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Visual Visionaries

Visual VisionariesMembers of Tufts' vibrant visual media community are doing more than producing films and TV shows. They are gaining experience that will help them elsewhere on the Hill and beyond.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [05.07.07] From black and white film noirs to civically-minded documentaries, the films and television programs produced by Tufts students reflect a wide range of subjects and genres. But no matter what their focus, the works are helping undergraduates cultivate skills in leadership and problem-solving while indulging their artistic spirits.

Here's a look at how Tufts students are turning their dreams into big (or small) screen realities.

The Reel World: Film at Tufts

The advent of digital video as an affordable medium 10 years ago prompted Howard Woolf, director of media technology at Tufts' Experimental College, to create the filmmaking program that has evolved into TuftsFilmWorks (TFW).

"I think of FilmWorks as the quintessential Ex College program," says Woolf. "In some ways, it's a leadership program. You're going to live or die by your ability to put the team together, make decisions, stick to a timeline, find actors, find locations and get it done when you said you were going to do it."

FilmWorks' core curriculum is structured around two classes taught by Woolf—"Making Movies" and "Advanced Filmmaking"—and the senior projects for students minoring in the interdisciplinary Communications and Media Studies (CMS) program. While "Making Movies" introduces students to film production and film studies, "Advanced Filmmaking" requires them to produce a film project by the end of the semester. The Rice Media Center, an editing and multimedia design lab based at Halligan Hall, and an assortment of production equipment based at the Ex College are available to students working on films.

Among recent "Advanced Filmmaking" projects is "Down and Out," a stylistic film noir produced over the past year. While the project has received widespread support from both the university and the local community—scenes were filmed in locations ranging from Ballou Hall to Johnny D's restaurant in Davis Square—director Benjamin Samuels (A'09) said that students drove the bulk of the production process. "Everything from screenwriting and music composition to post-production and public relations all get run by students," he says.

And to get it all done, students have to work closely together. Prescott Gadd (A'07), director for the CMS senior film project "Hodgepodge Capitol," says that the close-knit nature of Tufts' filmmaking community makes such accomplishments possible. "You have access to everything," he says.

And "everything" goes beyond the editing room. Many students cite the university's liberal arts environment as a vital influence on their work. "As an artist, you're constantly absorbing things, things are constantly informing you," says "Down and Out" co-producer William Shaw (A'07). "Tufts as a whole has helped me be a better actor and artist." Gadd agrees, adding that his English literature classes have "inspired me to be a visual story-teller."

At the end of the year, the best Tufts student films are recognized by the Ivory Tusk Awards, a FilmWorks-sponsored competition that premiered last year. On May 2, a panel of alumni judges awarded "Ashes and Monsters," also by Samuels, this year's grand prize. "A Haunted House" by Becca Katz (A'07) was the first runner up and "American Spirit" by Thomas McMillan (A'07) was the second runner up. Twenty-four films were considered in all, and prize money was donated by the Rice family (Fran, Maury, Alan A'04 and Natalie A'00), for whom the Rice Media Center is named.

Tufts productions are also gaining acclaim off-campus. "Making Contact: The Somerville Boxing Club" [launches Quicktime file] was selected from 250 international submissions to participate in the Ivy Film Festival at Brown University in mid-April. This film was produced last fall as part of the "Making Films for Social Change" class, which forms the core of the interdisciplinary Media and Public Service program organized in 2003 by the CMS program and the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.

arrow Watch films made in "Producing Films for Social Change"

In the class, taught by Academy Award-winning documentary film-maker Margaret Lazarus, students learn how to pitch, write, shoot and edit a short film on a social topic.

"At Tufts, we have a lot of students who are really passionate about media and about communications. We also have students who are passionate about being civically engaged, and doing community service work and social advocacy work," says Julie Dobrow, director of CMS and the Media and Public Service program.

The documentary profiles the Somerville Boxing Club, which gives at-risk youth access to mentors and an athletic environment. "Our students saw a window into a world that they've never seen," Dobrow says of the film's subject. "Likewise, many of the people who are involved with the boxing club got a window into Tufts."

One more portal for aspiring Tufts filmmakers to showcase their work is the Campus MovieFest, a national college competition in which student filmmaking teams are given an Apple laptop, a camcorder and a week to make a short movie. At the Boston Grand Finale on Apr. 21, three movies by Tufts students were honored for Best Comedy, Best Costumes and Best Soundtrack out of 96 entries submitted by six area universities.

High Definition: Television at Tufts

Since its inception in 1977 as a video club with no means of broadcasting its shows, Tufts University Television (TUTV) has become a closed-circuit cable channel that disseminates student-produced programming to the Tufts community. The 2007 spring line-up of eight programs featured shows ranging from a review of local cuisine to a live comedy show.

Although TUTV is formally a student organization overseen by Woolf and the Ex College, it is much more than that to the students who run it. Production and station manager Chris Hazenbush (A'09) sees the station as a unique multidisciplinary resource that gives students a crash course in technology, marketing and production, and teaches them about "business organization, teamwork and leadership."


A clip from Luke Yu's TUTV sketch comedy show "YuTube."

The TUTV office also runs an equipment loaning system for student filmmakers, and its facilities are available around the clock for producers to edit their shows. "It's not uncommon to find people working in the station at one or two in the morning, not only on video projects, but testing and designing new systems and working in the office to keep the station afloat," says technology director Benjamin Meller (A'09).

As a station, TUTV is rapidly evolving. In addition to an industry-standard editing studio constructed over the past couple of years, a new digital recording and broadcasting system designed by Mike Vastola (A'10) will be introduced in the fall, enabling TUTV to go completely digital (with no need for tapes or DVDs). Archived shows will also be converted to digital format, allowing the station to easily play years of past programming. The new system will also allow the station to generate income by running still or video advertisements from campus organizations and local businesses.

This focus on progress, says Hazenbush, reflects the university's overall commitment to improving the student experience.

"When I think about Tufts and what it has done for me, I always come back to its drive to be better than it is," the sophomore says. "Therefore, my focus has been on trying to improve TUTV to make it the best it can be before I graduate."

A Network of Support

Tufts' support for students involved in visual media extends beyond classes and student organizations. Beginning next year, the David W. Burke Internship Fund will enable three students to participate in unpaid media internships. The program is named in honor of David Burke (A'57), the former president of both ABC and CBS News who began a tradition of selecting a promising Tufts student for an intensive one-year internship in the 1980s.

But for students involved in programs like TuftsFilmWorks and TUTV, Woolf has already provided a world of support and encouragement. "He is an amazing resource for helping us figure out where we want to go, and he'll make sure we have an idea of how to get there, but he'll never tell us specifically what we 'need' to do," says TUTV's Meller.

As for Woolf, he is confident that his students will make the most of whichever direction they choose.

"I suspect that a very small percentage of the students I've taught are going to become filmmakers," he says. "But I feel very comfortable that all of them will benefit from this experience no matter what profession they go into."

Profiles written by Bic Leu, Class of 2007

All photos courtesy of the students.

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