From Washington University's
Advertising for good: Film students highlight worthy messages
By Liam Otten
May 4, 2001
[Update: David Ready is now the VP of Di Bonaventura Pictures and a Hollywood film producer]

Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should. Nowhere is this maxim better illustrated than in the world of filmmaking and special effects, where crass commercialism and sophisticated yet ultimately trivial technique often conspire against more thoughtful artistic strategies.

Video stills from a series of 30-second public service announcements created this semester by students in the Film and Media Program in Arts & Sciences. Working with local nonprofits, the students oversaw every aspect of the production process, from writing scripts and shooting film to recording voice-overs and commissioning original music.
- click on the images to activate the Quicktime clips -

This semester, students in "Digital Video Post-production," an upper-level seminar, have learned this lesson well. Working with local not-for-profit agencies such as Operation Food Search, Our Little Haven and Habitat for Humanity, the students have developed a half-dozen fully produced, 30-second public service announcements (PSAs) that were recently submitted to KTVI Channel 2.

"Digital technology allows you to do just about anything to an image," said Pier Marton, senior lecturer in the Film and Media Program in Arts & Sciences who conceived the project. "In previous semesters, just like being in a candy store too long, students didn't know what to do with such temptations. They would spend so much time learning to manipulate images that they lost the notion of 'do I have anything to say?'

"The tools are often used for fluff," Marton continued. "I wanted to find a setting that implied social responsibility, where their artistic choices would carry weight. Every move on the screen had to count because students reported not just to me, but also to a client who would not be swayed by pyrotechnics."

This January, the class met with Stephanie Kurtzman, coordinator of women's programs/community service, who helped them research various community organizations and identify groups with whom they'd like to work. Students then approached the organizations, secured cooperation and began proposing story ideas.

Once a concept was agreed upon, they set to work developing scripts, shooting video footage on simple digital cameras, recording voice-overs and --because Marton insisted that every aspect of the pieces clear copyrights --even commissioning original music. Post-production was completed on computers using professional-quality software.

Yet for all the intricacies of "motion graphics" and programs like Adobe's "Aftereffects" and Pinnacle's "Commotion," the young filmmakers quickly realized that the question of how to do something was far less important --and far less difficult --than the question of why. Several students pointed out that, left unchecked, the urge to demonstrate technical proficiency could even prove an obstacle to crafting a coherent and appropriate message.

"At first, the tools took me in the wrong direction," senior David Ready admitted.

Ready said he worked through several drafts of his spot for Alzheimer's Association before completing a final version, a moving collage of worn yet spirited faces fading in and out to a bittersweet guitar score by undergraduate Ithay Biton.

"The spot's only 30 seconds, so you want it to have impact, but dealing with Alzheimer's is a delicate issue," Ready said. "My first draft might have looked cool, but it was horrible --not what Alzheimer's Association is all about."

Senior Charles Lin, who worked with Life Crisis Services, a suicide prevention hotline, agreed.

"You look at commercials or film trailers, and there's all these lightning bolts and flames and other dazzling effects, but it really all comes down to how you represent the organization," Lin said. "It's such a serious subject, and for my piece at least, I had to capture their message with simplicity."

Lin's contribution certainly does that. Shot in evocative black-and-white, the piece depicts a seemingly troubled young woman (portrayed by senior Patty Navarro) crossing a narrow bridge, looking through a chain-link fence to a highway below. The scene's starkness is alleviated by the appearance of the Life Crisis Services logo and phone number, both printed in bright yellow, and by the calm, steady sound of water washing onto a beach.

"This is an applied-arts kind of assignment, creative but not about pure creativity, more about tightly packing information in a very focused way, chock-full of problem solving," Marton said. "If you combine the fact that students seldom realize the power of the tools they use and the fact that nonprofit organizations in general cannot afford such highly produced television spots, you can foresee a great opportunity for both parties.

"My goal was to get the class to do something of value, in the many senses of that word."

Ready said, "When you're just making something for yourself, the only thing you can hurt is yourself, or maybe your grade. But working with organizations like these, you really want to do something for them. There's a sense of responsibility."