Motion Pictures Student Recalls Internship with Ken Burns’s Florentine Films

Daniel Updegraff with Ken Burns
Daniel Updegraff with Ken Burns

Many Belmont students are fascinated with the latest documentary from legendary filmmaker Ken Burns. After all, the subject matter of “Country Music” hits close to home both on this campus and in Music City at large, not to mention the University is a sponsor of the film. But few students are as excited about the series as senior motion pictures major Dan Updegraff, who actually interned with Burns’s Florentine Films production company and worked directly on the “Country Music” project.

“I knew about the Ken Burns internship from the moment it was announced that Belmont would be sponsoring ‘Country Music,'” said the Montgomery, Alabama native. “I even attended the announcement ceremony in front of the Belmont Mansion where Dr. Fisher spoke alongside Ken Burns, Mayor Megan Barry and Ricky Skaggs.”

Two years ago, Updegraff applied through Belmont for an internship position with Florentine Films and was invited for a video interview.

“I told them about my time and experience with Belmont’s motion pictures program, and they seemed particularly interested in the Belfast Spring Break study abroad I did the previous semester. I had traveled with other MOT students to Northern Ireland to film a documentary about the Belfast Nashville Songwriters festival. I got accepted for the internship a week later.”

Updegraff’s responsibilities involved working primarily on image preservation and cataloging. “Florentine Films has a massive catalog of physical photo copies from all their previous films, and I was given the duty of digitally retouching any wear or aging on the photos and putting those photos into a digital catalog for use in future projects. I also got to do script checking, where they would give me the script to an episode and the current cut to make sure the script and narration were identical.”

“Another memorable experience was when I assisted with hosting a producer’s screening of the documentary, where all of the advisors and producers for the documentary came to New Hampshire to watch the latest cut of the full documentary over the course of four days and give advice. I helped with preparing and cleaning the venue, serving food, accommodating guests, but I also got to interact with so many interesting people during that week, including Kathy Mattea, who’s featured in the film.”

Beyond the professional experience acquired from the internship, Updegraff noted how beneficial it was to view firsthand how a documentary production is structured and organized. “A great deal of deliberation, planning and care goes into massive, historical retellings like Country Music. The team at Florentine was small, but very well connected, dedicated and friendly.  I was never discouraged from asking questions or for help, and it was great to be a part of a team where the Director and Screenwriter were an arm’s reach away from where you’re sitting.”

Now that “Country Music” is being seen by millions on PBS and online, Updegraff is looking ahead to what his own future will hold.

“I’m hoping to go into picture editing upon graduation into some video medium, whether it be film, television, web content, etc. Being able to say I worked on a Ken Burns project is a real ace on my resume, and I can use my knowledge of the great teamwork and coordination they had there to influence my own work.”