Behind the Scenes: GEAR UP Alabama

UAB’s student-driven Digital Media team is pumping up middle schoolers for college with GEAR UP Alabama.

GEAR UP, short for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, is a six-year government grant designed to prepare low-income 7th grade students for success during postsecondary education. GEAR UP Alabama asked UAB Digital Media to create a video that would educate parents and students about the program and get them excited.  The only problem is how do 20-somethings appeal to 7th graders — while staying age-appropriate?

Project College

Conveying the benefits of GEAR UP (like two years of community college or technical school free, college prep, summer programs, college tours, financial aid options ect.) was the team’s priority, but they also had to grab and keep the students’ attention.

“I asked my mom, who’s a 7th grade teacher, what her students listen to,” said Anna Lloyd, project director, mentor and media specialist for UAB Digital Media.  “Specifically she said two songs were really popular with her class last year, The Pony Song, and Whip It/Nae Nae.” None of those options being appropriate for a video inspiring students to take control of their futures.

The UAB Digital Media team wanted to incorporate actual GEAR UP kids into the project instead of child actors. During a GEAR UP summer camp,  the team shot footage of kids gardening, playing in musical ensembles, and talking about the program at the University of Montevallo. After three months and two separate shoots, the team’s final decision was to use almost none of it.

Fake It 'til You Make It

With the deadline only a few weeks away, the team came together to create a brand new idea and realized they had three minutes to fill with no time to get additional footage.

“Due to time and budget restraints, we could not go shoot in the Black Belt or shoot drone footage, as we initially dreamed of, for all the participating universities,” said Lloyd. “That's where the idea for an animation-heavy music video came in.”

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Enter the animators: Shibli Rahman, digital media intern, and media fellow Sam Richardson. Richardson created the animation for the first half of the video--the popping geometric shapes, the all-seeing eye, the classroom rave. Her job was to develop interest and momentum.

“I’ve never been given a big chunk of video to fill,” said Richardson. “Usually, what I do is very directed.”

She was used to creating 2-3 seconds of animation with a very specific objective, but GEAR UP gave her freedom to create practically anything.

“Samantha took some of [our] footage and incorporated it into the animation, even making one student look like he was walking down a school hallway,” said Lloyd. “To me, that shot came out better than if we had literally shot it that way to begin with.”

Rahman’s job was equally difficult because he had to create imagery that connected with the audience.  “[Sam] had a very specific collage style that I was trying to mimic. I usually like 2D images that are flat,” said Rahman. “The most difficult part was trying to make it not boring. Trying to find imagery that applied to the subject but was also interesting.” For example, how do you portray free education? A school, a library? In the video, Rahman animated a cash register, rolling back the numbers until it hit zero.

“As with any project, you look at what you want to do and find ways to make the magic happen with what you can actually do,” said Lloyd.

Inverted Design

While the animators were working to make the team's storyboarded ideas a reality, the music still hadn't been decided. “A lot of us were doing things backwards from how we generally work,” said Brodie Foster, media fellow. Normally, she said, we would have the imagery and then start on the music to help make the two sync up.  According to Lloyd, song choice was just as important as the imagery because the music would be the energy that got the kids’ hearts thumping.

“We specifically selected Diplo's "Revolution" and Macklemore's "Can't Hold Us" because of the empowering lyrics and driving beat,” said Lloyd. “The lyrics line up nicely with GEAR UP's mission to inspire progress and growth in the Black Belt's youth.”

“A first for us on this project was using copy-written music,” she said. “We have a fantastic musician/composer on our team [Zach Walker] but we knew we needed to make this video “party up” our audience in a way that only songs they've already heard can do.”

On top of keeping the attention of 7th graders, they needed to clearly define what GEAR UP is and why it matters without sounding like a 1990's educational video.

“[Veronique Zimmerman-Brown] was the first person we thought of,” said fellow Raziel Coiman. “She was our contact for the project, and we already knew she would be charismatic and powerful.” Brown is the GEAR UP Alabama project director and a professor at the UAB School of Medicine.

“We just knew that she was a motivational, punchy kind of speaker to begin with,” said Foster. “She had the energy we wanted without having to coax it out of her.”

Media fellows Foster, Coiman and intern Eddie Soltys helped create Brown’s script which needed to inform and empower within only a few seconds.

“It seems like a shorter script would be easier because it’s not as time consuming,” said Foster. “but when you have a shorter script, you have to choose your words carefully.”

Coiman and crew spent hours before a green screen setting up lighting and practicing with a dolly--filming equipment used to smoothly move a camera--in the team’s renovated Media Studio expecting to have Brown walking during the scene. For the final cut, the team realized the scene was easier to view when Brown stood still.

“It’s never a bad idea to over-prepare because it works out in our favor,” said Coiman.

Coiman, pulling from her theater background,  directed the timing of Brown’s gestures and ensured she applied the correct intonation. “We wanted it to look good. We wanted it to go along with our vision: bright, punchy, dynamic.”