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Start the Day

One morning Nova Robinson '08 and Ted Mathias '09 were in a fog-but instead of getting lost in the mist, they found inspiration. "It was an incredible morning," recalls Mathias, a Chicago native and student in Assistant Professor of Film and Television Studies Jeffrey Ruoff's class on documentary filmmaking, "and we couldn't ignore that." Classmate and project teammate Robinson describes the assignment: "We had to show a process without narration," she says, "so we made a film about how Hanover wakes up."

A scene from Start the Day.
A scene from Start the Day. (image courtesy Ted Mathias '09)

That's how their documentary, Start the Day, a series of vignettes that depict Dartmouth shaking off a sound night's sleep, came to be.

Robinson, Mathias, and their classmates have moved on to other projects, including a documentary on the Strafford (Vermont) Organic Creamery, a film about local ghost stories, and a study of Hanover between midnight and 4 a.m.

The small class of 10 students meets in Wilson Hall, a building that took shape on the Dartmouth campus in 1885, 10 years before the Lumière brothers unveiled their startling new invention: moving pictures. In classrooms outfitted with all the resources of the most modern digital screening rooms, students learn filmmaking from opening shot to closing credits. During one session, they proposed themes, showcased rough footage, got comments from their peers, and feedback from their professor.

"What's your opening?" Ruoff asks as the first team shows what they've filmed at the creamery. "How's it going to end?" The rhythmic "whoosh, whoosh, whoosh" of milking machines and the sound of a giant scoop in a wheelbarrow dominate the first scene. "It's $17 cheaper by the ton," says the creamery owner about new grain he's trying for his cows. "But if I do the math, it isn't, because they drop more than they chew."

Nova Robinson '08 and Ted Mathias '09
Nova Robinson '08 and Ted Mathias '09 (photo by Sarah Memmi)

"It's a lot of that," says Bethel, Vt., native Robinson, who is working on the film with Mathias and classmates Annabel Seymore '09 and Francis Fortin-Houle '10.

"This class is about teamwork," says Ruoff, an author, film historian, and documentary filmmaker. "Students collaborate while tackling technological, aesthetic, and ethical issues." Department connections also provide unparalleled opportunities. Paul Barnes, who works with filmmaker Ken Burns, sat in on a class during fall term, and award-winning directors Ricki Stern '87 and Anne Sundberg '90 attended a luncheon for students before screening their new film about the Darfur genocide, The Devil Came on Horseback.

While neither Robinson nor Mathias is majoring in film and television studies, both feel that the course is broadening their horizons. "I'm interested in new media," says Robinson, a history major and geography minor, who also writes for the The Dartmouth. "I want to look at the words beyond the page." Mathias, majoring in anthropology, says his interest in filmmaking was sparked by a Tucker Foundation trip to Biloxi, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina. (Watch his film, The Invisible Coast)

Mathias describes Ruoff's class as "Amazing. It's hands-on. We get the chance to make lots of mistakes, and that's the best way to learn."

To watch Start the Day and other student films, visit


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Last Updated: 5/30/08