Sean Goheen (Host) 00:00:01
Greeting scholars and welcome to Following the Gong, a podcast of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State.
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Following the Gong takes you inside conversations with our Scholar Alumni to hear their story so you can gain career and life advice and expand your professional network. You can hear the true breadth of how Scholar Alumni have gone on to shape the world after they rang the gone and graduated with honors and learn from their experiences so you can use their insights in your own journey. This show is proudly sponsored by the Scholar Alumni Society, a constituent group of the Penn State Alumni Association. I'm your host, Sean Goheen, class of 2011, and college staff member. If this is your first time joining us, welcome. If you're a regular listener, welcome back.
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Sean 00:00:55 Megan Ruffe, class of 2013 is a documentary filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York, where she's a co-producer at Florentine Films. Ken Burns' documentary company. She's worked on numerous projects that have been featured from the New York Times to p B s to Netflix. She earned her degrees in geography with honors and film. Megan shares her insights on being a, what she calls multi-passionate student and how being a scholar allowed her to combine passions and gain experiences in filmmaking. She also shares a lot of behind the scenes insight on how films are made that any scholar who enjoys movies and TV can appreciate. You can read Megan's full bio in a more detailed breakdown of the episode topics in the show notes here on your podcast app. With that, let's get into our conversation with Megan following the gong.
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Megan, thank you so much for joining me here on following the Gong. I'm looking forward to our conversation on all things documentary filmmaking today, but let's go back to the beginning. How exactly did you first come to Penn State and the Schreyer Honors College?
Megan Ruffe 00:01:59 Yeah, thanks for having me, Sean. This is super exciting. Um, I basically had that quintessential perfect college visit when I showed up at Penn State. It was a beautiful spring day. I was there with my dad. We were like totally lost and some current students stopped to ask us if we needed directions. It was just like so friendly and, and kind of that aha moment of like, yeah, I wanna be here. And the perfect college town I had pictured and all of that. So that's really how I got there. Um, but it also intellectually was drawn to the small seminar style cla, like honors classes that Schreyer offered. Um, and obviously having the resources of Penn State I was, and still am a very multi-passionate person. So knowing I could change my mind or explore a lot of different options was really exciting to me.
Sean 00:02:48 And speaking of that, you majored in two seemingly very different majors. So what attracted you to both of those? How did you balance the demands of being in two different colleges like that?
Megan 00:02:59 Yeah, and to make it even more interesting slash confusing, I actually started as a finance major. Um, so I think, you know, as I mentioned, multi-passionate person <laugh>, but also possibly a little bit, uh, lost at the beginning. Um, so when I started in finance, I, summer after freshman year, went to Egypt and sort of had another aha moment. Um, growing up I had always been making movies, you know, long before TikTok, but just, you know, on my family's camcorder with the earliest iteration of iMovie. Um, and I realized that there was a career and pairing this with my interest in people and places and those stories, and actually an amazing advisor at Penn State helped me realize that that's called geography, it's called Human geography. And I hadn't even really known that that was an area to consider. So, you know, I think for me the, the pairing of them is obvious, but it might not be so to, to other people. But working in documentary, it really allows me to explore both interests, um, which is really amazing. So
Sean 00:04:03 We'll talk a lot about film here throughout our conversation, but can you go a little bit more in depth on what exactly is that geography major? I think when we're in K 12 we think of maps and globes and atlases and those sorts of things, but it's obviously a much more robust and in-depth major. I was wondering if you could just share a little bit of insight 'cause it's not the most common major at Penn State. I think it's a little bit smaller. So if you can illuminate what exactly a geography major entails?
Megan 00:04:28 Yeah, I mean honestly when that advisor, I basically showed up to her with this long like soul searching list I had made of things I was interested in and she said, geography, I was like, no, no, I know all the capitals. I can't study that for four years. You know? So I also had no idea what it was, but um, and I'm not even gonna do it justice on the breadth of stuff that you could study in geography, but the, there's a couple of different subsections. So I did human geography, which in my head is really this intersection of like politics, economic sociology, culture, you know, all of these things. But with the overlay of spatial thinking about them all spatially. So how does space influence all of these, these various areas? I mean there's also physical geography, which is what you said, mountain ranges and, and obviously much deeper and more interesting. Um, and then there's also G I S, which I know Penn State is really well known for, um, what for that department. But yeah, for me it was really just this idea of thinking about things in a totally different way, like thinking about them spatially. I just had never, it had never occurred to me that that's what I was already doing.
Sean 00:05:35 When you're in film, you need to develop a portfolio and just like you in any of the arts, how did you go about gaining? You said you know, you grew up, you were using your camcorder. If for those of you who are like, what's a camcorder? Go look it up on Wikipedia. How did you go about gaining practical experience as a scholar with filmmaking? Any fun examples?
Megan 00:05:55 Yeah, so like I mentioned, I've been making movies uh, for a long time, but none of them were actually ever very good until maybe, I'm not even sure. In college they were very good, but I definitely started showing them to more people in college. Um, I, you know, obviously in the film classes we did a lot of really cool practical stuff. Our, in our one cinematography class we would watch a scene from a famous movie and then have to recreate how they did the lighting. And that was so cool and just such an education in that. Um, but I also, you know, I got the chance to make some videos for nonprofits and help them raise money for various things while I was, um, at Schreyer, I also got a short part-time job with the Sustainability Institute, so helping them make videos for their online classes. Um, and that really helped me have the ownership of taking something from beginning to end, which is a lot of what I do now. So that, that was super helpful for that.
Sean 00:06:50 I think that's really exciting kind of, you know, you're helping the community, you are getting practical experience putting things on your portfolio. I was looking at your website, it looks like some of those are still on there. I even saw some things for Showtime or something with student council. So were you involved in any kind of clubs or activities outside of those things you just did for fun?
