Can you work in a team? Renewing the art of collaborative commercial and academic work

Emerging Journalism students completing their start ups revelling in agile productions.

At a BBC Careers conference I got into conversation with an executive. One of our biggest issues, he said, with applicants with limited experience is how they call themselves producers when at best they’re researchers.

He went on: the millennium generation have fostered an attitude of “can do it alone”. That’s good but a large part of the TV environment is team work. You have to know how to work in a bigger unit.

I’ve no idea whether this observation is indeed more prevalent than the 90s, but I figure today anyone can row their boat without external assistance and perhaps the miniturisation of tech has been a contributing factor to team work, or lack of it.

In the late 90s the film Director David Lynch was shooting a commercial. He opted to use handheld cameras rather than Arris which was a challenge for the camera operator, focus puller and grip. Were they now to be made redundant?

Years later the ability to work waterfall — which is to work linearly through a project from start to finish in a team — would be challenged by ideas of being agile, iterating in the margins. Start ups live by this.

Agile is, get a structure in place and then innovate incrementally and where necessary but keeping everyone in the hierarchy of the network informed. Platforms like Trello and Monday.com assist in this endeavour.

A seemingly re-configured area that presents challenges and opportunities is evidenced by the innovative work of the AHTV and UKRI. The latter’s “Transforming arts and humanities research into television” is significant for the rise in popularity of documentaries ( see BBC Four) from academic research. At the AHTV’s Edinburgh TV Festival in February I spoke on a panel about the importance of being authentic.

Academic research into program making is as old as the hills, but there are discernible observations in presenting ideas as watchable informative television in an age of multi-platform television and Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD) such as Netflix. Furthermore, post George Floyd, how can television and research engender greater diversity?

Take Coded Bias, a documentary on Netflix showing how AI is biased against black faces. MIT Media Lab and PhD candidate Joy Buolamwini was in the lab playing with AI facial recognition when she stumbled upon the problem.

What followed were a series of academic insights and papers, news reports and exhibitions detailing her findings. It led IBM to drop their facial recognition programme when she brought her work to their attention.

That egregious error in programming would then take on a life of its own when an innovative director/ producer Shalini Kantayya turned the event into a fully fledged entertaining documentary. Academic Research meets popular cinema documentary making and why not?

How do you turn the presumed dry impartial language of academia into rich fulsome documentaries? The network of practitioners who combine both forms successfully is relatively small compared to the roll call of accomplished directors/ producers in the UK field. In the 1970s when the Open University was making its way onto the BBC, the challenge they faced was there were not enough academics who could turn their hand to TV. It would take time, but even then.

Coming from a chemistry maths background, before taking economics at the LSE, followed by a journalism postgrad, I’ve always found solace in learning. Yet what I have learned working in the media for likes of Newsnight and Channel 4 News was a skill not, I would come to think later, mutually exclusive to producing academic texts. For my PhD, in which I collapsed several media fields around news, docs, videojournalism and cinema, I would present films for my submission which I was invited to present at Apple’s flag ship store in London.

For newcomers, such as PhD scholars or Masters students events can present themselves as a double whammy. It’s difficult enough learning the new protocols and language of academia which seeks to build its knowledge to reach a conclusion, when documentaries and certainly news, are the antithesis. The conclusion comes early and then an exposition peels back layers to keep the viewer engaged.

So where do you start? It’s in the discipline. It’s not something you can wing. To be a student of dissertations takes a deep wrestling level of engagement you’re likely to have not faced in an academic enterprise before. Hours at the bench learning and re learning, particularly exercising too when the transition from undergrad to Masters is a big jump in itself in terms of social independence. Theories of learning then clash with personal instinctive appreciation.

Programme making calls on a similar discipline of forms, and while in principle the methodology of programme making adopts similar processes to cognition and the academic approach, at first it looks a world apart.

What do I mean? Academia revels in its literature review. Similarly, if you’re going to make an innovative documentary and haven’t bothered to watch previous cannons you’re on a hiding to nothing. The artificial war that requires flattening is between the written text and the visual form.

It’s a bridging exercise, not unlike a director turning a book into an absorbing film. There’s what to leave out, what to leave in, and what to re-imagine. But it’s a collaborative exercise, nonetheless with a team around you.

At a previous university the two disciplines, academic thesis and docs never met, which made me raise the point to faculty that imagine all these hard worked pieces completing their shelf-life on a desk, when there was a film in them.

In docs, following a format I’ve shared since learning it from the BBC in 1990, some student work have become favourites like Xiaojin Ren’s The unmarriable female and withstood the test of time.

With a nervy week to submission, I still remember our conversation. She’d made a good doc, but it needed a lightness, so we watched a few videos on the Webbys, Scott Pilgrim vs the World and the American series Sex and the City. With her script she went off and came up with this, which several of us found innovative in its production.

Some students have been finalists in awards, such as the One World Media, like Natalia’s film on same sex relationships in China. We made a short film about the pressures of making a feature called #studentyou.

So, what is this approach? That’s what I’ll share in the next post. And as far as I can tell, I’ve rarely seen in mapped out in an academic book as a step by step guide. But this food for thought first.

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.