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Student-Produced Programs Air on Maryland Public Television

Environmental and Wildlife Production students debut their film at SOC's Wechsler Theater.

Environmental and Wildlife Production students debut their film at SOC's Wechsler Theater.

Students in SOC’s Environmental and Wildlife Production course produced not one, but two full-length environmental documentaries for Maryland Public Television this year. The extraordinary undertaking is part of a long-standing partnership between the Center for Environmental Filmmaking and MPT. The films air April 16 at 10pm and April 17 at 10:30pm as part of Chesapeake Bay Week on MPT.

Students in the class, taught by Center Associate Director Sandy Cannon-Brown, have produced one 30-minute program for MPT each year for the past several years, an impressive feat. Many have gone on to receive recognition and awards from CINE Eagles to student Oscars. Providing students the opportunity and coaching to create such high-quality work is likely one of the reasons Cannon-Brown was named a 2011 AU Adjunct Professor of the Year.

But this was the first year that a class really tested their boundaries.

Cannon-Brown said that she and the client at MPT were somewhat skeptical that the students could tackle two programs in a single semester. And in fact, though the class officially wrapped at the end of 2011, the films weren’t completed until March 2012, weeks before the premiere.

“I thought the students’ enthusiasm for the films would wane after the semester ended, that we’d have mediocre work to offer MPT,” she said. “But they were determined not to deliver ‘student’ films, so they worked into March to make sure their films would stand up against professional PBS films.”

“Their extended efforts paid off.”

The first film Restoring the Bay looks at the environmental issues facing the rivers of the Eastern Bay, and the second, Mehaden, which debuted at SOC’s Weschler Theater this week, highlights a species of fish that plays an integral role in the ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay.

“Our students learn to see environmental issues as stories that need to be told,” Cannon-Brown said. “And then they go about telling those stories in entertaining, quality movies that have emotional, as well as intellectual, impacts on the audience.”

Sarah Gulick, SOC MFA Film and Electronic Media ’13, who co-produced and directed Menhaden, said that her team worked hard to tell the story of a this stinky, oily fish that many in the Bay region are dependent upon.

While it seems like a clear-cut narrative, she said, with the menhaden population reaching its lowest point in the Chesapeake’s ecosystem—the species is less than ten percent of what it once was—largely due to big industry, particularly Omega Protein Corporation, the story is more complicated.

“There was an idea at the beginning that we could tell our story in the classic environmental angle—with Omega as the bad guy,” Gulick said. But the students came up with a better idea. “It was a chance to tell an environmental story without sensationalizing it.”

The film tells the stories of multiple groups with competing interests, and students had to work not only to meld them into one 30-minute show, but to tell the story with integrity and fairness for each of those caught in the struggle of sustainability for the species. 

“It was like a dance with the people in this film,” Gulick said. “It took some time with these characters to get their respect, to get them to open up.”

For the animations and graphics, the class looked to Professor Rob Benica's Motion Graphics I class for assistance. As part of their final project, several of Benica's students created a title sequence for the Menhaden film. When the final animations were submitted the filmmakers of Menhaden collectively choose the work of Christopher Richmond as the film's title sequence. Jennifer Stratton, a student in Brown's class who coordinated with the students from Benica's class on behalf of the filmmakers, said, "The motion graphics students took on a huge challenge by creating graphics for a film while it was still in production and Christopher graciously worked with us beyond the fall 2011 semester. Sylvia Brookoff (also in Benica's class) also reworked her submitted tile animation to create an info graphic about catch sizes." Stratton herself created the remaining two animations and credits for the film.

Chris Palmer, the Director for the Center and a professor at SOC, said that this year’s films had tapped into a crucial connection with their audience. Palmer said that students’ experience enables them to see the power of film to influence public opinion at a critical juncture in an environmental debate.

“We’re no longer connected with nature—when we go outside our doors we see concrete buildings, not mountains and valleys,” Palmer said. “It’s mainly through television now that people experience the natural world, so these types of programs are incredibly important to shed light on environmental issues.”