A Slice of Chinese Life and Culture

By Mona Malacane

Last year, Steve Krahkne was approached by Living Earth Television (LETV), which seeks to share films from different countries with global audiences, for his assistance in its efforts to bring Chinese films to the United States and American films to China. (A process that sounds simple enough, but trust me, it ain’t.)  Steve helped LETV negotiate contracts with PBS World to air four hand-picked documentaries in the spring. And by hand-picked, I mean going to the source for authentic Chinese films.

Steve K visit3In November Steve and others working on the project traveled to Chengdu, a city in southwest China, for the Sichuan International Film Festival in search of documentaries that would appeal to an American audience. They viewed some fascinating films at the festival, like one about female sterilization in rural areas under the one child policy. “There are government quotas for women to either be sterilized or to abort children … And I don’t know how this film maker did it but he is everywhere. You’re in this woman’s bedroom where these government officials are trying to convince her to go in and get sterilized.” Another was a “beautiful, bittersweet documentary” about a family which hand makes paper umbrellas. At the end of the film, the son proposes that he start designing the umbrellas on his computer and, as Steve describes, “that’s where the poignancy comes in. Because right then you know, this is a dying industry as soon as you brought out that computer. If we can design them this way then we can make them this way. End of that.”

But ultimately they decided on four films. The first one is from a food show titled Bite of China, which showcases staple foods like rice and wheat. Steve described it as “food porn,” and less like a “process film like we would watch on the Discovery Channel … It’s about the food and the interaction with the food, so it’s very tactile and beautiful.” Another documentary is about the one-child policy (One Child). The other two documentaries, Horseman and Kindergarten, document a love story between two owners of a horse touring company, and a “slice of life” view of a Chinese kindergarten. Sorry, no reality TV shows.

A lot of work needs to be done before the films are ready for a broadcast in the US, explained Steve. They need to determine the quality of the film, verify ownership and rights to the film, see whether it can be adapted to an American broadcast platform, edit it to the right length, add subtitles, change the narration … The list goes on!

The whole process is, in Steve’s words, “expensive, time-consuming and difficult.” But absolutely worth it. While some of the work needs to be done on the east coast at PBS World, much has already been done here at our facilities. For example, Senia Borden (MS student in Telecommunications) and Xiaozhuo Lv (MA student in Journalism) have been working long and hard at sub-titling the films. Moving forward, Senia will also be “managing the process of formatting these films for PBS World,” essentially acting as a coordinating producer.

The other part of this project involves workshops to teach Chinese film makers how to produce shows for American audiences, which would make the process of bringing films here much easier. Our tastes for entertainment are obviously very different from those of the Chinese, Steve explained. “Americans like stories. Some of these Chinese films … are much more experiential. Almost like you’re wandering around a museum, just kind of randomly looking at things. Which can be extremely beautiful but it’s not really what Americans are looking for on television. We need to know who the characters are, what the conflicts are, we need to know what’s at stake.” So the workshops would teach film makers how to edit, narrate, and package films for American audiences so that less work would have to be done here to get the films on TV.Steve K visit2

Steve’s long term goals for the project are two-fold: to bring over a series of films each year, and to turn this into a long term opportunity for graduate students. He hopes this project will be a “long and fruitful opportunity for our grad students to work with Chinese film makers, visit China, and to welcome Chinese filmmakers to IU.” Anyone who is interested in getting involved with this project should contact Steve. (Both Senia and Xiaozhuo are graduating this year, so he needs help!) You do not necessarily need to skilled at production techniques, or be an MS student. With the new Media School integration on the horizon, Steve stressed that this opportunity is available to all MA, MS, and PhD students.


Off to London

by Teresa Lynch

Although many members of the department will be travelling to London, England this summer to attend ICA, several graduate students – Senia Borden, Dan Levy, Gabe Persons, and Garrett Poortinga, to be specific – will be travelling there for a different reason. After a quick stopover in Iceland, the four will be meeting up with Susan Kelly to take her specially designed production course. Last summer, Susan took only undergraduates for her course abroad, but this year, the opportunity was offered to graduate students, as well.

The Tower Bridge in London. Photo courtesy of Susan Kelly.

The Tower Bridge in London. Photo courtesy of Susan Kelly.

