You are here: American University School of Communication News Students Get the Keys to National Geographic’s Vault to Create New Treasures


Students Get the Keys to National Geographic’s Vault to Create New Treasures

Last semester, AU SOC students in professor Michael Cascio's class designed a final project that used historic National Geographic footage to tell a completely new story.

By  | 

Still from Phillip Bouknight's film developed from National Geographic archival footage

What could you create with the entire archive of National Geographic footage? That’s what American University School of Communication (AU SOC) professor Michael Cascio’s Archival Storytelling with National Geographic class had the opportunity to answer. Last semester, students combed through the unbelievably rich resources available and designed a final project that used historic National Geographic footage to tell a completely new story.  

This course is multiple years in the making, born from the mind of SOC professor and Center for Environmental Filmmaking Maggie Stogner and taught by producer and media executive Cascio. Stogner wanted a course where students would spend the semester uncovering hidden cinematic jewels in long-forgotten footage, and then take up the challenge of developing fresh, new creations. When Stogner mentioned the idea to Cascio, who is also an SOC alum, he jumped at the chance to leverage his award-winning background in programming and production. Cascio and Stogner had each spent extensive time on staff with National Geographic, and that professional relationship opened the door to partnering on the project. 

Cascio said, “At the professional level, you rarely get the chance to instill the importance of high standards beyond the bottom line. In both my career and AU studies, I found that the classroom is the best place to deal objectively with the bigger issues that affect individual decision-making — ethics, journalistic responsibility, meeting deadlines, and respecting the work of others.” 

National Geographic will place the videos into its archive, available to view by all who use their prestigious library. That includes both staffers and researchers from within and outside the organization. The videos are meant to provide a fresh spin on historic National Geographic expeditions that may have been produced in a less than contemporary style. 

The start of the semester was a little daunting, as students were faced with mountains of footage. Cascio encouraged them to step into the project with an open mind. “The course wasn’t just about producing a video. My secret goal was to teach students to rely on their own creativity,” he said. His students found that to be helpful advice. Student Phillip Bouknight said, “Working with the footage at first was challenging.  Conceptualizing a new story with the footage given was difficult, but this is where your creative hat comes in.  My approach was to let the footage inspire me.  Once I started combing through the footage, I started seeing a particular theme I wanted to convey.” 

Once inspiration struck, the students set to work. They spent their semester researching, editing, re-editing and writing to bring their final projects to life. Along the way, Cascio introduced them to multiple production styles used in current documentaries to expand their notion of what was possible. National Geographic plans to hold a screening of some of the videos at Nat Geo headquarters later this spring. 

The results of the class speak for themselves. Below, we’ll introduce you to three students and their final projects.  


An overview of National Geographic footage through the years accompanied by Gustav Holst's Jupiter by Phillip Bouknight

Phillip Bouknight is a graduate student working towards an MFA with a specialty in documentary production. From childhood, Bouknight has been fascinated by the power of stories to change lives. His professional work and research often centers around political, cultural and social change with an emphasis on marginalized and oppressed communities.  

For his final project with National Geographic, Bouknight used the music of Gustav Holst's Jupiter to guide his approach to archived footage of culture and nature. As he reflected on the class, Bouknight said it was a privilege it was to help bring old stories back to life. 

Covering Yemen with Thomas Abercrombie

Judith Kirkikis' film featuring archival footage of photojournalist Thomas Abercrombie

Judith Kirkikis is an undergraduate student studying film and media arts. As a freelance photojournalist and documentary filmmaker, she recently won an award at the 76th annual College Photographer of the Year competition in connection with her work documenting protests in Washington D.C. after George Floyd’s death. 

For her final project, Kirkikis used the National Geographic archive to tell the story of Yemen through the eyes of famed photojournalist Thomas Abercrombie. Taken mostly from the 1960s, the footage gives a glimpse into how Yemenis continued to find community while enduring a civil war. 

Diving into the Depths

A film featuring archival footage of marine biologist Sylvia Earle by Isabella Silva

Isabella Silva is pursuing her Bachelor’s in Film and Media Arts with a minor in Environmental Science. She has a passion for storytelling with a particular interest in environmental issues and wildlife conservation. In 2021 Silva completed an internship with the National Parks Conservation Association where she worked on a Pronghorn conservation project as a Fundraising Grant and Development intern. 

In her final project, Silva explored the life of Sylvia Earle. In the beginning of the semester, Silva set out to create a film that showcased the relationship between the sea and humanity. In her research process she stumbled across the life of Sylvia Earle and knew this was the story she would tell. Silva’s advises future students, “If you have a vision and idea in mind, it's helpful to keep pushing for it and don't be afraid to ask for help and advice from the archival team! Really immersing yourself and researching the topic you like the most will help you create a stronger and more coherent story line especially if you really enjoy the subject provided.”