Don’t Cancel It: How to Hold a “Virtual Graduation Ceremony”

Students are nervous, parents are nervous, schools are nervous.
Here’s a possible solution.

Let’s do this quick.

It’s no secret that everyone is getting very anxious about “canceling this year’s graduation ceremony.” It’s two or three months away for most schools in this part of the world, and things may not be looking so promising right now.

Please don’t cancel your event; instead, consider moving it online.

This is a quick-and-dirty guide to help you figure it out, with a couple “special effects” and a no-nonsense workflow.

I’m going to be very detailed in some of the following, but the ideal scenario here is to involve your own “creative team” at your school and to make this your own project. That said, most school’s leadership is overwhelmed with…well, with everything, so copying and pasting this plan for “how do we solve graduation?!” into an email, or just sending them this link might come as a bit of a relief. So, if the guidelines below make sense for you and your institution, please take ’em and run with ’em. (Well, walk with them, since the students will be “walking” at their upcoming virtual graduation:)

It’s likely that each of the videos is going to look a little bit different — this is not going to be perfect. But it’s not going to be “canceled” either.

There are 7 easy steps to pulling this off:

  1. Students record their own 5-second video clip at home using a common virtual “greenscreen” background. (Don’t worry, it’s described below, and it’s a cinch.)
  2. These clips are strung together into the “walking” portion of the movie.
  3. School leadership, valedictorians, guest speakers, and anyone else scheduled to be “on stage” each record their own segment. (They can also use the same virtual background.)
  4. All of the elements are assembled together into a full-length Graduation Movie by a video editor. If you don’t have one at your school, you can easily hire one — especially now! — and you should. (Videographers and video editors are amazing people. They are incredibly detailed-oriented, they never stop, and they love making things the best they can possibly be.) Plus, your editor can add in some intro graphics, titles, names, school logos, etc. to make the thing shine!
  5. The final movie is then“streamed” on the exact day and time of the scheduled graduation. Many schools livestream their proceedings on the internet anyway, so this will be no different.
  6. Friends, family, fans, and loved ones watch the movie all at the same time, knowing, and feeling, that they are sharing in this unique experience alone, together.
  7. Everyone complains that their kid “wasn’t on stage for long enough.”

Here’s the Virtual Background screen:

And here’s my 60-second sample below. It’s a bit rough, but I wanted to get this article out fast. I also think that the “glitchiness” it’s okay — in fact, the glitches may make clips seem more “live and authentic”—and kinda fun to watch! Be sure to watch past the 30-second mark to see the “seated version” following the “walking version.”

I will update this video as I receive more samples from alumni, who are helping to prototype this.

