Robert Mugge




Student Films

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Music Films and Documentaries



Student Crews on Faculty Film Productions:  A Bridge Between Internships and Immersive Learning

by Robert Mugge

On location in Bucharest, Romania for the film SOUVENIRS OF BUCOVINA
On location in Bucharest, Romania for the film SOUVENIRS OF BUCOVINA

In the early 1970s, when I was an undergraduate Screen Arts major at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) and then an MFA candidate in the documentary filmmaking program at Temple University, three experiences made an indelible impact on my plans for a filmmaking career. The first was when the head of UMBC’s Screen Arts Department directed an ultra low-budget feature film and allowed several of his students, myself included, to work as paid interns on the production. Fortunately, I was asked to assist the film’s professional sound man, who would go on to serve as audio director for nearly every film I made between 1976 and 2007 (at which point, he contracted a rare lung disease which prevented him from working). The second was when I received a student filmmaking grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and, assisted by some of my fellow students, created an hour-long documentary about an Appalachian mining town. The third, in graduate school, was taking a course on “the movie business” that laid out the financial side of a career that, until then, had seemed to me solely a matter of art and technology.

Flash forward to August of 2009 when, after working more than three decades as an independent producer-director of nonfiction films and television programs, I was hired by the TCOM Department at Ball State University to serve as their Endowed Chair Professor. Not having been heavily involved in academia for as many years as I’d been a full-time producer, I was taken aback by the emphasis now placed on two somewhat familiar means of preparing students for the filmmaking or broadcasting workplace: internships and immersive learning. Generally speaking, the internships were not like the one I had experienced, in that they tended to be unpaid and only occasionally brought students into direct connection, or even collaboration, with professional filmmakers working in the studio or on location. More often, they seemed to involve unpaid and temporary, entry-level positions in some part of the film or TV industry, with the students doing little more than answering telephones and running errands, and with their families forced to absorb any necessary moving and living expenses (the latter demands helping to ensure that only students from wealthier families need apply). But financial issues aside, internships did at least seem to offer varying amounts of so-called “real world experience” and contact with working professionals. At the other extreme were immersive learning projects, which, at my university, meant projects that were assigned to students, but that involved full creative and technical control left to the students themselves, whether or not they had the talent, the experience, the knowledge, or the emotional maturity to ensure a positive result. In some cases, this meant theatrical feature films (one per year) ostensibly produced, directed, written, edited, scored, and so forth by students, while in many other cases, it meant smaller student production teams producing videos intended to benefit state and local businesses, community organizations, or government agencies. In all of these cases, dedicated faculty members have worked hard and often skillfully to provide structure and support for the students’ efforts, and some of the results have been extremely good, while, not surprisingly, others have not.

On location in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for the film All Jams on Deck
On location in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for the film
Naturally, I could see the benefits of internships, which included providing students with a sense of how employees interact in actual, media-related workplaces, as well as permitting them to make commercial contacts that could lead to future employment; and I could see the benefits of immersive learning projects, where students had to band together to accomplish meaningful tasks, including those carried out for the equivalent of future paying clients. At the same time, I saw what I believed to be major educational deficiencies in each of these trends. With regard to internships, they removed students from traditional teaching environments with quantifiable educational outcomes and the supervision of individuals motivated to instruct, and instead placed them in situations where, at best, learning was to be absorbed while students were assigned the most menial of tasks under the supervision of workers not required to provide them with either relevant information or rewarding experiences. With regard to immersive learning, groups of students were expected to form into traditional production crews, with sometimes only minimal input from instructors, and to perform filmmaking tasks for which they often had not been sufficiently trained. When such inexperienced students have total control of films made for outside organizations and institutions, the university cannot truly guarantee the quality of what ultimately is delivered. In addition, when the immersive learning project is, say, the production of a dramatic feature film with creative control again exerted totally by students, only those students chosen for key roles (e.g., producer, director, writer, director of photography, audio director, editor, etc.) will be able to bring any personal creativity or initiative to the project, and rarely will students have the opportunity to observe or learn from experienced professionals in each of the separate crafts involved, as they might at least have a chance of doing in an internship situation.

