Kodak "Telek" Magazine March, 1976 Pages 9-12
Student-made show a "laugher"
WNDU supports popular projects
Combine the imagination of Monty Python with the irreverence of a group of teenagers and you have a program called "Beyond Our Control," a series in which ambitious high school Junior Achievement club workers put tongue firmly in cheek to make fun of the visual media. Movies and television are both fair game for the group, which has its efforts broadcast each Saturday night from January through May on community-minded WNDU-TV, in South Bend, Indiana. Productions have included under takings such as "Over Where?" a 15-minute slap at cliche-ridden war movies.
|As recently as 1973, a WNDU-TV staff director supervised the produc tion of BEYOND OUR CONTROL. Today, however, the operation is 100% student-controlled, including the complex and demanding directing chores. Here, Jim Poyser (left) directs while Production Manager Dave Sutton does the technical direction. |
"Beyond Our Control" is produced weekly, 13 times a year, by members of the Junior Achievement Club of northwestern Indiana and neighboring portions of Michigan. It's a cooperative venture with the NBC affiliate, which is located on the Notre Dame campus.
"When William Thomas Hamilton, executive vice president and general manager of WNDU, invited a JA group to organize a production company in 1960," recalls Promotion Manager Dave Williams, "the results for the first eight years were the traditional talk and game shows, all originated on video tape at our studio."
As both the student and audience taste for that somewhat blander fare declined, a new format -a kind of (almost) anything-goes satire program-was conceived. The chief target, Williams says, is the visual media that the teenagers grew up with-television and film.
Thus, when a crew of war heroes is assembled to carry out an impossible mission, chances are that their number will include a grizzled old sergeant, the company priest, and a frightened young kid. Only, in the JA group's "Over Where?" the young kid drags the family dog off to war with him, and the platoon cook takes a barbecue grill along.
"The kids built a mock-up of the side of a bomber, and had the squad parachute down- without parachutes," Williams recalls. "Despite this handicap," he continues, "all landed within two yards of each other-paraphernalia and all, including Cookie's barbecue."
Another production took advantage of the popularity of "disaster" movies. This was called "Blimp-port."
"During a flight, a madman produces a giant pin and causes the blimp to crash," Williams says, expressing admiration of the intricate set the student filmmakers built, simulating the cabin of a lighter-than-air craft.
|Advisor Joe Dundon, seven years with BOC, instructs a fledgling cameraman (Don Perry) on the operation of one of the WNDU-TV cameras in an early season training session. |
Despite the levity, Williams emphasizes that the students and management take the humor show seriously. Though on the airjust l3 weeks each year, it receives more fan mail, in Williams' estimation, than anything on the air.
Student sales persons have also successfully sold every available commercial second (three minutes per show) to local businesses for several consecutive years. Customers have ranged from local driving schools to restaurant chains and burger shops. They pay $75 for a one-time 60-second spot. In addition to selling time (at commissions ranging from 3V2 to 772 percent), the JAers also produce many of the commercials-mostly on slides or 16 mm color film.
While there are various similar student-run projects at other television stations, states Williams, who has served as an advisor to WJA-TV (the teenager's company) since 1968, he doubts that any have been as close to self-sustaining. The teenagers organize a new production company each year. On the average, Williams says, about 10 members are returnees from the previous season.
Three of the returnees and three advisors from WNDU sit on a membership committee which determines which of the hundred-odd annual applicants best qualify. Out of that group, about 30 members are selected.
Each new company spends about 10 weeks getting acquainted with the job at hand. They meet with advisors from the television station, view old programs, and participate in workH shops. During this period, they also begin selling stock (at $1.00 per share) in their company, and time to sponsors.
After five weeks, the students elect six officers, including a president, vice president, and treasurer, and a production manager, sales manager, and personnel director. At the start, Williams notes, the company attempted to operate on a cooperative basis; however, the participants soon decided that it was essential to define responsibilities.
There is nothing casual about the sale of stock or time, Williams relates, since one of the objectives is to give the youngsters practical experience in the way a commercial station operates. The students pay $225 weekly for the five hours of studio time needed for post production, plus an annual fee of $250 for the use of color film and processing (the JAers use the same Ektachrome EF film 7242 and Process ME-4 chemicals as the station's news department).
In addition to those costs, the company pays sales commissions, wages (e.g., 20 cents per hour to models), art and property expenses, occasional damage charges, and other business overhead. Even so, they issue annual dividends to stockholders (usually 25 cents on the dollar) and pay bonus money to participants. For the last, they have devised an elaborate bonus point system based primarily upon the consistency of participation.
Once a season begins, the creative core of the company is the writers' committee which meets nightly. The committee is open to all members; however, it usually boils down to some 12 to 15 of the most committed. Anyone can submit ideas, ranging from commercials that they want to parody to elaborate facsimiles of foreign- made movies.
|An ambitious World War One flying aces movie culminates in a dramatic aerial dogfight when BOC presents its parody of a classic story of two flying buddies, "Four Feet Over France. " Dave Sutton and Jim Poyser settle down in the firmly-grounded mock-up while Props Supervisor Ellen Akins takes a look at her work. |
If an idea captures the imagination of the committee, the next step is to translate it into a script. The last is turned over to the production manager, who decides whether to film or tape the skit. About 30 percent of the fare for the program is originated on film with the main determining factors being subject matter, location, and time.
