Ferris Students Master New Digital Media

xAny good reporter can tell you that some interviews are harder than others — politicians dodging scandal, ballplayers after a game-losing error and toddlers more interested in painting than putting a positive spin on day care. “I don’t always like school,” answers a budding artist when Cassandra Tyler asks her about Tot’s Place, Ferris’ on-campus child care center. Tyler and fellow Television and Digital Media senior Adam Gregory are filming a segment for the magazine-style television program “Ferris in Focus.” They will shoot a couple hours of video and conduct half of a dozen interviews to get enough content for a four-minute segment. The young Picasso’s take on education will not make the cut.

Not Just TV Anymore

Broadcast, cable, satellite dish, streaming Internet, cellular, mobile… The ways we view television/video content now that former big-three networks NBC, ABC and CBS fight for market share the same way former big-three auto makers do is a sign of our fragmented and niche-marketed times, even as players such as FOX are added to the mix. However, the digital information revolution has also created new opportunities. When Ferris’ Television Production program changed its name to Television and Digital Media Production in 2001, it was already responding to market forces that would give rise to everything from the explosion of “reality” TV shows to Internet-only musical tragicomedies.

“We made the name change to reflect changes to the use of digital media in video communication,” says Fred Wyman, TDMP department chair. “Not only was production going digital, but so was distribution.”

Glen Okonoski (EHS’95) has lived the digital revolution as a student, TV producer and now TDMP associate professor. “The ‘Digital Media’ part of the name was trying to reflect that it wasn’t just television anymore,” he says. “Today, streaming media is a big thing for us. More broadly, there’s a huge convergence of video and TV. Where other schools specialize in film production or broadcast journalism, we want to create a base of skills students can hone in whatever direction they pursue.”

The TDMP program is very oriented toward real-world production and delivery. Each week seniors in the program produce two shows — “Ferris State Live,” a studio program which is broadcast in northern Michigan by Cadillac-based FOX 32, and “Ferris in Focus,” which is Internet-based. The Tot’s Place episode is being shot for the “Big Rapids Life” segment of the show, which will also highlight Ferris’ Heavy Equipment program, the Ferris library, the Zumba fitness craze and even Tom Cruise’s new movie for the entertainment segment.

From the cameras they use to the deadlines they have to meet, producing these shows exposes students to the same equipment and pressures they will face in the workplace. Over the course of a semester, students produce 14 weekly episodes of the studio-based “Ferris State Live” and 10 weekly episodes of “Ferris in Focus” — working in pairs with one student acting as producer and the other as the camera operator and editor.

“Every other week we rotate. This week I’m running the camera. Since Cassie is producing, she’s setting up all the interviews. Then, next week I’ll produce,” explains Gregory.

“It’s a lot of work, a lot of hours you put in,” adds Tyler. “The filming is one of the easiest parts. Pre-production is harder because you have to do all of the planning and organization. Then we spend a lot of time in the lab editing and exporting the footage and making sure it’s distributed properly.”

The Non-linear World

The “footage” Tyler talks about editing is a term from the past when television production actually involved tape. Increasingly, the images viewers see on their TV or computer screens have been recorded onto a camera’s hard drive and downloaded onto a computer where they’re edited and exported to the delivery medium. The industry-standard cameras that students use still record to tape, but only as a back-up — a far cry from the days when the first students in the program, which started in 1975, shot on 2-inch tape so heavy the tape deck used compressed air (almost like an air-hockey table) in order for the reel-to-reel to spin.

“When I was a student here we used ¾-inch tape and we shot in linear editing, meaning from tape to tape,” says Okonoski. “The example I use for students is that it’s like a typewriter. You start at the beginning and you type all the way to the end. If you have a wrong line you go back and re-type that page — there’s no cut and paste. The advent of non-linear, computer-based editing is the same principle as a word processor. Now we can easily manipulate images and sound once it’s captured, and then cut, paste, copy and move.”

The newest revolution in video is the move to High Definition. The feature, which was rare on television only three or four years ago, is now rapidly becoming the standard.

“Before we started school, HDTV wasn’t the standard,” says Gregory. “We also started recording on tape and now we’re recording on flash cards. It’s amazing how fast everything changes. But, the fundamentals are still what matter. Knowing how to compose a shot is still the same, no matter what format you’re shooting.”

Students must complete a six-month internship before receiving their degrees, and the real-world conditions of producing “Ferris State Live” and “Ferris in Focus” have allowed students to land internships that have helped launch their careers. Students have interned with California-based Pilgrim Films, which produces the Discovery Channel show “Dirty Jobs.” A student who took the initiative to contact ESPN impressed the sports conglomerate enough that they hired the intern and contacted TDMP to offer other internships. Beyond entertainment, Ferris students have interned with corporate clients, public access stations and schools.

Okonoski stresses that, beyond any technology, the most important and marketable skill students learn is storytelling. “The technology is only there to support the story. At the end of the day you want them to be effective story tellers. The best technical execution in the world is not going to make a story good, but bad technical execution can ruin a good story. The story is always the premier thing.”

The Interviewer’s Art

In post-production, students make use of a shared media space called EditShare. Digital files recorded in the field on flash media cards are then stored on this central system for editing. This allows students to access content from any computer in the lab, not just a single machine, which also means two different people can work on the same project. This move to a shared cyberspace means that students must negotiate a whole new level of organization and file-management.

Gregory and Tyler also use these tools to edit projects for their Instructional Design class, which requires students to work with a client to produce an instructional video. Gregory is working with local company Mosaic Potash to produce a safety video, while Tyler is producing a video about four different kinds of injections that Ferris Optometry students need to master before graduation.

“It’s been very cool working for an actual client,” says Gregory. “You have to make a project book, write a script and develop a shot list. We’re out on the plant floor in hard hats, ear plugs and safety glasses, running cables everywhere and trying to light everything.

It’s been a great experience.”

Gregory and Tyler’s finished Tot’s Place story for “Ferris in Focus” includes interviews with Manager Lori Johnson, a parent, two teachers, two student interns, a future power trio on plastic microphone, toy noisemaker and hand cymbals, and even the hesitant young artist whom Tyler gets to admit that her favorite activity is painting.