Presumably, students do receive varying amounts of knowledge and guidance from the instructors assigned to oversee immersive learning projects. Still, when universities insist that true immersive learning can only be realized when students retain full creative control of a project, at least some degree of “blind leading the blind” would seem to be inevitable, the implication being that it’s preferable for students to succeed or fail on their own rather than for them to be taught anything in the process. At any rate, while recognizing certain obvious benefits of both internships and immersive learning, I couldn’t help but wonder if other approaches might be available that could offer some of the acknowledged benefits of each, while perhaps avoiding some of the drawbacks. And finding such approaches was a goal that I set for myself, and, frankly, that my new employers implicitly set for me.

When I was brought to Ball State, it was with the understanding that I would share my own filmmaking experience with students, that I would inspire them with my ongoing creative activities, and that I would give at least some of them the opportunity to work with me on actual productions. I’ve attempted to do that by means that fall somewhere between those associated with internships and those associated with immersive learning. In fact, no sooner did I arrive on campus than I was asked to oversee a class that would create promotional videos for the State of Indiana’s relatively new, poorly funded, and minimally staffed film commission. Now, I considered this an extremely worthwhile goal and was happy to play a part. However, I can’t begin to describe my response when I was handed several amateurish student scripts, the result of a previous immersive learning class, and was told that these would be the basis for the promotional videos which my own students were to produce under my guidance. At around the same time, I was approached by administration figures asking me if I would also produce a promotional video for the university itself, since the video that had been written and produced by still another immersive learning class had proven to be woefully inadequate for the university’s purposes.

Having now seen two solid examples of what terrible work can result when students of only average talent and motivation are left totally to their own devices, and resolving that the state film commission would not be given inferior materials to assist it in its mission, I decided that the balance between student and faculty control needed to be tilted back towards faculty once again. More specifically, I did the following: First, I discarded the scripts I’d been handed and quickly wrote four basic frameworks for interrelated promo videos; second, I divided my students into as many groups, assigned each group to produce one of the videos, and assigned all of the students to shoot footage around the state that could be utilized for all four videos; third, I drafted a few of the better students to assist me in filming the state film commissioner (fortunately, an attractive and articulate young woman) reciting the text for each of the four videos; fourth, I worked with the commissioner to acquire free music from bands and singer-songwriters based within the state; and fifth, while each of the four groups produced one promotional video approximately two minutes long, I again drafted some of the best students to assist me in creating a short documentary about the ongoing efforts of the film commission. By the time we were through, the state film commissioner had four promotional videos she could use in attracting Hollywood film productions and national or international television productions to the state, and she also had a short documentary she could use to inform the governor and members of the state legislature about what she was doing with what money she’d been allotted. For their part, the students got to make their own major contributions to the effort, received production credits for five short films made with commercial applications, and were permitted to work with, and learn from, a veteran producerdirector- writer-editor. In other words, everybody won. But it’s my belief that, had I allowed my production students to create these promotional videos totally on their own, and insisted that they utilize the poorly written scripts created by an earlier class, the film commission would not have received the sort of professional products it needed to do its job, and the students would not have had as valuable a learning experience as they did. This, in turn, begs the question of why some universities are so insistent that the only valid immersive learning production experiences are those where students have full creative control of both the process and the end product.

Because of my long history as a producer-director of nonfiction films, I also was asked to teach sections of two of our department’s more advanced video production courses. But believing, as I did, that production students in our department were not having enough exposure (if any) to our single, world-class professor of film studies, I decided that I would incorporate these studies into every production course I taught. So, in my sections of such courses, every student is assigned creative video projects over which he or she has full creative control, but every student is also expected to learn how significant fiction and nonfiction filmmakers of the past and present have used film or video to tell similar stories. I have done this out of concern that some university film and television programs are becoming more concerned with producing graduates who can find a place in the corporate marketplace than they are with producing ones who are knowledgeable enough about film and television history and aesthetics to be able to create valuable work of their own.

