How did you get into video production?
I began experimenting with video when I was a sophomore in college. My younger brother wanted help creating a parody of MTV’s popular Diary Of series for his senior project in high school. I grabbed a camera and we put together a decent video using Windows Movie Maker. After that, I was hooked.
While working as a staff photographer at the Detroit Free Press, I began creating quick news videos as a way to expand my knowledge of the craft. I also got to learn from talented visual storytellers like Eric Seals, Brian Kaufman, Kathleen Galligan, and Kathy Kieliszewski. Before I knew it, I was producing Emmy Award-nominated content and teaching others how to use video to tell stories.
What led you to a position in higher ed?
I made the transition to Higher Education because I wanted to be physically closer to my family. My background as a military brat has made proximity to my family extremely important to me. Always the new kid, my family members became my best friends over the years and throughout various zip codes. I love my parents, Harold and Brenda Henderson, my brother Bryan, my sister Stephanie and my niece Jayla. I have grown to appreciate the various lessons I’ve learned growing up in a household rooted in adaptation. Learning how to make informed decisions, knowing how to build relationships and rapport quickly and being a person who truly respects diversity and the complexity of the human condition are all things I owe to my family and have ultimately made me a better storyteller. After 3+ years in Detroit, a job opportunity that would allow me to do what I love and live near my family presented itself. I decided I would try something new and move to Blacksburg, VA.
Describe the team dynamic and project selection process at Virginia Tech?
For almost two years, I’ve had the luxury of working on a very talented and hardworking multimedia team: J. Scott Parker, Dan Mirolli, and the late Jerry Scheeler. We essentially function as a small production company, assigning roles that align with our skills and preferences. Coming from the one-man-band mentality of photojournalism, I had to learn how to become a better director, taking ownership of projects that required constant communication with the cast and crew.
Our team is part of the University Relations department that serves several institutional clients in support of Virginia Tech’s mission and goals. Often, our project selection process is determined by the client’s status at the institution. For example, an initiative or communication from the Office of the President will most likely get priority over a request from one of the colleges. We also have several capstone events that require annual coverage (e.g., graduation, move-in day, Relay For Life – which Virginia Tech has the #1 collegiate team in the world, etc.). These projects often promote public understanding of and support for Virginia Tech, and/or disseminate useful information affecting Virginians. There are also times when the production team can pitch story ideas that promote the brand on social media. As more institutions of higher learning invest in their visual departments, I think we will see a strong emphasis in telling emotional stories that compel viewers to share. They won’t need a brand message to be successful.
What’s your favorite piece of gear?
Professional photography and videography equipment was foreign to me until later in life, so I don’t have the “I used to shoot on Super 8 when I was 9” experience. Because I lacked access to the medium’s more sophisticated tools, I’ve always subscribed to Ava DuVernay’s “$2 and a paper clip” ideology. Until last year, the Canon AE-1 Program was the only camera that I’d ever owned. My father purchased it to photograph me with as a child. Throughout my life, I’ve begged for and borrowed more versatile equipment. I didn’t turn into a camera enthusiast until I got to the University of Missouri and earned a position as the equipment locker manager for our photojournalism program. Also that summer, I interned with the Austin American Statesman and was humbled when my shiny new DSLR bricked out on the job. I resorted to having to shoot with a camera that was much older and slower, but ended up creating some of the best images in my young photographic career. So, in essence, my favorite gear is the gear that’s available…or I should say, gear that’s available and functional.
Is there one piece of equipment you’d like to add to the inventory?
I’m currently lusting over the Sony FS7. Hahaha. I know it’s not all about the gear, but I’d love to get my hands on that camera for my documentary.
Got any Netflix recommendations?
DOPE by Rick Famuyiwa is easily my favorite film from 2015, Mississippi Damned (and really anything else shot by Bradford Young), 20 Feet From Stardom, Beast of No Nation, City of God, What Happened Miss Simone?, Full Metal Jacket, Memphis, Life Itself, Gimme The Loot….I really could go all day. I would also recommend you randomly pick 2-star rated movie and watch it. It may surprise you.
What recent higher ed video impresses you?
I am incredibly impressed by the “Unlimited” campaign produced by Western Sydney University. Particularly, they have a profile piece on one of their Sudanese alum’s that moved me to tears the first time I watched it. Ok, I just watched it again, and teared up…again. It’s a minute and a half of pure storytelling. There isn’t one word of dialogue, just on-screen text accompanied by an awesome soundtrack. Full transparency, this video campaign was part of a multimillion dollar rebranding effort by the institution, who hired an agency to produce them. Although most institutions don’t have those resources, I think many are realizing their success depends on connecting audiences with their content.
