Coleman taught students how to tell stories, no matter the technology

by Chuck Gordon

When John Coleman was just beginning his career at Wingate, in 1982, students who wanted to shoot a scene for one of his class projects had to check out one of the few video cameras the Department of Communications owned, along with a video recorder. “You know, you had a little camera and you swung the recorder over your shoulder,” Coleman says.

These days, of course, students can simply pull a handheld device out of their pocket and start shooting in high-def. They can also edit everything they’ve shot on that same device and then upload a complete project, ready for grading, without ever having to step foot in an editing bay.

“You can do a total end-to-end production on your iPhone,” Coleman says. “The video would never have to leave your phone. Shoot it, edit it on your iPhone and put it up on YouTube or somewhere. And you’re done.”

John Coleman in the editing room, 1986

But science-fiction technology is only half of the story. While the tech has advanced beyond Coleman’s 1980s dreams, the basics of storytelling haven’t changed much. And Coleman spent years honing the ability to get students to tell great stories.

Coleman retired before the start of this academic year, doubtful that he could teach video production effectively from a distance but too concerned about the coronavirus to do live instruction. He leaves behind a legacy of teaching Emmy winners, Oscar nominees and plenty of students who got infected by the video bug and went on to successful careers as editors, producers and directors.

Among them were 2011 grad Mike Shaw, who took the editing skills he learned from Coleman to Wake Forest University, where he is a multimedia producer in the news and communications department. “His classes were not only among the most fun I had, but where I learned the most,” Shaw says of Coleman. “Honestly, every time I edit video at work, which is about every day, I can thank John Coleman for teaching me how to edit on Premiere Pro.”

Coleman knows all too well what happens when you get bitten by the video bug. As a student at Radford College (now University) in the 1970s, the Virginia native developed a deep appreciation for splicing together moving pictures into a coherent narrative.

“I liked the hands-on aspects of it,” he says. “It was just fun.”

Once he started detecting structure and patterns in his favorite TV shows and in news reports, Coleman’s aptitude grew, and he soon realized he could make a career of it. After earning a master’s in media at UNC-Chapel Hill, Coleman was hired to complete a video-related project at Washington & Lee University, before coming to Wingate.

My teaching philosophy was simple: I just wanted to teach people the basics of telling a story.

Initially, he taught classes using VHS, first using the camera/recorder combo and then the camcorder. The equipment was great for teaching the basics, but it meant that students had to sign cameras out and schedule time in the editing booth.

“Of course, we never had enough equipment,” Coleman says. “And of course, it was susceptible to being broken, stuff like that. So it was a big hassle actually, but it was the only way to teach it.”

Eventually, the editing bay fell by the wayside as video production went digital. But no matter the technology, Coleman kept his focus on the important stuff, and not just to avoid using star wipes.

“The fundamentals are what they were a hundred years ago when people started doing sound movies,” he says. “The basic elements – long shot, midshot, close-up – all that doesn’t change. The documentary format, which we use to create news packages, that hasn’t changed since it was invented. The techniques: how to shoot a sequence, the difference between long shots, medium shots, how to cover up jump cuts, how to avoid jump cuts. It’s the same thing.

“Now you’re more likely to see someone using a special effect they couldn’t get 30 years ago. But all the fundamentals are the same. It’s storytelling, and that hasn’t changed.”

Coleman discussing video techniques in 1989

Storytelling, like what Curren Sheldon, a 2008 graduate and communication studies major, is doing alongside his wife, Elaine McMillion Sheldon. The pair create compelling documentaries, including Heroin(e), which won an Emmy and was nominated for an Oscar. Or 2005 grad Kristen Bartlett, formerly of Saturday Night Live and now head writer for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Or Kim Holt, a 1988 grad who, along with her news team at WSOC-TV in Charlotte, recently won the coveted Alfred I. duPont Award.

“I think the best part of teaching was giving them the fundamentals and seeing them produce good stories,” Coleman says. “Most people, when they came into my classes, didn’t really know – I mean, they may have shot videos, obviously, with their cameras, but they really didn’t know storytelling. So it was pretty neat to see them take some of those principles and turn it into a good story.”

Coleman liked to tell a good story himself. Although he was in academia his entire career, he did produce freelance videos for WSOC for many years, and that experience kept him grounded.

“That’s a real schooling right there, because you do it the right way or you do it the right way,” he says. “You do it on time or you get told about it. If you do it twice, you’re shown the door.”

Coleman’s approach with his students was less rigid. He made it a point not to meddle too much, preferring to let them learn by making mistakes.

“The thing I loved most about him was the fact that he let students really experiment,” Shaw says. “He'd lay the groundwork, set some parameters, but he really left it up to the students to turn a project into something worth seeing.”

The vast majority of them did.

“My teaching philosophy was pretty simple,” Coleman says. “I just wanted to teach people the basics of telling a story, and I wanted to give them, every class period, something that would advance their ability to tell the stories.”

Sept. 30, 2020