STEP 1: STUDENTS RECORD THEIR OWN 5-SECOND “WALKING” VIDEO CLIP

  1. Decide on a common background for your ceremony. If your ceremony was supposed to be outside on the campus lawn, try to find a photo from a past event there. If it was supposed to be in the gym, find a picture of the gym. You can be creative here of course — the ceremony could be on Mars — but “locating” the event in a way that is familiar — and was anticipated by the students all along — will provide some continuity. The school where I work, SVA, has its ceremony at Radio City Music Hall (I know, those lucky students!), so the example clip I’m showing below uses a background picture from there. (I don’t yet know what SVA’s plans are for this year; thanks for letting me use this for the example!)
  2. Email your chosen background to all of your graduating students, along with a “sample video for them to watch and match.” This is critically important for consistency and watch-ability when we’re done. (I’ve embedded an example below for illustrative purposes, but for sure make your own.)
  3. Recommend Zoom to students for recording their clip. (There may be other platforms to pull this off with, but Zoom has “Virtual Backgrounds” built right in, so there is absolutely no tech to set up — you’ll just need the latest version and recent hardware. For those with older hardware, I will insert links to online greenscreening platforms here — please leave useful suggestions in the comments. Regardless, students should still record their original video in the same software so that size and resolution match up between all the various clips.) If students don’t have access to a laptop, be creative—perhaps a still photograph cartwheeling across the screen? No matter what, make sure that your instructions make it clear that everyone is included in this step, and that nobody is short-changed because of technology.
  4. Students dress up as they were intending to do on the ceremony day. They set up their laptop on a table or a chair, facing a white wall if possible. They hit the record button on Zoom (I’ll look for a link for this soon, or maybe you can film one for me to include or suggest one in the comments), and then they step away from the computer. Here, they then “walk into the frame, say hi, and then walk out of the frame “ — just like they were on a stage. Of course, students can have fun with this — and they likely will! — but the key here is consistency. You’ll want to have each clip similar in length and speed so that when you’re watching dozens or hundreds of these in a row as a spectator, they have a relatively consistent look and feel. You’ll also want to have students walk the same direction, for example, or do the same gesture when they’re in front of the camera. Students may have to rehearse this a bit and film themselves a few different times until they “match the example you sent them,” but again, no problem; young people kinda make online videos for a living these days:) Finally, you could try a “seated version, where students simply spin their laptop on their lap (aim the laptop right, then spin towards you and away.) This may be simpler to do, and of course provides a more close-up view of their faces.
  5. Ask students to save the clip, naming the file something like this: lastname.firstname.grad2020.mov
  6. Students should then send their clip to your department’s systems administrator (if you’re multi-departmental like us) or to the tech director of the school. Or directly to your new video editor.

BONUS TRACK: If your school is used to having participants in the ceremony dress up in formal regalia (robes and mortarboard hats), this could be a challenge. But maybe you can improvise. Perhaps everyone can put on a bathrobe over their formal attire, and add a DIY mortarboard hat made out of cardboard from home? Or maybe there’s a unique twist that everyone can agree on that makes sense for your students, your school colors, and your point of view!

Finally, let me add here that you are not trying to “fool” viewers into thinking that this is the real thing; rather, you’re adding some fun elements to acknowledge the compromises in pulling this off with some lightness and optimism. Planning a simulacrum of your event provides a chance to create something rich with details that are memorable for the students, the families and friends, and the school. And since this is technically “pre-recorded,” you can re-do anything that really doesn’t work out!

STEP 2: ASSEMBLE THE CLIPS

Gather each clip from the students. This may be tricky, so DO NOT LEAVE THIS UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE. If your graduation is mid-May, do all of this mid-April.

  1. Take all the individual clips of the students and string them together. Probably alphabetically makes sense (and because of your super-clear file naming convention, alphabetically will be a snap), but some schools organize their classes differently. (For schools with students graduating from multiple departments, you’ll want to keep each department’s “super-cut” separate so that your video editor can add in a graphic between the groups, for instance.)
  2. Make sure that the timing of each student’s walk is relatively consistent; if you need to hold on the first frame of a student’s video for an extra second because they rushed across the screen, or you need to pause for a second when they exit the screen on the last frame, go for it. Consistency will be key for the viewer’s enjoyment. (Don’t go nuts on the video effects, transitions, etc. This shouldn’t be a joke or a parody. (And the greenscreen effect is probably quite enough effect for the ceremony!)

STEP 3: FILM YOUR OTHER TALENT

Most graduation ceremonies have several elements, so you’ll need to film those in advance too. Ask your school’s Leadership, Valedictorian(s), Guest Speaker — and whomever else is scheduled for the day — to pre-record their speeches in their own homes. These can similarly be done in front of that same greenscreen effect or perhaps in front of another background. If you’d like them to dress formally, let them know. Since these are all being filmed remotely and privately, you don’t want to be surprised. (Unless you do!) Name all these other video files well, and gather them all together for your video editor.

STEP 4: ASSEMBLE “THE CEREMONY”

This step for sure needs a skilled video editor.

