Bethany Woelk, a May 2010 graduate of Calvin’s media production program, reminisced recently about an audio aesthetics class she took in her junior year. The class was taught by communication arts and sciences (CAS) professor Brian Fuller, and it came with a heavy workload.

“Our last night to work on our final projects, all of the students spent the night in ‘DeVos,’” said Woelk, referring to the basement of DeVos Communications Center. “Brian walked in the next morning to find that the audio suite had transformed into a convenience store and hotel. The tape shelf was full of every kind of energy drink imaginable, chip bags and cookie packages lay strewn across the floor, and his students lingered like zombies wrapped up in sound blankets.” The scene, though chaotic, was not atypical, claimed Woelk, a native of Rochester, N.Y. “It’s just the way we film majors functioned.”

As recently as 10 years ago, media students at Calvin didn’t have much room to function; also, there was no media production major. There was a production class taught by then-CAS professor James Korf in the TV studio in Hiemenga Hall. There were audio and screenwriting classes taught by then-CAS professor Robert Fortner in various places on campus.

“We knew that in order to serve students well we needed a more complete production major and better facilities,” said CAS professor Quentin Schultze.

Calvin's media production staff.
Calvin's media production staff

First came the facilities. In 2002, the CAS department moved into its new headquarters in DeVos, and the basement of the new facility came fully equipped with hardware: video and audio studios with associated control rooms, video and audio editing suites, a distance-learning classroom and a 150-seat video theater with surround sound.

The CAS department had already hired chief engineer Jake Bosmeijer in 2001 to tend the new equipment; faculty were yet to come. “They had built an airstrip, but there was no airplane,” commented Daniel Garcia, who arrived in 2003.

A Peru-born filmmaker with a background in advertising and a master’s in communication from Wheaton College and an MFA in filmmaking from Ohio University, Garcia was Calvin’s first professor dedicated full time to media production. “Everything in front of you to be made—that’s the best-case scenario,” Garcia said of his first two years at Calvin. In the pre-major days, Garcia taught a 16-mm film class and a senior independent study in media production, which gave students crucial hands-on experience in the field, he said: “Most of the early students are now working in TV or working full time in films.”

In 2005, Brian Fuller joined the tiny department in the basement. Fuller came equipped with a master’s in fine arts in film and video production from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and 13 years of experience in teaching every facet of communications at his alma mater and at Montreat College (Montreat, N.C.).

Building on the CAS department’s tradition in media theory, criticism, history and ethics, the professors designed a sequenced program that gives students a good workout in single- and multi-camera production, audio design, writing and directing. The production program, first offered in the 2006–2007 academic year, also offers independent studies, internships and a capstone course that puts the discipline in a faith-based frame.

“One of the challenges for us was to create an environment where collaboration was a factor, but also the skill level needs to be developed,” said Bosmeijer. The professors address both ends of the challenge with such courses as advanced media production. In that class, students tackle a mammoth media project—a cooking show, a sports interview show, a variety show—while rotating weekly through various production roles: talent coordinator, camera operator, switcher, floor manager, audio technician, graphics designer, director.

“Everybody needs to shift one to the right, week after week, so everybody’s directed an episode, everybody’s operated a camera,” Fuller explained the class. Older, experienced students train younger, less-experienced students. “Everybody learns from everybody,” Garcia said.

Most classes in the media production major require this type, if not this degree, of teamwork. “You work in classes together, and you work on projects together,” said junior media production major and Grand Rapids native Sarah Scheeres. “It’s great to have the experience and also to have something to add to your film reel to show people.”

The students start to team up early on: “In our introductory-level classes, students aren’t just working with each other, but they are kind of auditioning each other,” said Fuller, “and saying, ‘Who do I work well with? Who has the good ideas? Who organizes things well? Who is really great at audio?’ And frankly, some of those relationships that are started at the 100-level continue past graduation.”

“It is certainly very work-intensive,” Scheeres said of the program. “All of the production courses that you take, there’s a final project at the end of the semester. Shooting the movie, editing—it’s all work that’s done outside of class. … It is crazy, the amount of work and then how tired and drained you get. People bring in five hours of the little energy bottles and keep going, night after night.”

