When you ask Alison Davis Wood and Tim Hartin about the process of developing documentaries, the Big Ten Network producers jokingly start by mentioning that their two-person team is the “entire department.”
They began creating non-sports programming for the Big Ten Network in 2008, after nearly 17 years at WILL-TV on campus. The Emmy-award winning producers work hard to put together seven to eight new non-sports productions per year.
At WILL, Wood produced and hosted “Prairie Fire,” a series that highlighted people and places in the region.
Hartin, a native of Nebraska, worked for a number of years at Nebraska Educational Television at the University of Nebraska. He served as production manager at WILL in addition to his other duties as a producer.
The otherwise rewarding jobs at the public broadcasting station came with hectic scheduling that included producing material for multiple shows and securing grant funding for much of their programming.
So the two welcomed the opportunity to focus on producing longer documentaries when the jobs at BTN became available.
“One of the real incentives was the variety of really good stories at the university,” Hartin said. “Whether we worked for the UI or not, these were really good stories.”
Among their favorite BTN productions: “Spark of Genius: The Story of John Bardeen,” a production about the two-time Nobel Prize-winning scientist whose inventions made cell phones, computers and other modern electronics possible; “Prairie Solar Home: The Illinois Decathlon Story,” about the Illinois team that won second place in the national competition; and “Larger Than Life: the Red Grange Story,” about the sports superstar and Illinois alumnus who was instrumental in the creation of the NFL. The program was nominated for an Emmy.
Each of the stories taught them about the people who shaped not only the UI’s history, but in many cases, also national and world history.
“We step into so many worlds,” Wood said.
One little-known story was the subject of an “Illinois Innovators” episode called “The Women Who Went West,” about the first group of female UI librarians who traveled throughout the western United States to build libraries in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
At that time, Hartin said, women only had a few career choices, which included nursing, teaching, homemaking and working as a librarian. As towns across the country became more developed, libraries were established as cultural centers that served as the “Internet of the time,” he said.
“UI librarians were promoting literacy,” he said.
In working on the Bardeen film, Hartin and Wood discovered the engrossing story behind the scientist who was the first physicist to have won two Nobel prizes.
Fox and the Big Ten Conference own BTN. In addition to providing sports programming, the network allows each school a certain number of hours each year for original programming.
The audience of the network is growing every year. While the primary audience is Big Ten Conference fans, new audiences are cropping up all over the country in areas that include Detroit, Chicago and California.
Each production can take two months to two years to produce. “Prairie Solar Home,” for example, took more than a year.
The process of producing a good piece begins with a good idea, Wood says. Although some technical knowledge is required, being a good storyteller is the most important component.
After preliminary research and interviews are done, the team comes up with a list of visual elements that will go into the film. A script is written and production begins.
The in-depth interviews are shot and then one person edits while the other finishes up details that include locating archival material.
“The romantic glamour wears off pretty quickly,” Wood said of the lengthy process.
“To make a well-crafted show, it takes a lot of time and patience.”
Hartin and Wood do have help. Production assistants Kaitlin Dixon and Kevin Southworth aid in production elements. The two producers work for a partnership between the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics and Public Affairs – both of which give Wood and Hartin support.
Currently, the pair are working on their next five releases: two shows on “Ellnora: The Guitar Festival,” an annual festival at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts; a profile of Nick Holonyak, a UI professor of electrical and computer engineering, who invented the light emitting diode (LED); the Big Ten Network Comedy Show; and a film about the Marching Illini, whose 100th anniversary is approaching.
ON THE WEB
- Original UI documentaries on the Big Ten Network may be downloaded for free: http://go.illinois.edu/BTN
- iTunes UApple iPhone, iPad, and iPod users may access the same content by visiting the Public Affairs podcast on iTunes U.
- Don’t have BTN?Contact your cable or satellite provider for information about the Big Ten Network.
Alison David Wood:
Won an Emmy Award in 1999 for “Walter Burley Griffin: In His Own Right,” about an Illinois architect; “Against the Wind,” a film about wheelchair athlete Jean Driscoll, which was named best television documentary by American Women in Radio and Television. Other credits include “Lincoln: Prelude to the Presidency” and “Gold Star Mothers: A Pilgrimage of Remembrance.” She was nominated for an Emmy for writing “Ten Sisters: A True Story.”
Credits include “Lincoln: Prelude to the Presidency” and “Ten Sisters: A True Story.” He produced and directed the Emmy Award-winning “Song and a Slogan,” which featured the late Illinois alumnus and Metropolitan Opera tenor Jerry Hadley. The productions “Vietnam: Soldiers’ Stories” and “Mr. Shimkus Goes to Washington” were distributed by PBS and broadcast on public television stations around the country. “Mr. Shimkus” won a Telly Award in 1999. Hartin also directed the Emmy Award-winning “Walter Burley Griffin: In His Own Right” and was director of production and editor of “Against the Wind” and director of photography for “Gold Star Mothers: Pilgrimage of Remembrance.”