Megan 00:07:10 Yeah, um, the biggest thing I was involved in was a club called Global Brigades, which was focused on sustainable development. And there were all these different discipline chapters. You know, there's medical brigades, public health brigades, and my really good friend Horten Fang and I started Penn State's chapter of business Brigades. 'cause as I mentioned, I was originally a finance major. Um, and I stuck with that because it was just such an interesting way to think about business and microfinance, um, in this sustainable development world. And that was a really cool club. I mean, I will say I also did a lot of critical thinking on service learning and who benefits from that. So that was just, you know, interesting as well. But, um, I was also involved with a business fraternity called Phi Beta Lambda, which was a really cool way to just, we did a lot of mock interviews and like resume workshops and just really get yourself ready for the job market, so to speak. Um, and I was the philanthropy chair for that. So I again, got to make some videos for a couple nonprofits and help them out.
Sean 00:08:13 I'm definitely sensing a theme of service and storytelling in, in your journey, but I was, I went through your LinkedIn and I, something really caught my eye and that was, you know, a lot of scholars study abroad. We have building global perspective as part of our mission te but I think you're the first guest that I've had on here so far that did Semester at Sea. Can you talk about what that program is, because that may be of interest for some of our scholars listening.
Megan 00:08:42 Yeah, semester at C is probably still the coolest thing I've ever done <laugh>, um, and I highly recommend anyone consider doing it. It is basically for my semester. We truly went around the world, so we, you're on a small ship that's really not meant to go around the world. It was originally designed to cruise like the Mediterranean or something. Um, but you start in The Bahamas, we went down to Brazil, then we went across the Atlantic over to Ghana, South Africa, around the tip of Africa. Then we went over to India, Vietnam, China, Japan, and across the Pacific stopping in Hawaii back to San Diego. And it was about four months. Um, and while you're on the ship, you're taking classes. And at the time that I did it, U v A was running it and they were really big on this Jeffersonian academic village and um, you know, the professors were on the ship with their families.
Megan 00:09:38 And so you're, when you're in the dining hall, you're kind of, the idea is you're constantly learning, which was just super cool. And then when you're in the port, so when you show up at the country, you don't have any class, so you're just there for however long the time is. And sometimes it's a week, sometimes it's a couple of days and you are exploring, sometimes you're doing a like class field trip essentially. Um, and it was just really incredible. I went to some places that I'm not sure I otherwise would've gone. Yeah, I can't say enough cool things about it. The other thing that was awesome was I got this scholarship to do what I love doing anyway, so I got to, um, basically I modeled the idea on StoryCorps from N P R and my idea was I would kind of do what you're doing. So I'm usually the interviewer, <laugh>, um, talking to everybody on the ship and kind of getting their stories from this floating academic village and putting them together in an oral history archive, so to speak. Um, and that was very, very cool.
Sean 00:10:35 Whatever happened to that final output there, Megan?
Megan 00:10:37 Yeah, you know, I think it's on some very old website that's probably a <laugh> a an archive, a museum now of bad web technology. But I think I should, uh, I should bring that back out.
Sean 00:10:48 And then speaking of projects, I'd be curious to know what your thesis project was and how you developed it. Because when you're, you know, in film you're not necessarily going to write a paper, you're probably more likely to do some kind of short form documentary or movie or something like that. Tell us what you did.
Megan 00:11:07 Yeah, so I actually did do my thesis in geography, but I did this, um, kind of infusing it with a storytelling similar oral history lens. So my hometown had this oral history collection, which was essentially just a bunch of CDs from people who were no longer with us about the town. Um, and I wanted to find a way to organize that. So kind of using some of the geography thinking. I had proposed that the best way to do that would be a geo located map with the stories kind of referencing what area they were coming from. So back then the technology for that was possibly harder than it is now. So it took a bit to figure out, you know, what was the best tool to do that. Um, and I did actually actually write a paper sort of about why this was a, a cool way to make this accessible to the public. And um, yeah, I will say the one thing I say now to current scholars about the thesis is I felt a lot of pressure to kind of come up with this career defining idea. And I have since not really talked much about my thesis, not for not being proud of it, but just I think you should probably just pick something you're interested in and that's exciting and um, you know, it doesn't have to be the pressure of something career defining.
Sean 00:12:25 I think that's really good advice. There's this, this is this big thing, it is the culmination of your time at Penn State, but that's just the reason we call it commencement when you graduate, is it's really the beginning of that next stage of life.
Megan 00:12:36 Yeah. And I think for me, what it taught me was really how to take a project from beginning to end. And that's, I think, you know, one of the great values of having done a thesis is you then get into whatever your next step is, whether it's grad school or you know, working at a company and you know how to take something from the very idea to completion. And that is a huge, like feather in your cap in itself.
Sean 00:12:59 Absolutely. Now how did you go about getting that next step? Yeah,
Megan 00:13:02 So I, I graduated actually and then I got an internship offer with Florentine Films, which is where I currently work and that's Ken Burns documentary company. And I remember a lot of my friends were, you know, going on to get real jobs, not no longer internships. And I wasn't sure like, am I really gonna take an internship? I just graduated. Um, but in the end, you know, I I just totally admired Florentine and their body of work. It's the stuff I kind of grew up watching. And um, they had also just recently come out with the film on the Central Park five, which was really an evolution in Florentines filmmaking style that I was really interested in that direction. So I took the internship <laugh>, um, and went up to New Hampshire, uh, to be a post-production intern. So that's editing, so kind of media management, keeping track of things, um, and a lot of logging footage and all of that for the editors. And then I stuck around long enough that the timing just worked out really well. They needed someone on this series they were doing on the Vietnam War to be an apprentice editor. So they hired me for that. And then the rest is history. I've been there for eight years.
Sean 00:14:12 So you just threw out some film terms and as we get into your career and what it's actually like being a filmmaker, I was hoping that you could give us a crash course. Obviously there's probably whole courses in the Ballis area College of Communications about this. But if you give us a very quick like two to three minute crash course on all the different roles, you know, you see the credit strolling at the end of a movie or a TV show and you see executive producer, director, co-producer, editor, cinematographer, boom, operator, you know, all these different things. Um, can you tell us just quickly what those different roles are so that it helps inform the rest of our conversation?
