My career as an independent documentary filmmaker spans approximately thirty years. It began when I returned from graduate film studies at New York University to Detroit, Michigan in 1980 to work on a commissioned documentary series on preventative alternative medicine for the Wayne State University School of Medicine. Deeply inspired by the cinema verite methodologies of Frederick Wiseman, this project was an especially ambitious undertaking, to say the least, for a young documentary filmmaker. It entailed extensive research into the subject matter (under Professor Martin J Hogan), as well as filming approximately one hundred and fifty hours of raw footage of actual healthcare interactions on location. Studying this footage and then the editing of it took approximately one and half years, and what eventually emerged was a four-part series of hour-long films entitled Fragments in Space-Time: Encounter & Partnership for Health that has been used as an instructional resource in medical schools throughout the country. The rigorous commitment to cinema verite techniques applied within this project, moreover, has been maintained to varying degrees in much of my work over the ensuing years – including the most recent project premiered this past fall entitled A Poet in Every Classroom, which deals with the teaching of literary arts within inner city public schools and included the filming of many hours of actual classroom activities.

Since that early healthcare documentary series, there have been a number of other significant long-term documentary projects alongside my activities and commitments as a professional educator in the media arts field. One such undertaking was a multi-media documentary endeavor called The Uniroyal Project. Initially inspired by the dramatic decay and urban environment encountered in Detroit and the seminal writings of urban planners like Jane Jacobs and Kevin Lynch, this project focused upon one of Detroit’s largest and most historic factories – the Uniroyal tire plant. With hundreds of still photos and many hours of recorded interviews with architects, urban historians, poets and visual artists obtained over a period of approximately one and a half years, this project explored the historic role of this prominent factory in Detroit’s evolution as a city – as well as the ongoing challenges that its demolition has placed in terms of land use and urban planning. Among the more noteworthy final products that emerged from this project were a cover story for Detroit Magazine that featured my still photos and writing on the factory and a short documentary aired on Detroit’s public television which received a United Press International First Place award.

My academic background includes a degree in painting and drawing, and the visual arts have therefore evolved as a passionate focus within my work as a documentary filmmaker, and one noteworthy example of these visual arts documentaries is a 16mm film entitled The Future of Memory, which premièred at one of this country’s foremost art museums, the Detroit Institute of Arts, in 1994. This film includes an in-depth cinema verite documentation of the creation and ultimate disappearance of a temporary, site-specific piece of “installation art” by one of the foremost practitioners and historians of this art form -  Brian O’Doherty (also known under the name of “Patrick Ireland”). Along with the rare cinema verite footage, the film also features in-depth interviews with the artist and two of the foremost cultural historians and art theorists of recent times, Lucy Lippard and Rudolf Arnheim. The film also addresses issues pertinent to the history of conceptual, site-specific and installation art – particularly as it evolved during the turbulent cultural period of the 1960s and 1970s. Ultimately, I received a $10,000 State of Michigan Creative Artist Award for my work on this film. It also received Honorable Mention at the Chicago Film Festival, and the esteemed modern art historian and curator, the late Jan van der Marck, introduced this film at its premiere as “one of the most significant films on late 20th Century art ever made.”

At the same time I was engaged in the aforementioned documentaries and multi-media projects, I also commenced, and became deeply engaged in, a media arts teaching career. Beginning in 1985 and continuing through 2000, I designed and taught in an innovative media arts curriculum offered by the Detroit Public Schools to high school age students from across the entire city. As there were few, if any, curriculums of this nature at the time, I had to conceive of a “performance-based” curriculum where no models existed and which both met with the rigid guidelines of a public school system and yet truly inspired students who were frequently alienated from the learning process. What eventually evolved was a program in documentary production that might be called “ a classroom without walls” in which students became engaged with documenting the city and the communities in which they lived in. They learned how to identify significant topics, rigorously formulate focused angles and otherwise ask probing questions about the world in which they lived. This special curriculum thus became an extension of my own documentary concerns and philosophy, and what resulted were a series of compelling documentaries that I produced with the young people I taught – some of which have aired on Detroit’s public television, WTVS, and received various awards (e.g., The Barrio Speaks: Voices of Southwest Detroit, Educating the Soul and All the World’s a Stage.)

