VMA video project class highlights nonprofits while teaching students about business side of industry

When a tree-planting project in the Rogue River watershed in West Michigan had limited community involvement due to pandemic restrictions, Trout Unlimited pinned its hopes for exposure on a video produced by students in a Grand Valley class.

Representatives from the nonprofit organization dedicated to freshwater conservation had reason to believe in the potential success based on previous experience with Suzanne Zack's "Producing for Clients" class, said Jamie Vaughan, project coordinator for Trout Unlimited. And they weren't disappointed.

"The video has been well received both locally and nationally, and we know that it has educated and inspired our members and volunteers to get involved in community tree plantings or plant trees on their own property," Vaughan said. "We were once again blown away by the professionalism and raw talent that these students possess and are so grateful for their time and dedication to the project."

Working with organizations to produce video is a vital business perspective for students to have as they consider their career options, said Zack, an affiliate faculty member in the film and video production major.

Zack guides students through the process of working with client needs, from the content parameters an organization has to the approval phase to working within a budget. Though Zack does not charge organizations for the videos, a theoretical budget is set that students are expected to work with.

"Videos can be a great resource and asset to any business, but they can also be an expensive and time-consuming process," Zack said. "I intentionally work with nonprofit organizations because I don't want the class to take away work that would go to industry professionals." 

Besides the mutually beneficial partnership with Trout Unlimited, Zack said she has also worked with nonprofits including the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, and Feeding America West Michigan. 

There is an added benefit for students in their work with nonprofits, Zack said. "In a sense, this is also a way for students to give back, too and serve the community." 

While the pandemic disrupted some project plans this year, the fact that Trout Unlimited's video was shot outside allowed for a process that fit pandemic safety considerations, Zack said.

A production scene from the video for Trout Unlimited
A crew gathers content for the video for Trout Unlimited.
Image credit - Courtesy of Jamie Vaughan

Allison Riley, a film and video production major who served as producer for the video, said while a limited-size group was able to gather video content, pandemic restrictions required client meetings over Zoom, hindering a big part of that experience.

But in the end, Riley said, the video was able to highlight the importance of trees in the watershed's ecosystem, from erosion control to helping mitigate stormwater runoff into the river.

Riley, who is eyeing a career as a producer or director, said the class experience of working in the commercial realm was important for preparing to work in the industry. 

"This video gave me the experience to go from this project into the professional job market," Riley said.