Lights! Camera! Create!
Making news, making television
by Ben Barnhart
Johnson is president of the Union Video Center, the student-run TV station that feeds programming onto Channel 19 of the universitys Housing Services Cable Network, and shes beginning to show the strain of successive long nights in the editing room as the production team struggles to get the latest edition of UMass This Week on tape. Her on-air crew news anchors Olivia Blanco Mullins 01 and Jamie Loo 03 and entertainment reporter Ben Nicotera 03 nod sullenly until Mullins breaks into a huge grin and says, with a laugh,Stop staring! The mounting tension is broken.
Its 9 p.m. at mid-week, but the Union Video Center is buzzing with activity. At an hour when many students are watching television, these dozen or so are making television: editing feature-length movies, special projects, or packages segments for the weekly half-hour news show thats being recorded in the studio. Others are hanging out in the stations dingy corridors talking shop.
UVC is supported by the student activities trust fund and the several thousand dollars it raises each year by producing and selling videos of commencement. Among its paid staff of fourteen and general membership of 180 are students of all backgrounds, interests, and majors, brought together by a shared desire to create video. Naturally, many are interested in journalism or communications, but relatively few are majoring in those fields.
Johnson, for instance, is an economics major, and news producer Rebecca Sablo 02 is enrolled in the social thought and political economy program. Many UVC members also have their fingers in the campus other media outlets, such as WMUA and The Daily Collegian. Vice-president Shawn Downs 01, one of those hanging around the studio this evening has been both a WMUA disc jockey and a Collegian columnist, and characterizes UVC as a microcosm of UMass.
Its what you make of it, says Downs, a massive, talkative chap who seems eternally caffeinated. Theres a lot of potential here to do very creative things for example, his own full-length feature film, Noise, a college comedy that he began writing his freshman year and produced with UVC equipment.
We think of this as a co-curricular environment, says technician Jim Gagne, who, along with newly-hired general manager Marsha Shoeffler comprise the stations non-student staff. Its a place where students come to learn the practical behind the theory.
The resulting programming runs the gamut of student interests: athletics, talk shows, music videos, on-campus lectures, cultural and political events, and issues-oriented programming on such subjects as prejudice or alcohol abuse. Some of the work produced by UVC members is for credit, but often students simply have a message and TV19 is their mouthpiece.
Cameraman Michael Ouellette 03 zooms in on Mullins face as she gives a rundown of the weeks headlines followed by Sablos three-minute documentary on protesters at the International Monetary Funds conference in Washington. Next up is Loos student-on-the-street survey of Southwest residents responding to the vandalism, suspensions, and proposals for dorm security cameras that followed from a recent power outage on campus. After an esoteric segment on new funny techno music and a calendar of the weekend art happenings by Nicotera, Andrea Crane 02 gives a well-rehearsed reading of sports headlines and Jim Landry 03 delivers his weather routine in front of a blank blue chromo-key wall. (Maps and graphics will be added in the editing room.)
UVC students inevitably learn to deal with the technical difficulties that plague such high-tech undertakings. Tonight, for example, the microphone picks up the click-and-whir of a visiting photographers camera and the din of an event going on upstairs in the Cape Cod Lounge. Having these kinds of problems to solve is partly what makes UVC such a valuable stepping-stone for the video-inclined, says David Skillicorn 77.
Skillicorn is the founding producer of Chronicle, the weekly news magazine from WCVB Channel 5 in Boston, and back in 1976 he founded the UMass Student Video Project, which evolved into the UVC. As an undergrad in communication, Skillicorn discovered a small trove of unused video equipment in the campus center. He borrowed the gear, taught himself how to use it, and began recruiting fellow students to form a video club.
I was so excited that I wanted to establish something that would last, something that would be bigger than my own interest in making films, says Skillicorn. So he went dorm-to-dorm selling the project to fellow students, and what began as a small circle of enthusiasts grew into a full-fledged registered student organization with a growing list of members. Skillicorns determination to start a video club at UMass also helped launch his own successful career in television production. The producer for seventeen years of Chronicle, hes won national awards, including Emmys, teaches at Boston University, and has gained wide recognition for his work. Much of his success, he says, can be attributed to those early days at UVC.
