FTG 0028 – Behind the Lens with Documentary Filmmaker Megan Ruffe ‘13



Megan Ruffe ’13 Earth and Mineral Sciences and the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, is a documentary filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York, where she is a co-producer at Florentine Films, Ken Burns’s documentary company. She has worked on numerous projects that have been featured from the New York Times to PBS to Netflix. She earned her degrees in Geography with Honors and Film. Megan shares her insights on being a “multipassionate” 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 bio and a more detailed breakdown of the episode topics below.

Guest Bio:

Megan Ruffe ’13 EMS, Com is a documentary filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY. She co-producer at Florentine Films, Ken Burns’s documentary company. She has worked on several major series for PBS, including The Vietnam War (2017), College Behind Bars (2019), Hemingway (2021), and Benjamin Franklin (2022). She is currently working on a forthcoming series on the American Revolution. Megan has also been working with a small team to develop UNUM, a new digital project that uses Florentine’s library of work to bring historical context to current events. She also independently directs and produces short documentaries. Megan graduated summa cum laude from Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences earning a BS in Geography with Honors and the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications earning a BA in film. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and on CBS Sunday Morning.

Episode Specifics:

In this episode, Megan shares her insights on:

· Choosing the Honors College as a “multipassionate” student

· Working with academic advisers to find the best major for you

· Insight on the geography major

· Seeking out practical experience on campus and in State College

· Thoughts on the Semester at Sea at program

· Thesis thoughts: learning project management while not over-pressuring yourself

· Interning aftergraduation and leveraging that into a fulltime role

· A crash course on the different roles in documentary filmmaking and serving in those different roles

· Making creative and narrative choices in the storytelling process

· The importance of editing in filmmaking and building your own style

· How to get your foot in the door in filmmaking

· The content equation and making the most of your content

· Skills Scholars should develop if they want to pursue careers in filmmaking or similar & resources available to Scholars to help you build them

· Pursuing careers in filmmaking without moving to Los Angeles and Southern California

· Designing films and mini-series for long-form television & streaming

· Advice for hobbyists, small business owners, and personal record keeping

· Learning from mentors and distinguishing hindsight from living the journey


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Credits & Notes:

This content is available in text form here.

This show is hosted, produced, and edited by Sean Goheen ‘11 Lib (Schreyer).

The artwork was created by Tom Harrington, the College’s Web Developer.

The sound effect is “Chinese Gong,” accessed via SoundBible used under Creative Commons License.

The theme music is “Conquest” by Geovane Bruno, accessed via Pixabay and used under Creative Commons License.

Greeting scholars and welcome to following the Gong, a podcast of the Shire Honors College at Penn State. Following the gone takes you inside conversations with our scholar alumni to hear their story so you can gain career and life advice. And it spanned your professional network. You can hear the true breadth of how scholar alumni have gone on to shape the world after they ran the gone and graduated with honors, and learn from their experiences so you can use their insights in your own journey. This show is probably sponsored by the scholar Alumni Society, a constituent group of the Penn State Alumni Association. I'm your host, Shawan Jheen, class of two thousand eleven and college staff member. If this is your first time joining us, welcome. If you're a regular listener, welcome back. Megan rough, class of two thirteen, is a documentary filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York, where she has 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 PBS 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 and a more detailed breakdown of the episode topics and the show notes here on your podcast APP. With that, let's stay into our conversation with Megan following the Gong. Megan, thank you so much for joining me here on following the gone. 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 Shuier Honors College? 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 a ha moment of like yeah, I want to be here in the Perfect College town I had pictured and all of that. So that's really how I got there. Um. But also intellectually, was drawn to the small seminar style class like honors classes that shreier 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. And speaking of that, you majored into 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? 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, but also possibly a little bit 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 camp quarter with the earliest iteration of I movie Um and I realized that there was a career in pairing this with my interest in people, in places, in 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 that the pairing of them is obvious, but it might not be so to other people. But working in documentary it really allows me to explore both interests um which is really amazing. So 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 twelve we think of maps and Globes and atlas is 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 because it's not the most common major of pence. They think it's a little bit smaller. So if you can eliminate what exactly a geography major entails. Yeah, I mean honestly, when that advisor I basically shut 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 going to 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, economics, sociology, culture, you know, all...

