Storytelling in America’s Parks
- Video Producer
- Digital Video Specialist
- Content Strategist
- Assistant Director, Digital
- Social Media Coordinator
- Video and photo editing
- Improvised tent making
- Web design
- Social media strategy
What Was the Challenge?
Our visual team, based out of a studio in the J.C. Kellam building, is great at depicting the liveliness and academic curiosity of campus. But we also want to showcase the outstanding things that Bobcats do far away from the university. A summer Study-in-America program posed the perfect opportunity to show a special type of hands-on learning outside the classroom.
Study-in-America is a university-wide initiative providing immersive education in unique destinations. In summer 2018, faculty from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication held two courses on mobile storytelling and feature writing that would travel to state and national parks in the Southwest. Our video team and photographer jumped right in.
How We Got It Done
Our team would be embedded with the group — 13 students and three faculty — for two weeks. This required a lot of planning ahead, and a lot of going with the flow.
Beginning weeks before departure, we talked with the program faculty to understand their scheduled itinerary and course assignments, so that our team could see the big picture and start sketching a mental map of the kinds of scenarios they’d encounter. As with nearly all major travel, the details shifted along the way, but this advance legwork gave us a solid foundation.
Also at the start of the process, our strategists considered what type of content we could create from a trip like this. Video and photography, yes, but in what way? What narrative would the content tell? What platforms would we post it on, and would we do the same thing across all platforms or vary it?
The aspect ratio of the sweeping, cinematic video that we wanted wouldn’t be usable with Instagram Stories’ technical specs, but since we knew there’d be plenty of beautiful photos to post, it was a trade-off we were willing to make. Similarly, we knew that having such a stunning set of visuals to play with, it would be fine to use only minimal writing in this story.
Before the class headed out, we conducted a short email interview about their goals, so that readers could get to know the students and faculty. Together, these participants and our team had a “practice” camping session at University Camp, making sure that everyone had realistic expectations about sleeping quarters and food before they left home. Then, once the gear was packed, we were off.
On the Road, In the Parks
We operated as a documentary crew throughout this trip — our goal was to find the story and document it as it happened. We moved quickly to catch whatever we could, and almost never slowed down. Our team got up before dawn and stayed up until after dark; the average night’s sleep was five hours.
Armed with the trip’s itinerary and syllabus, we had a sense of what to expect and what stories we wanted to catch unfolding. Nevertheless, the first hike was eye-opening; it’s not easy to lug 25 or 30 pounds of equipment from the rim of the Grand Canyon down to the bottom and back up again! And while that park is stunning, it’s also almost too grand to capture on a human scale. In a close-up shot of someone hiking down the trail, they could be almost anywhere — not necessarily in the Grand Canyon. So we used different strategies to photograph and film the different parks, both for artistic reasons and also for the sake of efficiency. It was a priority to capture whatever was unique about each park; after that, we could document the common elements bit by bit along the way.
Our video team and photographer worked together closely. The film cameras and their associated sound and lighting accessories needed more time to set up a shot, so there were some things we only snapped quickly with a still camera. But in general, for every video clip, there are stills to go with it. Doubling up like this ensured that we got full coverage of every location and that our visual style stayed consistent across media.
We shot on-site interviews with students and faculty to record their in-the-moment thoughts. In the final video, these interviews would be intercut with B-roll — additional video footage to provide context and showcase the beautiful park settings. If a particular student was doing something cool that day, we’d follow them a little more closely; sometimes we’d focus on the whole group. But we balanced our documentary needs with their educational ones — after all, this was a for-credit class with real assignments and discussions. They didn’t stop their work for us, and we didn’t interrupt them.
We used driving time between the parks to have team meetings, reviewing what shots we needed to get the next day. The crew car served not only as our conference room, but also as a battery charger. For four or five days out of the trip, we had no electricity other than what the car produced; occasionally, while two team members covered the adventure, the third drove around charging batteries. We almost lost a car-mounted GoPro camera while driving, but amazingly, we recovered it from the side of the road!
At the end of the two weeks, we had seen eight canyons, run over one tumbleweed, hiked a combined 164 miles, been absolutely blown away by Zion, and saved more than 500 gigabytes of video footage.
Putting it Together
After returning home — and taking a weekend for some well-deserved rest — our visual team pared down their coverage into the best, most evocative shots. We chose 24 photos to use on the website, and condensed the two weeks of travel into a two-and-a-half-minute video. This involved pulling specific quotes from the interviews and pairing them with matching footage of the trip’s activities. We cut this down further into a 30-second version to embed on social media along with the link to the longer version. Finally, our writer came up with a video title, webpage intro and brief description to go with the video on various social media platforms, along with captions for the featured photos.
The video has been viewed more than 17,000 times across the web, and it received a high level of engagement on social media. It won a Gold Award in 2019’s CASE District IV Accolades, a competition for marketing projects in education.
On a more qualitative level, we now know what it takes to embed our team on an extensive trip, and how to manage the huge volume of content that comes out of it.
“The exposure generated from University Marketing following us to the different national parks is invaluable. I still get goosebumps when I show the University Marketing-produced video during sessions to pitch our Study-in-America program — and it basically sells the program on its own. The team worked their tails off, and they made our program look amazing in the process.” — Dale Blasingame, assistant professor of practice
“As we were teaching the students how to conduct interviews and shoot visuals, the students got to witness the University Marketing team at work using those same skills to do their job — the job of documenting the trip. It’s not often that students get to watch pros at work for two weeks and in such close proximity.
The marketing team was generous with their knowledge, taking time to explain to students the difference between journalism and marketing or public relations. They offered the students feedback on their work.
The end result was a compelling record of the trip in both video and stills — and a great learning experience for the students.”
— Kym Fox, associate professor of practice
Grand Canyon National Park
Zion National Park
Mesa Verde National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Palo Duro Canyon State Park
1,000+ video clips