Company/Organization Profiles | Local Industry

WGBH Lab Opens for Indies

1 Feb , 2007  

Written by Nikki Chase | Posted by:

WGBH Boston undergoes major physical and virtual renovations to promote new and emerging filmmakers.  Executive Denise DiIanni explains how filmmakers can get their foot in the door.

WGBH Boston, the source of more than one-third of PBS’s prime time line-up, is making its facilities available to independent filmmakers through its new WGBH Lab. The Lab is designed to encourage filmmakers to experiment with clips from NOVA, Anatomical Travelogues and other WGBH productions in the Video Sandbox. "It’s about public participation and reaching out for new ideas and new filmmakers," says Denise DiIanni, executive in charge of Boston media productions.

With their Open Call, they encourage filmmakers to submit their shorts to be critiqued by other filmmakers. The best shorts are invited to be shown on the WGBH website. "The main goal is to promote the most talented filmmakers," DiIanni says. "New and emerging filmmakers are magnets for new ideas and new talent."

In the Filmmakers in Residence program, WGBH allows filmmakers to use their facilities to produce or post-produce their independent films and the opportunity to have their films played on local or national broadcasts.

"The whole concept of the Lab is about opening WGBH’s doors," says DiIanni.

Video Sandbox

Video Sandbox, their first Open Content feature, allows users a limited palette of clips from the WGBH Media Library. The Sandbox invites users to edit the clips to make their own short films and share them on the website. "It’s a virtual way of letting new people in and testing a new way of filmmaking," DiIanni says. "The lab is about openness and inclusion."

In fact, the Sandbox is the most inclusive of all the Lab features, letting users experiment with clips and comment on each other’s work as well as on the effectiveness of the Lab itself. "I would welcome people to come to us and let us know what they think," DiIanni says. "We need to be responsive and open to community comment and interest. We want people to know that we are open to ideas and criticism because we are definitely still in the pilot and demonstration phase."

The Lab Sandbox is modeled after the "Find it, rip it, mix it share it" BBC Creative Archive. With a click of the mouse, users can download clips from the Sandbox website to their computer. Though there is not yet an editing tool on the Lab website, their how-to and resource page offers links to desktop editing tools so users have all that they need to remix the footage. The result is an experimental video that can be shown for non-commercial purposes. Users will have the opportunity to have their videos featured in the Lab Showcase and, perhaps, in the future, in other distribution platforms as well.

WGBH expects many of their early users will be participants in the Sandbox. "It’s hard to get in a door at WGBH so we want to provide a crack in the armor so they can start a relationship with us," says DiIanni. "We are committed to innovation and we want to be known as a place that welcomes diverse points of view."

Open Call: 6:55 Shorts

The Open Call focuses on shorts made for the small screen, including cell phones, PDAs and television broadcasts. This is a call for filmmakers to submit their rough cuts to WGBH to be produced for the Lab. "We’re a little bit ahead of the curve," DiIanni says. "At the time there really weren’t any open calls. I think now, people are more familiar with the idea of coming to WGBH for projects. It’s rather common now. People have become more sophisticated about it, but WGBH was an early adopter."

Each year, three projects are selected for the program. Filmmakers will receive $2,500 in financial support as well as editorial support from WGBH and renowned media producers, not to mention a place to screen their finished short.

This year, three award-winning filmmakers offered the finalists advice. "We picked people who have been nominated for or won an Academy Award for documentary work," says DiIanni. "That gives an indication that their work is of a strong quality and they have something to offer to our emerging filmmakers."

The filmmakers offering feedback to the contestants this year were Ross Kaufman, director, producer, cinematographer and co-editor of Born into Brothels, winner of the 2005 Academy Award for Best Documentary; Oscar-nominated filmmaker Marshall Curry, director and producer of Street Flight; and Sam Pollard, who received a Peabody Award for I’ll Make Me a World: Stories of African American Artist and Community.

In it’s third year, the open call is more successful than ever before. Due to the strength of the submissions this year, WGBH decided to choose two additional shorts, for a total of five projects.

DiIanni says that some of the credit goes to the Open Media Network, which allowed WGBH to provide a video uploading tool that makes the entire open call process web-based. "It gives us more sophisticated tools and it allows viewers to comment, rank and rate the films," DiIanni says. "We did not have the capacities before. It’s a really big leap forward. The payoff for us was that we scaled up in the reach and quality of the new films and filmmakers."

Eventually, WGBH would like to make the shorts available for download from their website to iPods, cell phones and PDAs. She says that Boston could be the top producer for this kind of media. "We want to try and understand the format and what kind of videos would work in those formats," DiIanni says. "A hundred million dollar film doesn’t work on a handheld PDA. But we’ve been trying out animations and video prose stories and saying, ‘Okay, what does it have to do to be effective?’"

Ben Stump, of Ursita Films, says that being affiliated with WGBH gave the Ursita credit at every step of the way. "From requesting interviews, to filming events, licensing footage, looking for music, and bringing in collaborators, the endorsement of WGBH clearly meant a lot to people," he says.

The film, Competing Thoughts, is one of the five films chosen for this year’s Open Call. It is a short film that shines a critical light on competition in U.S. culture in schools, workplaces, politics and games. The film weaves interviews with original and archival footage and presents alternatives to competitive structures such as collaborative learning, non-competitive games and cooperative workplaces.

Stump says he’s both impressed and grateful to the WGBH programs, "It’s great to see WGBH exploring new modes of video production and distribution, especially in a time when that landscape is being changed so quickly by the likes of YouTube, Google and TiVo," he says. "I hope these experiments continue to flourish and perhaps serve as a model for other stations so that more filmmakers can have this opportunity."

Filmmakers in Residence

The Filmmakers in Residence program allows filmmakers to produce an independently funded film for a six- to nine-month residency at WGBH. The program is open to independent filmmaker and producers from related industries such as commercial television, feature films, advertising, Internet, or animation.

Katrina Browne, a former filmmaker in residence at WGBH, says that she found the residency useful for getting an inside look at the film industry. "As an independent, first-time filmmaker it was amazing to be ‘inside’ and get a firsthand, direct look at how the system works," she says. "This daily crash course was in addition to the huge benefit of having donated space and editorial feedback from veteran producers."

Browne is now producing a film called Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, a documentary that delves into the role of New Englanders in the slave trade.

Upcoming Features

WGBH also has plans for an anthology series that will function to profile upcoming filmmakers. "We’re still trying to find funds and haven’t succeeded yet, but we’ve gotten great shorts," DiIanni says.

There are plans for a brand new 200-seat theater and performance studio.  Yawkey Theater will be equipped with state-of-the-art imaging and sound. "Through the Yawkey Theatre and 1,800 square-foot Fraser Performance Studio (located directly across the Atrium from the Theatre), WGBH will be able to welcome visitors to our new studios for screenings, concerts, lectures and workshops in a way that was never possible in our current facilities," say Stefanie Koperniak, publicist for WGBH.

In addition to the theater, there will be an open and dynamic workspace, conference room and small screening rooms that will be home for the Lab. "I hope the Lab can grow and we can find funding and resources to make it better," DiIanni says. "We want to bring in racial and economic diversity and we want it to be an incubator for new talent and new ideas."

Nikki Chase is a freelance writer in Boston. She can be contacted at

Learn more about WBGH’s programs for New England filmmakers by visiting For information on the WGBH Lab go to and Sandbox,

Learn more about WBGH's programs for New England filmmakers by visiting For information on the WGBH Lab go to and Sandbox,