You learn to make things work, says Skillicorn of the UVC experience. I was able to land my first jobs because of that.
His unofficial titles and they are many are much loftier, according to UMET co-director and professor of education Liane Brandon. A grateful Brandon likens Perry to a deity; indeed, he does seems omniscient, or at least omnipresent, in the basement hallways of Furcolo. He is the connection between the brains the conceptualization of UMET programming and the brawn, the nuts and bolts of scheduling, taping and editing. He confers with Brandon and CO-director Jay Carey about long-range programming and distribution plans, tutors student interns, and does much of the technical work of setting up cameras and lighting locations for taping.
Since its beginning in 1994, UMET has produced TV that strikes a balance between education and entertainment and appeals to adult as well as juvenile audiences. The shows are cablecast on local access channels in Amherst, Northampton, and several other communities throughout the state.
TV is always criticized as a passive medium, says Carey. The question we ask ourselves is: How can we produce things that are more interactive and more socially stimulating? Between Brandons experience as an independent filmmaker, Careys expertise in child development, and Perrys myriad skills and limitless energy, the trio are doing their bit to reinvent the genre of educational television. UMass school of education, they say, is the only one in the country producing television for export.
Theyve come up with some engaging series. The long-running Try This At Home gives parents and kids projects to work on together in the kitchen or backyard. Past shows like Fresh Ink, which featured poetry written and presented by local high school students, and Fine Print, a series of interviews with some of UMass best authors, including John Edgar Wideman, Dara Wier, Martín Espada, Noy Holland, and James Tate, were produced with adolescents and adults in mind.
Ever seeking a wider audience and longer life for its product, UMET signed a contract with Cinema Guild this fall for distribution of the Fine Print series to schools, libraries, and television stations worldwide. While UMET may gain royalties from the agreement, Brandon says the important benefit of the distribution deal is visibility for UMass, the school of education, and the writers featured in the series.
Using a wooden clothespin, Perry gingerly makes adjustments to a hot tungsten light that lends a warm glow to a kitchen classroom in Chenoweth Lab. As he moves the light, his crew grad students Greg Bascomb and Vincent Doyle and interns Lydia Lestage 00 and Alexis Gelburd 01, along with Brandon, who has stopped in for the pre-taping setup give criticisms and suggestions. Its purely a democratic process and everybodys got an opinion.
Hmmm. The reds too much, try a different gel.
Thats better. Now maybe a little less light on the background.
Gradually the team reaches consensus on the lighting, camera angle, and composition. Linda Kinney, a lecturer in the hotel, restaurant and travel administration department, is standing by to answer questions about the history of fast food and the invention of pizza for this segment of Who Knows. After lighting and sound checks Perry pulls out a comb to adjust a few stray locks of Kinneys hair.
Its this kind of attention to detail that separates the professional from the amateur production, Perry says. While UVC gives students freedom to experiment and to make mistakes, UMETs audience is less forgiving.
We tell our students that its OK to be bad; but if youre bad, youve got to fix it. We expect you to get it right.
Perry works with seven interns many of them UVC veterans like him and three graduate teaching assistants from diverse academic programs. The teaching element is an important aspect of UMET, and another of Perrys numerous skills that the program relies on. Communications major Alexis Gelburd, who invests at least eight hours per week at UMET, credits Perry with strengthening her editing skills and making her more comfortable behind the camera something she loathed before this internship. Hes given me more experience than the classes Ive taken, she says. And he pays more attention than some professors. Gelburd returned to UMET this fall for a second year-long internship.
As Kinney traces the long evolution of modern-day pizza from its invention by the Etruscans to Greece, Italy, and, ultimately, New York City, grad student and interviewer Greg Bascomb allays any nervousness, gently excusing her misspeaks and re-takes. After an hour of taping, Perry and his crew feel they have enough for the twenty-minute segment that will air.
As you might expect of someone in the television production business, Perry says that he watches too much TV. But, hes quick to add, even if we see a lot of television, we dont necessarily like a lot of it. He feels UMET has staked a claim to TVs higher ground with programming that seeks to invigorate the mind rather than deaden it. He credits Brandon with encouraging a philosophy that makes UMET a leader in educational TV rather than a follower.
As Liane says,
he recounts proudly, you can sit at home and criticize television,
or you can go out and do it better.