The meticulously manicured W. J. Beal Botanical Garden at Michigan State University is an unlikely place to find an action filmmaker.
But that’s where Ethan Seelig found fertile ground to grow.
The College of Communication Arts and Sciences (ComArtSci) senior majoring in digital storytelling is Beal’s official videographer. This year, the beloved campus jewel is celebrating its 150th anniversary. To mark this milestone, the Beal turned to Seelig to produce a series of video vignettes capturing the stories of many who love this hallowed patch of Spartan green.
“We wanted to bring a bunch of voices into the garden which were not necessarily staff voices,” Seelig said. “Unheard voices of people who experienced the garden every day or who have made it part of their lives.”
Seelig has often collaborated with his fellow ComArtSci students, working behind the camera. He’d never delved into videography until he applied at the Beal. Still, his employers recognized his potential.
“I’ve done a lot of cinematography for short films, and I just submitted my reel,” Seelig said. “When I was getting hired, it was ‘hey, we really like the look of your stuff. It’s not quite what we’re going for; are you still able to do this style?’ I guess they still saw that I knew what I was doing, and it all ended up working out.”
The Beal video series offered Seelig an opportunity to explore the documentary interview genre. Seating his interviewees on a bench in the garden, Seelig captured stories of relationships. As their tales unfolded, Seelig interspersed the narratives with scenes from across the garden.
The interviews were rife with childhood memories of wandering the garden with parents, and of romantic strolls that blossomed into marriages.
The natural, non-studio setting, and absence of trained actors gave Seelig some valuable takeaways.
“It was a good place for me to kind of learn a little bit more of what works and what doesn’t when sitting in one place for a somewhat longer interview,” he said. “I also had to try for the best times I could in terms of lighting. Definitely later in the evening was what we pushed for, but obviously that’s not always possible for everybody. People have their own busy lives, so we had to find work arounds for that.”
And it’s the people Seelig has met that have made his experience at ComArtSci so satisfying.
“The most rewarding part is definitely networking,” he says. “Finding people who have similar interests and passions as me and being able to work with them even when I don’t have classes, and also working with people who’ve since graduated.”
Seelig says he’s found the most fulfillment through independent study.
“A lot of those projects have been with people I’ve met here through the ComArtSci program, who are great people I love working with.”
Ethan Seelig is currently working on a short crowd-funded film that will begin production in November. He’s excited to work on what he calls “the best thing I’ve done so far.”
“I’m pretty set on the path of becoming a professional cinematographer,” Seelig said. “I’ve done some work with sound and directing. As much fun as they are, they’re definitely not my passion. Cinematography is my passion, and that’s the goal that I hope to meet.”
By Kevin Lavery