In my second semester as an Endowed Chair Professor, I decided to extend these efforts in two additional directions. First, I created a course on the business of film and television producing, because that, too, was missing at our institution, and because, unlike internships, which often teach students little more than to be helpful functionaries, I wanted to prepare our students for participating on the highest levels of any and all professional production situations. To do this in the Midwest meant relying heavily on Skype interviews with industry veterans based around the country, but those individuals could tell my students just as much via the Internet as they could tell students in person at USC, UCLA or NYU.

In addition, as part of an advanced video production course I taught that semester - one in which students were already expected to create ambitious videos of their own and to watch and discuss related classic films - I decided to give all interested students the opportunity to serve as camera, lighting and audio technicians on my latest feature-length music documentary. So, with my production partner of the past five years co-producing once again, and with TCOM’s audio czar overseeing large-scale music recording and mixing, I spent approximately a week shooting with my student crew on numerous locations around Indiana and Ohio. Predictably, my university did not consider this a true immersive learning experience, in that I retained total control of the production. But a fair number of talented students were able to make significant contributions to a commercial project, to earn legitimate production credits, and to assist veteran filmmakers on an effort that reached well beyond the usual limits of the university.

As it happens, I was quite pleased with the results of this experiment, and fortunately, so were the heads of my department and my college. However, to my dismay, I also ran up against a university policy wherein, if a project is conducted even partially within the framework of a university course, or if any of the equipment used is owned by the university, then the finished product, too, is to be owned by the university. Inasmuch as I had been specifically requested to allow students to assist me on my productions, and inasmuch as I and others (especially the musicians whose songs and performances we were documenting) had spent months working on this project and invested thousands of dollars of our own money into the effort, this seemed a surprising determination by university officials - all the more so since I had gone out of my way to inform them about the project and had offered them one-third ownership of the production, with the other two-thirds to be split between the musicians and my own production company).

When the university refused this offer and, instead, insisted on total ownership of our finished product, I declared that the musicians and I would simply give away the finished film over the Internet rather than allow someone else to own our work. In time, however, a couple of members of the administration relented, determining that I could own this particular production, but also declaring that, in the future, a “firewall” must exist between the university and my creative projects. The idea was that, so long as the university had no direct, or even indirect, involvement in my productions, I would be allowed to own them, regardless of whether or not I was still in the employ of the university while undertaking them. Obviously, this solved the problem of how I could keep control of my own work, but it also formalized obstacles to my allowing students to assist with such productions.

Over the summer of 2010, while completing editing and post-production on that first festure-length film to utilize my students, I also taught what I called a “mini film school” of courses, once again combining video production and film studies. Then, in the fall, I figured out how I could involve some of my students on another feature-length production without violating the university’s new “firewall” concept. What my partner and I did was to collaborate for a second time with the promoter of two annual, music-related cruises who agreed to provide minimal funding for a new film about blues jamming to be shot on his October cruise. As a result, we were able to hire four of my more advanced students to shoot, light and record audio for us in return for their receiving a free cruise to Mexico, production credits on a feature-length documentary (in lieu of university course credits), and a week of true immersive learning in international waters and a foreign country. As I would on any of my outside productions, I rented all of the production equipment myself. However, because three of the four students owned their own Canon DSLR cameras and Zoom audio recorders, I decided to rent some of the equipment from the students themselves, which also gave them additional spending money for the trip.

Had the university been more supportive of this particular effort, organizing it would have been easier. However, to be fair, university officials did assist me in creating the legal documents necessary for students to participate, and both my department and my college applauded the inventive means we’d devised for involving students in outside activities. So, even if the university-imposed compromise did prove a hindrance, it still permitted my overall efforts to go forward.

Throughout much of the winter and spring of 2011, I edited the primary feature-length music doc that resulted from our October shoot and prepared it for festival screenings and a DVD release in the fall. During the same period, I also stayed alert for other professional opportunities in which more of my students could be included. Such an opportunity appeared when two Anthropology professors offered to let my partner and me accompany them on their annual research trip to northern Romania and to bring along four of my students. The understanding we developed - once again approved by the university - was that Diana and I would pay for our own transportation and lodging, and my four students would join seven Anthropology students in paying to register for six Anthropology credits. That is, I would not be paid to teach, even though the four students from my department were specifically signing on in order to work with my partner and me. I also would once again pay for the rental of video and audio equipment (much of it provided by my students, as it had been on the previous project), and the students would spend three and a half weeks assisting my partner and me in the shooting of a long form documentary. In addition, the students would attend occasional meetings with the Anthropology group, would read what was assigned by the Anthropology professors, and, in their spare time, would produce a small film of their own about the research activities of the Anthropology professors and students.

