CSMA Master Class: Students, Creativity Shine at Gamecock Productions
Since its inception, the College Sports Media Awards have recognized the best in the college-sports-production arena. As technology and production techniques improve, the ability to create high-quality video on any budget has proliferated significantly. At the College Sports Video Summit in June, 16 productions were honored for their contribution to sports video. Each Friday this summer, SVG is proud to offer an in-depth look at the personalities and programs that have raised the bar for what college sports video is capable of.
Those who work there call it “The Dungeon.”
The offices of Gamecock Productions — the video-production arm of the University of South Carolina athletic department — may not exactly be in the penthouse suite on the Columbia campus, but its facilities, its equipment, and, more important, its talent are top of the line.
Run by Director Paul Danna and Associate Directors Justin Stoll and Marissa Kenney, Gamecock Productions has perfected walking the delicate tightrope of operating as an elite professional organization while using a student staff. The group does everything from producing stadium-intro videos, commercial spots, and original programming and even streaming live games to the athletic department Website.
Its mission statement is simple: “Instill the sights, sounds, and motion of Gamecocks Athletics in every fan with innovative and original videos.” It’s made even more impressive that the department serves as an elite training ground for its students.
“The big overlying factor in what we want to do here with students is to understand we’re all going to make mistakes,” says Danna. “Just learn from it, grow, and get better.”
Over just a few years, Gamecock Productions has grown by leaps and bounds, this year taking home two College Sports Media Awards (CSMAs) at the College Sports Video Summit in Atlanta in June while maintaining a highly-educational atmosphere.
“I learned more with them than I possibly could have in any class,” says 2012 graduate Courtney Krebs, who worked with Gamecock Productions for three years. “They really care about what the student takes out of it, and they push you. They pushed me all three years. It was never ‘You’re good enough to do this.’ They sit there with you and make you learn and remind you that you can always be better.”
Utilizing student help can be tricky for athletic departments, but South Carolina appears to have mastered the art.
“If they don’t care what they’re doing or they don’t feel like they’re a part of something or they don’t feel like what they’re doing is important, then it will show in the end product,” Danna says. “We really pride ourselves in giving a lot of ownership and leeway to our students to prove to themselves that they can work in a professional way.”
All Quiet on the Gridiron
With Gamecock Productions established on campus, the South Carolina athletic department turned to the production unit last summer to produce its television commercial campaign for the 2011 season.
The “It’s Great To Be a Gamecock” campaign — which claimed the CSMA for Best Promo, PSA, and Marketing Video in the Collegiate Athletics division — was a successful attempt at stepping outside the box. The series features short clips of South Carolina players practicing in an empty stadium. No flashy graphics or sound effects; there’s not even any music. It was a style that Stoll gave considerable thought.
“The quiet theme came from some research that had been done on Super Bowl commercials,” says Stoll. “Most commercials are loud, obnoxious, and in-your-face. With this commercial series, we really wanted to identify a juxtaposition where it really grabbed your attention with the absence of something. So the visuals were capturing, and the lack of noise was capturing. The whole idea was, you’re watching television with a group of people or you have something else going on and all of a sudden you don’t hear anything, you’re instantly looking at the television to see if it’s still working or that it’s still on.”
Gamecock Productions worked directly with Assistant Athletic Director/Marketing Director Eric Nichols on the campaign to create the slogan and the commercial series. Stoll and Danna used three Panasonic HPX-370 P2 cameras and edited the spots together with Avid Media Composer, producing a total of 15 projects: five player spots, each repurposed for 30, 15, and 10 seconds.
The football team saw a noticeable spike in ticket sales, and the phrase ‘It’s Great to be a Gamecock” has become a rallying cry among its fan base. The videos had the type of impact that Danna could only have imagined creating when he first arrived on campus five years prior.
Coming of Age
The lineage of Gamecock Productions dates to September 2006, when Danna was hired as a video coordinator responsible for posting some videos and streaming a small handful of baseball games to the athletic department’s Website. He had one camera.
Danna gave the operation enough steam in that first year that, when the school’s media-rights–package renewal came up in 2007, the school agreed to bring more programming in-house, including various coaches’ shows. As part of the agreement, Danna was permitted to bring a student volunteer on board to help out. By ’08, two staff positions were added, and Gamecock Productions began producing more shows for both the Website and local television.