Susan says the theme of the class is twofold. “One [portion] is to show that there are other ways of storytelling than the American way. The American way is purely driven by the bottom line. The British system is driven by a cultural mission. New voices are funded by the citizenry who actually pay a licensing fee – a tax – to fund new voices and make stories specifically about British culture. They actually have a mission statement about what their media should aim for. You’ll never find that in America.” The other portion of the class will focus on storytelling in film and story analysis. Susan has also lined up guest speakers for the class including a BAFTA recipient and an employee of the BBC. The group will also tour sets from the Harry Potter films, James Bond, The King’s Speech, the BBC Sherlock series, and Sherlock Holmes.

While they’re in London, the group will all be residing in Nido, a student housing complex in the Spitalfields neighborhood.  Class will take place in facilities provided by the International Education of Students. Susan has also planned to hold class in the early afternoon so students can enjoy the walk from Nido to the IES if they choose. “It’s a beautiful walk, an amazing walk…it’s through the Bloomsbury neighborhood – the same neighborhood that housed the modernist literary movement.”

In addition to class and working with the 15 undergraduate students, the graduate students are hoping to make the most of their time professionally. Garrett has already been in touch with department alum Lora Speers. “I’ve been talking to [Lora] through email about actually producing a short form on one of her [underground hip-hop] connections,” said Garrett. “I’m hoping to go to some shows, film some interviews, and cut it together to align with the course.”

The London Eye. Photo courtesy of Susan Kelly.

The London Eye. Photo courtesy of Susan Kelly.

Gabe and Susan are the only members of the group who have been to London, but it’s safe to say that every member of the group is very excited to be hopping the pond. Listening to Susan tell it, London is a city of incredible depth, heaviness, and beauty. She said one of the things she is most looking forward to, “the light in London in the spring is spectacular. It’s clear and the buildings are made out of limestone…some of it’s gold, some of it’s buttery, and some of it’s rose…and when the sun hits [the buildings], if you have any aesthetic bone in your body, you have to stop in your tracks and just be bathed in northern  light. In London you will get scudding clouds, huge cumulus clouds that are white with some dark grey underbellies with this beautiful light that slants through and casts shadows that make designs on the ground and you are bathed in the light.” And getting to see her students experience London is an experience of pure joy for Susan. “I get to experience that, to watch students take it all in. Sometimes I have to remember this is my job.”

Steve Krahnke’s New M.S. Initiative

by Ken Rosenberg

Grad students work closely with the production team of WTIU, from left to right: Shannon Schenck, Annie Sexton, Senia Borden
(Producer Sarah Curtiss in background) 

The design and production track of our M.S. program is growing and transforming, as four M.S. students spend their first semester serving as associate producers on projects for WTIU, the local PBS affiliate that broadcasts from studios on the first floor of our RTV building. Working for course credit, they are assisting with the production of two variety shows: The Weekly Special, a public/current affairs program, and The Friday Zone, an Emmy award-winning show for children hosted by IU undergrads. It’s a valuable experience for M.S. students looking to transition into studio production after grad school, as it enables them to build a healthy portfolio. Steve Krahnke’s  joint appointment with WTIU and the Telecom department enabled him to transform a good thought into reality.  The immediate beneficiaries of Steve’s initiative are 4 M.S. students:  Annie Sexton, Garrett Poortinga, Senia Borden, and Shannon Schenck. There will be many more in the future.

“We’ve got this public television station which is already connected to Telecom,” Steve explained. “Why not find opportunities for them to work as producers on existing programs, where they could learn from the professionals that are doing the work, while doing professional work themselves?” Producer Sarah Curtiss is equally excited about the collaboration. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to bring in fresh vision and enthusiasm,” she said. “We are never at a lack for great stories, or wanting to do great stories – it usually just comes down to a matter of resources, like production time and assistance. To have the grad students on board, we’re able to put more effort toward making those stories. It does nothing but help increase the potential and quality of the work we do here.” Steve sees parallels to this sort of setup in many other professional schools. “To that extent,” he said, “it’s a bit like a graduate theatre program that has a resident professional theater, where designers and actors are working with professionals.”

Steve Krahnke

This initiative arises out of a happy confluence of mutual need and convenience.  “We just made this – I just made this up,” Steve said. Senia had been his student as an undergrad, so he wanted to maximize her educational experience in grad school. Annie and Shannon were pitching projects to him, and he was getting concerned whether they would be able to finish their degrees in a timely manner, on their own. Then, after talking with the WTIU personnel working on The Weekly Special and The Friday Zone, he found that “they were so short-staffed, they were unable to produce the shows they wanted to produce.” Coming together, unifying the teaching and practice of production, just made sense. “It seemed like a reasonable trade,” Steve said. “Education for labor is always a pretty good offer.”

