WGBH partnership engages in real world production

by Natalie Busch / Beacon Staff • March 17, 2016

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Emerson students helped produced WGBH’s a capella show Sing that Thing!
Courtesy of Bavand Karim
Emerson students helped produced WGBH’s a capella show Sing that Thing!
Courtesy of Bavand Karim

Aspiring media makers are operating cameras, shooting b-roll, and editing footage for a hands-on course offered this semester that allows Emerson students to gain professional experience as crew members on a broadcast television show. 

Topics in Visual and Media Arts: WGBH Partnership is available for the second time ever this semester. Brooke Knight, chair of the department of visual and media arts, said the class allows for experiential learning and functions as a capstone course.

“It’s an opportunity for students to engage in real world production side-by-side with professionals,” Knight said. “All the work that they’ve done in our TV studios and classes comes to fruition when they’re working over at WGBH.”

The class was offered for the first time last spring. Both semesters, students have worked in collaboration with local PBS affiliate WGBH on Sing That Thing!,a show where amateur high school, college, and adult a cappella groups compete against one another. 

According to Robert Sabal, interim dean of the visual and media arts department, Emerson’s partnership with the station was the product of the collaborative efforts of President M. Lee Pelton, who serves on the WGBH Board of Trustees; Jonathan C. Abbott, president and CEO of WGBH; Liz Cheng, WGBH’s general manager for television and executive producer of Sing That Thing!; and Donna Heiland, Emerson vice president and special assistant.

The team spends a total of two weeks working on the production. Each week consists of four days on set from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. According to Karim, the four credit course also consists of time spent in the classroom editing footage, writing reflection papers, and reading relevant texts. 

It’s taught by Bavand Karim, a filmmaker and assistant professor in the department of visual and media arts. Karim said communication between the crew is crucial to the production.

“My job is to make everyone’s job easier,” Karim said. “I’m the conduit between the WGBH executive producers and our team.”

According to Karim, there are 12 students enrolled in the class. All of them are at least second semester sophomores and have taken production courses before. Karim said students submitted a letter of interest and he selected applicants based on their individual skills, their success in collaborative projects, and their rapport with their peers.

“It’s not as important to me for a student to be a technical master in every area, but more so have an open mind, to say, ‘Okay, I’m part of a team. Whatever the team needs, I’m going to do it,’” Karim said. “Those are the types of personalities that I look for.” 

Karim said the class’s chemistry has been crucial to the success of the course. 

“One thing that really separates Emerson from other universities I’ve visited and worked at is that the students here really want it,” Karim said. “They’re not afraid of the challenge, they’re not afraid of discipline and working hard, and they’re not afraid to sacrifice.”  

Juliet Vibert, a senior visual and media arts major, was a producer and b-roll shooter on the set. As producer, she was responsible for conducting interviews with the groups before and after their performances. Vibert said that Emerson students are given real responsibilities at WGBH.

“Not a lot of people in college can say they worked for an actual TV competition show,” Vibert said. “I think that’s something that will help me, that I have actual professional work.”

John Depa, a junior visual and media arts major, is also taking the course this semester. As a b-roll shooter, Depa is responsible for filming footage of the groups when they aren’t performing or being interviewed. He said his experience has been positive.

Depa said that by working in both production and post-production, he discovered the skills that he wanted to improve in the future.

“My senior year, I’m going to be changing the classes that I was originally intending on taking to add variety,” Depa said. “I need to really round out the areas that I found that I was weak in.”

Karim said that after seven hours on set, students often return to campus near midnight and have to wake up for classes the next day. 

“I always ask them to gauge their feelings,” Karim said. “Because as tired as we all are, we still leave set feeling good, with a sense of accomplishment and a sense of pride about what we did that day. And you know that you’re going to have a piece of creative work on your reel that nobody can take away from you.”

Karim said there is a plethora of networking opportunities on set.  

“You have access to the producers, the executive producers, the director, and the camera operators,” Karim said. “Any position that you want to learn about professionally, they are there for you to speak with them.”

Karim said his pupils initially expressed doubt about applying their classroom knowledge to real-world situations. 

“A lot of times, it’s understanding that it takes creativity, flexibility, and an improvisational ability to succeed in creative production,” Karim said. “And that’s what students learned: The only thing [they were] missing was confidence.”

Vibert said working in a professional setting helped her to reaffirm her commitment to her major.

“It made me realize that Emerson really needs to be doing more partnerships like this,” Vibert said. “This is a great experience and a great thing to put on your resume.”

According to Knight, the availability of the course next year depends on whether Sing That Thing! gets renewed for a third season.

“The partnership from our end is terrific,” Knight said. “We’ll continue to look for ways to collaborate with WGBH. It’s a tremendous resource right here in Boston and they love our students.”