...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. 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? Yeah, so, like I mentioned, I've been making movies 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. Are 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 trier. 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. I think that's really exciting kind of you know, you're helping the community, you're getting practical experience putting things on your portfolio. I was looking at your website. Looks like some of those are still on there. I 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? Yeah, and 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 Hortense fung and I started Penn states chapter of Business Brigades because, 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 micro finance 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 FIBERTA Lambdo, 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 of nonprofits and help them out. Definitely sensing a theme of service and storytelling 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 scholar study abroad. We have building global perspective as part of our mission tenant, 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. Yeah, semester at sea is probably still the coolest thing I've ever done, 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, at Uva was running it and they were really big on this Jefferson Ian Academic Village and, Um, you know, the professors were on the ship with their families, and so you're when you're in the dining hall, you're kind of the ideas, 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're 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 have 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 story corps from NPR and my idea is I would kind of do what you're doing. So I'm usually the interviewer 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. Whatever happened to that final output there, Megan? Yeah, you know, I think it's on some very old website that's probably an archive museum now of bad web technology, but I think I should, uh, I should bring that back out. 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. Are probably more likely to do some kind of short form documentary or movie or something like that. Tell us what you did. 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 write a paper sort of about why this was 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. 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. 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 as 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. Absolutely now, how did you go about getting that next step? Yeah, 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 in no longer internships, and I wasn't sure am I really going to take an internship? I just graduated, Um, but in the end, you know, 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 Florentine's filmmaking style that I was really interested in that direction. So I took the internship, Um, and went up to New Hampshire 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 that for the editors. And then, and 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. have been there for eight years. So you just throughout 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 Belisario 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 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? So I think about it kind of I mean I I specific, I should say, work in documentary films. So this is kind of all coming from that Lens. And that's different from narrative,...

...which is what people think of, as you know, fiction movies that you see, you know, on 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 in to do the score, to getting the color correction into to make it beautiful and hiring the cinematographers and all of that. There's I should start up. has started with the director. 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, 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 that's really helpful because when you're watching this credits, you're league. There's so many people involved and this takes like ten 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 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 going to ask what is a day in the life like for a filmmaker, and then I realized that's probably a really silly question because there's probably not really a typical day. So instead I wanted to ask what is it like going back to your thesis. I'm 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 premiere. Yeah, 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 you, 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 going to be and how might it come together, figuring out who you might need to bring on creatively. 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 eighteenth century. So my job in particulars what are we going to 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 eighteenth 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? Um. And so then you know, you're kind of it's the collection phase and then the distillation phases, 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 premiere. There's a lot of technical stuff that happens to get it ready. You know, very detail oriented file types and all of this stuff that for us we broadcast with PPS, so they require a certain set of specs to broadcast nationwide. And then also a lot of our project send 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, I imagine. You were talking about technical stuff and earlier mentioned color correction. I remember reading a review on a Blue Ray and the four K DVD version came out and people were saying, Oh, they color corrected because the blue 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 PBS. You know, thank fault slight, Megan, when you're when you're watching these yeah, and sorry, that process is really like 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 window lists room, really focused on what you're looking at, her hearing and after working on the film for years, usually it's and you really start to see it as a film rather than just its parts. Um and to me that's super exciting. Now I'm going to 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? Yeah, that's the part that UM unfortunately we're too early in this film for me to to me to discuss a little bit 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 going to relay this story that, in this case, has happened so long ago, and how are you going to make it feel relevant to today, because, 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 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 you know, Megan new name dropped. Two. You work for Ken Burns and if you've ever used I movie, you know that that is actually one of the styles that you can use, as 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. Yeah, so I will say I started out in the editing and then kind of shifted. I'm more of but 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. Typically, as I kind of explained 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 translated 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. 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 if the pay things off and you just watched a movie and you don't know why you didn't really enjoy it, it could have been the pacing kind of thing. So they people joked that editing is that thing you don't really see but you would know if it's off and good editing 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. I think that's spot on as a film viewer. There was recently 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 twenty to thirty minutes out of this and it would have been 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 been interesting making that. You know, there's so much that...

...goes into it. If, if it's well done, you don't even notice. Yeah, exactly. And and the pacing two is so interesting because 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 catch their breath and understand what they're watching, they might not be bought into 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 processes showing the film to people of Quarantine. 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. Now, when you're an editor or producer, do you actually we 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, example of the sunset Betsy Ross's house. I threw out. So what is that like when you're actually out in the field? Yeah, so I again like I've I've learned a lot of different hats at Florentine Um and when I started on the editing side I wasn't as much in the field because 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, and 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. 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 going to 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. We're Washington, across the Delaware outside of Philly, and now thinking about that area it's totally different. Thing about it a totally different way, like what can we capture? Where isn't their modernity that we might be able to evoke the eighteenth century? Um. So that it's it's a lot of in the field work and I find that really fun. Yes, so if you're doing a period piece, you don't want to sign for 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 twenty one century, because 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? Yeah, I I was always fascinated to learn, because 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 back in the day they were physically bins and they had these things like you'd see at the laundromat, which has had like selects hanging on clothes pins, and then the bins where 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 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 open 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 will probably just continue to see that happening. 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, just unless you're actually 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 Figgy 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? Yeah, I think the producing to me, was always the aspect that was the most elusive, like what I could understand what editing is because I edit. I could understand what cinematography is because...

