In 2014, Tom Malkowicz produced his first commencement recap video for the University of Washington in St. Louis. Even though the conventional approach resulted in success, as next year’s graduation day drew near, Tom was compelled to find a new way to tell the same story. “The worst reason to do something is ‘we’ve always done it that way.’ Eventually, we’re going to lose our audience if we look like every other university or continue to repeat ourselves.” His goal was to give something unique to the class of 2015.
Inspired at a young age by PBS programming from Carl Sagan and Bill Nye, Tom developed an early interest in visual storytelling. Before assuming the role of Wash U’s video producer, he started his career making a variety of programs for the Outdoor Channel, combining his love of nature and adventure with his professional interest in video production. Freelance work for Wash U eventually led to his current, full-time position. On the side, he and his brother continue to create videos for their travel log, wheresmalko.com.
Today, the answer to “Where’s Malko?” is on the second episode of the Video for Colleges podcast. Here are the notes from our conversation:
5:55 – Coming from a production company that specialized in outdoor videos, Tom wanted to continue telling stories in the field rather than conduct interviews with professors at their desks. He quickly discovered that Wash U’s faculty and students were engaged in learning and research all over the world. So why not record on location? The Mohave desert makes for a better backdrop than bookcases.
8:00 Tom would prefer to follow his subjects off-campus with his own gear. But since that’s not always an option, he’s prepared a how-to guide and shot list to send with professors and students when they go into the field without him. Mobile phone video footage, even when it’s not shot by professionals, can make a piece look more authentic.
11:13 Tom got his inspiration for POV WashU at the movie theater. An ad that played before the previews featured a montage of “found footage” that documented the high school experience. He liked the idea of creating something that felt organic, even though the ad was probably scripted and produced.
13:00 His first shot list didn’t include selfie video footage. Tom sought feedback from his colleagues, which led to an idea for an opening that helped to establish the characters. He gave his cast/camera operators (10 media savvy students) the revised shot list and sent them off to cover commencement from their perspective. Though he was concerned about giving students a job on their big day, he concluded that recording footage from their phones was something they would probably be doing anyway.
15:50 Only half the students submitted their mobile phone footage. Luckily, Tom had a backup plan. He gave GoPros and shot lists to three volunteers from his office. Only five “safety” shots made it into the final video.
17:25 There was an element of risk involved with the POV approach. Though the ceremony was being covered by multiple SD cameras for posterity, the footage wouldn’t make for a very compelling recap. Essentially, Tom went all in on POV. “We’re not going to get stuff that’s new or eye catching if we’re not taking a risk.”
19:56 The same big events happen every year. That’s the reality of working for a university. Tom doesn’t want to get burned out. “If I have to go produce [commencement] the exact same way, it’s going to lose something. I can’t keep outdoing what I’ve already done if I’m doing it the exact same way.” That mindset comes from his background in television. His sponsors always asked, how are we going to make the next episode or season better.
Tom doesn’t think higher ed recap videos need to be treated with the same urgency as real news stories. Frank and I agree. Requests for same-day or next-day turnaround put a lot of undue pressure on the video department. Other than one or two higher-ups, nobody is waiting at the computer for the recap video to drop. Tom gives the best reason for pumping the brakes on timeliness. “No one else is going to beat us on this story. We can take our time to do something really good. We’re not up against anyone else trying to tell this story.”
21:33 The reaction to this new approach was extremely positive. It was the only video that people ask him about when he’s out on campus recording something else. It doesn’t seem like he’ll have to go back to the old format. Tom isn’t worried about outdoing himself next year. The real challenge will be to come up with a fresh idea. He doesn’t have it yet. Stay tuned.