Behind The Scenes

ESPN’s Feature Mentor Program develops next wave of storytellers

After spending four years at the University of South Carolina researching, interviewing, shooting, writing, and editing story after story, I’ve realized my occupational calling: Features.

Add that love to my lifelong passion for sports, and you have my career goal: Sports Feature Producer.

Luckily for me and many other ESPN employees, there is the Feature Mentor Program.

Started in 2009 by Feature Unit Senior Coordinating Producer Victor Vitarelli, the program matches a Feature Producer mentor with Production Assistants and Associate Producers who have an interest in long form storytelling and the desire to learn as much as possible about Feature Production.

Essentially, the program is designed to provide qualified PAs and APs with someone they can be comfortable asking questions and seeking out for advice.

Approximately 100 employees participate in the Feature Mentor Program, with three mentees assigned per mentor. The program is overseen by Feature Producers Miriam Greenfield and Kris Schwartz.

Luke Williams, an AP on NFL Countdown, works with the help of his mentor, Lydelle King.

“Lydelle was one of the guys who worked on Countdown when I was a PA on the show,” says Williams.

“Now that I’m in a different role, as an AP cutting features, it’s great to have someone to kick ideas off of, since he’s been on the project before.”

Since King was only promoted from AP to FP in 2010, he remembers very well what it’s like to be in Williams’ shoes.

“When we’re not in the field, shooting, researching, interviewing, et cetera, we’re almost always available to sit and chat with a mentee,” says King.

“I like to make it a priority because I know how valuable an experience it was for me when I was an AP in the program.”

The program also holds regular workshops covering different skills and aspects of the Feature Production process.

King and fellow FP Matt Doyle led a meeting earlier this year with a presentation on “Helpful Tips for Setting Up Interview Shots.”

The two producers shared feature pieces with both good and bad examples of framing, lighting, and staging — and also divulged some tricks of the trade on how to prepare and execute a successful shoot.

“I found it to be very helpful,” said Production Assistant Alex Roman.

“Although I will not be going out on my own shoot for some time, I am confident that I would be able to assist a Producer on location and help figure out appropriate lighting and camera positioning to make the optimum shoot.”

For those in the program, like Williams, who are now starting to produce their own features, the workshops and mentors provide a sense of comfort.

“It’s really nice to know you have a group of people who are there to help and want to see you succeed,” said Williams. “I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been on the road this season and have called Lydelle to ask a question.”

Other workshop topics have included storyboarding, camerawork and lighting and dissecting the long-form feature.

Outside of these seminars, several mentees also have gained hands-on experience as part of the Feature Unit PA rotation.

Six-to-eight qualified PAs per calendar year spend 3-6 months in the unit.

Feature PA and Mentee Sarah Burlingham is currently working on two soccer features. She was initially assigned to assist FP Tina Cerbone in the production of these pieces. Her role, however, has evolved into two full-fledged producing opportunities under Tina’s guidance.

“Before we left for the shoots, I dug through tapes to find potential b-roll, compiled questions for the interviews, learned how to organize the logistics for a shoot, i.e. book travel and crews.” said Burlingham.

“While on location shooting in Los Angeles and Kansas City, I was encouraged to express my ideas and opinions and even interject a few questions of my own into the interviews. I’m currently drafting scripts for both projects and will be in charge of the Avid edits with the supervision of Tina.

“My experience in this unit thus far has surpassed all of my expectations,” she said.

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