Case Study: Methods and Challenges in Teaching Transversal Projects
At Lusófona University in Lisbon, the film bachelor second-year students develop every year a cross-curricular project comprising the joint development of a web series and an associated transmedia component. This cross-curricular project not only involves all courses in the curriculum for that semester but also engages students from other degrees by involving sound students in the development and production of the projects. Proposed methods include strong engagement with external experts coming from the industry, peer learning and a central focus on education through projects in development. The activity articulates both individual and group evaluation throughout the various stages of the project, from the initial briefing to the final public presentation, and a great emphasis is put on simulating actual “real world” creative and production challenges.
The expression “trans-versal” originally derives from a geometrical description and means: one line crossing two other lines. In an educational sense, a transversal project is a project that involves different disciplines from one course (here: the cinema course), bringing together different hierarchies and different functions, thus involving all the students in the course.
"Trans-versal" also means breaking down the complexity of the overall project, and creating and joining different individual goals into one common goal. In our case that is: creating a mini-series, a project of collaboration.
In the second year of the film degree in the cinema course of Lusófona University, a transversal – or cross-curricular – project is proposed to the students involving all subjects in their curriculum. The focus of the project is the development and production of a mini television series with an associated transmedia component throughout two semesters.
The start of the project is preceded by the presentation of a briefing to all students containing creative and inspirational as well as technical and production guidelines for the development of the project. The briefing is developed in partnership with different companies that partner every year with the university on this project. General guidelines such as target audiences or budgets available follow industry standards and are also set by the companies involved. Every year a specific theme is defined as an umbrella for the development of the project. In the academic year 2020/21, the theme was obviously "contagion" in the previous year it was conflict and, in the year before "Stories from and about the Sea". In 2021/22 the topic was “Fascism and other ..isms”.
The briefing also states the focus in the current multi-platform distribution environments and in the narrative potential they bring forth. The students are encouraged to develop a mini-series with 5 episodes, each of them around 8 minutes long. Only the pilot itself will be shot, however it is required that each team develops the screenplays of all 5 episodes. The goal is to establish a writers' room situation with different responsibilities and strengths.
During the first semester – starting in September - between 60 and 70 students are organized into small teams of 5. They brainstorm ideas, elaborate them, they define concepts and the exposés and synopsis and loglines. Usually the students develop 12 projects, but only 4 of them will make it into production later in the 2nd semester. The students are followed on a weekly basis by two different teachers.
With the start of the 2nd semester in February, the projects are presented by the groups in a pitch session. Each group has 5 minutes for this. 4 of the proposals are selected and will go into production. The main criteria for this selection is the dramatic strength, the narrative structure and the aesthetic quality of the proposals as well as their reference to the given theme. The board of teachers also considers the (future) feasibility of the project, but none of the projects will be dropped purely for production reasons. It’s a creative selection process at this point.
The selected 4 projects continue their development by writing the screenplay of the pilot (aka the 1st episode) and the outlines of 4 more episodes. It is important to mention that all the 12 initial projects will have to write the screenplays for the 5 episodes, completing the series arc. It should be a fair chance to all of the students to be able to learn the development of a mini-series, so no project dies at this point. If this wasn’t done, 2 thirds of the students wouldn’t have classes because their project wasn’t selected.
Some 4 weeks later, the greenlight pitch is conducted to evaluate the state of readiness and the feasibility of the projects as well as the completion of the team and its motivation and balance. The pitch should not only include completed pilot screenplays, but also a distribution concept on multiple platforms, suggested release-dates, and a concept for a target audience. The team has 10 minutes for this, followed by questions and comments from the board of teachers as well as the invited industry guests. Also on this day, the outlines of all the 5 episodes have to be submitted, both from the 4 projects as well as the other 8 that weren’t selected for production.
The selected projects will then produce a pilot episode of the show between April and May plus several transmedia extensions and present this in front of a public audience at the end of the semester in July.
This practice-based learning experience focuses on a collaborative project to create a multi-platform-distribution narrative project. Starting from a given topic, teams develop a mini-series storyline and a cohesive audiovisual universe that expands from it. The work is audience-driven, the groups reflects both upon its the best artistic form as well as situate it in the market and the client needs.