The last twelve years of my teaching career have been spent with the Department of Communication at Wayne State University in Detroit, and among the most exciting aspects of these twelve years have been the opportunities to contribute a unique interdisciplinary approach to the design of innovative Media Studies courses and the redesign of courses that form the core of the current production curriculum. The course Cities in Cinema was one such course where I was able to draw upon my interdisciplinary background in the exploration of the interrelationships between film, architecture, urban studies and critical theory. The course Critical Perspective in Cinematography was also unusual in the way that it combined film studies, the psychology of visual perception and critical methodologies with a practical knowledge of cinematography and lighting. The course Critical Perspectives in Animation provided a comprehensive overview of the international history of animation with a special emphasis on experimental animation, and similar to the other studies courses I have designed, this course approached the art of animation within the broader frameworks of cultural studies, critical theory and the visual arts in general.

The course I redesigned entitled Documentary and Non-fiction Film also afforded special opportunities to draw upon my personal interdisciplinary background – in social research, cultural history and documentary production. This course provided a broad international overview of documentary film history, but what may have been most unique in the approach of this course was its underlying emphasis on the political and cultural contexts of that history. Where, for example, the course explored the evolution and impact of the seminal New Deal Documentaries of the 1930s, this history was framed within the contexts of the influential Farm Security Administration still photographers, social realist and regional painters of the era, the emergence and consequences of government sponsorship of the documentary arts and, most importantly, the underlying ideological and political turbulence shaping the documentary films of that period. The emergence of Direct Cinema and Cinema Verite was approached in the same way – within the context of the technological breakthroughs in lightweight equipment and sync sound recording, as well as within the evolving backdrop of Postwar American culture of the 1960s. At present, moreover, I am looking forward to augmenting my teaching about Direct Cinema and Cinema Verite as a result of recent conversations and interviews I have held with its founders, Robert Drew and Albert Maysles. I am also looking forward to expanding my teaching and writing about the future evolution of documentary mediums with the latest research on the impact of emerging digital technologies, the Internet and reality television.

My experiences teaching advanced production and screenwriting courses at Wayne State have been particularly rewarding, and one of the most satisfying aspects of teaching these courses has been the opportunity to introduce and refine a philosophical approach to “storytelling” as a unifying basis for the entire media production curriculum. The advanced course entitled Editing and Field Production for Film and Video, for example, was a new and undeveloped course when I first taught it during the winter of 2002. In the many times I have now taught this course since then, however, I have had the opportunity to refine its structure and develop an original set of teaching materials with a special focus on documentary production that builds upon my own documentary practice and my prior years of teaching documentary production. Not only are students in this course exposed to rigorous methods for developing “story angles,” but also they are especially encouraged to identify socially engaged stories from within the urban community in which the university is located. This course now serves to introduce the aforementioned storytelling philosophy, as well as various technical concepts, that have become a foundation for the subsequent production curriculum at Wayne State University. It also serves to introduce students to the latest HDSLR cameras – such as the Canon 5D and 7D and Sony’s EX-1 and EX-3 – along with the necessary workflow related to these cameras.

In a similar fashion, I have developed and implemented a unique approach to teaching other courses that have become integral to the entire production curriculum at Wayne State University over the past twelve years. The capstone course of the production curriculum, entitled Techniques of Film and Video Production, builds upon the teaching materials and concepts I have introduced over the years within the prerequisite courses. Concentrating on the production of original dramatic narrative films, this course entails working with trained actors and integrates the philosophical approach to “storytelling” that has evolved throughout all my teaching.  One of the principal components of this capstone course is its strong emphasis on preproduction, and students thus gain intensive training working with FrameForge storyboarding software. Students also receive intensive experience working with lighting instruments such as HMI’s, Keno-Flos and Chimeras, as well as obtain advanced skills in digital color correction using the latest software. Moreover, students who have taken this course under my instruction are now receiving numerous awards for the work produced in this class – both at the annual Wayne State University Film and Video Festival and elsewhere.

