The student directors and producers of “How Can I Help?” and “Radioland” discuss their experiences creating BYU’s first official Emerging Media Projects (EMPs)
As new media forms such as podcasts, video games and online content become increasingly enticing to media arts students, critical studies professor Benjamin Thevenin is on a mission to offer more opportunities for students to work on creative projects outside of the program’s more conventional fiction and documentary capstone films.
“My goal is to encourage media arts students to experiment with expressing themselves in different forms and telling stories on new platforms,” said Thevenin. “Students are able to participate in capstone films as part of their experience — which is an excellent experience for them — but looking at the shifting landscape of media, I felt the need to provide our students with an opportunity to work with these emerging technologies and hopefully prepare them to enter into new fields in the media industries.”
Though students have worked on various special projects in new media that have arisen from time to time, the 2018-19 academic year introduced BYU’s first official Emerging Media Projects (EMPs), establishing a track for student-created, faculty-mentored explorations of new media modes.
Ideas for these trailblazing EMPs were developed and pitched in Thevenin’s New Media Conceptualization (TMA 277) course, which is open to all BYU students. At the end of the semester, the class voted on the pitches, selecting two projects — claymation web series “How Can I Help?” and narrative podcast “Radioland” — to be produced through the Department of Theatre and Media Arts.
“We were interested in creating content that is a little bit unconventional, at least relative to the films we often study and make in the media arts program,” said Thevenin. “While ‘How Can I Help?’ is a series of stories, the project has a clear educational objective — to encourage children and adults to be more aware of and have conversations about mental health. And while ‘Radioland’ follows a mystery story across the series, the podcast’s more conventional narrative is accompanied by more experimental elements that include prose poetry, original songs and music and some more abstract soundscapes.”
Thevenin hopes that these two projects will help pave the way for future students to get involved in EMPs and add their voice to new forms of storytelling.
“Students across campus — but especially our friends in the CFAC — are welcome to come and try their hand at telling stories and making art using these exciting new media technologies,” invited Thevenin.
How Can I Help?
For project director Dallin Penrod, Thevenin’s class was the perfect platform to further explore an idea that had already been stewing in his mind. The summer before he developed and pitched his EMP, he wrote a short script titled “I Am Sad” in the hopes of eventually creating a media series for children that would introduce difficult — but vitally important — concepts and conversations.
“I knew I wanted it to be a claymation, and I knew I wanted it to be for kids to talk about sad feelings,” said Penrod. “When it came to pitching, my producer and I developed the idea of a web series that is accessible to parents so that they can learn about different mental health disorders and conditions, but then also use our videos to teach their kids and prompt stronger and earlier conversations about mental health.”
Once selected, Penrod, producer Cambree Snow and their crew set to work on the multi-faceted “How Can I Help?” In addition to writing the script for each webisode, they met with a professor in the BYU psychology department to ensure that they were conveying information in an accurate, responsible way and researched best practices for the difficult — and often tedious — claymation process, which was new to most of the crew.
“I think that is why new media projects are so important — they push you to try new things,” said Snow. “We had to learn new skills and go through the process of trial and error multiple times. We had to learn how to be patient and work with each other. As filmmakers who study visual storytelling, we had to look at motion in a new way because of the medium.”
The resulting series is housed on website howcanihelpseries.com, which also features articles to accompany each video as well as links to resources for additional information and relevant activities to keep the conversation going.
“This project helped me discover what kind of content I want to be making,” said Penrod. “I felt like I was doing something of value with media and contributing to society rather than just playing around. It’s also helped me to see the importance of education and communication, both for adults and kids. It’s important to help kids become better people than we are right now — if we’re going to solve problems that our society is facing, we need to help kids see those problems while they’re still young rather than face them for the first time when they’re my age.”
“How Can I Help?” was accepted to the 2020 Providence Children’s Film Festival, a testament to the heart and dedication of the student crew and the importance of the project and its messages.
“I loved the feeling of bringing students together on campus to create this project for an important cause,” added Snow. “Being passionate about our project was crucial — we were there because we believed in what we were trying to accomplish. I think that is important because these new media projects take a lot of patience and learning as you go. My advice to those interested in taking on one of these projects in the future is to find your passion in the project, work hard and don’t give up.”
Telling a story without images isn’t necessarily the most natural thing for students in a hyper-visual field, but director and co-writer Sam Burton proposed exactly that with EMP “Radioland.”
“Since starting college, I’ve been a real podcast junkie,” said Burton. “As I explored the world of podcasts, I found that there weren’t a lot of fiction podcasts out there. Early on in Benjamin’s class, I realized I wanted to try doing a podcast because I felt like there’s a lot more you could do with audio-based storytelling that wasn’t currently being done. We definitely drew on some existing podcasts for inspiration, but I think what we ended up creating was very different from anything that’s out there.”
Both Burton and producer Abi Nielson Hunsaker had previously worked for BYU Radio, which gave them some familiarity with the production process for the medium, but they still found themselves encountering unique challenges along the way.
“It was difficult to figure out how to write for audio,” said Burton, who developed the six-episode arc with writers Elena Bender and Hannah Hansen. “There were several moments through the process of writing and even through the process of editing where we realized we had been writing parts of it more for film than audio. Benjamin helped us identify places where we were trying to force visuals and instead find effective solutions through sound.”
Though Hunsaker — who graduated from BYU in 2019 — started the media arts program intending to focus entirely on documentary filmmaking, she feels that her experiences with new media have opened her up to countless storytelling possibilities that she may not have considered otherwise.
“I love traditional film and I think it’s sticking around, but I also think that we need people with skills in other art forms that are currently emerging,” said Hunsaker. “I think about virtual reality now having these headsets that are wireless, which is cool technology, but there’s no meaningful, intentional narrative content to go with them. Being able to harness these different forms of media that people are engaging in — and doing it in a thoughtful, critical way — will have a larger impact on the audience. And it’s fun! There’s so much wiggle room with new media, and it’s more accessible for creatives in a lot of ways.”
Burton is grateful for the variety of opportunities he has had in the media arts program and for the significance placed on exposure to new mediums and ideas.
“There will always be a place for film in the world, but there is so much new stuff out there,” he said. “Benjamin has shared conversations he’s had with people working in other departments in animation or computer science and they’ve asked him, ‘Are your students ready for this? Because this stuff is coming.’ Technology is changing, and there are going to be these cool new ways of storytelling that we can’t even imagine right now. We need to be ready, and we need to be at the forefront of learning how to tell stories in these different ways.”