by Michelle R. Davis
Devon Thomas spent the last year handling high-tech video and audio equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars while shooting video of conferences and renowned speakers, a responsibility that sometimes had her working from dawn until dusk.
But Ms. Thomas is not a professional videographer. In fact, she is just graduating from high school this month after attending Philadelphia’s 485-student Science Leadership Academy, a public magnet school where the filmmaking instructor has launched a student-powered business providing video services to companies and the community.
Ms. Thomas and her peers have provided video for a variety of events, including 2010’s TEDxPhilly, a conference intended to spark discussion about various aspects of the city; EduCon, an education innovation conference hosted by the school; and the appearance by rock band 61 North at Maryland’s RamJam Music Festival.
“It’s something other people haven ’t done,” Ms. Thomas said. “It makes me different from everyone else.”
Rough Cut Productions is the brainchild of digital-filmmaking teacher Douglas Herman, who also teaches social studies at the high-tech high school. Over the years, the school has created a high-tech film program using donations, grants, and public and private funds. Mr. Herman got the idea for the company after the students provided streaming-video services at EduCon and realized that similar video services—multimedia cameras, various angles, live streaming—often costs thousands of dollars.
He asked Roz Duffy, the organizer of TEDxPhilly, to take a chance on using his students to produce the video-heavy event instead of seeking out a private company, and she agreed. The principal of the Science Leadership Academy, Christopher Lehmann, was speaking at the event, and using the school’s students dovetailed with the themes being presented at the conference, Ms. Duffy says.
Mr. Herman rented $500,000 worth of video equipment, and students did all the camera work, cutting back from one camera to another, using wide angles and zooming in—all with a student in the broadcast booth controlling what was seen on the live stream.
People from all over the world watched the video stream shot by the students, says Ms. Duffy, who was pleased with the result and says she would work with the students again. In return for the students’ services, TEDxPhilly organizers paid for the equipment rental and made a small donation to the school toward the purchase of new equipment.
The students have also worked with musicians. Brian LaPann is the lead singer of 61 North, which is based in Philadelphia, and also happens to be Mr. Herman’s roommate. Mr. Herman persuaded him to use Rough Cut Productions to film the band’s performances on the public-radio program “Live at the World Cafe” and at the Elkton, Md.-based RamJam festival.
The video will be critical to attracting new fans, Mr. LaPann said. The students are working on creating videos of the performances, using all their different camera angles and audio to be translated into clips that could be featured on YouTube or the band’s website. Mr. LaPann said he hadn’t seen the final product yet, but said it appeared that the students were “about as good as you can be on one of your first gigs. They’re going to have a bright future, and they’re improving as they go.”
Now, Mr. Herman says, Rough Cut Productions is in “full flow.” The company is searching for new work and is slated to contribute a video piece for ISTE 2011, the annual conference of the Washington-based International Society for Technology in Education. The conference is being held in Philadelphia June 26-29.
Students in Mr. Herman’s classes get an opportunity to, in effect, intern at Rough Cut Productions as freelance videographers. The teacher envisions that, in the future, the program could create a revenue stream for the school, raising money for more and better equipment. Rough Cut is also aiming to create a media house of sorts, to build a library of open-source materials and music composed by students at the school.
“My goal in building this program is to think about two things: What would you learn in college, and what type of equipment would you have access to there?” Mr. Herman said. “Why wait? Why can’t students have access to those things in high school?”
Now that students are having those experiences, however, Mr. Herman has to contend with an unexpected problem: Some students are graduating, going on to college, and feeling as if they’ve taken a step backward. The equipment and professional opportunities available in college are less than they were accustomed to in high school.
Danielle Villa is one of those students. She’s now finishing her freshman year at Pace University, in New York City, but realized shortly after arriving on campus that the school’s film program wasn’t as strong as she would like. “I was using bigger cameras in high school, and I’m paying to go to college,” she said.
Because of that disappointment, Ms. Villa says she is considering transferring to another college, but she would make sure that her next school has the technology she’s looking for.
For Science Leadership Academy senior Ms. Thomas, making sure her college of choice had an emphasis on film was key. She’ll be heading to High Point University in High Point, N.C., to study communication and broadcasting or electronic media and journalism. She made sure High Point had the right equipment and opportunities first.
Mr. Herman says he’s now trying harder to guide graduating students seeking to build on what they learned in high school. And if Rough Cut Productions continues to attract new work, those students will also have the opportunity to return during vacations and breaks to work for the company and earn money, he says. He started the company with six students, had 24 working with Rough Cut this school year and expects a similar number next year. Rough Cut students are also expected to act as teaching assistants and help out one period a week in the film lab, teaching less experienced students.
Ms. Thomas says her work with Rough Cut is likely to shape her future career and impress anyone she’ll ultimately work for.
“It scares people, having teenagers hold all this expensive technology and equipment,” she said. “But if students really care about it, we’re not going to mess it up.”