Similarly, it is with special gratification that I point to the design of the Screenwriting course I have been teaching at Wayne State University since the fall 2002 semester. The structure of this course, along with the varied creative writing exercises I have developed over the years, have contributed to sophisticated screenplays and award-winning films that have exceeded my expectations. (See the Michael Collyer Memorial Fellowship in Screenwriting discussed below.)

Along with the aforementioned teaching activities, I had also served as the Faculty Supervisor of the “Media Production Lab” at Wayne State University from 2002 until the winter of 2009. In this capacity, I completely restructured the Lab operations in order to meet the increased demands of an expanding production curriculum. A thorough set of operational policies and procedures were essentially crafted from scratch and then implemented. These policies succeeded on a variety of levels – including facilitating access to equipment for the growing number of Media Arts students; improving equipment maintenance; purchasing the latest equipment and technology; and otherwise enhancing the operational efficiency of the Lab. In addition, through the implementation of regular training sessions and annual workshops, I built and nurtured a close-knit team of highly skilled student assistants under my direct supervision that further enhanced the efficient operation of the Lab and thereby strengthened the overall effectiveness of the curriculum.

In other respects as well, I have assumed a variety of responsibilities and provided service to the University and the Department within which I currently teach, and it is this level of collegial engagement that I hope to continue and expand upon wherever I may teach in coming academic years. I currently serve as an advisor to both undergraduate and graduate students, and I have frequently served as a “Mentor” for students who have received sizeable Undergraduate Research Grants administered through Wayne State University’s Honors Program.  (One of these students, Amir Husak, was the first Wayne State University student to receive the prestigious Jack Kent Fellowship to pursue graduate studies at The New School for Social Research in New York – largely based upon the project he completed under my mentorship.) During the 2006-2007 academic year, I served as and Undergraduate Research Mentor for four students in implementing an oral history project called “Story Corps” that received positive media attention on National Public Radio. From January though November of 2010, I served as the Undergraduate Research Mentor for two students who worked with me in producing a documentary about the teaching of literary arts in inner city public schools. This documentary premiered before a large audience at Detroit’s historic Gem Theater this past October and has already received considerable positive acclaim.

It is also with special gratification that I had served as the Faculty Coordinator for Wayne State University’s annual film and video festival over the years, as well as in various outreach activities between the Wayne State University and regional film and cultural organizations. In this regard, I served as the Special Events Coordinator for the 2007 and 2008 Detroit Docs International Film Festival, a collaborative endeavor of the Wayne State University Department of Communication, the Detroit Film Center, the Cranbrook Museum and the Detroit Institute of Arts. For the 2007 festival, my responsibilities included arranging a major five-day retrospective of the legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, as well as coordinating his guest appearance to a sellout audience at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I also wrote an extensive critical essay on the significance of Maysles’ work and provided an in-depth interview with Maysles for the festival’s Program Guide (both of which can be found online). Another significant activity related to this 2007 festival included coordinating the first grant-writing workshop conducted by ITVS (the Independent Television Service) for independent documentary filmmakers in Southeastern Michigan. For the 2008 festival, my responsibilities included arranging a retrospective of another legendary documentary filmmaker, Les Blank, as well as coordinating his guest appearance at the festival. I also provided a rare in-depth interview with Mr. Blank for the festival’s Program Guide.

Another collaborative endeavor with outside arts organization over the past several years has been my work with the Writers Guild of America. Due in part to the reputation of the screenwriting class I have been teaching for many years at Wayne State University, the Writers Guild approached me and asked if the university would like to participate with ten other selected university film and screenwriting programs throughout the country in launching an annual competition to be known as the Michael Collyer Memorial Fellowship in Screenwriting. This Fellowship has been designed to offer undergraduate screenwriting students $10,000 to complete a finished feature length screenplay under the mentorship of a major award-winning screenwriter, and in the 2009-2010 academic year, one of my students was the sole recipient of this major honor based upon a screenplay he had begun in my screenwriting class. He was awarded this Fellowship in the annual Writers Guild awards ceremony in New York, and he is now working closely with the acclaimed screenwriter Marshal Brickman.

As summarized above, my varied combined teaching and production career has offered me a unique blend of inspiration, stimulation, sense of purpose and intellectual challenge perhaps unlike anything else I have ever experienced.