Once an idea is stated to be put into action, the cast is selected by the production manager, who also recruits the crew needed to do the filming or taping, the making and handling of sets and/or other properties and all of the related details. The first year, Williams handled most of the film camera work himself.
However, the students have long since taken over that responsibility. Many of them have studied filmmaking at school. The company uses a Bolex camera for both originating film on location and for single framing for animation and titles.
"Because of the high-speed film," Williams relates, "we can pretty much produce whatever we want without the aid of elaborate artificial illumination. Working outside, we place a Wratten No. 85B filter over the lens and use an exposure index of 80. Indoors, with a 3200 K tungsten light source, we use an exposure index of 125."
Imagination is the only real limit as to what the students can put on film. One nine-minute segment entitled "Emissary" combined clay animation with location filming at an advisor's home. The story, in brief, deals with the arrival of an emissary from outer space who tries to attract the attention of a gadget-minded family.
The emissary is about the size of a human foot (which he has a proclivity for attracting) and is made of a doughy material allowing him to change to shapes which he believes will bring human attraction. When he sees a kiss exchanged, for example, he decides that's the way that humans must communicate and turns into a pair of pursed, ruby red lips. When that fails, he notices that hot dogs are being eaten and he changes into one.
This results in the humans in the household becoming all too aware of him. For the remaining sequences, the emissary is involved in avoiding human attention until he can escape. One of the keys to the success of this segment and other film projects, Williams says, is that the company has learned to shoot much more film than they will eventually use.
"One of the major differences between the mediums," he relates, "is that the youngsters soon learn how to edit film for the precise timing needed to make the most of their humor work. Generally, the more film that they have to work with, the better the chances for success."
Film is processed by the television station along with their daily runs for the news department. Generally on Thursday evenings, the production manager, an assistant, and an advisor meet to edit film.
Another key to success, Williams adds, is that the students don't normally produce filmed segments against tight deadlines. While the record for success is high, not everything comes out the way that it was conceived. The remedy has been for the youngsters to archive the filmed segments until they are polished.
This leaves a lot of creative leeway for flexibility. For example, one filmed segment focused on a fictional country where the economy was totally geared to a single product -a twig harvest. The company decided that the film just did not make the grade.
Later in the year, the writers' committee came up with an idea for a parody on the travel interview-type shows that dot the morning programming schedules of many local stations. The bit featured an innocuous interview between a fictional station's travel expert and a local camera-laden traveler who had just returned from a visit abroad and wanted to share her experiences.
"Someone got the idea of using the films of the natives gathering the twig harvest as the key to the travel interview," Williams said, "and the result was a very funny piece of nonsense with the traveler narrating her home movies."
The biggest limitation, to date, in the company's film work has been the lack of a sound-film camera. It did not take much experience, Williams says, for the company to learn that they could not do lip synchronization.
However, here, too, this had led to some very funny opportunities. Some of the best segments have been make-believe foreign movies- such as "Gonsuelo: Japanese Atomic Refuse Beast"-where lip synchronization is purposefully wrong.
Another rewarding subject has been parodies of silent movies as shown by a make-believe television station. The film footage is punctuated with interruptions by Iota, a friendly hostess with an endless stream of commercials.
All of the energy generated by the sales efforts, writers' meetings, and production and editing sessions is focused on Saturday mornings, when the company gathers at the studio, along with Williams and the student directors.
This is when the program for a future Saturday evening is put together. Film is transferred to tape; dialogue, music, and other sound is mixed and added to the tape; studio segments are produced; commercials, titles, and credits are added, and one more "Beyond Our Control" program is finished.
There are all kinds of ways to evaluate a project of this type, according to Williams.
Management at WNDU can add up many pluses. Everyone agrees that they are making excellent use of public service time, he notes. Furthermore, the program receives a good deal of local publicity and helps to promote stronger relations with the community. And while the fees collected from the student company do not quite cover costs, this is somewhat offset by the fact that some local sponsors have gotten their feet wet in television on the "Beyond Our Control" program.
Also, the program has already helped to develop some local talent. Bob Soos, a popular Daytona Beach disc jockey was "discovered" on "Beyond Our Control."
WNDU also has several graduates on the payroll as part-time cameramen while they are studying filmmaking at nearby Indiana University. And many others are already pointed in the direction of future careers in television as soon as they complete college.
However, the great majority of teenagers who have participated in the joint venture between the JA and the television station do not plan on media careers. For most, "Beyond Our Control" is simply an exciting exercise in learning how commercial television works.
In recent years, the JAers have earned a number of national awards. They've been given the Freedom Foundation's Economies Education Award for Practical Business Experience for the last three years in a row.
Equally prestigious was the award in 1975 of the National Association of Television Programming Executives' "Best Locally Produced Variety Show" honor.
Who benefits the most, the station or the teenagers?
Williams ventures the opinion that it is a standoff. But if he has to select the real winner, it would be the public.
"Ratings for the program range from meager to fair," he said. "However, the audience, which is largely teenagers, who had been turning off television, is tremendously enthusiastic. They like the action and the relevance and they let us know it with hundreds of letters."
However, among the letters that advisor Williams values the most is one which calls "Beyond OurControl" the best locally produced program in the area. The author of that letter? An executive of a competing television station.
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