology standpoint, we were really able to deliver."
And never more fittingly so, as this year's event, held November 15–17, focused more on technology than ever before, reflecting the greater role technology plays in what is now defined as television.
"For us to have faculty have a seat in the conversation of truly dissecting the changes that are happening in content and programming from an entertainment technology standpoint, that was a huge content change for us," Bizira says.
Accordingly, offerings included "The Changing Landscape of Media," with speakers from YouTube Originals, Instagram and the Roku Channel; a conversation with Ivana Kirkbride, director, global content strategy and programming for Meta (formerly Facebook); and "Virtual Production: Storytelling without Limits," with three panelists whom Bizira calls "creative technologists."
Not that the more traditional means of storytelling were neglected: the conference opened with a conversation about the future of video with Matt Strauss, chairman, direct-to-consumer and international at NBCUniversal. The roster also included a conversation with prolific producer-writer-showrunner-actress Gloria Calderón Kellett; a script-to-screen panel on the Netflix animated fantasy series Maya and the Three and "The Art of the Game," an in-depth look at careers in quiz and game shows.
Other panels offered advice on landing internships and early-career jobs in the television industry in general, and how-to's on using The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, the Foundation's archival collection of more than 900 interviews with television trailblazers and titans.
"The Art of the Game" session was sponsored by The Harry & Judy Friedman Family Foundation in honor of late Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek. Harry Friedman, the former executive producer of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, and the Friedman Family Foundation donated $50,000 to the Academy Foundation to support Conference programming and establish the Alex Trebek Legacy Fellowship Fund, which provides a select number of fellowships for instructors attending the Conference.
To be eligible, an applicant must be a first-time attendee and teach at a federally designated minority-serving institution. This year, the fellowship covered registration fees; when the conference returns to an in-person format next year, travel and lodging expenses will also be included.
"We're really grateful to have The Harry & Judy Friedman Family Foundation as partners, and we are thankful for their generous gift," Bizira says. "We were thrilled to be able to offer 25 conference fellowships."
If there's ever a Jeopardy! answer whose correct question is "What is virtual production?" the instructors at this year's Conference will be able to get it right. The aforementioned session "Virtual Production: Storytelling without Limits" afforded an overview of this very technical but increasingly utilized means of expanding storytelling horizons in television.
Appearing on the panel were Cliff Plumer, global president, NEP Virtual Studios; Julian Sarmiento, global director, virtual production & real time, The FuseFX Group; and Michael Zinman, creator and coexecutive producer, Alter Ego and AR producer and visuals creator, The Masked Singer, both on Fox, as well as the creator and executive producer of Lulu AR. James Pearse Connelly, production designer for The Masked Singer, was the moderator.
The term "virtual production" encompasses various technologies that combine real-life elements with digitally created components; software enables many tasks typically performed during postproduction to be handled either in-camera during filming or in preproduction. One commonly used software is Unreal Engine, which can render 3D visuals in real time and provide a host of other filmmaking tools; Unity also offers such software.
A prime example of virtual production is the Disney+ series The Mandalorian, which uses giant LED screens upon which 3D images of locations are projected; the screens can surround the actors, providing a virtual world in which to play out scenes.
In the unscripted field, Zinman's shows use augmented reality — "I call it 'blended reality,'" Zinman said — that enhances real-world images with digital ones. In Alter Ego, a singing competition among avatars, the avatars blend into real set elements that have been digitally expanded.
"Optically, it's the same camera tracking; it's all matched," Zinman pointed out. "That's a big part of virtual production. In the background, the lighting is perfectly aligned, in sync with the actual studio lighting. So when the avatars are lit from the side with red light, the actual stage light is red. You start believing that the avatar is actually part of it, because everything looks so real."