Megan 00:14:50 So I, I think about it kind of, I mean, I, I specifically, I should say work in documentary film, so this is kind of all coming from that lens. And that's different from narrative film, which is what people think of as, you know, fiction movies that you see, you know, on the, the really popular ones or experimental film, that kind of thing. So documentary is my wheelhouse documentary. You kind of have these different departments. So you have the producers and they kind of are the ones, which is what I do now, but they kind of, you know, manage the whole project. So all the various pieces, they know who they need to bring in from hiring the composer and getting them into do the score to getting the color correction in to, to make it beautiful and hiring the cinematographers and all of that. There's, I should start who started with the director?
Megan 00:15:35 The director is kind of like the top of the project and that's the person with the vision. So they have the vision and then the producers are sort of making that vision happen. And then there's um, you know, the camera department, which is the cinematographer who's taking the director's vision and turning that into true visuals, like what does that vision mean for what kind of lights you need or what kind of lenses you might use. And then there's the editors. And so once you've collected all the footage, it goes to editing. Um, and that's really where the story comes together. You're choosing the pacing and the mood and the energy of what music makes you feel, something about what you're hearing or seeing. Um, and then after editing it goes into, we call it post-production, but it's post post really. So that's color correction and sound mix. So that's where you have a sound design and all the layers coming together to really make it a polished film and getting it ready for the public. And you know, all of these pieces, again, the producers are kind of the ones who are setting the schedules and making sure everybody knows what their role is, um, within the larger project. I think
Sean 00:16:40 That's really helpful 'cause when you're watching this credits your league, there's so many people involved and this takes like 10 minutes for them all to scroll by. There's so many people involved all the way down to presumably, like you talked about Megan, somebody has to make sure just all the things are labeled correctly so you're pulling the correct files, um, or you know, back in the day the right reels to uh, put together. So I think that's really helpful. So I started writing questions for our interview here, which is something you probably have done on the other end of this quite frequently. And originally I was gonna ask what is a day in the life like for a filmmaker? And then I realized that's probably a really silly question 'cause there's probably not really a typical day. So instead I wanted to ask, what is it like going back to your thesis and diving a little bit deeper there? You talked about really good advice and a takeaway for students. What is it like taking a project from start to finish? Can you walk us through, I was being really clever. I wrote from Pitch to Premier. Yeah,
Megan 00:17:35 That's great. Um, and I do remember when I was in college always wondering like, what does a day in the life look like? Like I just was like, are what are you doing? You know, nine to five doing this thing. Um, but I do think for film especially, it's so project oriented that over the course of the project and the projects I work on now, we really have the luxury of a very long timeline. So I'm working on this current project on the American Revolution that I've been working on for two years and I'll work on for three more years. And it constantly, my day-to-day changes as the project evolves because it requires different things. Um, so in the very beginning, you know, when you're getting the project ready for pitch as you say, um, you know, it's sort of doing a lot of the research, pre-interviewing people you might eventually interview on camera, um, you know, kind of figuring out what's the story gonna be and how might it come together, figuring out who you might need to bring on creatively.
Megan 00:18:33 At Florentine we have, um, several writers who write the script and the narration and they do a ton of research and synthesis to put it together in a coherent story. Um, so then once you have the script, you're kind of going out and you're starting, you're doing the interviews, but then you're also gathering footage, like what are you gonna look at while you're hearing this narration? So from the current film I'm working on, it's about the 18th century. So my job in particular is what are we gonna look at because we don't have any photographs from that time period. So I'm going out today and figuring out what are the landscapes that evoke the 18th century that we can still capture today, historic structures that might still be intact. And also kind of more abstract ideas like what else can we do to bring this story to life?
Megan 00:19:21 Um, and so then, you know, you're kind of, it's the collection phase and then the distillation phase is the editing. So then you're kind of distilling everything down into what are you actually showing and what's helping you tell the story in the clearest, most concise way, but also in the mood that you're trying to, to relay. Um, and then Premier, there's a lot of technical stuff that happens, <laugh> to get it ready, you know, very detail oriented file types and all of this stuff that for us we broadcast with P B S, so they require a certain set of specs to broadcast nationwide. And then also a lot of our projects end up streaming on Netflix, so you have to have a different deliverable for them. So surprisingly the whole preparing deliverables process takes a pretty long time.
Sean 00:20:08 I imagine you were talking about technical stuff and earlier you mentioned color correction. I remember reading a review on a Blu-ray and the four K uh, d v D version came out and people were saying, oh, they color corrected because the Blu-ray that had come out a few years ago was off. And so they went back and fixed it. So, you know, there's so many just little, little details that go into these things that you're watching on Netflix and Hulu and or p b s, you know, thank folks like Megan when you're, when you're watching these Yeah, and
Megan 00:20:34 That, sorry, that process is really like it. I think for some people it's probably like watching paint dry, but for me, if you've been at the project since the, since it's very beginning, it's when the project really comes to life. Like you, the cold color correction and sound mix happens in these dark rooms in Manhattan somewhere. And so you're just in this dark windowless room, really focused on what you're looking at or hearing. And after working on the film for years, usually it's when you really start to see it as a film rather than just it's parts. Um, and to me that's super exciting. Now
Sean 00:21:06 I'm gonna throw you one that wasn't on the sheet here, Megan. So you talked about kind of the different pieces and I was picturing like, oh, a field of wheat and a sunset or like Betsy Ross's house in, in, you know, old City Philly as those kind of examples. But obviously there's nobody living that you can talk to. So do you ever use like reenactments, I know I've seen those on things like the History Channel and others. How do you decide if that's something that you want to integrate into your storytelling?
