Photo by Sam Girton.
MDIA Professor Frederick Lewis was recently featured here in Backdrop Magazine with an article written by Annelie Goins. As the article reads,
Frederick Lewis’ path into media wasn’t one he intended to take. Once a graduate student studying creative writing at Brown University, Lewis expected to become an English professor after finishing his education.
However, life had a different path planned for him, and eventually Lewis found himself working as an associate professor in Ohio University’s School of Media Arts and Studies.
“It’s ironic. I think I’m teaching something that [is more relevant to] most students,” Lewis says. “Not that literature is not important; I love literature. But if you had told me that I was going to take a 14- or 15-year detour and then wind up teaching something like this, I could not have predicted that.”
Lewis’ venture into the media world began with a few television production classes and a documentary he produced about the history of the Boston Marathon. A former marathon runner himself, Lewis was encouraged to write what he knew, and he was very familiar with the history of the Boston Marathon.
“And lo and behold, I won a regional Emmy in a very competitive market — in the Boston-New England market,” he says. “And I said, ‘I think I like this!’ ”
And so began Lewis’ more than 30-year production career. Before he ultimately transitioned to academia, he was based in New England, producing a wide array of media, ranging from documentaries to commercials to NCAA Division I basketball coverage.
The work he is most famous for is his three-hour documentary on Rockwell Kent, a controversial artist and explorer. The documentary was screened at the International Gallery of Arts for more than 400 people and was praised by The Washington Post. The experience gave Lewis the chance to see more of the world.
“Before that, I was a pretty average traveler, you know?” Lewis says. “And over the course of several years, I wound up going to Greenland, to Newfoundland, to Denmark, Ireland, Alaska, Russia, sailing to Cape Horn. All of that was for that one project. I think that really changed my life.”
Lewis brings that experience to his teaching. For 17 years, he has taught MDIA 4719 — affectionately called “419” — a two-semester class that teaches students real-world aspects of producing films. The class has resulted in 60 short films and two feature-length movies. It requires students to cast actors registered with the Screen Actors Guild, fundraise, write scripts and travel to film those movies.
“I think the class is really based on an industry model,” Lewis says. “I think most film schools are kind of very small crews and it’s more of an artsy type approach, whereas what we do in 419 is always toward the industry model.”
Students are expected to work cohesively in crews. The group environment allows them to experience different positions besides director and producer.
Max Stepaniak, a senior studying screenwriting and production, says Lewis expects quality work from his students and treats them like adults.
“There is that pressure where you can tell he’s not a laid-back professor,” Stepaniak says. “He very much expects you to put in the work, so there’s a certain stress that comes with it. But it’s sort of a good thing, because it’s preparing you for the real world and it’s a good feeling having people expect quality work out of you.”
Annabelle Fisher, a junior studying media arts and studies, said in an email to Lewis in 2016 that there is no other media experience on campus quite like 419.
“I had so many great mentors throughout this process,” Fisher said in her email. “I have to think that I would be at least a few steps behind where I am now if I hadn’t met so many great people who are so willing to help me advance.”
In addition to teaching 419, Lewis has also taken nearly 200 students to Morocco, Spain, Ireland, Malaysia and many other countries through various study abroad programs. He is an advocate of experiential learning and believes that bringing students abroad helps bring them out of their comfort zones.
“I really enjoy watching students kind of open up to international travel,” Lewis says. “They’re seeing parts of the world they’ve never been to before. I like being the person who kind of facilitates that and gets to kind of show them these different parts of the world, creating those opportunities.”
Leading study abroad programs is especially important to Lewis because he did not travel abroad until later in his life, after he arrived at OU and started teaching.
“Spending time abroad for an academic program, I think it’s a good thing,” Lewis says. “Nothing wrong with just traveling on your own, but I think when you’ve got that structure and you’re traveling with other people, other students, I think that’s a really good combination.”
For 15 years, Lewis also oversaw the 48-Hour Shootout, an intense competition where students produce, shoot and edit a short film over one weekend. Recently, Lewis stepped aside and allowed a colleague to run the competition instead.
He says his favorite part of the competition was how students’ work surprised him.
“As a teacher, you try to get to know your students and you think you know your students, and then out of nowhere you suddenly find out that they play in a rock band, or they do stand-up, or they work with [The Lost Flamingo Theatre Company] as an actor,” Lewis says.
Recently, Lewis finished a documentary on Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first African-American poets to gain international acclaim, and began another on Frances Benjamin Johnston, a photographer with many pieces in the Library of Congress.
He won’t be stopping any time soon, either.
“I think it’s important to be a practitioner and a teacher,” Lewis says. “I think it gives you credibility, but it also just keeps you vital.”