Stages of Production
The teachers set up several rules for the production of these projects. Our experience shows: the better and clearer the rules are defined, the easier it is for the students. It’s self-understood that the rules are only a mean and not a goal in themselves. A set of rules offers transparency, helps them to focus, prevents them from struggling against an unknown system, but instead enhances their creativity. The rules also support fairness and equality.
We stress on 4 complete shooting days with a maximum working time of 11 hours, according to Portuguese Law (10 hours of work including travel plus 1 hour of lunch time). The day before and the day after the shooting are loading and unloading days with the possibility of performing minor camera tests, cleaning and check-ups. Each project must have a co-director, as well as a multi-camera-setup at least for one scene, usually a dialogue scene. The number of locations is limited to 2 different ones, the length of the pilot may not exceed 8 minutes without the credits. The university provides each project a budget of 600€, which the teams are allowed to expand either by own means or by setting up a crowdfunding campaign using the Portuguese platform PPL. There they encounter an all-or-nothing-model, with 7% fees, and if they don't reach their goal, their backers are refunded, and no fees are charged for anyone. In 2021, all of the 4 projects were co-financed there, between 100 and 140%.
The 2nd semester is also the time where the cinema course is joined by the sound course in order to complete the teams. They take over the sound-recording on set as well as the audio post-production. These projects are part of the sound students’ evaluation as well.
With the beginning of the pre-production in March (which is 4 weeks prior to shooting), the transmedia group is starting to work on their concepts, schedules, shooting plans and release plans of the transmedia material, while audiovisual material is being produced throughout the 2nd semester for releases on platforms like Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Spotify and others.
In post-production, each project has a picture editing time of 2 weeks. This period is divided by providing a first cut after 3, a rough cut after 9 and a final cut with picture lock after 14 days. As usual in production, credits, VFX and color-grading are only layouts at this point which will be replaced during the process by providing new exports to the sound.
There are clear technical guidelines for this process of handing over the project from one group to the other in order to avoid collision between the two.
The audio post-production is also done in 2 weeks, by having 11 days of sound editing including ADR, foley, music recording and sound design, as well as 3 days of final mixing in the studio. The projects are mixed in stereo. Between 6-9 students are working in this audio processes.
In parallel, the cinema students are completing the color grading process in 2-3 days, the VFX-scenes and the opening credits and closing credits. The editors substitute the placeholders with the final material. There is also a group responsible for subtitling the pilot in English and the transmedia in Portuguese and English. All these different materials will be combined to their final output, a DCP that will get screened in July for evaluation and for the public presentation in the cinema of the University, together with a professional-like project presentation with guests from the industry.
What we call transmedia is the expansion of the project’s universe into other audiovisual formats, platforms and worlds. We stress on the students’ effort to go way beyond the actual story of the series, and to create a whole universe around it. We strongly encourage the projects to be innovative in format, technology, platforms, genres, and of course the content itself.
For the transmedia part of the project, the students deliver a variety of materials: a trailer and/or teaser, a making-of between 5-10 minutes, a traditional website and an image gallery on platforms like Instagram. It is also mandatory to deliver a vertical 90-seconds-version of the pilot that can be used for platforms like Instagram’s IGTV. They can deliver deleted scenes, spin-offs, they can develop a VR-installation of the project, or a game, some publish a podcast where they conduct interviews about specific aspects of the film with their main actors, they create fake Instagram accounts of their characters, or do a "music battle" - everything that helps spreading the project. The works done for these platforms are specifically produced according to the needs of these environments, and not as secondary use. The rule is: Nothing that is published on the platforms may be part of the pilot episode.
The students use a variety social-media platforms for promoting their work, also reflecting their personal use of these communication tools. Historically, this also offers an overview of the come and go of social-media platforms. Only a few years ago, Facebook was everybody’s choice No. 1, but in the year 2022 nobody doesn’t even mention that platform anymore. Other platforms of choice are Instagram (their preferred choice, as of now), Twitter, Soundcloud, Reddit, vimeo, YouTube and TikTok. The university stays neutral to the students’ choice, we do not encourage or discourage any of these platforms, as long as they can expand the audiovisual universe of their projects.