Megan 00:21:35 Yeah, that's the part that um, unfortunately we're too early in this film for me to, to me to discuss a little too much about what we're doing with this project. But all of those creative questions are really what we struggle with and what, you know, that's the fun part for me of filmmaking. It's how are you gonna relay this story that in this case is happened so long ago and how are you gonna make it feel relevant to today? 'cause especially for the revolution, it is so relevant that, you know, we're, we talk about these questions of liberty and freedom and the founding kind of questions all the time. So that is what's really exciting. Um, and yeah, ultimately those are the questions we're asking ourselves right now. It's a great question. So
Sean 00:22:17 You've primarily been an editor and you've talked a little bit about that. How do you go about developing a style of editing? Does that change based on the type of project you're working on? How do you mesh if you're, there's a team of editors because it, you know, Megan, you name dropped who you work for Ken Burns and if you've ever used iMovie, you know that that is actually one of the styles that you can use is the Ken Burns effect where it kind of pans over something stationary to make it look like it's moving. So you know, that's kind of his style. He's literally known for. How do you develop your style as an editor?
Megan 00:22:50 Yeah, um, so I will say I, I started out in the editing and then kind of shifted. I'm more of a on the producing side of things at the moment, but I still do a lot of editing for my own films. Um, I have a couple of what I call side projects, though they are fully films in their own right. Um, but yeah, the editing style is a great question and typically as I kind of explain in the beginning, the director sort of has the overall vision. So just as it's the cinematographer's job to turn that vision into literal images, it's the editor's job to kind of take that vision and translate it into, into the timeline. So at Florentine, you know, the Ken Burns effect that really he, Ken Burns has this very specific style that's been honed over decades. Um, so as an editor for Florentine, you are kind of really trying to keep that style in mind while adding your own, your own essence to it.
Megan 00:23:46 And I think with editing it's a lot about the rhythm and the pacing, which are things that are actually hard to describe and it's sort of like you see them, you know them, you know, and you can kind of feel it. So if a, if the pacing's off and you just watch a movie and you don't know why you didn't really enjoy it, it could have been the pacing kind of thing. So the people joke that editing's that thing you don't really see, but you would know if it's off and good editing it, you shouldn't notice really. Um, so yeah, I mean I think on the side for my not Florentine projects, it's been really fun to kind of do that soul searching of like what is my style? And it's been a lot of trial and error. So kind of just trying out a sequence and putting images next to each other and watching it back and seeing if that's something that resonates with me or not.
Sean 00:24:35 I think that's spot on as a film viewer. There was recently, uh, a large Hollywood blockbuster that my wife and I watched and we sat there and went, wow, the pacing on this was just off. Like they could have cut 20 to 30 minutes out of this and it would've been a, a better story if they could have just trimmed this down and made it go a little bit faster. So you don't say that when it's good. So I think that's kinda interesting Megan, that you know, there's so much that goes into it. If if it's well done you don't even notice.
Megan 00:25:03 Yeah, exactly. And, and the pacing too is so interesting 'cause it's this thing where it's not always, sometimes it's like making it faster and then other times it's like that crescendo of like, if you drop right into the action too fast and people haven't had that moment to to catch their breath and understand what they're watching, they might not be bought into the the action. And so it is, it's such a fine balance and to me that's so fun to try to figure out. And a lot of our process is showing the film to people at Florentine. We have these screenings with what we call warm bodies, but you know, you're kind of constantly showing it to people who are fresh and haven't seen it a million times like you have and you can kind of read the room when you have a room full of people, are they, you know, are they feeling emotional at the part you want them to feel emotional at? Is there, are they laughing at the part you were trying to make a little bit lighter? That kind of thing. So it's, it's really cool.
Sean 00:25:56 Now when you're an editor or producer, do you actually get to go out to any shoots or locations? Obviously documentary it's a little bit different because you're not filming like action, but you have interviews, you have maybe recreations or B-roll shots that you're trying to get. We talked about, you know, an example of a Sunset or Betsy Ross's house I threw out. So what is that like when you're actually out in the field?
Megan 00:26:19 Yeah, so I, again, like I, I've worn a lot of different hats at Florentine. Um, and when I started on the editing side I wasn't as much in the field 'cause a lot of the editing happens in these rooms with, you know, heavy duty computers and that kind of thing. But the producing is, is very much in the field. So after Vietnam I went on to work on a film called College Behind Bars, which was about prison education, um, or college education in prison in upstate New York. So we were filming what we call verite, which is fly on the wall kind of. You're actually seeing a class and what's happening and the cameras taking all of that in. Um, so that, it was really cool to see how that all works. And there's so many moving parts when you're quote unquote on set. You know, it's not really a set because it's real life and what's actually happening, but it is a set in the, in a certain way.
Megan 00:27:11 Um, and the film I'm working on now about the revolution, I am going out and filming a lot trying to collect that footage of what are we gonna look at, like you mentioned the sunset on Betsy Ross's house. Um, and it's really fun to be kind of seeing things in a new light. I actually grew up, um, where Washington crossed the Delaware outside of Philly and now thinking about that area, I, it's totally different thinking about it in a totally different way. Like what can we capture where isn't there modernity that we might be able to evoke the 18th century? Um, so that it's, it's a lot of in the field work and I find that really fun. Yeah,
Sean 00:27:48 So if you're doing a period piece you don't wanna sign for I 95 <laugh> cropping up in your shot about where Washington was, was crossing the Delaware probably pretty important to do that scouting ahead of time. So when you're back in kind of the office setting and you mentioned the heavy duty computers, what is it like as an editor in the 21st century? 'cause I think classically you think of a lot of the terms come from physically cutting and stitching film together. I'm sure you had history classes on this, but what is it like modern day and how did the pandemic affect that in any way? Or maybe it didn't?
Megan 00:28:20 Yeah, I, I was always fascinated to learn 'cause I'm also a history nerd to learn like how the terms, what they meant. So I grew up, you know, you put things in bins which is essentially folders, but I, back in the day they were physically bins and they had these things like you'd see at the laundromat which just had like selects hanging on clothes pins and then the bins were all the outtakes and it's just like super cool how it was totally a physical medium and you were like running around having to find this stuff for the editor. Um, but now you know, it's so tech heavy and we're using with before the Pandemic we were pretty much based in one editing central location and all the footage the master media was there, but with the pandemic it's kind of opened people up to this idea that you could send files around and people are doing a lot more remotely. And I know that's pretty popular in the industry now. Um, and I think that we'll probably just continue to see that happening.
