Tradition of talent

Thursday, March 11, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:49 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Five minutes. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Megan Larsen regrets wearing a black shirt today as she sweats because of the studio lights. She and her Stephens College classmates are taping a three-minute video called “Meet Your College Neighbor.”

This is the first time the Introduction to Broadcast Production class has worked together on the ungraded project. Larsen is waiting for her classmates to get it together.

These motions are common occurrences at the Helis Communication Center, which holds the largest television studio in mid-Missouri — even bigger than the KOMU/Channel 8 studio. Stephens tries to get its mass communication students into the studio as soon as their second-semester freshman year.

“We at Stephens are very proud of our hands-on tradition,” says Mark Smith, professor of the class.

He says the day’s lesson is not only getting students into the studio but also teaching them that TV production takes time and that teamwork is important.

The class — mostly second-semester freshmen — is putting together what it has learned so far about the TV studio to create a production. The class has done one practice project working with still pictures, but this video, which incorporates live “talent,” is a step up. The “talent” for this project involves students each speaking for three minutes about their lives. Larsen is on “talent” first.

The broadcast class is geared toward behind-the-camera work. The students are responsible for all crew work. They rotate roles until each gets a taste of every studio position. These roles include floor director, assistant director, director, camera operator, video switcher and audio technician.

“I definitely think it is crucial to have the hands-on experience,” says Larsen, a sophomore mass-communications major, who wants to work in television. She says the Helis studio is a good place to get that experience. Larsen recently transferred from the University of Texas to get the smaller-class experience that Stephens offers. The broadcast class has eight students, but it has a maximum capacity of 10.

Stephens keeps its broadcast classes small to make sure each student has ample time for the hands-on experience, Smith says.

Helis was built in the mid-1960s, when television popularity was taking off and color television was new to the market. The medium was predicted to be a major form of mass communication, even bigger than it actually is. That is the reason the studio was built so large, Smith says.

“They (the college administration members) decided they needed to make television a major part of the Stephens curriculum,” Smith said.

In the beginning, Helis broadcast educational videotapes to monitors in several campus classrooms.

“It didn’t turn into the vision they wanted,” Smith says.

Now, Helis is used to give those aspiring to work in television early experience.

“It gives you lots of options and experience for when you decide what you want to do,” says Jessie Galli, a freshman student in the class.

The building has two studios. Studio B, the smaller one, is now unoccupied because it was originally built only for black-and-white capabilities. Now, the studio is mainly used for storage and senior projects.

Studio A, about 50 feet by 35 feet, is the three-camera studio, where the classes are held. An advantage to the large studio, Smith says, is that it is large enough for about three sets at once. This way, classes can work around each other.

After 25 minutes of trying get the lighting correct and the cameras set up in the right spot, the class is finally ready for its first run-through. Synchronizing audio and image and executing camera-changes, among other things, prove difficult.

The students are unsure of the exact timing for switching the cameras, and cameras are selected for shots before they are ready. The director is unsure of what to say and when to give her crew the proper instructions.

As her classmates work to perfect their technique, Megan is again left sweating under the lights.

The second run-through is dramatically improved, and each time after that, the class continues to get better. The students are able to more quickly execute the commands from the director. They are beginning to better understand timing and getting more comfortable with the equipment.

Paula Baker, a freshman in the class, says the hands-on experience that Helis provides is better than most schools, and the trial-and-error learning is good for her. She also says Helis is a pretty realistic studio, and it made her realize that television was more complicated than she originally thought.

When it is not being used for classes, the large studio is also a destination spot for some commercial productions. Three years ago a mock “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” was produced by KMIZ/Channel 17 for a Chamber of Commerce function. Stephens’ students worked as crew members on the project.

The space at Helis usually allows for around three to four classes per semester. Some common classes are Introduction to Broadcast Production, Presentation Performance and Advanced Television Production.

Two class periods later, Smith’s broadcast class finishes four videotapes in the time it took to finish one the first day. It no longer takes more than a few minutes to get the lighting correct. Camera shots are set up quickly. The students now make well-timed camera changes, easily synchronize audio and video and cleanly fade out the screen at the end of the program at the commands of the director. The students are much more confident in the studio. They are getting enough experience to head into a similar project on which they will be graded for their directing.

“It’s easier to understand after you have done it,” Galli says. “Having somebody talk at you doesn’t do too much.”

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