Recognition for what I do

What I want most from my content is for it to be seen. And, concurrently, appreciated. There’s nothing more aggravating to me than a project that I’ve invested time, creativity, and energy into that never sees the light of day. What’s the point of what we do without an audience?

I spend most of the year thinking about students (both prospective and current) and what content really speaks to them. Alumni are mostly a bonus (some of them truly love seeing what’s happening on campus), and donors become front and center at different points throughout the year. I’ve yet to create any content that focuses specifically on parents, but I do have a project in the works this summer that’s a bit of a double hitter. These are my audiences, and every day I spend here I get to know them better and better.

You know what audience I don’t create for? My colleagues in this field. It never crosses my mind that someone from another institution might find my work innovative or inspiring (although those are definite goals of mine.) But their attention means the world to me—a fact that became painfully apparent this week after I had the distinct honor of receiving a CASE Silver award for my ongoing academically focused Instagram series at Colby: Crash Course.

There aren’t many organizations that allow friendly competition and recognition among colleges and universities of all sizes and geographies, so CASE’s Circle of Excellence awards are a big deal in this industry. This year’s competition boasted over 2,856 submissions this year from 611 schools from 20 countries. My boss is actually calling us the ‘North American Champions’ because University of Nottingham took the Gold in our category.

It’s always rewarding to receive positive view counts, retention rates, engagement, and face-to-face feedback on your content. It’s satisfying to see and understand your success, to be able to back it up with data and refine your product as you go. But there is nothing quite like recognition from your peers for the work that you do. To really know that putting your heart and soul into a project is apparent to any audience (and that they find your numbers just as encouraging as you do.)

I really love this job. And, damn it, I’m good at it. It’s nice to have that recognized outside of my institution every now and again.

Adventures in Vertical Video

What tool does the average person use to shoot videos?

It’s not a DSLR. It’s not a video camera. And we are obviously long, long past the age of film.

You’re probably reading this blog post on yours.

Like many in my field, I took this basic fact for granted for years: smartphones are everywhere. So even as vertical videos on Facebook and Twitter became more and more commonplace, even as Snapchat and then Instagram Stories took the world by storm, I toed the party line on horizontal video. “Don’t forget to turn your phone,” I’d yell out to reporters scurrying out of the office to one meeting or another. Even so, they’d forget to turn their phones from the natural, ergonomical vertical position to horizontal roughly 60% of the time. It was exasperating. I had been taught that I couldn’t do anything professional with vertical video. Video was supposed to be horizontal. There was no room for debate. Right? How desperately wrong I was.

But I didn’t have the time to think about it during my time in journalism. All of my energy was dedicated to making online video a respected medium in my newsrooms. Just video. Period, end of sentence. I can only imagine the looks I would have gotten if I had began my vertical video lobby back then.

The first time I could really catch my breath and think was when I entered higher education. The offices at Colby in my first weeks were in that state of quiet restfulness you get between semesters. I didn’t have much to shoot, so my boss set me to strategizing instead. My ideas about digital media were what stood out to him when he managed me at the Bangor Daily News, and he knew given the time to ruminate he could get some crazy ideas out of me. And I had an entire social media strategy to consider before my partner in crime (the Assistant Director of Audience Engagement) began work the following month.

I started following every prominent higher educational institution with a solid Instagram account I could think of. Instagram is by far the most active social platform for people aged 34 and younger, with 64% of people between 18-24 presenting as daily users. It became abundantly clear from the start that Instagram Stories was an untapped tool I could really sink my teeth into. While gallery posts on Instagram are limited to reach whatever the algorithm decides (exactly like Facebook), with stories you have the potential to reach anyone in your entire following who uses the stories feature (which is appealing mostly to the younger contingent of users still).

But I was befuddled by a lot of what other people posted on stories. It was mostly so-so graphic design and ceaseless selfie videos of students droning on about things that didn’t really interest me. To be fair, I am not the target audience of 99% of the accounts I followed, but these same exact schools sometimes had beautiful videos on their Facebook and Youtube accounts. Why weren’t they using those creators for their Instagram strategy? Why was nobody producing vertical video content? The answer was a clear to me as the memory of yelling, “Turn your phone!” across a newsroom.

Which is why my next move felt insane, even as I pitched it to my boss. I would spend my first semester at Colby College making exclusively vertical content. He was respectfully skeptical, but trusted my judgement and gave the okay. This was why he’d hired me: I’ve never been the kind of person who likes to do what other people are doing. I want to do it better.

