When Ethan Gill started a multimedia internship at Indiana University Bloomington's Office of the Provost in 2015, one of his early assignments was production on "IU 2020," a documentary film series that would follow the same 12 students over the entire arc of their undergraduate careers, members of IU's Bicentennial Class who would graduate during the university's celebratory year.
Attrition was expected; Gill and his colleagues, including then-project manager and director Cadence Baugh Chang, envisioned a long-term, massive production unlike any other that they knew of in higher education communications.
The project would require a considerable commitment from the dozen students being filmed, as well as the student interns who were essentially learning how to produce documentaries as they created them. The hope was to end up with at least four good stories by the end of four years -- or, at the very least, some nice campus footage for use in other projects.
"When we started rolling on 'IU 2020,' I didn't realize how ambitious this project was," said Gill, who started the internship the summer after his freshman year at IU. "I was used to promotional video shoots where we'd wrap and move on to the next project. Once I was checking in on the same person every couple of weeks over several years, I couldn't help but get invested in their journeys."
"IU 2020," which will receive its world premiere at IU Cinema virtually on Friday, Nov. 13, was conceptualized by the communications team in the Office of the Provost as a complement to the Bicentennial Strategic Plan for IU Bloomington. The project was inspired in part by the film "Boyhood" (2014, IFC Films), which followed the same actors over 12 years. In about 20 minutes per story, the 12 short films of "IU 2020" chronicle the personal growth and evolution of IU Bloomington undergraduate students, from freshman year to a final spring semester during the university's Bicentennial Year and a graduation season interrupted by a pandemic.
The premiere will feature the stories of three of the students, with three more installments shown in Dec. 8. The final six installments of "IU 2020" will be available during the spring semester, with screening dates and times to be determined.
"Obviously, this was not the way any of us could have envisioned this project ending," Gill said. "But the students persevered in a way that truly reflected how they had approached their entire collegiate experience: with courage and compassion for others and a determination to continue their growth even when confronted with such a major challenge."
Approaching the stories from the students' perspectives offered a compelling narrative about the undergraduate experience that showcased the diversity of opportunities and communities available at IU, along with an authentic, unvarnished look at some of the challenges they faced.
"The 'IU 2020' documentaries are a terrific example of the many different paths to success that students can find at Indiana University," IU Bloomington Provost and Executive Vice President Lauren Robel said. "When I watch these films -- and see all of these students' hopes, dreams, challenges and opportunities come alive on screen -- I am inspired by this next generation of leaders. These students are clearly smart and motivated; they're also funny and resilient, and exemplars of the genuine impact of an undergraduate education at IU Bloomington."
A place for training and friendships
"IU 2020" also ended up being a training ground for student interns in the provost's office, who spent hours crafting interview questions, scheduling interviews and securing locations, setting up mics and lights and video cameras, troubleshooting on the spot, and poring over hours of footage during the editing process.
The live Zoom event includes an introduction with filmmaker Ethan Gill (fun fact: he previously played the young Will Shortz in an IU commercial); a screening of three of the short films; and an interactive Q-and-A with Gill, two of the featured students, and Emily Miles, who as a student filmmaker worked closely with the project.
The November films introduce Emily Leung, a gifted violinist who came to the IU; Yash Agarwala, whose search for a top U.S. business program led him from India to the Kelley School; and Hoosier native Doña Eliassaint, who studied anthropology.
The interns captured footage in residence halls and apartments and family homes, in dining halls, grocery stores and restaurants, on hikes and drives, and across campus and throughout Bloomington, forming friendships and support networks that further contributed to the project's success. Throughout their internships, multiple interns found skill sets and interests they didn't know they had or fine-tuned their own post-college paths.
Today, Gill runs the department where he started as an intern and is the co-director and co-producer of "IU 2020." He stepped into the role in 2018, following his graduation from IU with a Bachelor of Arts in media production and a theater minor. Over the course of shooting the films, Gill has helped log some 200 hours of footage, equaling 16TB of video data; worked with or managed 20 interns; shot at more than 40 locations; and immersed himself in the personal and educational lives of the featured students.
"Just a few days ago, I took a moment to compare the first time I rolled a camera in 2016 to my last shot for this project in 2020, and it made me a little emotional seeing how far we all had come over these past four years," Gill said. "Through this project and internship, I learned how to find the story in a blizzard of video files, while at the same time learning how to step out of my comfort zone and interact with all kinds of different people at IU. I've become a better human being because of this project and the people who gave it life."
Emily Miles, now the producer of the "In This Climate" podcast at The Media School and a 2019 IU graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in journalism, said she misses working with the documentary team every day.
"Cadence and Ethan -- and fellow interns -- taught me so much about the logistical and technical considerations of producing a long-term project like IU 2020," Miles said, adding that she appreciated the extent to which student interns were encouraged to take ownership of their work and add their own personal aesthetic.
Over the course of the project, more than 25 interns worked on some aspect of "IU 2020," such as graphic design, social media, videography, audio, photography and editing (lots and lots of editing).
'IU 2020 Part II'
A second "IU 2020" virtual screening is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 8, through IU Cinema.
The three short films to be screened Dec. 8 feature Courtland Crenshaw, who studied exercise science at the School of Public Health-Bloomington and became Polemarch of his fraternity, the Alpha chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi; Jayla French, who studied neuroscience in the College of Arts and Sciences and is now a graduate student in medical science at IUPUI; and Broderick Balsley, a musical theater student in the Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance, who was cast in a lead role in the spring of his senior year only to have the production canceled by the pandemic. (It's OK; Balsley is moving to New York with his IU BFF Casey, and we get to watch their friendship evolve over time.) Joining the post-film Q&A with Gill and the three stars will be 2017 IU graduate Daiyawn Smith, who produced Crenshaw's story during his internship and now runs his own multimedia company.
At times on the shoots, equipment malfunctioned or something went wrong that required resourcefulness -- like the time during Grace Liu's final interview when a mic clip couldn't be found and the crew had to use gaffer's tape to connect the mic to the boom pole, or when a rain shower during Holi Festival led to wrapping Ziploc bags around the cameras. Just before spring break, when the world seemed to shut down and the COVID-19 pandemic sent everyone home, Gill scrambled to assemble a crew in response to a same-day invitation from IU Theatre; they recorded what ended up being the only full run-through of the spring 2020 "Crazy for You" production starring Broderick Balsley. (This blooper reel highlights some of the lighter moments of filming.)
Daiyawn Smith -- who graduated from IU in 2017 with a Bachelor of Arts in computer systems networking and telecommunications and has since opened his own photo and video production company in Indianapolis, Dai In & Dai Out LLC -- said working on the project taught him how to create a story from beginning to end through planning and teamwork. It also taught him how to be comfortably present in someone's space with a camera and wait for the natural moments that make a documentary work.
"I didn't know how it would turn out, but the team I was working with had a vision and made that vision come to life," Smith said. "Doing this made me love creating stories and capturing moments in time that people will always remember."
Jennifer Piurek is director of communications and special projects for the Office of the Provost.