As hundreds of proud Middle Tennessee State University graduates poured onto the floor of Murphy Center during the recent fall commencement ceremony, True Blue TV Event Productions student workers Helen Grace Daniel and Yanely Luna stared intently at the monitors showing multiple camera shots capturing the proceedings in real time.
As director of the livestreamed event, Daniel calmly relayed instructions through her headset as Yanely, the technical director, punched the right buttons behind the massive panel of TV screens, audiovisual consoles and maze of wires positioned at the back of the arena floor — all to make sure the video cameras throughout the venue captured the right shots and sounds for the thousands watching the video boards in the arena and the many more thousands watching from TVs, computers and smartphones throughout the state and nation.
It’s the type of hands-on, real-world experience that is a staple of MTSU’s True Blue TV, an arm of the Division of Marketing and Communications which serves as a working laboratory throughout each year for a host of student workers, many of whom are pursuing degrees through the Department of Media Arts or related majors.
“It’s extremely important to have hands-on experience, and I feel really grateful to go here because there are so many opportunities to do that,” a visibly relieved Daniel said following the morning ceremony.
A junior from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, majoring in video and film production with a concentration in event production, Daniel said it was her first time serving as director, a responsibility that required almost a week of preparation under the guidance of longtime True Blue TV Event Productions Director Robert Mogensen and Assistant Director Ronson Wolf.
Daniel had to ensure that the camera operators, technical director and playback operator were on the same page during the broadcast. A critical part of her role was communicating in as few words as possible, but with clarity, to her crew.
“It was fun,” she said. “We had a couple of hiccups, but that’s live production for you. Being involved here makes me feel more confident that I can go into the field with this experience and also be able to have my name on something like this.”
A senior video and film production major from Manchester, Tennessee, who’s set to graduate in May, Luna had served as a technical director before, but this was her first time doing so for commencement. She had prior experience in production crew work such as setting up audiovisuals for events, operating cameras for basketball and football games, and filming Board of Trustees meetings.
“It’s been incredibly valuable,” Luna said of such hands-on experiences. “It shows that you need to act professional even if you are a student. You need to carry yourself in (a certain) way or you’re not going to make it very far in live production. It’s you to learn how to be a professional on set, even if you are a student.”
Daniel has been working with Event Productions since last September, starting out “just doing a bunch of crew work, setting up other events, pretty labor-intensive things.” She eventually would move up to become a camera operator at the December 2021 commencement ceremonies and then transitioned into technical directing and robotic camera operation in the spring.
“I’ve definitely have worked my way up to this position,” she said.
‘We have to set a high bar’
That’s the type of initiative that Mogensen, as director of True Blue TV Event Productions, looks for in assigning duties to his extensive crew of student workers. Mogensen said his office currently has about 160 students on its payroll, with about a third to a half of those working full time and the others working part-time hours.
Mogensen said he thought the students’ work for December commencement was “excellent” and that they were well-prepared to capture the ceremony. He had a planning meeting with Daniel in advance to go over the script of the summer ceremony and felt she helped improve the fall ceremony “by leaps and bounds.”
“We have to set a high bar. If one person makes a mistake, it’s echoed throughout the whole group,” said Mogensen. “We are looking for the best. We are looking for the ones who want to learn, the ones who want to be there.”
True Blue TV, launched in 1999 as an educational resource channel, is the now the premier hub for video content and live event programming from the university. The channel appears on cable systems and streaming services serving the Middle Tennessee area and select programs are featured on MTSU’s main social media and digital platforms.
True Blue TV provides a diversity of programming, including campus lectures and academic activities; live and encore broadcasts of university events and ceremonies; features on undergraduate and graduate majors; and classroom and professional resources for K-12 schools and educators. The office also shares public, educational and governmental programming from state and national broadcasting partners.
An MTSU alumnus, Mogensen said he too gain valuable professional experience as a student worker and was part of the first student groups hired for what was then called Event Productions. They started doing major concerts at Murphy Center during the venue’s heyday for such events in the region.
“I loved it. I had an amazing experience doing it,” Mogensen said. “So that’s what I’m trying to get my students to understand.”
Wolf said he also started out as a student worker in college, and he’s spent most of his career in such an atmosphere. He said there’s a definite sense of satisfaction watching the growth of the student workers in enhancing their skills by successfully handling the wide variety of events held on campus.
“You see the people that want that responsibility, and you have to trust them to go run this event,” Wolf said. “I like taking charge of every little piece, but you can’t on these large events, so you have to give some of that away. The students that you start working with, you can see the growth in them, and you give them that trust and see what they can do.”
“Fingers crossed and hope it works out,” Mogensen added with a smile.
‘… Made me love MTSU more’
Daniel said having such experienced professionals as Mogensen and Wolf to guide and train them is invaluable.
“It’s really great mentors because in this industry all the equipment can be different, so having them know the equipment really well and be able to teach that to me now, if I ever encounter something like that again I’ll know how to use it,” she said. “Having people that are willing to teach is also extremely important.”
She’s worked four commencements and feels the latest one “was one of the smoothest … and it looked great.”
“There were definitely a couple of moments that caught me by surprise,” she added. “We were learning how to do something on the fly, but that’s just a part of live production. I did enjoy it. … We made it work and that’s most important thing.”
Luna said having the opportunity to get hands-on experience on high quality equipment will help them prepare for careers after graduation. She already has a job lined up in video editing and hopes to pair that with some live production opportunities because the two aspects of production “typically go hand in hand.”
Daniel said when she first started with True Blue TV Event Productions, she didn’t feel she knew a lot but “getting that hands-on experience really helped a lot so that when I got to the upper level courses I felt really prepared.”
Luna agreed, saying that she would learn about a piece of technology in one of her classes and then be able to use that technology the next day on the job.
“That really helped me understand my work and get a leg up in the industry,” she said.
“Doing all of these events just made me love MTSU more and reinforced why I chose MTSU,” Luna continued. “I knew that I wanted to be in the video and film production program at MTSU because of how great of a program it is, but being in the program I’ve realized just how great it is. Even just the updates we’ve gotten in the past semester like the new XR (extended reality) wall, it’s great opportunities for us as students.”
With a roughly $1 million investment, the Department of Media Arts within the College of Media and Entertainment will train students on this state-of-the-art XR technology within the Bragg Building that allows them to produce work that looks like it was shot anywhere — real or imagined — just like the creators and crews of films like “Dune” and TV shows like “The Mandalorian” that rely on XR technology to create vast worlds on a soundstage.
Meanwhile, TrueBlue TV Event Productions will continue providing those same students with opportunities to hone their skills at live events such as commencement.
Said Daniel: “I’ve very proud to say that this crew can accomplish what professionals can. There’s lots of opportunity here. … There’s still the grace because we are students, so this is the place to mess up,” she chuckled, “but some of the work we’ve been able to put with this student crew is incredible.”
You can watch replays of both 2022 fall commencement ceremonies at https://mtsu.edu/live.
— Jimmy Hart (Jimmy.Hart@mtsu.edu)