Sean 00:29:17 What is it like when you've shifted to this producer role, how do you, if that's the track that a scholar wanted to go down as opposed to being the director or the editor, how do you get into that leadership role on Behind the stage? Does, unless you're actually inter being interviewed as part of the documentary. I've seen those on some of the, uh, on Disney plus there's the Marvel documentaries and they interview folks like Kevin Fige and others that are kind of the connective tissue across all of those. But otherwise you're probably not on screen ever or maybe even not behind the camera. So how do you pursue that particular part of your work?
Megan 00:29:51 Yeah, I think the producing to me was always the aspect that was the most elusive, like what I could understand what editing is 'cause I edit, I could understand what cinematography is 'cause you use the camera, but producing is that, as you said, connective tissue, it's all the pieces that would make, like if you imagined like how would I do a shoot with 25 people on this lake, you know, with like X, Y, and Z variables. It would be the producer who would be the one who's like, we need this, we need, you know, all the pieces that have to come together and the schedule and everything. I think in terms of getting into it, exposure is really the best thing I can recommend. Kind of there's the very entry level producer role is called a production assistant or a pa and a lot of places will usually hire local PAs.
Megan 00:30:34 If they're going to do a film in Pittsburgh, they'll put a call out for local PAs and um, I think that as a Penn State student, it's great to kind of get into that network and just get the exposure. You're often just running and getting coffee or keeping the set together, but it's so cool to see what everybody's different jobs are. Um, and then from there you can kind of go on to coordinating more of the logistics and that role is called a production coordinator. Then there's associate producers, co-producers, which is what I currently am. Um, and producers,
Sean 00:31:05 We talked a little bit about there's a difference between what you call narrative filmmaking or experimental and documentary. Can you go a little bit deeper on what those differences are that we haven't covered?
Megan 00:31:16 So documentary obviously is, you know, nonfiction though I will say probably there's blurred lines in all of this. You know, you see documentary films that do a ton of recreating even to the point of like hiring actors to say the lines that would've happened. So, but then, but by and large the category is documentary is nonfiction, things that happened in real life. Um, narrative is fiction or based on a true story, that kind of realm and experimental is really, I don't have a great definition for it, but it's sort of this other category. People really ex truly experimenting with the form, maybe doing something less traditional, more poetic. Um, and I think those are really fun films to watch because often they're not what you would typically see. Um, but yeah, I think that those are pretty much the three large categories. Obviously now we're also seeing virtual reality and that's a whole nother category, but also often involves documentary elements. You know, there was, um, different films that are exploring real places and telling those stories in vr. So
Sean 00:32:23 I think you've mentioned most of the projects that you've worked on or are working on. Is there any that just haven't popped up that you wanted to tell about or maybe share some more fun stories from working on any of those ones that you have mentioned? Like the Vietnam War project or the one on the prison education project?
Megan 00:32:39 Yeah, I mean the one thing I haven't mentioned so far that I'm, I'm really excited about was, so in 2017 I got asked to help with um, this digital project called Unum. And it was basically trying to take the Florentine archive. Like I said, we have hours and hours of footage about American history and each one is a different subject. So there's one on the Dust Bowl on prohibition, but all of them kind of have these themes that run throughout American history. So Unum was about taking clips from these series and tracing the themes. So innovation or protest and the protest we call them. But the protest playlist has stuff from, you know, women's suffrage and the 19th Amendment to the Civil Rights movement to the Vietnam War film. And it's really cool to see these themes that run throughout kind of distilled in this way.
Megan 00:33:31 Um, and one of the things we ended up doing was in order to get kind of people to Unum, we created this web series called Unum Shorts, which is a way that we take a scene from an old Florentine film and repackage it with today, like what's happening today so that we can provide historical context to a current event. So the first one we did, we took a scene from the 19th Amendment film about women's suffrage and we related it to the Equal Rights Amendment and the battle for that that's happening and still happening today a hundred years later. Um, and it was really cool and we went out with it with the New York Times as an opinion documentary. Um, and I think it was just this cool way to push the envelope on how, first of all how we use our films to talk about the present and, and connect, make that connection.
Megan 00:34:20 Um, and also just a very cool, you know, short form, faster kind of way of making a film. And the other one, uh, we made that I was really excited about was Ken had interviewed James Baldwin in this 1985 film he made about the Statue of Liberty. And the interview is amazing and he has this great quote about what liberty means to him. And we kind of took that out and related it to the debate that was happening around taking down confederate monuments and what monuments represent in our culture, which for me, a geography nerd was amazing to think about like how these things in our place can mean so much. So yeah, that, that's been a really fun project to work on. That's
Sean 00:35:03 Awesome. And I think for those of you who are interested in any kind of content creation, whether it's blogging or TikTok or anything, a key thing that I'm pulling outta what you're saying Megan, is you know, you have a lot of content and there's probably hours and hours and hours of material for Ken Burns. It's typically 10 hours end up on the air, but how many hundreds of hours of other content, what can you go back and repurpose, right? I think that's something, sounds like you're doing a great job of there.
Megan 00:35:28 Yeah, and Ken will always say this thing where, you know, there he's based in New Hampshire and up in New Hampshire they make maple syrup and it takes 40 gallons of SAP to make one gallon of syrup. And that's sort of like the filmmaking equation. You know, you have like hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage just to make, you know, what ends up being a 10 part series or something like that. So there is really what gets left on the cutting room floor could in itself be eight other movies,
Sean 00:35:54 <laugh> and there's one of those old timey terms for you. 'cause if you were cutting the film strips, literally it would end up on the floor. So there you go. Now it just ends up in the re the digital recycling bin, but maybe you save it. Um, and so how can you take some, an interview from 35, yeah, 35 years ago, repurpose it to, you know, a new piece today. So I think that's, that's really smart. Now what are some other skills that scholars could be working on if they are interested in pursuing a career in filmmaking? Be it documentary or narrative,
Megan 00:36:25 You know, this idea that the exposure is really helpful, just kind of, I think also, you know, trying to make the work like this is, you know, when you first start out, I think Ira Glass had this quote about, you know, you have good taste, but you can't quite yet make the thing you know you like because you're still working on your skills to make it. But everything you make, you get a little bit closer to that vision you have in your head of what it could be. And for me, that's totally true. Like I look back at some of the projects I did make in college and you cringe a little bit just based on how you, you know, you would do them now. But all of those were essential for the skills I have now because each project taught me something. And I think that's been, even now, that's still happening, you know, and sometimes you can, you know, the that saying, the perfect is the enemy of the good.