Crash Course was my first foray into this medium. It already features heavily in my portfolio with a good description, so I won’t dive too far into the whys of this particular topic. If you work in higher education, that might already be obvious to you.

This was one of my first-ever attempts at highly produced vertical video, and it shows. I turned my DSLR completely vertical on a monopod to shoot these, with the settings at 1080p and 60fps. Creatively, my mind was blown by the challenges of vertical video composition. I had always loved switching back and forth between horizontal and vertical as a photographer, so I fell in love almost immediately. The medium is truly beautiful for showcasing people—you crop very tightly onto their faces for full impact. But this is a double-edged sword, because it's a tight box to move within, and often forces you to pan and slide the camera to fully fit your subject matter.

I have loved every minute of learning what works and what doesn't in a vertical space. The process reminded me a lot of how I learned to adapt my photography to fitting into Instagram squares. It's just a different crop to fit your compositional skills into.

A semester shooting vertically taught me what I needed to know about both the medium’s strengths and weaknesses. A major thing I learned is reflected in our content on other platforms: you won’t see anything I shot those first few months in any of Colby’s Youtube or Facebook videos because it’s all vertical and those platforms are horizontal. I realized quickly that the video quality would diminish far too much if I cropped it horizontally. So now, in the interest of hitting all our platforms, I shoot the series exclusively in 4K. That way I can produce both vertical and horizontal versions of all my content. Don’t get me wrong—I shoot with vertical cropping in mind, so we’re still vertical-first here. Horizontal is a bonus for other platforms, not a main goal. But it has been nice to be able to put my camera on a gimbal now that it’s turned the “right” direction. I could make an argument at a larger institution (who may be able to spare a multimedia person) to produce strictly vertical content for just one platform, but that is not the situation I am in at Colby. Instagram is still my major concern, but we can’t let everything else sit on the wayside for my entire tenure here.

Crash Course’s immediate success made us step back and figure out how we could further optimize vertical video production. Inspired by Youtube Vloggers and Instagram influencers, we decided to open up this medium to our student workers. Remember those boring selfie clips of droning students I mentioned earlier? Try It was our remedy. A fun, fresh take on the student experience at Colby. Produced to maximize impact on Instagram without falling victim to the 30-plus story panel experience.

We purposefully kept production value a bit lower on the series to make it accessible to student workers of all ability levels, and also lend it an air of authenticity. Shot on a smartphone and edited in Premiere, it’s more polished than content fresh from the phone without leaning into Crash Course territory. Now when I yell, “Don’t forget to turn your phone!” after someone leaving the office, I’m looking for entirely different results than my days in the newsroom. For the love of Instagram, we usually can’t use horizontal footage, so I need them to shoot vertically. Thankfully, shooting vertical feels completely natural to this generation, so my reminders are generally completely unnecessary.

Because of my students, I know I’m not alone in my love of vertical video, but those of us who truly enjoy this medium are an exceedingly small portion of the professional video field. Major complaints from videographers include comments like “it’s awkward” and vertical composition is “limited.” But it’s just like any skill you build in this profession: when you don't work in it often, when you don't commit to it, it feels weird. When you are learning how to do something that is so different yet so similar to something you're already good at (i.e. horizontal video) you're bound to feel frustrated. Especially when we’re already such chameleons, with most of us boasting production, editing, audio, photography and After Effects skills on top of our pure shooting talent. I understand on some level why people are exasperated, but I don’t feel any of it.

The point of this craft for me has always been for people to see what I create and experience the stories I tell. We’re working in an era where distribution platform effects the overall look and feel of our content. And in some ways that is terrifying, but in other ways it is exciting and revolutionary. We now shoot in rectangles of all shapes and sizes, in lengths from mere seconds to hours. We have so many creative outlets at our fingertips—which one suits our stories the best? What will reach the most people?

It’s invigorating.

A Previous Life in Journalism

Would you be able to delete the work of an entire career? Faced with the prospect that none of my previous work has much relevance to my current career path, my hand hovered over that delete button. Years of my life. Stories I did my best to tell on daily deadlines. In journalism, you are pressured to create under a timeline that gives you no room to think. To grow. To experiment.

All of my work from that time in my life reflects this. It has a kind of crazed, rushed quality to it.

Honestly, I should not be showing you this. It should be embarrassing. But haven’t you ever wondered where someone might have come from? What their work may have looked like when they first started?

This was my portfolio as of the end of 2016. I’ve grown a lot since then, but at the time I was award-winning in my field. I cannot stress enough that journalism is a very different creative environment to work within than higher education. Most of these videos, photos took a single day and a single camera to produce.