...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 twenty five people on this lake, you know, with X, Y and Z variables, it would be the producer who would be the one. He'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 P A, and a lot of places will usually hire local P as. If they're going to do a film in Pittsburgh, they'll put a call out for local P A S 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 coordinating or than there's associate producers, Co producers, which is what I currently am, Um, and producers we talked a little bit about there's a difference between what you called narrative filmmaking or experimental and documentary. Can you go a little bit deeper on what those differences are that we haven't covered? So documentary obviously is, you know, nonfiction, though I will say probably there's blurred lines and 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 have happened. So. But then, but by and large the categories, 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 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 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 another category but also often involves documentary elements. You know, there was different films that are exploring real places and telling those stories in Vr. So I think you've mentioned most of the projects that you've worked on or are working on. Is there any that I 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? Yeah, I mean the one thing I haven't mentioned so far that I'm I'm really excited about was so in seventeen 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 playlists, but the protest playlist has stuff from, you know, women's suffrage and the nineteenth 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. 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 UNAM 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 nineteenth 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 president and and connect make that connection, Um, and also just a very cool, you know, short form, faster kind of way of making a film. And the other one we made that I was really excited about was Ken had interviewed James Baldwin in this 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 representing 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 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 out, what you're saying making is you know, you have a lot of content and there's probably hours and hours and hours of material. For Kim Burns, it's typically ten 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 their yeah, and Ken will always say this thing where you know that he's based in New Hampshire and up in New Hampshire they make Maple Syrup and it takes forty 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 ten 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. And there's one of those old timey terms for you, because 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 digital recycling bin. But maybe you save it Um. And so how can you take an interview from thirty five yeah, thirty five 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? 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 central 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 saying the perfect is the enemy of the good. Like you could wait and wait and wait until you think you're ready, but sometimes it's just good 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 even that you'll learn the software and you know, there's a lot of great books. I think one is 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. Absolutely. And there's probably a good chance that you are listening to this stroller who's listening on an iphone or Android, Samsung type of device, Google pixels, something like that, or maybe you're listening to it on a laptop. Either way, uh, the former has 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 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 premier photoshops. So you play around with those tools that you have, Walpenn state provides them to you. 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's it's just really helpful and I think people do notice that. Absolutely. You mentioned Youtube. That'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 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, 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, so 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? 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 want to 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 said, 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 L A versus New York. I imagine there's probably more narrative film happening in L A, 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 in 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 films. 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. Not The place 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 New York, but not necessarily production hubs. So if you're interested in that but you're like I don't want to 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 Knight Movies, a lot of those were filmed there, including that very famous scene at Heinz field. Um, Megan, do you know? Um, is that still the case? Am I talking out out of my out of my uh, not knowledgeable space here on that? 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 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 Pittsburgh geography that well, but the mountain with the 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 L A, but if you watch like marvelous Mrs Masal like, I've seen the signs that that's filming. There's a lot of studio space sort of down in these old and dust your areas in Brooklyn that they've turned into just sets that that they film at. So yeah, there's a lot happening. Awesome. So if that's something you've always just trying to pushed out because you didn't want to 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 in your documentary work errors 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? Yeah, that's a great question. It's interesting because we always call even Vietnam, which was an eighteen hour, ten 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 mini series as one piece. It's not going to be many seasons, it's just one season at six episode 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 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 PBS UM, which is their television broadcaster, Um. But still call ourselves phonemakers. And then, Megan, I want 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 faults can document their lives. They may not want to go into filmmaking, but they may want to make a video for their small business or a pitch or 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 would work, 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 got a lot of viewers on there. So certainly, you know, there's that opportunity. What suggestions do you have for faults who just want to do this kind of thing as a hobby, something fun or maybe some way to accent their primary business? Yeah, I think, I guess the same thing that 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 even a small, sort of more inexpensive dslr camera that really they're really good now. So just going out there and kind of giving it a try. So asking for help and advice from people who have done it before. I think that's always you know, really think there are lots of people who have done what you what do you want to do, and so it's also a great way to connect with people and maybe you could ask start by asking some specific question, Um, and then and then that will open up a nice conversation and possibly a collaboration. Um. I also, you know, I consider film my hobby too, so I 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 makes perfect sense to me. So I misspoke a moment ago. I do have one more question, Um, 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 P A or, you know, some kind of a runner. You know these sorts of things. You know and you've hired faults 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 want to put yourself out there and say, Hey, I want to be hired as a production assistant, I want to get into this. Is it like you go on Linkedin and indeed in the monster, or is there some kind of like niche place do you go through, like you know the screen actors dealed and and the production equivalent to that. Like, how do you go find those opportunities? 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 our 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 a top of mind for them and kind of having a clear idea. I kind of always recommend this, like kind of know what you want to ask the person for. Like if you were going to get coffee with someone who lives in Brooklyn and works in documentary film, you might say at the end of it, hey, have you ever hear of anyone meeting a P A 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 Maven's, and they kind of do a list serve where they're always putting job postings and that's been a really helpful way to find people as well. Awesome. It's the twenty one century, so there there's got to 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 trying to reflect all in your career to date with some wrap up questions here. What would you say is your biggest success so far? I do think that 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 making them relevant directly to current events today, was 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 fun for me as a storyteller. So that's been, I think, maybe my proudest moment so far. And then, on the flip side, what would you say has been your biggest learning moment so far and what you took from that? Yeah, I am always learning, like I mentioned in my advice, you know, just kind of getting out there and trying it. I produced this pretty big shoot for my film Ounta 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 portant it was to just be calm and have perspective on you know you're...