For that reason, said Plumer, "I still advise students to learn the craft; it's not all about learning a piece of software. There are basic film principles that apply through the history of filmmaking: how to block out a shot, move a camera, light an object. These are all things you can do outside of a piece of software, that are all extremely relevant once you're in the software. Because any filmmaker is going to go, 'Show me that you can make that real.' And unless you understand the real world, you'll never achieve that."
Sarmiento agreed, and also suggested that students learn computer science. "Working in a digital virtual environment, all this stuff is computer-driven information," he said. "So adding computer science to the mix of tools is becoming very relevant."
Zinman believes that virtual production is still closer to its infancy than its zenith, and that years from now, television will look very different. But perhaps not that many years. Said Sarmiento, "The technology is going to evolve, and it's going to evolve fast. We're in a whole different place now than we were just a year ago."
Decidedly less technical was the session "Plugging In: Helping Students Launch a Career in TV," which covered internships and early career opportunities in television. On the panel were Rabia Abedin, manager, early career programs & diversity outreach, DreamWorks Animation; Nicholas Levan, manager, university relations, WarnerMedia; and Lilly Zhang, senior director, recruiting, Endeavor. Rob Swartz, SVP, development and production, Reelz — and a former Foundation intern — moderated.
All of the panelists' companies offer internships covering a broad array of divisions and disciplines, including some surprises; Endeavor's portfolio, for instance, goes beyond agency representation to fashion, cultural marketing and even mixed martial arts.
When it comes to hiring for a job rather than an internship, what do the panelists look for in candidates just out of college? Recalling her own experience, Zhang said, "There was a passion and an eagerness, coupled with the humility of how much I didn't know coming in the door." Other positive traits: knowing what you're good at and what you gravitate toward in the industry while being open to and curious about other opportunities, and knowing how your extracurricular interests and activities can be advantageous in an industry position.
Levan looks for confidence but also teachability, a willingness to learn from those more experienced. "And then, [we like] people who have done a lot of research and know what they're getting into," he said. "Can they interact with their team? Can they bring something different and new?" Also important: "If they can show me the one thing that they're either the most proud of in their career up to that point, or that they worked the hardest on or maybe struggled the hardest on, if they can tell me how that experience prepared them for this role, then that makes all the difference, because then I know they have the drive to stick with it and move forward in the company."
When it comes to diversity outreach, Abedin's department has built relationships with entertainment programs and organizations to be able to offer employment opportunities to people who might not have otherwise heard about them —
Becoming aware of career prospects resonates with Conference attendee Valerie Harris, an instructor in mass media arts at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta who, as a public relations strategist, has also managed local publicity campaigns for HBO documentaries. Many of her students are already content creators, but for the others, "[the Conference] shows them that you don't have to create your own YouTube channel, if that's not the way you want to do it," she says. "You'll still be able to engage and work and make money, with well-known established brands and companies."
A recipient of the Trebek fellowship, Harris was drawn to the game show panel: "That was the area I knew the least about. I had no idea about the behind the scenes." She appreciates the real-world information she gleaned throughout the conference, giving her students more than just an academic perspective on the industry.
Fellow attendee and former Television Academy Foundation intern Joseph Fortunato, a principal lecturer at Arizona State University in the Sidney Poitier New American Film School, viewed the conference through the dual lens of academia and his former career as a television writer and development executive. The sessions with writers and producers were more like refresher courses. "The ones that were technical were more of a learning experience," he says. "And I was fascinated with how the social media companies are developing programming, and how similar it was to the traditional development roles. It was enlightening."
Reflecting on her own first Faculty Seminar: The Conference, Bizira says, "The Foundation has a really special position. We get to build dynamic programming that connects faculty and the industry together in a really meaningful way. I can't think of a more meaningful touch point for faculty than to have this behind-the-scenes insider's view. And then there are the full circle moments [when Foundation alumni such as Swartz return as participants]. That's the fun part for us, to be able to see our former interns come full circle, to actually being the industry leaders that faculty are sitting with. That's where we know: we're really, truly making an impact."