Still, Danna notes, Gamecock Productions had a long way to go.
“Quite frankly, it was awful,” says Danna, who came to South Carolina by way of LSU. “We were bad. We did a poor job with the shows and we struggled, but we learned.”
Things reached their lowest in ’08 when Danna was working on a project for TV. Frantically clicking around on his screen, he couldn’t discover why all of the media offline files stored on the department’s 2-TB local drive, when all showed up in his editing timeline.
“I didn’t know what to do, and I had to get it to tape and get it out of there,” Danna recalls. “I was debating ‘should I let it go? Should I call and say that we’ve got to run last week’s [show].’ I let it go, and I thought I was fired after that. That was the sickest feeling I ever had. I was thinking maybe I should just go into insurance.”
Fortunately for Danna, he wouldn’t have to. The university remained vigilant in its support of the project.
“The administration here gave us support, and they were very patient with me as I was learning how to manage and was growing,” he says. “The good thing is, I have always had people that want to get better and are not happy with status quo. What’s really been the driving factor throughout the department is that we want to achieve more; we’re not happy with just doing our job. We are always look to progress and get better while learning from our mistakes.”
The breakthrough for Gamecock Productions came as the calendar ran out on 2010. In November, Danna was granted permission to bring another fulltime staff member on board. That led to the hiring of Stoll, a former field cinematographer and producer with NFL Films.
“[Justin] is 1-in-a-1,000, with his brain being able to creatively, as well as operationally, shoot, edit, produce, as well as understand files and workflow and how everything works together here.”
Then, at the end of December that year, the Gamecock Productions staff met with newly hired softball head coach Beverly Smith to pitch an idea that would come to be known as Gamecock Confidential, a reality-based behind-the-scenes show in the style of a 24/7 or Hard Knocks — which Stoll spent two summers working on with NFL Films in 2009 and ’10.
“We wanted to go in knowing that this was the future of content,” says Danna. “This should take over for coach’s shows, and this should be how you market your programs.”
The six-week series proved to be wildly successful and simultaneously put the softball team and Gamecock Productions on the map in Columbia. The episodes – which ranged in length from 12-15 minutes each – we produced by Paul, Justin, and four students, who eventually took over the project and allowed the professionals the chance to step back and let the students learn.
“Our students have a lot of ownership over what they do in our office and that provides them a lot of opportunity and the desire to do really good work,” says Stoll. “We’ve been very fortunate to have some of the best students come out of this program.”
Students Stand Out
From its humble beginnings Gamecock Productions has blossomed into a combination post-production house and training ground.
One of the students’ best productions this year – a stadium into piece for the Gamecocks softball team – took home the CSMA award for Best PSA, Promo, or Marketing Campaign video in the student division.
Working under Stoll’s tutelage, Krebs was given the assignment as her senior project. She developed a style and theme, describing the look she was going for as “gritty.” They used a Panasonic Varicam and a Canon 5D while shooting to capture the feel while spending between four and five hours shooting with the team. It than took Krebs about a week’s worth of editing to create the final product.
“It was awesome working with [Justin] because he is the kind of guy that will explain everything and really make you understand which is something a lot of people don’t take the time to do,” says Krebs.
The team enjoyed the video so much that Krebs says many of the players took screen grabs on themselves from the video on YouTube and used them as their profile pictures on Facebook and Twitter.
“We do streams for all of the games so we’re on top of the Press Box and you still get this giddy, butterfly feeling in your stomach when it comes on the screen,” she says. “You still watch everyone to see their reactions. The players had this ritual where they would stand out there and point to the people that we on the screen at the time.”
The softball intro is just one example of great work that has been produced by Gamecock Productions’ student staff, a group that Stoll takes a tremendous amount of pride working with.
“It’s wonderful [working with the students],” says Stoll. “I get my greatest satisfaction from seeing the “aha moments” with the students. Teaching them the simplest things like what white balance really is, what a mechanical iris does, and what a codec is and seeing them apply it across what we do in our office is very rewarding.”