Do you have a favorite Virginia Tech project?
I loved working on our 2015 University commencement project. That year, I knew we had Executive Chairman and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt delivering the keynote address. It was an all hands on deck situation; two of my colleagues were tasked with recording the commencement speech and formal ceremony, one produced micro-content to share on social media, and I was asked to create a “sights and sounds” recap.
I knew that having Mr. Schmidt on campus was a big deal, so I wanted to incorporate his speech into the final piece. The day before commencement, I searched for my soundtrack. As a DJ and audiophile, underscores are extremely important to my process. An underscore for me could be music, a beat, ambient audio, folly or anything else that re-creates the environment in which the action took place. So I did my best Pharell impression and edited together a music piece which I thought would match the pacing of the upcoming event.
Armed with the soundtrack in my head, I was able to seek out and capture moments to match it. The only variable — I had no idea what Eric Schmidt was going to talk about. I figured he’d give at least one or two soundbites that I could string into something that sounds like Eddie Murphy’s Distinguished Gentleman speech.
Fortunately for me, Mr. Schmidt’s speech referenced many of the day’s traditional highlights: hoisted diplomas, loving embraces, selfie stick group photos. Ok, so that last one’s a recent phenomenon. The icing on the cake was having Mr. Schmidt tweet out our video to his 1.2 MILLION followers. Needless to say, I felt pretty good about our web traffic that month.
If you could make a movie on any subject (with no time or budget limitations), what subject would you chose?
I am actually working on my first documentary film now! Beyond This Place is an extension of my master’s work, which examines the rich culture of African American Fraternities and Sororities. The film also looks forward, asking “What is the role of these organizations in the 21st Century?” Primarily depicted in popular media through the scope of stepping, Black Greek Lettered Organizations, collectively referred to as the “Divine Nine”, are also responsible for the development of some of America’s greatest leaders. People like Nobel Peace Prize recipient Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, sports icon Michael Jordan, and innovator George Washington Carver make up just a few of the hundreds of thousands of initiated members responsible for historical advancements in our nation’s most influential movements, including Civil Rights.
Today, many believe the century old organizations —Alpha Phi Alpha, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Delta Sigma Theta, Phi Beta Sigma, Zeta Phi Beta, Sigma Gamma Rho and Iota Phi Theta — are no longer the innovative, progressive organizations that they once were. Beyond This Place aims to examine the current state of Black Greek life while investigating imaginative solutions to the organization’s modern day challenges from the perspective of both current members and the communities they serve. Our story follows several members of Black Greek Lettered Organizations as they explore the benefits and the challenges of upholding the legacy.
I am currently in the pre-production/early production stages of the filmmaking process. Our fundraising trailer has been viewed almost 17,000 times in the last month. I’m hoping some of that momentum carries over into our fundraising efforts. I’ve been self-producing the film as a passion project (that is to say, whenever I have extra money after paying off student loans) since 2014. I’ve applied for several film grants but have yet to find a primary sponsor for our film. With such an intentional push towards greater diversity in filmmaking, I am hoping gatekeepers see the value in this project and respond favorably this funding cycle. We are submitting to several film development incubators and grant opportunities this first quarter. Wish us luck!
Where do you go for inspiration?
Two things I would encourage any current or future video producers to do: create and study. I listed create first because I truly believe that a good story won’t wait until you’re “ready,” i.e., have enough money, professional experience, or academic training. I’ve learned through the process of trial and plenty of errors. I had to throw a lot of footage away before I ever started feeling proud of my work. Through the creative process, I believe potential energy gives way to kinetic inspiration.
Studying what other producers are doing is another part of my process. As a former photography major, I look at everything I can and I would encourage other video producers to become consumers of media. You never know where your next idea will come from. I typically go to Vimeo Staff picks, Short of The Week, Netflix, Great Big Story, Mashable, Mic, VH1 Soul (music videos), photography coffee table books, and Instagram for inspiration.
Also, invest in cultivating relationships with other professionals. I tell people all the time that I am a product of incredible mentorship. I’ve been blessed to have had people in my life who didn’t hold their knowledge hostage and who have invested in my development. For that I’ll always be grateful. Then, once you begin to define and obtain your own personal success, make sure to pay it forward!