  1. Prepare the intro and the graphic elements. Between each speaker or department’s video segments, you may want interstitial graphics. Use your school’s colors, logos, fonts — whatever it is that gives your movie the look-and-feel of the brand. Don’t overdo it, but think about what an opportunity this might be to create something unique to the institution.
  2. Consider adding students’ names in the “lower third” of the video, and maybe even a voice-over that “reads their names aloud” as they cross the virtual stage. (For large schools with many departments, this work will need to be checked and double-checked for accuracy. But with enough eyes, and a spreadsheet of written names in alphabetical order, it shouldn’t be too daunting.)
  3. Put together the entire run-of-show. Maybe start with the school’s logo, cross-dissolve to the vice-president’s welcome, the president’s opening remarks, then perhaps a provost introducing the guest speaker. Then add in the valedictorian addresses, etc. Again, use the chyron to put the speaker’s name in the lower third, and of course, you may want to have your school logo “bug” in the bottom right corner of the screen the whole time.
  4. Check all the audio levels and do the best you can. Each of the student’s individual clips — and each of the department’s supercuts if it’s a big school — is going to be a little bit different. This is not going to be perfect. But it’s not going to be “canceled” either. For now, this is supposed to be fun. If a department’s or a speaker’s clip really needs to be redone, then you can reach out. But this is why your instructions to the students and the other talent — each of whom is filming their own clip at home on their own laptop on their own — need to be ultra-precise, and you must include sample videos for them to replicate.

STEP 5: BROADCAST YOUR FILM EXACTLY “ON THE DATE AND TIME” YOU ALREADY HAVE IN YOUR CALENDAR

This step I’m just personally passionate about: In such trying times, we need things to look forward to. So if over the next weeks the situation becomes so bad that you need to make the call — to “cancel graduation” — please consider resisting. Instead, send out a message that “you’re putting together a comprehensive plan to create a virtual ceremony and to have the students participate remotely,” and that “the graduation ceremony will be broadcast on the internet on the day and start time of the event, as planned. Stay tuned for details!”

And again, many schools livestream their events for friends, family, and loved ones across the globe anyway, this should be no different. Keeping the day and time makes sense, but it will also add anticipation, continuity, and excitement. Test your connections, choose your livestreaming platform wisely, and consider if you want to have a chat window beside the video. (Ooh!)

AND FINALLY…

I’m hoping that this article is a decent starting point, but design is a team sport, and as different schools and colleges create their own versions of “virtual graduation ceremonies” this spring, we should share our tips, tricks, and best practices. You can comment below, but add any specific ideas to this GoogleSheet if you’d like to share. Keep your advice succinct, please, and be super-generous.

That’s it. We owe it to our amazing students to give them as close to a live graduation experience as is possible. And by using technology, some planning and patience, and a dash of humor, we can hopefully create a recipe that produces a nice final product, something for loved ones to look forward to with anticipation, and something to look backward on with affection.

And one last thing: Maybe resist the temptation to create and distribute a “time code” for people to fast forward to “to see their own kid” crossing the stage. In the real event, everyone needs to sit there in the heat, resist playing with their phone, pay attention, get excited when the names are getting closer to their own, and then complain that it all went too quickly. This should be no different. (Well, maybe just a tiny bit different!)

Congratulations to all of this year’s graduates far and wide. We are proud of you and proud of your resilience in these challenging times. Certainly, that resilience will serve you well as you move into the next phase of your adult lives, and into the next phase of our collective future.

(And that, to close, are my guest remarks. Good luck everyone!)

[Note: I’ve been getting some really kind notes on this article. May I ask that if you do create a virtual graduate ceremony, might you tweet me a picture @chochinov to share? Thanks!]

Allan Chochinov is the founding chair of the multidisciplinary graduate program MFA in Products of Design at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and a partner of the 25-year-old design resource Core77.

Thanks to my amazing alumni for their help (and acting!) in the sample movie above. We miss you: Jenna Witzleben, Mariana Mezhibovskaya, and Souvik Paul. (Mortarboard hat icon via The Noun Project by sandi https://thenounproject.com/jhonnybholang/ )

Chair, MFA Products of Design at SVA. Partner, Core77 http://productsofdesign.sva.edu

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