All this material is framed in a release schedule that is defined according with the nature of the project. Both the episodes and the transmedia material will be published either in a binge way (all at once) or week after week or in any other way that corresponds best with what the pilot episode and the transmedia material need. Normally the students choose the date of the official premiere in July as the highlight of their releases.
The final deliverables for the transversal projects are a variety of different audiovisuals materials as well as some written papers that accompany the project.
By the end of the 2nd semester, the students are required to present the completed pilot of a mini-series with the length of 8 minutes, with English subtitles. For the transmedia part of the project, the minimum submission are a trailer of the project, a making-of, and a vertical version (90 secs) of the pilot episode. Furthermore, they need to deliver the release or the plan of release of further promotional material like the image gallery on Instagram, a website and content on other content-sharing platforms, which they have specified in the promotion dossier. They can also deliver more material like a deleted-scenes-clip, spin-offs, a VR-installation of the project, or a game, a podcast with interviews.
While the students use the 1st semester to develop their stories, they need to deliver a 1st draft of the screenplay of the 1st episode by February and a final draft for the Greenlight Pitch in March. All 12 projects need to complete the screenplays of all 5 episodes of their mini-series, as well as the "Bible", a document with 30-40 pages known to describe the story world, the setup, the characters, references and story elements like logline, synopsis and story arc.
For the greenlight pitch and final evaluation, each of the 4 projects needs to deliver a production dossier containing production reports, timeline of the project in Gantt-format, shooting schedule, budget and financing, visual references and moodboard, audio examples, cast and crew list, production design overview, and creative statements of the head of departments.
Another output is the promotion dossier which describes concept of promoting the series, the target audience, the timeline of the release dates, the timeline of releasing the 5 episodes, as well as promotional material like posters, stills, trailer, the IGTV-version, statements and CV of the main team. This dossier is developed already early on, since most of the projects are presenting it on the crowdfunding platform PPL prior to the shoots.
Each of these 2 dossiers have around 50-80 pages long.
And lastly, each student must submit an individual report, which is a 1–2-page document where she or he reflects upon the goals set up in the beginning of the semester compared to what has been learnt in the end, relating the theoretical and the practical elements the project.
All the pitches and presentations are accompanied by invited guests from the industry, from broadcasters to producers or distributors. Academically they are advisers to the board of teachers, and have no voting right or grading capacity. They function as partners in the process, providing the aspect of a real business environment with non-academic feedback as well as possible future buyers or co-producers.
Overall, they encourage experimenting with new ways of telling stories aimed for young audiences by setting up the possibility of a creative and experimental laboratory. At the beginning of the semester, the partners pitch their requirements to the students, having an interest in this exchange, as they can discover new talents in scriptwriting, directing, editing, production and more amongst the students, they can create opportunities for the students to show their creativity. The advantage for the companies lies in investing in multiplatform content, where projects are born and live in the digital and increase the content portfolio on their own digital platforms.
An example of a list of requirements might look like this:
- Fictional project
- Minimum of 3 episodes | Maximum of 5 episodes
- No pre-established length
- Distribution on two different digital platforms
- Using the company's own streaming platform
- Using Facebook & Instagram as promotional platforms
- Stories on the two platforms may or may not be dependent: Use a language adapted to each platform (format, duration)
- Aimed at an audience aged 15 to 18
Ideally, the needs of the partner meet the needs of the academic requirements and the ability of the students to fulfill both. When this happens, the project is taken over by the partner company, either as-it-is or with the offer to re-create it within the partner’s system. However, it needs to be pointed out that all of this does not influence the individual grading of the student.
Team building is a process that is very important for both the projects and the students themselves involving a huge learning curve.
On average, the number in the 2nd year is around 70 students. They need to split up onto the 4 projects that go into production, according to their dreams and wishes, but as well as their own capacities (known or unknown to themselves), as well as at the project’s own requirement. This complex social process creates unavoidable friction that needs to be guided and compensated by the teachers.
In total, we have defined 53 positions for the whole project, from showrunner to the production team, the directing teams with the 2 directors, the image department, sound department, the art department, the image and sound postproduction, and the promotion department.
