Since the early days of its development, the fertile Delta region has been the source of countless stories told through various and evolving mediums, including the oral tradition of songs and stories, the permanence of the written word, and the beauty of film.
The latest platform for telling the rich stories of the Delta is digital media, and it is certainly taking root in Cleveland.
Digital storytelling is defined as the creation of short, personal narratives combining images, sounds, and text in a multimedia computer-based platform which often leverages an expanded and more participatory sense of audience, as it can connect people in disparate places and situations.
One of the newest players in the Delta digital media scene is Cleveland native Ben Powell.
Powell, who holds a BFA in Film, Animation and Video from the Rhode Island School of Design, has covered assignments around the world as a cinematographer, and his documentary films as a director have focused on landscapes near and dear.
Powell’s feature documentary, BARGE, premiered at the SXSW Film Festival, and won best Best Documentary Feature prizes at the Memphis and Dallas International Film festivals.
He has earned four artist grants from the Austin Film Society, and currently works as a Director of Photography and editor for Google, managing camera crews on remote shoots in India, Alaska and Japan.
His most recent regional works include the 2020 GRAMMY Museum® Mississippi Crossroads of American Music Award and Gala, 50 Nights of Lights Tree Lighting, and the upcoming Music From the Ground Up video series associated with Cleveland’s Deep Roots music initiative.
Powell observes, "Storytelling through digital media is a unique form of creative expression. It can open up a whole new world here in the Delta, making film, music and other digital arts more accessible to all people. It can inspire and impact lives, and it’s really cool to see the beginnings of it here in Cleveland."
Delta State University’s Digital Media Arts program, a collaboration between the Art Department and the Delta Music Institute, launched in 2014. The program, now occupying the renovated former Odealier Morgan Laundry building, features two state-of-the-art Mac labs, video production courses with a green screen area, 2D and 3D animation courses, and a voice-over booth. DSU is the only program in the state to offer a concentration in animation.
Delta State Assistant Professor Ted Fisher offered academic insight, explaining, “the DMA program at DSU applies some of the approaches students would get at film school, but we can combine that with the ideas and innovation that you explore in art school. It's a good thing to merge the skillset of a contemporary filmmaker with the conceptual approach of an artist, and it gives our students a lot of freedom.”
One such student is Gabriel Boyd, who earned a BFA in Digital Media Arts with a concentration in videography from Delta State in 2019. He is building his freelance business through his company, Boyd Visionary Productions. He commented, “the competitiveness of the DMA program really inspired me to create and practice more. Motivational instructors like Will Jacks, Michael Stanley, and Jon Mark, who was really ‘hands on’ with me through my entire learning process, kept me motivated, built my interest and opened my eyes to the endless amount of creativity in camera work.”
Filmmaker/photographer Robert “RJ” Fitzpatrick, Jr. founded Hydro Productions after earning his BFA degree in Digital Media Arts from Delta State in 2017. Since graduation, Fitzpatrick has worked on the documentary film, Fannie Lou Hamer’s America, a video series for the Emmitt Till Interpretive Center and the film, Snuck Of The Slave Ship, which was accepted into the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. “With the right push, digital media can tell the story of the Delta throughout history like never before,” said Fitzpatrick.
Students in the DMA program have been making documentaries, music videos, and narrative film, and in 2020, they began producing short live music productions. Two students, Mason Smith and Abigail Killian, who were exploring work in both narrative and documentary modes, were selected to work on the upcoming Deep Roots video series, Music From The Ground Up. Fisher commented, “They were both in a lighting course when they were invited to participate, and the opportunity was directly connected to their study.”
The stories of the Mississippi Delta are vitally important in interpreting and understanding the rich culture of the region. Through the continued development of a digital media community, these unique stories can be shared with the world.
For more information, visit http://www.deltastate.edu/artsandsciences/art/bfa-digital-media-arts/, www.boydvisionaryproductions.com, http://hydroproductionscompany.com, http://www.bspowell.com.