Unequipped: Video art, TRF majors face technology differences
Students who wish to make their careers behind a video camera have multiple options for majors at Syracuse University. Both the School of Visual and Performing Arts and the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications offer programs that instruct would-be filmmakers. But, according to some students, the basic technology necessary for many projects is not equally available at both schools.
The comparable programs are the video art major offered by VPA and the television, radio and film major offered at Newhouse. The video art program boasts about 20 undergraduate students and six graduates according to John Orentlicher, chair of the VPA art media department. TRF is a program of 425 undergrads and 47 graduates, according to Michael Schoonmaker, chair of the TRF department.
While the focuses of the two majors are different, their technological needs are often the same. Students in both disciplines are trained and expected to create video projects of varying length, involving hours of shooting and editing film. TRF projects are done exclusively on digital video, while video art students can work in either digital or physical film.
A stark contrast exists, however, in the level and amount of equipment available to students of these two majors. The undergraduate editing suite in the Shaffer Art Building open to video art majors houses four Apple G4 computers with Final Cut Pro software, while Newhouse hosts eight suites devoted to Final Cut Pro and four other suites equipped with AVID brand video editing software. All the suites will run on Apple G5s by the end of this coming summer, said manager of production operations James Biddle.
Orentlicher said video art students had no reason to complain, and the technology was adequate for all their needs.
‘Our faculty is very cognizant of staying abreast of the technology,’ he said.
Junior video art major Sean Higgins, however, felt frustrated by his experiences in the Shafer editing suite. He compared the setup to the equipment available during his study abroad in London, where he said the equipment was a lot better.
When working on visually intensive projects, Higgins did not even attempt to use the editing suite.
‘I didn’t render any heavy stuff there because I knew the computers couldn’t handle it,’ he said.
Nick Kinling, a junior video art major, felt the computers provided were ‘adequate for personal use,’ but it was preferable to use his personal equipment.
‘Anyone can buy their own equipment nowadays,’ he said.
Orentlicher cited students’ use of their own computers as a simple alternative for anyone not interested in using the computers made available by the program. He even stated the undergraduate editing space was underutilized, most likely due to students opting to work at home.
But the advantage of owning a personal editing station is an expensive one. Higgins said after his negative experiences with the editing suites freshman year, he was compelled to spend the next summer working to buy a digital camera, a new computer and editing software, at a total cost of over $3,000. Each piece of software, Higgins said, could cost hundreds of dollars, such as the $600 Adobe Premiere Pro editing program. He said he is now glad to be able to keep some of his summer earnings instead of having to spend it all on electronics and software.
Adam Knobler, a TRF junior, said apart from a few software issues, he had never had a technical problem while editing on the Newhouse computers.
Whether editing a project on personal or school-owned computers, all students must first go out and shoot their film. This can lead to more problems for students who do not own their own cameras, especially those in video art.
The video art program has only one single digital video camera to lend out to its students.
‘There is a shortage of digital cameras, there’s no question about that,’ Orentlicher said.
He added funds to purchase more cameras had been requested by the VPA, but no response has yet come from the vice chancellor or dean of students.
In order to get the vital piece of equipment, Higgins and Kinling agreed a video art student was unlikely to be successful in borrowing the camera unless they were a senior or graduate student. That is not the case, according to film senior Matt Vollono.
‘If you want to use it and you plan ahead, it’s there for you,’ he said. ‘You have to be persistent about it. If you want it you have to seek out the necessary tools to do it.’
Higgins said one alternative for the video art students was to borrow the one digital camera used in the time arts lab, also housed in Shaffer. He said few students seek the use of that camera because they believe it to be reserved for grad students and teaching assistants.
Higgins again cited the benefits of having his own equipment.
‘Having my own camera all the time facilitates what I’m doing,’ he said, also mentioning the convenience of doing impromptu shooting sessions, which are not possible when having to pre-request a camera.
Such concerns are rare if even existent in the TRF department, where 40 digital cameras of varying models are available for student use. Getting a camera is ‘no problem whatsoever,’ said Knobler. ‘It’s a routine checkout.’ Neither Knobler nor Sestina own his own camera.
Schoonmaker said all departments are evaluated and given funding depending on their specific needs. He said the interest from the endowment was not a ‘great enough resource to take care of all our needs,’ but that ‘given the limited resources the endowment represents, we’re doing fine.’
According to Schoonmaker, it is Newhouse’s responsibility as a leading institution that creates the need for more funding.
‘As a school with a strong reputation, you’re supposed to be showing the way,’ he said.
Schoonmaker said the TRF department had many areas in which upgrades were necessary, including the cameras and lighting in its television studio. He also suggested that many pieces of equipment should be replaced soon with high-definition models to stay at the forefront of the technology.
The only serious complaint lodged by the TRF students was about the number of aides available in the editing suites. Only two aides are on duty at any given time, causing some students to wait while the aides work with other groups. Sestina said sometimes students must resort to looking for answers in the software manuals or even calling Biddle’s personal cell phone.
Lab assistance may be the one area where the balance is in favor of video art students. Orentlicher said a graduate student is always on duty during the 40 hours of editing time available per week in the undergraduate suite.
‘Every time I’ve been down there, they’ve always been there to help me out,’ Vollono said.
Despite any differences in technological supplies, the TRF and video art programs share a friendly bond, according to the Newhouse side.
‘There is a great respect between our departments. We have two different approaches to teaching,’ said Schoonmaker.
The feeling is mirrored at VPA.
‘I’m not so sure discrepancies exist,’ said Orentlicher. ‘Our needs are a little different.’
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