It was the first week of the semester, and Bavand Karim’s students were getting a rundown of what to expect in his Topics in Visual and Media Arts: WGBH Partnership course.
They were getting their orientation on a bus. On their way to work on a professionally produced WGBH TV show.
“It’s all pretty hectic because production starts the very first week of the semester,” Karim said. “Once we get on set, we get our instructions and we learn what we need to do and what the show is supposed to look like. There’s not a lot of room for error, so our work has to be done very well and on time.”
Karim’s students did participate in a television “boot camp” in December, before being thrown into production on Sing That Thing, WGBH’s vocal competition show, now in its second season (think American Idol or The Voice, but with more eight-part harmonies and matching polo shirts).
The crew on Sing That Thing needed to know that the students could work at a professional level from day one of shooting, and also wanted to gauge what each student’s personal aptitude was, said Liz Cheng, executive producer of Sing That Thing and general manager of WGBH.
WGBH has had a number of talented Emerson interns over the years, said Cheng, but the station and the College wanted to find a way to tap that energy and talent in a more structured, concentrated way. Emerson President Lee Pelton sits on the WGBH Board of Trustees, and worked with Cheng, WGBH President and CEO Jonathan Abbott, and former Emerson Vice President and Special Assistant to the President Donna Heiland to come up with a true partnership, she said.
“How can we take what is a very robust internship project and really transform it into something that could be a model for other stations in other markets?” Cheng said. “That’s why the idea came up of embedding the students in the [then] new production of Sing That Thing.”
Students were broken into groups that did jobs ranging from shooting B roll and interviewing musical acts before and after their performances, to operating studio cameras and manning the control room.
“They’re actually doing work, as opposed to standing next to the person doing work,” Cheng said.
The show consists of 24 vocal groups in four categories: high school, college, small adult ensemble and large adult ensemble. Each week, groups compete to make it to the final round, in which two groups from each category square off against each other for the top prize. One group is judged best of the show.
The Emerson students spent two weeks on set, helping to film and run the show, then another three weeks in the editing room, Karim said.
Juliet Vibert ’16 shot B roll and web features during her first week on set, then interviewed contestants after they performed during the second week. She also had to manage people in the studio, something that she said made her worry at first about coming across as overbearing.
“But then I realized, no…that it’s O.K., that’s my job. I’m not bossy, I’m the boss,” Vibert said.
Vibert, who hopes to be a TV writer and producer, said she’s watched a lot of reality shows and was interested in the dynamics of a competition show.
“It gives it another layer,” she said.
Daniela Abraham ’16 was not as new to TV production as some of her classmates, having worked on several sets in Lebanon, including a music video by one of that country’s biggest pop stars, Raghed Alama.
Abraham said she most loved working in the Sing That Thing control room, watching the technical directors work, because it was “amazing seeing people who are so in love with what they’re doing,” a feeling she said she could relate to.
The class ran into a few challenges on set, including last-minute scheduling changes, Abraham said, but the students learned how to adapt.
“I really appreciate going there; it was really honestly a great experience,” Abraham said. “I got a glimpse of the real world, and I’m ready for it.”
Karim said when the class was working on production, they would start work in the morning and get back to campus at 1:00 am some nights. But the work was so rewarding, he said, and the long hours and frantic pace made the crew feel like a “family.”
“One of the things that makes Emerson unique is that these kids really want it,” Karim said. “They want the experience, they’re not afraid of challenges, they’re not afraid of hard work, they’re not afraid of obstacles, and they’re not afraid to sacrifice.”
The VMA students weren’t the only Emersonians on the set of Sing That Thing.
Campus a cappella group Noteworthy was a competitor in the college category this year, but if you want to learn how they did, you’ll have to tune in, because Karim’s students aren’t talking.
The first episode airs Friday, April 1, 8:30 pm, and Saturday, April 2, 4:00 pm, on WGBH2.