Article #6 from an ongoing Series
FIELDTRIPS BY PROXY
You can’t take 150 students on a field trip.
During spring 2003, I had the opportunity to play director’s assistant for the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As a broadcasting instructor, this was a dream come true–full access to all elements of production for nearly 4 weeks. The only question was how to make my experience a learning exercise for my students, since I clearly could not take all of them to Los Angeles!
I currently teach all distance learning courses–two online classes and one telecourse. Because my students are already accustomed to working with me through alternative means of communication (phone, newsletter, email, Internet) I took advantage of those tools to involve my classes in my on-set experiences.
Each day after returning from the Buffy set, I wrote long journal entries about all that had occurred, sharing the more intimate details of how a dramatic television show is made. These daily journals were than emailed to my telecourse students and posted in my online courses’ class discussion area. They were able to follow along with the process, ask questions and get involved from a distance–a virtual field trip. It brought them inside one of the industries they were studying, allowing them to “see” the process unfold and follow along as the episode was built. Then, after all the insider knowledge and insight into how it was made, we all got to see the finished product when it aired at the end of the season. For that 60 minutes of airtime, my students all knew how that stunt was done, who got hurt in that fight, how long it took to shoot that simple dialogue scene, and what was real and what was faked on green screen (which is filming against a blank background to allow for images and effects to be digitally inserted later) and in post production.
This experience was not limited to just my students. The faculty in the Broadcast Electronic Media Arts Department were copied on all the journal emails, and able to use them as appropriate in their courses. And given the unique value and insight of the entire process, I did not limit the experience to just my students last spring–the journal in its entirety has been converted to a web page and is required reading for my online courses.
Many people had asked why I choose Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s actually a simple answer–the Buffy set let me observe and participate in all elements of the show, and that show did everything. We shot scenes on set both inside and outside, we went on location, there was stunt work, special effects, prosthetics and make up effects, green screen stunts, and assorted visual effects, not to mention scenes involving anywhere from one character to over 50 characters and extras.
Buffy is unique as a production in that they have their administrative offices, production sets, casting directors, writers and editors all in one location. Many shows are spread out over the Los Angeles area; in fact, the Angel writers and administrative staff were in the Santa Monica Buffy building, while the show is actually shot across town in Burbank. Imagine if I had been at West Wing–“today we are doing dialogue in this room, and tomorrow we are doing dialogue in the other room.” Buffy gave me the opportunity to see EVERYTHING, from how you make up a vampire or a demon, how you film an explosion (yes, we actually blew up a set), how you throw someone out of a moving car in Malibu Canyon, to how you edit it all together in post production and make it a cohesive whole.
Buffy was the perfect show for a virtual field trip. In my 4 weeks on set, I was able to share with my students elements of television production which they would never normally see or have access. My students and I may have been communicating at a distance, but for those 4 weeks, they were intimately involved in an industry and process they usually only got to read about in a textbook.