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Lights, Camera, POLITICS!

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Simon’s Rock students don’t wait to land a job at a major studio to find out what it’s like to anchor a news program, moderate a political debate or produce a television broadcast; they enroll in Larry Burke’s Electronic Arts Studio Video Production course. With unfettered access to the state-of-the-art equipment located in the College’s Electronic Arts Studio, Burke tours students through the technical process of filming by orchestrating a series of three hands-on projects. “The goal,” he says, “is to introduce the students to aspects of broadcast journalism, to familiarize them with the range of technology in the studio, and to learn techniques that are used in 3-camera ‘live-to-tape’ productions.”

Welcome to class: a dimly lit studio with a bright green screen, a grid sporting electronically-controlled lighting, a chroma key curtain for blue-screen effects, sophisticated digital video cameras, and a seamless backdrop for still photography. Next door in the control room, students work on a massive sound and lighting board, control the teleprompter, and monitor screens feeding shots from the studio and the field. “Basically,” Burke says, “this is a near-professional television studio.” 

On a Friday afternoon in October, the EAS class is finalizing their first project. Students are collaboratively writing, directing, producing and reporting on the political climate at Simon’s Rock in a program they call, “The Election Nears: Conversations on the 2008 Presidential Election.” Splitting into groups of three, correspondents interviewed campus political experts like Political Science professor Asma Abbas and Provost and Vice President Mary B.Marcy. Today, they are cutting the field segments together with studio pieces.  

Floor managers are calling for cameramen to “tighten the cues” and for anchors to “stay on the mark.” The control room crew tracks the action on half a dozen screens while cueing monologues on the teleprompter and relaying feedback to the crew in studio. “Tell Patty to look up,” one student instructs after she catches the correspondent’s sideways gaze while introducing a field segment. Patty looks up and nails the introduction on the third take. “Got it,” director Olivia Stransky relays to the floor manager. 

Guiding the taping process is veteran television producer Mike Watt. As students in the control room question what can and can’t be edited during “post production” Watt weighs-in, peppering the conversation with industry wisdom. “Keep the tape rolling,” he says motioning his arms. “There is nothing cheaper than tape.” Watt and Burke dart between the control room and the studio. They’re advising students on how to adapt to unexpected technical difficulties. The students are quick to improvise. “OK, listen up,” the floor manager pipes, “When we’re rolling just pay attention to my cues. I’m the only one with sound.”

Anchor and host Tajah Coleman-Jones doesn’t skip a beat. She’s rehearsing the tail end of her monologue and waiting for her cue. She stands between two goofy graphics that have McCain and Obama battling to the left and right of her on screen. She wraps up without a giggle, gets some feedback from Burke, and the cameras point to Samantha Scott and the campus pundits.

Scott is talking questions with Stransky. She is fifteen minutes from moderating a panel discussion that will have a campus Republican and Democrat discussing political positions. The idea is illicit dialogue. Stransky proposes some adjustments that could leave more room for some back and forth between the students. After a few minutes of negotiation, the two agree that the revised format works better.

“We had a bunch of hands-on practice before we taped, but I thought that we would do a step-by-step run through,” Scott says. “We just keep taping until we get it right.”  Exactly, says Burke. “We learn by doing!”  And, he adds, “we learn by making our own mistakes!”

Stansky is back in the control room, headset on, instructing the floor manager to take it from the top. Will Hayworth is buried in piles of paper he prepared for the discussion. This gets a reaction. The crew is having fun with him—nothing that can’t be edited out “in post”. Hayworth is undeterred. He’s intent and studying until it’s time to go live.

Scott says that even though it’s just a class, “you can feel the energy,” she says, “it feels like we’re broadcasting.” This makes her a little nervous.Watt helps them loosen up. “Just keep talking when we’re live. Don’t worry about anything, we can do a lot with editing for this piece” he says. 

Three, two, one live! Watt is back to the control room watching the discussion on one of the monitors. He points out where Stransky should dip in for editing next week. “I’d probably start from this point…” he directs. She makes a note of it as Burke works with staff technologist Steve Bohrer to zero in on some sound difficulties.

Two hours have passed quickly. Despite Watts’ earlier prediction that the EAS crew would need to keep a tight shooting schedule because everyone would “make a quick escape the moment the clock struck 5:00 pm,” there’s no discernable rush. Students in the control room are divvying post production responsibilities: final cutting, editing, cutting the “B rolls” – non-critical footage used for fill-in shots between segments – together. In the studio, Scott and the pundits are taking their time wrapping up the panel discussion.

Moving at a speed that would make any professional proud, the election special is a wrap. The class is already in the preproduction stage of their next project: filming a short, comic fiction piece written by one of the EAS students, Patrick McKeown. The setting: a community TV studio. The subject: a Johnny Carson-wannabe in the process of taping his first show.

More:

Watch The Election Nears: Conversations on the 2008 Presidential Election