It’s not simply an opportunity for work experience. As such, it’s very much a learning opportunity, too. “You always want to be working just beyond your skill level, at least at first,” Steve said. “Graduate school provides a relatively safe place for people to do that. You’re expected to fail a little bit, and the stakes aren’t quite as high – and then, eventually, you’re required to display some expertise.”

Right now, Annie, Garrett, Senia, and Shannon are working hard to get their first segments to air. Annie shot a segment at a dog bakery in Indianapolis for The Friday Zone, and took her dog with her. She went with a crew, but she will most likely edit the video herself. “It’s not that you don’t do more than one thing,” Steve explained, “but, in the business, no one expects you to do everything.” Garrett has his own niche, covering bands and local music.

Senia is working on her package, a piece on a local dirt bike competition, and she loves how quickly she got the chance to do this level of work. “It’s a way to come in and already have a base level of trust,” Senia said about the program. Senia has done production work in internships before, but she feels that if she went straight into the industry without the current project work with Steve it would take her a while to get to the level she is currently operating on. “It would take a lot more time to get this if I started as a personal assistant,” she said. “It’s technically a class, but I get to go to studio shows and play a part – that’s more than what I’d get my first years in the field. Eventually, I’ll be making contacts, too.”

Recently, Shannon had her first solo experience as the on-set producer. “I felt like people were super helpful,” Shannon said. “The cameraman I was working with was really experienced, professional, and cool. He was open to my suggestions, but didn’t hesitate to let me know if and when something wouldn’t work. He was comfortable making suggestions, and did so without stepping on my toes. Everyone I’ve worked with so far has been like that. They know that we know what we’re doing, mostly, but that it’s still a learning opportunity – and everyone’s been really open.”

The Weekly Special is going through a “refresh,” so all four students get to experience “essentially, the re-launching of a show,” Sarah said.

Garret and Senia will get to pioneer this pilot program along with Annie and Shannon, but they will also receive that experience for the entire tenure of their course of study. “That’s when it’s really going to take off,” Steve said. After their first year, “the two of them will know everybody; they should be able to take on positions of substantial responsibility.” Steve sees second-year grads teaching new initiates, and even undergrads working as production assistants. “It’s not really that much different than how the business works, actually,” Steve said.

Steve is hoping for a codified relationship between studio and production/management students, so that students come here knowing they can have this opportunity.  “We didn’t have to change anything. The course numbers already existed; the situation already existed – all we did was just figure out how we could make it work.” So, while there are still a couple of hurdles before it’s entrenched and solidified, any incoming student can already sign up for the same experience. Eventually, the plan is to integrate production- and research-focused graduate students into one cohesive work force. Steve wants to bring scholars interested in processes-and effects research – particularly those interested in “children and the media”-type research questions – downstairs, onto the set and into the studio, “so that way, together, they could make something to test, “ Steve said.

“There aren’t many graduate programs in the country that are capable of doing what we’ll be doing,” Steve said. It’s amazing to think that, very soon, Steve can tell the incoming production students, “you can work with professionals – you can work here and win an Emmy, or an award from the Society of Professional Journalists.”

“For somebody who is trying to use their M.S. degree as a way to position themselves for future work, it’s a great opportunity,” Steve said. Concerning applications involving portfolios with video, “the rule of thumb is that they’ll only look at three minutes,” Steve said. “So, if you make a 90-minute feature film, they’re only going to look at three minutes.” But, if you make several three-minute clips, “they might watch all of each – particularly if they’re interesting, if they’re different from one another, they’ll get a sense of different styles. Producing for children’s television is a very different than producing for adults.”

“PBS is all about education, and it’s cool to take that mission to the next level in a new and unique twist. I think it provides an invaluable experience you just can’t get in a classroom,” Sarah said. “There are lots of things that you experience in even just the day-to-day production routine” – including the routine itself – “that you’re just not going to know how to address until you’re in the midst of it. To have that real-world experience … is incredible; simply put, it’s just something that you can’t read in a book.”

The Friday Zone airs Fridays at 4:30pm on WTIU and WFYI, and Saturdays at 10:00am on WTIU. The Weekly Special airs Thursdays at 8:00pm on WTIU.