Megan 00:37:11 Like you could wait and wait and wait until you think you're ready. But sometimes it's just good is just to go out there and give it a try. And so I think especially if you're interested in film, you know, it's so easy now to get a decent camera and some audio and go out and just try it and then start editing and, and even that you'll learn the software and you know, there's a lot of great books, I think one's called In the Blink of an Eye on Editing in particular that are based in the old, you know, that true film. But the, the logic and everything still applies, like the pacing and the rhythm, all of that is still true today.
Sean 00:37:45 Absolutely. And there's probably a good chance that you are listening to this scholar who's listening on an iPhone or an Android Samsung type of device, Google Pixel, something like that. Or maybe you're listening to it on a laptop. Either way. Uh, the former has ma amazing cameras in them now, certainly not the same grade that you're using on say like The Avengers or something like that, but certainly great cameras, your laptop has editing software and if you're a Penn State student, you have access to the full slate of Adobe products. So I use Adobe Audition to edit this podcast, but there's Adobe Premiere Photoshop, so play around with those tools that you have while Penn State provides them to you.
Megan 00:38:26 Yeah, and I remember, I don't know if you guys still have this, but there was something called like Linda that was also like to learn a skill. You could watch these videos online and that was so helpful. And I will say my other piece of advice is like, I don't know if this applies to other industries, like maybe not if you have a job at nasa, but you know, you'd really be surprised what you can learn online. And I think part of the reason I ended up getting hired was I was willing to just Google questions that I had and watch a YouTube video to learn. The software we use is called Avid. And you know, to learn how to do something in avid, someone's figured that out online. So I think really being resourceful like that and taking advantage of what you have can, it's, it's just really helpful. And I think people do notice that.
Sean 00:39:08 Absolutely. You mentioned YouTube, it's how I learned a lot about how to do this when I, when I was putting together my pitch for this podcast, Megan, and you mentioned Linda, it is now LinkedIn learning. They rebranded or got bought out something by Microsoft because Microsoft owns LinkedIn, but Penn State, if you're a student, you have access to that as well. So in addition to all those Adobe products, you also have access to LinkedIn learning. I've used it and in, when you're done a little course it puts a little certificate on your LinkedIn profile for future employers. So major pro tip there. So thank you <laugh> Megan for bringing that one up. Now a notable thing that you've mentioned in passing here, but you are based in New York, you are in Brooklyn though I think you said you're recording currently from Connecticut, but you are in the northeast, you are not in Los Angeles, you're not in Hollywood, or not even in Atlanta, which is another big filmmaking center. What is it like working in a city that's certainly known for creativity, for ad agencies, for Broadway, not necessarily the first place that you think of for film and television? How does that impact your work?
Megan 00:40:09 Yeah, that's a great question. And I think when I was graduating, I remember, um, I was so open to going anywhere and I remember a film professor, I was asking him for some advice and he was like, well, where do you wanna go? And I said, any, like anywhere. And it almost wasn't helpful to, to be that open-ended. But I think, you know, New York has such, like you said, such a rich culture and art scene and there is a pretty large film scene happening there, especially for documentary. I can't speak to how narrative is in, um, in LA versus New York. I imagine there's probably more narrative film happening in la, but documentary film, there's a ton happening in New York. A lot of, um, we do, like I was saying, the post-production, the color correction and the sound mix, a lot of places, those houses are based in lower Manhattan. And so a lot of people end up having to come to New York at some point for their film anyway. So it's sort of just this hub. And like with the pandemic, more and more people are remote. So you have filmmakers living in Hudson Valley or in Connecticut and these, these different places, but ending up in New York for some stage of their film. So I love being in Brooklyn in particular because it is, you're so close to the center, but it's still a little calmer, um, than being in Manhattan.
Sean 00:41:23 Not the place I I think of maybe filming scenes for Law and order or, or something or any of the other number of shows that take place in in New York, but not necessarily production hub. So if you're interested in that, but you're like, I don't wanna move all the way out to California, there are opportunities on the East coast. I know Pittsburgh is another big one that you mentioned, if you remember the Dark Night movies, a lot of those were filmed there, including that very famous scene at Heinz Field. Um, Megan, do you know, um, is, is that still the case? Am I talking out, out, out of my, out of my uh, not knowledgeable space here on that?
Megan 00:41:57 Yeah, I think so. I mean, I, I actually am working on this short film that I have been for years now based in Pittsburgh. And so a co every time I go out there I kind of hire a local sound person or some local people to help me out. And they're always talking about the latest film that just came through that they were working on, like big Hollywood film. The Dark Knight was a huge one and they had these crazy stories of how they had to like light the bridge from that mountain. I don't know if Pittsburgh geography that well, but the mountain with the um, cable car, they like set up these massive lights from it to light the bridge. So just like really cool stuff. But um, yeah, I think Pittsburgh has a great film scene happening. Philly has some stuff too, and being so close to New York with Billy, it's also easy to pop up and, and do a gig and come back. So that's also a nice place to be. Um, and I will say I do know there is a good bit of narrative film. I can't say I think it's probably more in la but if you watch like Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, like I've seen the signs that that's filming. There's a lot of studio space sort of down in these old industrial areas in Brooklyn that they've turned into just sets that, that they film at. So yeah, there's a lot happening. Awesome.