Unfortunately, this interdepartmental collaboration was fraught with problems, which ranged from location control issues to a complete mismanagement of travel and living arrangements. However, the filming itself, which my group undertook entirely on its own, went splendidly, and I am now editing what will be a two-hour film, a four-hour TV series, or both. So, yet again, my partner and I found ways in which to involve students in one of our productions, and the students responded not only by learning a good deal, but also by doing surprisingly professional work under our guidance. That, in turn, would seem to vindicate, still again, my own preferred means of creating immersive learning situations, by which I mean those wherein students can contribute to a large-scale project in an organized fashion, and where they can work closely with professional filmmakers who also happen to be educators commited to student learning.

Ironically, the separate film produced by my students did not work out nearly so well as did our primary production. For the record, I’d determined that this smaller film would be produced in accordance with the university’s preferred approach to immersive learning, which meant that the students themselves would have total control. Granted, I did go so far as to give them time off from our larger project so that they could cover the other group’s key events; reminded them almost daily of the need to stay focused on their additional obligations; encouraged them to work out shooting approaches among themselves; gave them tips about conducting interviews and devising a nonfiction narrative; and even gave them access to a bit of footage shot for the larger production. Sadly, though, little of what I said to them seemed to have much of an effect, because the first cut of their film to be screened for me possessed no narrative structure, chronicled little of importance from the Anthropology group’s three and a half weeks in Romania, and was riddled with technical problems such as wind noise during key interviews. I did later help them to rework their material to a point where the Anthropology professors were pleased with the results, but doing so meant weeks of helping them to restructure their narrative and find alternatives to unusable footage.

Now, this is not to say that the contrast between the excellent work the students contributed to my production and the mediocre work they did when left to their own devices proved anything definitive about the dominant form of immersive learning practiced today at my university and others. But even anecdotal evidence taken from limited examples can sometimes lead to common-sense conclusions. As I’ve said, I fully recognize that some students can benefit greatly from internships in the film and broadcasting industries, and some students (especially the more experienced and self-motivated ones) can benefit from immersive learning situations where students are given full creative and technical control over assigned productions. However, I believe that permitting students to work on films and TV programs produced and directed by faculty members who happen to be veteran filmmakers offers a bridge between the most positive aspects of internships and immersive learning, which I would define as the exposure to professional filmmakers and workplaces on the one hand, and the opportunity to serve as a part of working crews on the other. In my opinion, the best time for students to have full control over creative projects is when they have designed those projects themselves and are therefore passionate enough to carry them out to their fullest abilities (as they tend to do in my advanced video production courses), and arguably, the worst possible scenario is when unproven and unprepared students are asked to create, on their own, promotional videos for outside businesses, government agencies, or community organizations which truly need those materials to be as professionally produced as possible. But then, as I say, my own ideas were formed when I was an undergraduate film student myself and was, on the one hand, allowed to be part of a professional feature film production overseen by my film professor serving as director and his partner serving as producer, and on the other hand, when I was able to secure a government grant in order to produce a documentary of my own design using fellow students as my paid crew and my professor as an experienced advisor. These seminal experiences, along with a solid course on the business of filmmaking, laid the groundwork for my subsequent career as a filmmaker, and also taught me what I believe to be some of the best approaches for teaching filmmaking to others. That said, I hope that the opinions I’ve expressed will be accepted merely as part of the ongoing dialogue on how we can best teach university students to become fully functioning producers, directors, writers, cinematographers, audio technicians, editors, and more. All of us know what a huge challenge this can be, but I do believe that veteran filmmakers have a significant role to play in the training, mentoring and encouragement of the next generation of professionals, and I hope that university policies - in particular, poorly conceived and applied rules regarding university ownership of the creative and scholarly work of faculty members - do not prevent them from doing a job for which they are uniquely suited.

© Robert Edwin Mugge 2011