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Four Years in Two Minutes

Penn President Delivers a Surprise Gift to the Class of 2017

A special surprise was in store for graduates at the University of Pennsylvania’s 261st Commencement held May 15th. Hoping to give the grads a moment to truly savor their achievements, President Amy Gutmann opted to show – rather than tell – how far they had come over the course of their time at Penn.  But the challenge was how to deliver the message without adding time to a packed morning-long ceremony.

Producers Mike Field and Josh Green, communications specialists in the Office of the President, turned for inspiration to a celebrated classic of TV film history, American Time Capsule by Chuck Braverman, which premiered in primetime on CBS nearly 50 years earlier. "It's a film that encapsulates 200 years of American history in just three minutes," says Field. "When it was shown on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour at the height of the 1968 presidential election, the reaction was so positive that they took the unprecedented step of showing it again on a subsequent episode a few weeks later." Beatle George Harrison saw the film when it aired and was so excited he agreed to appear on the Smothers Brothers show the following week as an unannounced special guest.

Like its namesake, Class of 2017 Time Capsule uses a driving drum beat to propel rapid jump cut images - some appearing on screen for as little as 1/5th of a second - to suggest a linear progression. It is up to viewers to mentally compose vignettes that tell the story.

"The big challenge on a project like this is choosing just the right images," says director Kurtis Sensenig, who had teamed up with Field and Green on a previous Penn commencement project. Sensenig estimates his production team reviewed more than 4,000 photos to select the hundreds of images that appear in just two minutes. "At [the standard film frame rate of] 24-frames-per-second, each image has to not only look good, it also has to advance the story," he says. "With so little time you become sensitive to an image being off by just 1/24th of a second." More than a slideshow set to a drumbeat, Sensenig and his team guide viewers through the Class of 2017's four years by assembling pictorial vignettes - small stories within the larger narrative - that subliminally prompt viewers to create brief stories-within-the-story along the way. "This is what American Time Capsule does so brilliantly and we tried to capture in sequences like the football game that shows ascending action, the climax of the touchdown, and the resolution all in just a couple seconds," says Sensenig.

A notable departure from the film's namesake, however, comes in the framing device that opens and closes Class of 2017 Time Capsule. "This is a film very much of, by, and about the Class of 2017," says producer Josh Green. "So we expand beyond static images to include video footage of the soundtrack being performed by a member of the Class of 2017 who was getting his diploma from the Wharton School and who was sitting in the audience with his classmates when the film showed."

Another difference in the two films reflects a half century change in the media landscape. American Time Capsule runs two minutes and 53 seconds since in 1968 network television mandated a three-minute time limit. Class of 2017 Time Capsule by contrast comes in at two minutes 16 seconds to fit within the 140-second time limit on videos that can be shared on Twitter.

The film's propulsive soundtrack was the work of graduating senior Tai Bendit, who composed, rehearsed, and performed the score in utter secrecy in three weeks just prior to graduation. "I knew I only had two minutes, so the challenge was creating something that starts with driving energy, allows for the ebb and flow of all four years, and still ends with a bang," he says. Bendit was well-prepared for the challenge - he spent four years at Penn drumming for The Mask and Wig Club, the oldest all-male collegiate musical comedy troupe in America. The club mounts two all-original shows each year and in 129 years of performances it has been the source of songs performed by Ella Fitzgerald, Tommy Dorsey, and others. "It was a four-year education in how to make the storyline make sense on the drums," says Bendit, who came to Penn a jazz percussionist devoted to bebop pioneer drummer Max Roach. His acquired skills in percussive storytelling are especially evident at the end of score where, counterintuitively, Bendit inserts what he calls "the dramatic slowdown" precisely where listeners are most likely to expect a galvanizing race to the finish. It is this unexpected change in tempo that enables the filmmakers to insert - and make sense of - the film's iconic closing image of University of Pennsylvania founder Ben Franklin using a mosaic screen composition technique.

"It's a cinematic challenge compressing four years into two minutes," says director Kurtis Sensenig, whose next project takes him filming off-the-beaten-path a travel destinations in Europe.  "The drums are primal. They bring it all together and make the film fun to watch. It really was a team effort."

 

Video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgXS6puZ8O4&feature=youtu.be

View President Gutmann’s Remarks: http://www.upenn.edu/spotlights/commencement-2017

Contact: Kurtis Sensenig   267-688-8212 or kurtis@kurtisfilms.com