Sean 00:43:07 So if that's something you've always just kind of pushed out because you didn't wanna move that far from home and from your family, there are opportunities here on the East coast and you just mentioned a TV show on, on Amazon, I believe. So you've described yourself as a filmmaker, but a lot of where Ken Burns and your documentary work airs is on tv. Does that impact your craft in any way knowing that you have like the ultimate medium that you're delivering on versus the creation side of things?
Megan 00:43:36 Yeah, that's a great question. It's interesting 'cause we always call even Vietnam, which was an 18 hour 10 episode series we called the film, you know, as a, as a whole. So it is funny because I think before, I think now it's a little bit more common for people to understand a miniseries as one piece. It's not gonna be many seasons, it's just one season, it's six episodes or whatever. Um, and so I think we still consider them films, but when it's episodic like that you do have to craft each episode to have a beginning, middle, and end where, and then the whole series at large also has to have a beginning, middle, and end. So in terms of that crafting the story and keeping pulling people along and, and keeping that pacing where it should be, it's, it's really a challenge to do that over such a long time. And that's sort of what's so fun about having these really long form formats. Um, but yeah, we do, we broadcast everything on P B Ss, um, which is, they're a television broadcaster, um, but still call ourselves filmmakers.
Sean 00:44:40 And then Megan, I wanted to go back on our, kind of our, my last question before moving into our reflective last third, we talked about like iPhones and galaxies and these things. Now a lot of folks can document their lives. They nec may not wanna go into filmmaking, but they may want to make a video for their small business or a pitch for getting funding or something to document, uh, their wedding or a birthday. Um, or some maybe want to be a content creator as we call them on YouTube or TikTok as a side hustle or, or something as a hobby. You can go on YouTube, you can find how to woodwork, you can find how to edit videos, you can find any kind of instructional people who are just very giving of their advice and time and obviously they can monetize if they get a lot of viewers on there. So certainly, you know, there's that opportunity. What suggestions do you have for folks who just want to do this kind of thing as a hobby, something fun or maybe some way to accent their primary business?
Megan 00:45:35 Yeah, I think, I guess the same thing that I, I recommended earlier, you know, just giving it a try and like you said, the technology, you probably already have something that could capture a beautiful image, like whether it's an iPhone or an even a, a small sort of more inexpensive D S L R camera that really, they're really good now. So just going out there and kind of giving it a try. Also asking for help and advice from people who've done it before. I think that's always, you know, really there are lots of people who've done what you've, what you want to do. And so it's also a great way to connect with people. Then maybe you could ask, start by asking some specific question, um, and then, and then that'll open up a nice conversation and possibly a collaboration. Um, I also, you know, I consider film my hobby too, so I am, am you know, constantly making films on the side and collaborating with people. So I do think it's a great way to, for me it's a really fun way to experience just the world. Like I live in New York and I've been making this film about New York City's waterways and it's been so fun to just see the city in a new way by being a filmmaker. And I think as a hobby that, you know, it, it makes perfect sense to me.
Sean 00:46:49 So I misspoke a moment ago. I do have one more question, uh, and hopefully this is, this is a softball, but I think important for our scholars. So Megan, you've talked, you know, a good way to get exposure is to, you know, go on as a PA or you know, some kind of a runner, you know, these sorts of things, you know, and you've hired folks when you've been on site in Pittsburgh or in or in Brooklyn, where in the heck do you actually go to find those gigs? If you're the person looking, you know, you wanna put yourself out there and say, Hey, I wanna be hired as a production assistant, I wanna get into this. Is it like you go on LinkedIn and Indeed and the and Monster, or is there some kind of like niche place? Do you go through like, you know, the Screen Actors guild and, and and the production equivalent to that? Like how do you go find those opportunities?
Megan 00:47:32 Yeah, that's an excellent question and that was the one that vexed me for, you know, when I first started I was like, where do people find out about these things? And it's definitely changed and kind of ebbs and flows over the years right now. I mean, I have to say most of the people I get are word of mouth. So more than anything it really is kind of doing that, connecting with someone, doing a quick call with them, getting coffee, kind of just really getting to know someone and then you'll be top of mind for them and kind of having a clear idea. I kind of always recommend this like kind of know what you wanna ask the person for. Like if you were gonna get coffee with someone who lives in Brooklyn and works in documentary film, you might say at the end of it, Hey, if you ever hear of anyone needing a PA in New York, could you let me know? And that way at least I know what, um, you know, what, what to think of you for. Um, so that I think is one way. There's also a couple of like more niche groups, like you mentioned. There's one for, um, women and non-binary folks in film called Media Mavens and they kind of do a listserv where they're always putting job postings and that's been a really helpful way to find people as well. Awesome.
Sean 00:48:41 It's the 21st century, so there, there's gotta be those ways, but still old school, get to know people. So that's, that's really helpful, Megan, now I want to go and just try to reflect on your career today with some wrap up questions here. What would you say is your biggest success so far? Biggest
Megan 00:48:56 Success? I do think that the, the web series I mentioned for Unum, where we were taking these scenes from the old Florentine films and sort of repackaging them, writing a script and, and making them relevant directly to current events today was, is sort of my proudest accomplishment right now. It was really cool to see them kind of have this larger second life with the New York Times. We also did one with the Washington Post. Um, and to be able to write those scripts was also really exciting, um, and, and fun for me as a storyteller. So that's been, I think maybe my proudest moment so far.
Sean 00:49:33 And then on the flip side, what would you say has been your biggest learning moment so far and what you took from that?
Megan 00:49:38 Yeah, I am always learning <laugh>, like I mentioned in my advice, you know, just kind of getting out there and, and trying it. I produced this pretty big shoot for my film out in Pittsburgh and, you know, just so many things could have gone wrong. So many things did go wrong. So there was just giant learning. And I think what I really took away from that was how important it was to just be calm and have perspective on, you know, you're doing the best you can, especially if you are the producer. Your job is to kind of think through all the various things that could go wrong and have options ready for them. But at the end of the day, you're doing something that is, you have to just be out there and doing it and then respond to it as it happens. So being patient and having patience for yourself too, that you might need to take a moment to, to figure out how you wanna best respond to this is totally fine. And, and everybody understands that who's, who's with you and helping you out. Um, so that, that shoot was really in the end, it was, it was so exciting to see it all come together and, and everybody had a good time and really enjoyed what we were doing. So
Sean 00:50:42 You kind of maybe alluded to this a little bit in your advice on connecting with people and reaching out and getting coffee, that sort of thing. But how do you approach mentorship as both a mentor and as a mentee, and how and why would you suggest that students, uh, reach out for those kind of opportunities?
