Our team wanted to create a special experience for the graduating Class of 2021. In March we weren’t even sure if the Commencement ceremony would be in-person or virtual, so we came up with a plan to film about a dozen seniors reflecting on their time at Duke, as well as film those same seniors jumping, tossing caps, blowing bubbles, etc. for a second celebration video. My colleague Megan Mendenhall would edit the Reflections piece, and I would be responsible for editing the celebration video.
Julie Schoonmaker, our video manager, reached out to the Special Events office, who was planning Commencement, to help us find seniors. Terry Chambliss and Kaitlin Briggs recruited 13 amazing seniors from the Dukes and Duchesses to participate.
Our filming session was set for March 9 and everything went smoothly – the 13 seniors we filmed were a joy to work with and made for some great moments.
While editing the video, I wished we had even more seniors to include. I decided to create a 90 second video that showed two three-second clips of each senior, but couldn’t help but think if I was graduating I would wonder why only 13 students were chosen for a video that had space to show them each two times. I decided to complete the video and see if my teammates felt the same way. A week later when I shared the video, my feelings were confirmed when Julie suggested we film at least 15 more students for the celebration video. One of the seniors in the video brought along two friends in her Covid bubble and those moments were among the most special because they showed the wonderful friendships made over four years at Duke.
Another senior happened to be in an acappella group and was a natural performer, so his scenes were some of the most entertaining.
I also knew that a big effort was needed to make the video as rich in diversity as our student body.
I emailed James Todd at Duke Chapel to see if we could film in the arcade again and also to work out logistics for running extension cords for our lighting. With the date secure, I went to Sign Up Genius and created a sign-up for our second filming session on Thurs. April 8 with 22 timeslots from 1:30-6pm.
And I drafted emails – the first letters I sent out on Mon. March 29 were to every a cappella group on campus, which I thought would help me check all of the boxes for fun, outgoing and diverse. One might not know this, but there are actually nine a cappella groups on campus: the coed Rhythm & Blue and all-male The Pitchforks are perhaps the most well-known, but others include Out of the Blue, Deja Blue and Lady Blue, and quite possibly my favorite name for a student group ever, the Temptasians.
I also emailed every student dance group I could find, 10 groups including Kpop dance team Pureun, Latin dance group Sabrosura, Bollywood fusion team Duke Rhydhun, and multicultural dance group Defining Movement.
But by Fri. eve, only eight of our slots were full, so on Sat. April 3, I began emailing students directly who I photographed in the Fall, juniors from last Spring, and so on, and attached a photo to refresh their memory and also to help incentivize their participation. Now seniors, I had captured these students studying and socializing on the quad, in a Bass Connections Project Team, with puppies from Puppy Kindergarten, and whenever I happen to photograph a group of about four or fewer students I’ll typically get their names and their year. Here’s one of those emails:
Almost immediately after sending an email like this directly to students that knew me, one or more of them would sign up, so the spots started filling up more quickly now. That night I went out to eat with my family at Bonefish Grill and sitting next to us outside was what appeared to be a Duke student (he was wearing a Duke polo and was the right age) with his parents. My wife Kelly is more talkative than me, so she began chatting with the parents and we discovered their son, Daniel Wright, was a forward on the Duke men’s soccer team graduating in May. I call this serendipity and of course asked Daniel if he would consider participating in our filming session.
During our team meeting on Monday April 5, our director Blyth Morrell suggested we include the Blue Devil in the filming session and worked out the $100 appearance fee. It was a great idea, and I was excited about filming the Devil with Daniel and two of the Dancing Devils I recruited. I had met and filmed one of them, Hannah Folks, kayaking at the Duke Marine Lab when she was a sophomore and she asked a friend to tag along.
After our meeting, I ordered a 24 pack of big bubble wands and 20 pack of no mess streamers from Amazon.
By Tues. April 6, I was still sending emails to seniors, trying to fill the remaining handful of spots. By Wednesday April 7 about 10pm, more than 60 emails later, I had filled all 22 spots.
I laid out three lights, stands, extension cords, gaffers tape, some caps and gowns we acquired, and our fun props for me, Megan and Bill Snead, our digital asset manager and resident drone pilot, a couple of days before the shoot. Megan brought large helium balloon numbers to spell out 2021, which would be a perfect way to help kick off the video.
Megan would capture the groups from a different angle with a GoPro and also shoot with a telephoto lens to help create a wider variety of imagery. Bill would use his mirrorless camera that has a slow motion setting to capture in slo-mo and also transition to the drone in the afternoon to give us some nice aerial footage.
We all met at the studio at 11:45am on April 8 to load up. Blyth and our student intern, Anna Markey, would greet the students and help us run on schedule, and Blyth would also help direct scenes and our overall coverage.
Blyth and Anna were essential in helping us stay organized as I created an ambitious shooting schedule with a different student group arriving every 10 minutes for 4.5 straight hrs. with a 30 min. recharge/bathroom break and a couple of additional 10 min. breaks built in.
The Blue Devil arrived at 1:30pm and stayed until 2:30 so we were able to use the Devil in our first five student groups. All three of us were capturing these fun scenes from different perspectives, focal lengths and frame rates.
We had a short break as our next group was at 2:40pm, and Blyth and Megan were rightly concerned that if the three of us continued to shoot every student group for the rest of the afternoon we would be overwhelmed with footage to edit. So we decided to break up into two different shooting stations to help streamline our coverage and tackle the groups that were beginning to arrive either five minutes early or five minutes late. Next time around, I’ll likely schedule every 15 min. so there’s not as much overlap and to give us more breathing room.
Also at this time, Bill got the drone ready and was mostly flying from 3-6pm, creating beautiful perspectives and shots with skilled pilot maneuvers.
Megan put away the C-200 and would use the GoPro for the rest of the afternoon to be more nimble – creating fun, intimate, and ultra-wide angle views.
We filmed 60 different seniors in groups of mostly two-four on April 8, so combined with the 15 from March 9, and five more I found at the Chapel doing cap and gown shots two weeks later (as I was wrapping up the editing), we had 80 faces in 47 scenes of our 3.5 min. Duke Class of 2021 Commencement Celebration video!