Long before the final cut is broadcast to millions of people around the country, episodes of the Miller Center’s popular public affairs show “American Forum” get a tuneup from a University of Virginia student.
Alex Griffith, a fourth-year history major, has been working for the center since the start of his third year and is the only student with a permanent place in the program’s production flow.
The work comes naturally to him. He grew up helping his father make educational documentaries and jokes that it was often part of the “family business” to help with filming and to lug recording equipment around various shoots.
“My dad is a freelance filmmaker, so occasionally I would be conscripted to ‘grip,’ which is an industry term that basically just means to ‘be the guy who holds things’ – the mic, the camera, the clipboard, or whatever,” he said.
When he found the student job opening at “American Forum” during his third year, Griffith saw it as the perfect opportunity to meld his production skills with the interests he has as a history major. After a year-and-a-half behind the scenes, he’s often called on to do post-production work and has had a chance to try his hand at professional editing and preparing “deliverables,” or packaged clips and segments for outside outlets.
“Alex actually has the experience and the ability to step in and be a third producer. He is the only student who has a permanent place in the program’s work flow,” said Michael Greco, the center’s director of information technology, library, web and audio-visual services. “He preps video once it has been shot so that our content folks can work through it and begin an edit of the show. As the show is finalized, Alex is tasked with cutting clips and other materials that go with the show in its online presentation. Ultimately, none of us really think of Alex as a student.”
Griffith’s favorite episodes to work on are those where the show has what he calls “big gets,” or prominent figures in politics and culture. His job gave him a unique view of political history in the making when major players John Kasich and Bernie Sanders appeared on the show ahead of the November election.
“The high-profile stuff is really fun. Usually I’ll have an extra job on those days like sitting in the crow’s nest doing audio, running the microphone for questions or just being around to help with press,” he said.
For Griffith, the best part of his regular routine is editing those moments when the microphone was passed through the audience for the regular Q&A session that follows each episode.
“That’s when I get the most creative freedom. I’m cutting out silences for questions, but I’m also following along, following the general trend of questions from the audience and getting things to sound just right,” he said. “All the [original] audio is bad in the Q&A because they have to hand the microphone to an audience member who doesn’t know where to hold it. So I get to show off some when I’m editing that part.”
Griffith’s skills have proved so valuable that the show’s host, Doug Blackmon, hired him as a production assistant for outside work on a documentary he’s making called “The Harvest.”
The film explores school integration in Mississippi by tracing the experiences of students who were born in 1964 after the landmark Civil Rights Act and were among the state’s first children to experience full integration throughout grades one through 12. That cohort includes Blackmon himself and the classmates he grew up with in Leland, Mississippi.
Blackmon and Griffith flew to Mississippi last summer to work with Blackmon’s filmmaking crew as they interviewed former classmates and longtime residents of the area. There, Griffith did everything from scanning thousands of archival images, to helping the cinematographer and his crew build and strike sets for the multiple shoots everyday to finding enough bottled water to keep everyone going in the intense summer heat.
“In the end, I also tasked him with a job that, up until then, I had never trusted anyone to do but myself,” Blackmon said. “That was the long job at the end of every day of duplicating in triplicate every sound and video file shot that day, copying them all onto the primary and backup storage drives that house all of the irreplaceable footage for the film, and logging where everything was. He was as reliable at that incredibly sensitive task as anyone in the crew.”
That experience not only helped Griffith improve his technical skills, but also gave him a rare close-up view of a culture and time period he’d only ever discussed in class.
“It was a really fascinating experience because you don’t really hear about what integration is like now. It turns out it’s not good,” Griffith said.
Griffith is looking forward to the eventual release of “The Harvest” as well as the new episodes of “American Forum” scheduled for the final months of his fourth year. His work on both productions has stoked his passions for filmmaking and historical research, and he plans to spend some time after graduation exploring options in both fields.
“I am probably going to take a year to focus on improving my technical skills. I don’t know for sure that I want to go into video, but I could see that,” he said. “I’ll also be looking into grad school because I could see myself continuing to study history as an academic.”