A Lesson in Ultra-Immersive Learning 

The Challenge:

In just 15 weeks, students with varying degrees of production experience had to work together to produce a one-hour, broadcast-ready documentary. My challenge as instructor of an elective course was to respect the students’ time and energy, as I’m highly aware of the workload in their majors. I wanted them to learn so much in a short amount of time, while also keeping everything we do limited to class time. This was most challenging for the shoot schedule, because it meant students had to coordinate all of their subjects to be filmed the one day a week that the class met. The ultimate prize, if the film was good enough, was an actual airing on television. 

The Process:

Nine students signed up for the spring ’18 class. They came from majors including Visual Studies, Business of Art and Design, and Motion Design. First we studied the basics of documentary production, then met with our broadcast partners at ABC7/WWSB to learn their requirements and gain insight into how broadcast television operates. Students then brainstormed topic ideas in groups and developed their pitch for ABC7 network executives. From the pitches presented, the network chose the topic “How mentorship changes lives in performing arts.” 

Broadcast television still operates through an advertising model, which means we had to produce the show to their exact “clock,” or time requirements. We divided the segments among the students and each was responsible for producing, directing, and editing a segment, with the challenge of making the documentary look cohesive.

Students and professionals at work on the film.
Students and professionals working side by side

This is a tall order for highly seasoned professionals, and the students devised creative solutions to ensure consistency throughout the production, graphics, music, and show flow. They assigned crew roles using their classmates, so at some point everyone had to operate cameras, record audio, act as a script supervisor, etc. We hired an outside lighting director, and enlisted ART Network’s Production Manager, Marquee Doyle, to mentor students on set. We were the first class to utilize the new Studio Labs Soundstage A. And it was a joy.

Stills from the student-made documentary On the Wings of Performance
Stills from the documentary On the Wings of Performance

The Results:

In 15 weeks, these students learned every aspect of documentary production. They worked with network executives, pushed through the challenges, and saw the rewards this level of collaboration can bring. They also saw the challenges. For our premiere, there were many things that went wrong, by no fault of the students, and five minutes before the documentary was to premiere in an auditorium full of family, friends, College administrators, donors, trustees, and network executives, I had to let the students know it was not ready to be viewed. Instead, I asked them to introduce their individual segments, which we showed unfinished before opening the floor for questions. It doesn’t get more “real-world” than this. They rose to the occasion and handled themselves professionally, with more confidence than I’ve seen in industry professionals. In my own 22-year career in television, I have never experienced something so stressful, yet it resulted in the proudest student moment in my nine years at Ringling College of Art and Design.

Ballet dancers on set.
Dancers on set

In the end, ABC asked for a year-long license to run the documentary, On the Wings of Performance. It has aired twice as a primetime broadcast, and also shows on its OTT streaming platform. It was recently entered in the Sarasota Film Festival. My students have said that this class is one of the most intense experiences they’ve had at Ringling College. I’m not surprised. I mean, who does this? Yet they say the level of hands-on, real-world experience they got and the skills they developed are more than worth it. I understand that, because as a director/producer, there is no greater reward than seeing your work air on television. Beyond that, these students will graduate with an actual network broadcast credit which is something not a lot of college students can say.

By Lisa Moody |Photo by Rich Schineller
Lisa Moody is an Emmy-award winning writer and executive producer. For Ringling College, she serves as Interim Director for Communication Strategies, Director of the All Ringling Television Network (ART Network), and adjunct faculty.