Across the U.S., college and university communications departments are taking up video storytelling to reach new generations of social-media-savvy students, alumni and potential donors. Baylor University, the University of Georgia, the University of Notre Dame, and Brigham Young University (BYU) are among institutions producing some of the most ambitious video and multimedia projects used for student recruitment and fundraising.
All four institutions won awards in this year’s Multi Media Competition sponsored by the University Photographers’ Association of America (UPAA). BYU took top prize for “BYU Mathletes Recalculated,” a three-minute video that celebrates the university’s nationally ranked math team. The video is a montage of humorous behind-the-scenes footage from the set of a fictitious movie starring three math team members as the heroes. They’re stereotypical math geniuses: shy, nerdy and hopelessly inept as actors, to the exasperation of the fictitious director, a brash young woman played by a BYU student.
The video succeeds on the strength of its preproduction planning and direction, overseen by Jaren Wilkey, manager of BYU’s University Photography office. In early 2012, he produced the “BYU Mathletes Rap Music Video,” in which math team members are depicted as star athletes, running into a sports arena to the wild cheers of fans. With 100,805 YouTube views, it was popular beyond the BYU community.
Wilkey wanted to follow up that video with another after the math team’s successful 2012 season. “The hardest part was coming up with [another] idea,” Wilkey says. “People expected something over the top.”
He spent more than a month kicking around ideas with Mark A. Philbrick, BYU’s University Photography Director, and several student photographers working part time for the department. Riffing on the theme of math team members as stars, Wilkey hit upon the idea of making a trailer to promote a fictitious movie about the team.
It was a given that the production would require shooting behind-the-scenes (BTS) footage, which the BYU photo department now does on many productions because BTS videos are surprisingly popular, Wilkey explains.
The more he talked with his team about the movie trailer idea, “the more we realized a behind-the-scenes video would be funny” because the idea of math geniuses as screen idols was absurd. Soon they were thinking of the BTS footage, rather than the fake movie trailer, as the main attraction.
But humor is difficult to script for non-actors, so the challenge was figuring out how to make footage that was actually funny. They began by interviewing three math team members to get insight into their interests and personalities. They asked what the math competition was like, how the team members prepared for it and what interests they had besides math. “We wanted to do a segment on each team member that fit their personality. The pre-interview was key,” Wilkey says.
They found one of the team members, Sam Dittmer, to be fiercely competitive. “When he talked about the math competition, it was like he was talking about the Final Four,” says Wilkey, referring to the NCAA college basketball championship. “We decided to take him to an outdoor basketball court, and do one of those Kobe Bryant videos about determination, but show him getting blocked and messing up.”
Another member of the team, Hiram Golze, said he liked to think about math problems while riding his bike, so the storyboard called for biking scenarios out by the Great Salt Lake. “We were going for a sports-movie feel,” Wilkey says.
Wilkey and his team came up with situations that they thought might make the math team members a little uncomfortable. Their hope was that the team members’ natural reactions might be funny. Says Wilkey, “We have in the script: Here are ten things that would be funny if we could make them happen.”
The element of surprise was critical. Wilkey says that on set, all he told the math team members was: “This is going to be a weird experience for you. We’re not going to tell you everything that’s going to happen.”
One scenario Wilkey came up with was inspired by his method for putting fake sweat on BYU athletes when he photographs them in the studio: he sprays their faces lightly with water. In the “BYU Mathletes Recalculated” video, the script called for putting fake sweat on team member Peter Baratta for a scene showing him taking a practice test. But instead of spraying him lightly, Alison Fidel—who plays the part of the director—sprays and sprays Baratta until water is pouring off his face.
Fidel, who was a student assistant for the Communications Department when the video was made, is a trained actress. In her role as the frustrated director, she cued the various scenarios, then coached, coaxed and browbeat her hapless actors, while ad libbing most of her own performance.
In Dittmer’s shoot on the basketball court, the script called for a trash-talking scenario. “All we had written down was ‘Trash talk’” Wilkey says. Fidel sat in a director’s chair on the foul line, haranguing Dittmer as he played one-on-one basketball with an extra—played by Wilkey himself. At one point she yells at Dittmer: “Make him mad! Insult his mother! Do something mean!” Out came Dittmer’s halting response: “Your mother … is not a good person! She has done cruel things in her life and that’s not OK.” Fidel casts a withering look at the camera and gives up on the trash-talking idea.
Wilkey describes it as a “small, run-and-gun, get-it-done” production. Shooting lasted about two hours with each of the three math team members. Videographer Brian Wilcox was the primary shooter, and he used a Canon EOS C300. A student assistant operated a boom mic plugged directly into the camera. Wilkey and a couple of student assistants shot B-roll video using a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. “On purpose I shot sloppy looking video” with the 5D to give it a rougher behind-the-scenes look, Wilkey explains.
Lighting consisted of a mixture of natural light, a portable bank of fluorescent lights for inside shots and bounce cards for outdoor shots. “The lighting was pretty simple,” he says.
The shooting yielded plenty of successful gags. The post-production challenge was to select the best clips and interweave them, keeping in mind that audiences have short attention spans for Web videos. “Two minutes is the sweet spot,” Wilkey says, citing his own experience studying the YouTube analytics of BYU videos he has posted in the past.
Those analytics include information about where in a given video viewers begin to click away to something else. From that information, Wilkey has learned the importance of quick cuts and visual pay-offs for viewers that come frequently throughout the video. And he notes, “You have to hold good stuff for the end.”
He gave Fidel the task of editing the video. “She’s just a great editor,” he says. “I told her, ‘Keep it fast, keep it upbeat, keep it fun.’ I didn’t want any lulls, I didn’t want to give people any reason to say this is boring and go someplace else.”
The test of success is traffic, and “BYU Mathletes Recalculated” did reasonably well with 10,853 YouTube views. Although that number was far short of the total YouTube views of the “BYU Mathletes Rap Music” video, it was over the average of 1,500 or 2,000 views typically generated by the BYU Department of Communications videos.
Watch BYU’s math team videos below: