Not just film kids: the forgotten side of VMA

by Mark Gartsbeyn / Beacon Staff • November 5, 2015

Imagine a typical visual and media arts student. Maybe you envision someone peering through the viewfinder of a camera borrowed from the Equipment Distribution Center, or hunched over a Steenbeck in the Ansin Building, meticulously splicing celluloid strips together. For many, the VMA department is synonymous with Emerson’s reputation as a haven for movie buffs—after all, the Hollywood Reporter called the college one of the top 10 film schools in the country last month.

But VMA isn’t all film kids. You have animators, game designers, and music producers. Of course aspiring directors, producers, writers, editors, and cinematographers still make up the majority of the department; in 2013 less than 10 percent of the students seeking a major in VMA declared a specialization outside of live action film or television, according to Emerson’s 2014-2015 factbook.

Still, this isn’t a quantitatively small minority—last year, the department as a whole represented 43 percent of the entire undergraduate body with its 1,628 students, larger than the next three departments combined. As a minority in the largest department at the college, students interested in fields like audio and animation naturally have fewer options than those pursuing a career in film or television.

 

Making motion media

In the fall of 2014 the VMA department merged all of their disparate majors into the catch-all BA in visual and media arts production. Before this, 40 out of over 1500 VMA students were seeking a degree in animation and motion media. The largest VMA major then was film production, with 631 students.

Sophomore Elias Kelter, who said he’s interested in television animation, said that while required classes like History of Media Arts and Media Criticism are useful, they spend very little time talking about his field of choice.

“I would definitely appreciate an actual animation history course,” Kelter said. “That’s something I would be a lot more interested in taking and probably would get a lot more use out of it, to learn what others have done before me.”

This semester, students can take a seminar on experimental animator Jules Engel. The class is only accessible to juniors and seniors.

Freshman Brandon Schneider said he’s interested in writing and directing anime. However, he said that History of Media Arts is important to find out how the media industry got started, even though it’s more geared towards live action film and television.

“I think classes like that really do make an impact and resonate with me,” Schneider said. “But it’s still difficult to find something that can give me a foothold in animation, gear my writing towards animation, it's more just the dialogue.”

Right now, Anya Belkina and John Craig Freeman are the only full-time animation professors. There are over 45 full-time faculty in VMA, most of whom teach film-centric courses. The only dedicated motion media classes are Drawing for Time Based Media, Computer Animation, Advanced Computer Animation, and Motion Graphics.

Kelter said he didn’t mind his foundations class, especially since it mostly covered topics that were also applicable in animation, like cinematography, lighting, and audio. Schneider said he’d love to see a voice acting class integrated into the VMA department.

“You have to be a lot more dramatic, because you don’t have any movements that can really convey the emotions you’re trying to portray,” Schneider said. “But on the other hand, the animators are really part of the acting, because they’re making the person move around.”

 

Video game validation

Nicole Smith, a sophomore, said she wants to be a sound designer for video games. She said that although required classes largely focus on film and television, she still finds those courses valuable because gaming is one of the youngest mediums in the entertainment industry.

“You’re just learning about what came before,” Smith said. “It’s all narrative media.”

There were 15 interactive media majors in 2013. Sarah Zaidan is the only dedicated full-time interactive media professor. She teaches classes in game design and media culture.

Smith said that historical trends and themes in film could be applied to video games today.

“In the 1970s, you have the Hollywood Renaissance, [focusing on] irresolution and gray morality,” Smith said. “In the past few years, as consoles have gotten more powerful, game developers have gotten more interested in making more realistic games.”

Jeff Soyk and David Kelleher, both part-time, teach courses in interactive media, which focuses on web-based content. In total, there are three dedicated classes in the specialization.

Smith said she was lucky to have a game project in one of her introductory classes, where students are taught the basics of photography, graphics, audio, film, video, and digital media. She said she was happy to practice techniques from outside of her field.

“Learning how to operate a camera has made me think of visuals in a different way,” Smith said. “You don't want to just know this one thing about this one thing, you want to have a general knowledge to connect with the rest of your team.”

Students can practice game design at Emerson’s Engagement Lab, an applied research lab focusing on games, technology, and new media. The lab hosts some marketing and visual and media arts topics courses throughout the year.

 

Sound, not renowned

The largest non-film or TV major in 2013 was sound design/audio post-production, with 89 students across four years. Full-time professors Pierre Archambault and Elizabeth Fausak teach courses in sound design and sound production.

Travis Beaney, the live mix coordinator at WERS, said that his primary interest is music recording and production. The junior said that the effectiveness of a required class for a sound major depends on the teacher.

“For example, my media crit professor always made a point to always make sure that audio was just as important as the visual. I really appreciate when professors do that,” Beaney said. “To be the only audio kid in a 50 person class and have my professor specifically emphasize audio means a lot.”

Instead of taking Writing for Television or Writing the Short Subject, students can take Critical Listening, which focuses on sound media. While there are currently 11 sections of Writing for TV and 12 for Short Subject, there’s only one section of Critical Listening. Students can also take classes in location sound recording and studio recording.

Beaney said he was planning on taking a course at Berklee College of Music next semester through the ProArts Consortium, an association of six colleges dedicated to the visual and performing arts.

“I really think it’s a good solution to Emerson not having that emphasis internally,” Beaney said.
“But I wish it was a little more streamlined. Basically the entire thing has to be done through physical paper, getting physical signatures from people.”

Jacob Hines, who graduated last year with a VMA degree, is now working at Walt Disney World Resort as an entertainment stage technician with a speciality in sound. Hines said that because VMA does not explicitly differentiate between specializations, underclassmen interested in audio can lose priority over older students from another field.

“I know as a freshman, I struggled with not having a single sound class,” Hines said. “A lot of freshmen are trying to get into [Introduction to Sound Principles and Audio Production], but you can’t get in because seniors are trying to take it on their last year out.”

Beaney said that the lower demand for audio at Emerson is actually beneficial for those in the field.

“It allows for us to have more opportunities to work with equipment, to have more one on one time with audio faculty, and you have more options helping out other people on film shoots or TV shows,” Beaney said. “People always need audio people.”

Hines said he knew many sound majors who would come to Emerson and want to do a lot of work in a recording studio.

“They’d expect to be music production majors, almost,” Hines said. “We have two classes in studio recording, and that’s really the only time you get to work in the studio outside of WERS. We always joked that we’re the ‘forgotten child,’ along with the animation students, in the VMA department.”