Sophomore production major Taylor Wogoman, a native of Middlebury, Ind., had a different take on the late-night marathons: “It seems like we’re down here all the time, which we are,” he said. “If I didn’t enjoy doing this, I wouldn’t be doing it.”

The culmination of all of those hours and energy drinks comes at the Media Showcase, a two-hour screening of student-made films that happens at the end of each semester: “It is like having all of the final exams for all the of the production classes in two hours,” Fuller said. “No board of trustee member knows what’s going on in a math class. You know what’s going on in our classes because you can go to the Media Showcase.”

The professors also foster student collaboration on the films they create outside of the classroom. Fuller has traveled with students to Ecuador to film Hope of the Quechua, a documentary about community development in the rural Andes. Garcia has worked with students filming Drawings and War: The Testimony of the Children of Uganda, a documentary he created about victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army, and The Gift of All: A Community of Givers, a film about how philanthropy has re-built postwar Grand Rapids. During the 2010 interim, Fuller filmed with students at the Mustard Seed School in Hoboken, N.J. The resulting documentary will showcase the school’s distinctive arts-based curriculum.

And for the last three years, Bosmeijer has been focusing students’ creative energies on projects benefiting the local community through CAS 222 or “Calvin Media Company.” The class has produced promotional spots for the Grand Rapids Fire Department and Faith Alive Christian Resources. Most recently, CAS 222 created Eating in Place, a documentary about local agriculture for the Grand Rapids Area Council for the Humanities.

The collaboration in media productions produces something more than films and teamwork: “We’re basing almost everything and every practice on the life of the community that we’re creating,” Garcia said. And as it happens, the three professors like the basement. “Let’s face it. That’s where the students are … ,” Fuller said. “I want to be here when a student asks, ‘How do I dissolve?’”

The tiny faculty also feeds the media production community by hanging out with students outside the classroom—and the studio—on a regular basis. Fuller regularly hosts media production students at his home, and professors and students often grab takeout while working on projects.

“The size of the community, the closeness of community in just six years has helped us to mature very rapidly,” said Garcia of the program (the third largest major in the communications department), which enrolls between 60 and 70 students. “And the bottom line is that you see the outcome when you see the show at the end of the semester, when you see students going out and getting jobs, when you see them showing at festivals and winning awards.”

The real outcome is a little less tangible, Garcia added, and it may not emerge until well after a student graduates. That’s often when students send the professors cards and notes about how studying media production affected them personally and spiritually. “I can make movies, or I can make movie makers,” said Fuller about the former outcome. “If I can make two movie makers, I can double my output for the kingdom.”

Some graduates of media production pursue careers in television and filmmaking after graduation. Others work in advertising or for nonprofits or as independent contractors. “We prepare our students holistically so that they can do anything in the audiovisual world: documentaries, podcasts, anything,” said Garcia. “By teaching them the principles of storytelling, we help them to meet any need.”

Some students come into the department with a vision of their future careers: “I used to think coming in that I was going to be big in the movie business. I think that’s what every freshman usually thinks. Now I’d rather have a family,” said Wogoman, who thinks a television career might be manageable.

Other students, like Scheeres, who wants to be a “media missionary,” and Woelk, who wants to be a documentarian, hope to somehow express their faith through their production talents: “I want to tell the stories of real people in the world … real, living, breathing, working, struggling, honest people in the world … ,” said Woelk. “Mostly, I want to be a steward.”

Garcia can recall seeing his students (Scheeres among them) serving as stewards—passing on the tradition—during his 2009 interim “Filming for Social Change in Peru.” The class of seven students spent much of last January teaching residents of an orphanage in Lima to make films: “Our students were teaching these kids who were rescued from the streets. And in a week and a half, they were using the cameras, framing well, shooting, importing, cutting and exporting DVDs. And in a week, my students were pretty much communicating with these kids in Spanish,” Garcia said. “And now they are friends on Facebook.”