...doing the best you can, especially if you're 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 patients for yourself to that you might need to take a moment to figure out how you want to best respond to this is totally fine, 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 everybody had a good time and really enjoyed what we were doing. So 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 reach out for those kind of oportunities? 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 helped 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 thirty year career, because hindsight is 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 have been able to support me in that. It's been this you know, get a little bit closer with each course correction, and that's been that's been extremely helpful and super grateful for the people who have been able to help me offer that perspective. Speaking of those people, are there any professors or friends from your days on campus that you want to give a shout out to? Yeah, Lisa Kurtinsky is super helpful. She was always, yeah, 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 Ruthmuendam 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 Galler, and lots of film professors to 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 and you can book an appointment with Lisa at SHC dot PSU Dot Etu, slash appointments, if you want to 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 learned something about the process Um as well. I should say, not as a career, but you know, learned about it as as a film watcher. You know a lot of people like to say the movie buffs. So you know, hopefully learn 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? 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 at age. So I don't know if this will apply to everyone, but maybe there's someone out there he 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 m O, 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. Um. And the other thing 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 realized 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 sixty percent of the time, that's really exciting to me and that's always helped me...

...make decisions. So again, you mentioned connecting with faults. If a scholar wanted to reach out to you and, you know, 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? 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 want to grab coffee. I'm always happy to do that. And finally, as this tradition here, if you are a flavor of Birkie creamery ice cream, which would you be? And, most importantly, Megan, as a scholar Alumna, why would you be that flavor? Great Question. I think I would be minting me, mostly because I appreciate a good pun and that's a great uh, that's a great title. 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 PBS. Is there anywhere else that folks could check out some of the things that you've contributed to? Yeah, also, you could check out the website unum, which is Ken Burns Um Dot com, and that's where we've, I was talking about, collecting these thematic playlists around American history. Awesome. So you know where to go check out these words. Ken Burns is the Vietnam War. And what was the prison? One college behind bars. I believe that's still on Netflix. It's a four part series. Um really highly recommend whenever this airs, you have some more content to go consume and you can see some of the things that Megan is 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. Thanks for having me. This is really fun. Thank you, scholars, for listening and learning with us today. We hope you will take something with you that will contribute to how you shape the world. This show probably supports the Shreier Honors College Emergency Fund Benefiting Scholars experiencing unexpected financial hardship. You can make a difference at raise DOT P S U Dot e d U. Forward Slash shreier. Please be sure to hit the relevance, subscribe, like or follow button on whichever platform you are engaging with us on today. You can follow the college on Facebook, twitter, instagram and Linkedin to say up to date on news, events and deadlines. If you have questions about the show or a scholar alum who'd like to join us as a guest here on following the gone, please connect with me at scholar alumni at P S U Dot d U. Until next time, please stay well and we are.

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