The students are required to build the teams themselves. We have tested this model throughout the different years, since we’ve been teaching transversal projects at Lusófona University and concluded that the organic process of self-organization with a slight supervision from the teachers is the best for everyone and everything. Our approach is that we set certain rules, making the students participate in at least 2 different projects, in different roles, and in different departments and different phases of the project. We have created the category of "primary" and "secondary" roles, with "primary" being a more complex, longer and more responsible task and "secondary" a shorter, more condensed task with fewer detailed knowledge or experience. The student should have 1 primary and 1 secondary role, balancing out the overall team numbers. Some can choose more if necessary.
Since there are no specialization in this 2nd year course, but only the overall discipline "cinema", the students are required to fulfill a variety of different tasks. In their 1st year they had classes that we call "ateliers": atelier for editing, atelier for camera, atelier for light and so forth. The 2nd year is the time to apply this. The model of our teams also reflects the new reality in contemporary streaming content production, as opposed to a cinematic model of production teams. Not only do we have the role of a showrunner as overseeing the project creatively as well as being the inventor of it in the first place, but there is also a different attitude to the role of the director: Leaving the "autheur"-driven path behind and following a modern approach of a team-based film where the director is one amongst the others and not the lonely genius anymore.
The challenge occurs when students don’t get the position they wanted, - or even more complicated: when groups do not want to integrate fellow students because of alleged or real incompetence. Sometimes the reason for a behavior like this lies outside of the project’s area and needs to be found out by a very open communication. Bullying needs to be avoided by any means, and one approach here is again transparency, constant support of students that aren’t in the first rows or everybody’s darling.
We also thrive to mix the learning experiences as best as possible. Combining a comfortable position, they are very sure of with one they never did before and trying out the other side helps avoiding narrowing down the learning experiences. Peer learning is stimulated through problem-solving and team building exercises, and each student’s commitment is stimulated in order to be integrated into their projects in positions that’s best for both sides.
This cross-curricular project supervision is conducted by different teachers, each focusing on their areas of expertise and specialization. Specific mentoring sessions are organized for different stages of the production and different parts of the project: i.e. production design, transmedia development, multi-camera, or preproduction and more.
The transversal aspect is reflected in the distinction in the two disciplines:
TAR = "Techniques of Writing and Directing"
In this course the students learn how to create and write and direct and post-produce a drama series. Overall, they learn the creative and narrative aspect of the project.
AGPP = "Atelier of Managing Projects and Programs"
In this course, the students acquire the abilities to develop the production aspects and the commercial aspects of the project. They learn how to define a market, a target audience, positioning the project in the market and distribute it. They learn how to create schedules, budgets, breakdowns, and lists, and how to develop and plan the transmedia components of the project.
There are 8 teachers that are directly involved in the development and production of the mini-series, 3 in AGPP, 2 in TAR, and 2 in in the subject of Directing Actors and 1 teacher supervising the production design.
These two disciplines are complemented during the semester by several masterclasses about specific aspect like case studies of current series content development, branded content, cinematography workshop, multicamera setup, and intensive production design workshop, allowing students to compare the steps of the process they are going through with the real ones and applying to their own creative outputs. These special classes are done by invited guests from the industry. The articulation between all these elements should create a true simulation environment that puts students through the challenges and hardships of real audiovisual production.
The students have additional courses during the 2 semesters: Law, Portuguese Cinema, Fashion Photography and Photojournalism. There is a total amount of classes of 34 hours / week.
Since there are many different courses involved (that’s the nature of a transversal project), workflow documents had to be created, - guidelines that describe simple steps especially when handing over from one department to another, step by step. This especially applies to processes where the technical aspect is crucial for the aspect of time and therefore to the amount that the students have for their creative work.
Throughout the 2 semesters, the students frequently need to do pitches. While only one of them is competitive - the one in February where 4 from the 12 projects are chosen to go into production -, the other serve as training and clarification pitches. Not only do the students learn to speak publicly in front of 70 people but also defend their cause, answer questions and become self-confident about their projects and themselves. The pitches need to be conducted as team pitches with everyone from the project involved.