Megan 00:51:00 Yeah, I think there's a lot, there's a lot of variation in what a mentor mentee relationship could be, but I really enjoy just having someone more, you know, experienced and wiser, help me kind of offer perspective to something. And that's also what I like to offer people as well. I remember senior year at Penn State going to some of these, you know, panels and career advice sessions that were super helpful, and then other ones where it felt like, you know, the person could so beautifully sum up their 30 year career because hindsight is 2020. So when you watch someone, when you're kind of at the beginning of that, watching someone who can sum it up almost seems like they predetermined how that would happen. And it's a bit overwhelming. And I think the perspective that mentors helped me realize is, you know, that comes from the hindsight when you're actually living it, it's a much more curvy road and you're kind of just making these course corrections, which is, I think what I've done and having mentors who've been able to support me in that. It's been this, you know, you get a little bit closer with each course correction, and that's been, that's been extremely helpful and I'm super grateful for the people who've been able to help me offer that perspective.
Sean 00:52:08 Speaking of those people, are there any professors or friends from your days on campus that you want to give a shout out to?
Megan 00:52:14 Yeah. Um, Lisa Ksky is super helpful. She was always, yeah, <laugh>, she was always really a cheerleader for me and, and, um, and always trying to help me connect with folks and understood that sort of multi-passionate thing of where I'm coming from. Uh, Dr. Ruth Mendo was also in the, she used to be in the university fellowship office. I think now she's in the Department of Ag, but she was so supportive in this, you know, storytelling is a career kind of idea. I felt always like I was doing sort of something unconventional. And then it became really clear to me that there is a future in this and, and it's, um, and it's actually a really rich one. Um, and, you know, lots of professors in the, um, in the geography department like Dr. Owler and lots of film professors too, who really just helped, again, kind of sort of validate that, you know, this is, this makes sense and you can do this and offer some perspective on that.
Sean 00:53:05 And you can book an appointment with Lisa at, uh, shc.psu.edu/appointments if you wanna talk to her and help her get to know you. And so she can be a cheerleader for you, just like she was for Megan. So shameless plug there for, for that. Now Megan, we've talked a lot. You've shared a lot of great advice, a lot of great insight. Even if you're not interested in filmmaking, hopefully you learn something about the process, uh, as well, I should say, not as a career, but if, you know, learned about it as, uh, as a film watcher, you know, a lot of people like to say they're movie buffs, so, you know, hopefully you learned something along the way. Is there any advice that you wanted to share that you were really passionate about bringing up or any stories that just didn't come up with the questions that I asked today?
Megan 00:53:49 I think, you know, in terms of advice, I just, I guess I can't, for me reiterate enough, and this is sort of the advice I needed to hear when I was that age. So I don't know if this will apply to everyone, but maybe there's someone out there who needs to hear this that like, for the thesis and for the decision making on what you need to do next, it doesn't need to be the one thing you do forever. You can just choose a path that seems exciting to you. And I think really following that excitement is sort of in my mind, the right, the right mo. And then you can always make these little course corrections. And I've done that my whole career getting a little bit closer to where I am now. So I think that kind of taking that pressure off yourself, that it has to be the perfect career defining next step for you, helped me really enjoy what I was doing next.
Megan 00:54:34 Um, and the other thing I I think about a lot is people talk about that flow state. So that state where you could be doing something and time would pass and you haven't realized time is passing. And for me, that's always helped me make decisions like, what is the thing I could do all day long and not realize time has passed and kind of get into that flow state and that, you know, if I'm doing that at my job, you know, even 60% of the time, that's really exciting to me and that's always helped me make decisions.
Sean 00:55:01 So again, you mentioned connecting with folks. If a scholar wanted to reach out to you and you know, would get coffee with you in Brooklyn or, you know, reach out to you and, and just chat on Zoom, what is the best way that they could make that connection with you?
Megan 00:55:16 Yeah, definitely. I'm happy to reach out over email and I can share my email with you. Um, LinkedIn, I'm, I'm less on LinkedIn, but always happy to get a connection and, and, and get a message there and I'll try to reply as soon as I can. Yeah. And, um, I would love to connect, especially if people are in New York City and wanna grab coffee. I'm always happy to do that.
Sean 00:55:35 And finally, as this tradition here, if you were a flavor of Burke Creamery ice cream, which would you be? And most importantly, Megan as a scholar, alumna, why would you be that flavor
Megan 00:55:46 <laugh>? Great question. I think I would be mint at me mostly because I appreciate a good pun and that's a great, uh, that's a great title.
Sean 00:55:55 I think you're the first person to choose that one, so congrats on on picking one that has not been claimed yet. Megan, thank you so much. You said that a lot of your work you can find on Netflix, on p b s. Is there anywhere else that Fultz could check out some of the things that you've contributed to? Yeah,
Megan 00:56:09 Also you could check out, um, the website Unum, which is ken burns unum.com and that's where we've, I was, uh, talking about collecting these thematic playlists around American history.
Sean 00:56:19 Awesome. So you know where to go check out these words. Ken Burns is the Vietnam War and what was the, the Prison One
Megan 00:56:26 College Behind Bars, I believe that's still on Netflix. It's a four part series. Um, really highly recommend
Sean 00:56:32 Whenever this airs you have some more content to go consume and you can see some of the things that Megan was talking about. Megan, thank you so much for coming on following The Gone. We really appreciate it and thank you so much for sharing all of your great advice and insight today.
Megan 00:56:45 Thanks for having me. This was really fun.
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