Digital Media Art Center Debuts to Rave Reviews
By Nathan Duff
From Delta State Magazine
Spring 2023 Edition
Delta State’s trailblazing Digital Media Art Center (DMAC) debuted this fall in the Odealier-Morgan Building. A collaboration between the Art Department and the Delta Music Institute, it encompasses 6,000 square feet (about the area of a basketball court) and houses a state-of-the art Mac lab, innovative video production facilities, a green screen area, 2D and 3D animation technology, and a voice-over booth to help students learn animation, video production and, eventually, game design.
The facilities already contribute to an increasing range of projects that bring together students and faculty from across the university, and an award-winning documentary has already been produced utilizing the added resources. Assistant Professor of Art Ted Fisher used the DMAC to produce and direct Voices From the Sit-In, a collaboration of students and faculty from the Art Department, the Languages and Literature division and the Delta Music Institute.
Voices From the Sit-In is the true story of a protest, told by those who lived it. Delta State was segregated from 1925 to 1965. The school enrolled its first Black students in 1966. These first students struggled for recognition, for inclusion, and for fair treatment. By the Spring of 1969, as tensions rose, Delta State’s Black students organized a series of actions and protests. These actions culminated in the quickly escalating events of Monday, March 10, 1969. In the film, the forgotten history of this moment is recounted. Viewers meet some of the original students involved in the protest and relive the tense experience of a significant moment in the Civil Rights movement, exploring a history almost unknown to students today.
The film features protesters Maggie Daily Crawford, Mary Carter, Talmadge Davis, and Muriel McCraney Lucas; 1969 student government association president James W. Powers; Delta State professors Georgene Clark and Dr. Charles Westmoreland; and student Sykina Butts, ‘21, whose work was the genesis of the project. Filmed by Delta State students, the twenty-seven-minute documentary brings to life an important story through lived experiences recalled across five decades.
The project began when Fisher became aware of the work of Lang and Lit student Butts, who was collecting an oral history of the sit-in. Butts appears in the film, recounting her motivations for preserving a record of the events of that week. “To have a part in making sure that the history is preserved is amazing,” she says. “I have my experience, but I got to actually document and interview people who helped me have the experience that I’m having now as a student at Delta State.”
Coordinator for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Michelle Johansen and former Political Science professor Dr. Arlene Sanders approached Fisher to inquire about having Fisher’s students film Butts’ interview sessions. “I said, ‘you’ve got this amazing story, you’ve got this opportunity unlike any other…we should go into full documentary mode,” he says.
Conducting the interviews in the new studio gave the team a high degree of control over their filming environment and allowed them to get through that part of the process quickly. “Right away it was very obvious that everyone was on board with what was going on and how to get this,” says Fisher. “It was very moving to be in that room and meet these people.”
Fisher says he was struck by the significance of what they were doing early in the process. “A moment I thought was critically interesting was (that operating the cameras) were twenty-year-old Cleveland residents going to Delta State, almost exactly like the people who were involved in the sit in, fifty years apart.” He says during the process of those students asking questions during interviews it was apparent that they were inspired by the stories of the trailblazing students that had come before them, all those years ago.
Fisher says the production team was operating like a well-oiled machine when Covid hit and forced them to shut down temporarily. Most of the subjects of the documentary are in their 70’s, and Fisher knew that he could not put them in a position where they had to be around a lot of people. During this time, Fisher began teaching in his classes things related to what they had been doing, such as nuances of editing interviews and building structure that tells a story. With classes shifting online, Fisher and his students explored how they could continue to work on their project remotely and with distance. “We were inventing,” he says, “as were a lot of people at that point.”
The production challenges brought about by the pandemic also provided an opportunity for Fisher to discuss various philosophies about documentary production with his students. As they realized they would not be able to film many of the segments they originally intended, they debated how to make best use of the footage they already had. “Our overriding thought at that point became ‘these are the direct voices of the people who lived through this…this is the lived experience of these people and that’s very powerful.”
There were thirteen full-length interviews, and Fisher tasked his students with going through every minute of the footage to see what they had. “We got some great content that is not in this version,” he says. Some of the interview footage did not fit within the constraints of a thirty-minute film, but Fisher hopes to get those interviews out and into the record in some way as shorts and other things.
Fisher says, “What was exciting was someone’s viewpoint of being a student and realizing that they are in the middle of something very significant, that escalated. So, we started to look for that.” He instructed his students to look for footage that told the story of what the participants were doing that day and week, looking for moments when they talked about making a decision, or being swept into a moment, or had a realization. He says even though the former protestors had had years to reflect on the events of the sit-in that it was obvious that during the recounting that they were reliving it.
“The feelings became fresh again. That shaped the weaving of these stories.”
It was a difficult assignment and Fisher realized he was asking students with two or three classes under their belt to do things that seasoned professionals would find challenging. He says, “You’re making a documentary, not a giant sandwich with every ingredient…what’s the thing I can connect to, the thing that I can experience from beginning to ending.”
In post-production, Fisher further challenged his students by assigning them particular issues to fix that had arisen during filming, primarily with sound and color correction. Doing this while they were working remotely was difficult, but they came up with solutions and were able to proceed with the project until they were able to return to campus.
Fisher says some of the techniques he employed push back against some of the prevailing theories within the documentary field.
“There is some resistance to the idea of doing durational interviews,” he says. “It’s actually a little bit bold to say, ‘What is said here is so like having a great conversation that I’m going to trust you to watch a fifteen-second statement.’”
Once they had a final cut of the film, Fisher’s experience assured him that submitting it to festivals was the surest way of finding an audience. He was disappointed that the pandemic prevented the students from attending any of the festivals that screened the film but was encouraged by the reception the film received. He says, “Right away we got two acceptances, so we knew there was a world for this film.” Fisher was still able to teach his students about the submission process and how to find the kinds of festivals that would be likely to accept their work.
Fisher always had his eye on the goal of having the film picked up by PBS and cut the film accordingly to fit within their time constraints. After a successful festival run and local screenings, Voices From the Sit-In ultimately ran several times on Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Fisher is confident that as more and more students become involved with the programs utilizing the DMAC, that award winning, trailblazing films and videos will continue to be produced at Delta State for years to come.