Considering the high number of students involved in two different courses (cinema and sound) and different subject, as well as the length of the process itself, a clear and transparent system of grading the students for their work has been established. The assessment is balanced between the quality of the series pilots produced, and correspondent production and promotion packages, and their auto-evaluation reports. This report is a 2-3 pages document reflecting on goals and achievements, development of the project, reflection of self-development, comparison between the original goals and the achievements, and including an outlook to future goal. The assessment is a mix of a project-grade and an individual grade for the achievement of each student:
In "TAR", the grade is made of these components:
In "AGPP", the grade is made of these components:
The external partner’s feedback completes the evaluation process, however this external feedback is not part of the academic grade the student gets.
The students inscribed in that course are experiencing a variety of teaching outcomes. From the social-based briefing to the market simulation in pitching to TV professionals, the dedicated tutoring and external guest input, students learn how to create the best commercially driven artistic output in the context of audiovisual and multimedia narratives.
The main results of the project include the setup of a simulation environment that mimics real-world production and development conditions and the implementation of a learning process. A highly creative, multi-platform-distribution narrative project must be situated in the market and future client’s needs. Developing the project allows students to understand and apply all the different competences that are needed during the different production stages. The educational impact includes reinforcement of teamwork skills interaction with professionals and companies in an educational setting and the actual development and production of artistic outputs that illustrate student competencies.
The focus on distributing the projects (and not only writing and shooting them) also infuses in the students an understanding of how market conditions affect the creative process.
The large number of outputs asked from the students, both individually and collectively, create great pressure on them throughout the two semesters. They need to articulate all practical, theoretical, and critical dimensions which an audiovisual production involves.
One of the biggest challenges in that teaching transversal projects is the team building process. It is most of all a social process between the students, where they need to present themselves as persons, with their interests, passions and abilities, but also with their disabilities. They need to accept defeats, maybe even in public, they need to learn how to take a stand for something. They need to learn about themselves: I am a leader? I am a follower? Where is my favorite position in the filmmaking process? What are the group’s needs, and can these be mine? Understanding this process provides them the chance to take responsibility.
Of course, this team building process is a point open for failures, if not guided properly. Either the students feel put into positions which they never wanted, or cannot fulfill due to personal restrictions or interests, or the project ends up with an incomplete team list. There will always be friction between the project’s needs (in its creative and productional aspects) and the learning requirements for the individual student. To find a balance here means also compensating different levels of abilities of the student, because after all: we are a film university and not a production company. The more transparent a system is, the higher the level of trust, the learning outcome, the participation - and ultimately better results.
These processes need a clear guidance by sensitive teachers even more when destructive social processes are happening. It is self-understood that during the pandemic and distant-learning with switched-off cameras all teachers had a hard time doing this.
The same challenge arises in terms of integrating other courses into projects, like the sound course or students from the animation course, or external help for more complicated demands like SFX or special makeup. Due to the different demands of each of them, there are possible sources of friction. Different schedules, different pedagogical approaches of the courses, different priorities are conflict with the project and the groups. The supervisors do need to provide a platform for communicating properly and openly about it in a horizontal, not vertical way.
Another aspect on the production process is coming from the observation that the main communication platform of the students is no longer email but messaging apps like WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal or Discord. However, only few teachers use them, despite some of them being encrypted, because they feel much more intrusive than emails or messages on Learning Platforms like Moodle. This different usage can slow down the pedagogical process of creation.
As we have seen, there is this special responsibility of the teacher of being a supervisor: the constant need of reminding everyone in working together and finding solutions. For the 2nd year students, it’s also the first time that they work in such a huge environment. We have 53 positions, and around 40 of them are on location, which is not an easy task for a first-time 1st AD or a producer to handle such a big amount of people. In every position and in every step of the whole collaborative process, students must be allowed to make mistakes. They must not fear to make mistakes and teachers must not create an atmosphere where mistakes are forbidden.
Especially in times of Zoom (but not limited to it), the teachers’ task is to really look after the students that tend to hide themselves. The possibilities of hiding, or pretending are much bigger in a purely digital environment. Whatever the student’s reason for this might be, supervising must include everyone, in the limelight or not. The golden rule is: No one is left behind.