By Jackson Borman ’20
From the time that he got his first video camera, Thulani Smith ’20 has been documenting his life through the lens.
“I like to take pictures and reminisce instantly,” he said. “My dad and I have traveled the world for my entire childhood, and I liked being able to go there and take a picture and then remember everything about each place.”
As a middle-schooler, Smith captured everything from family trips to everyday life. His specialty at the time was creating basketball trick shot videos of his brother and his friends shooting balls into trashcans in the front yard.
“We thought it was great,” he said, “and then my dad said to me, ‘Thulani, are you ever going to film anything besides this?’ and I remember responding to him, ‘Dad, there is nothing more than trick-shot videos!’”
But Smith started experimenting and learning how to create visual effects, and he became more interested in the full potential that filmmaking had. Now, as a digital media production major at Butler, he already is getting the experience he needs to grow in his craft.
Starting in his first year at Butler, Smith had Professor Farhad Anwarzai for his First-Year Seminar class called “The Coming of Age Story.” Smith said that Anwarzai’s willingness to allow students to learn in ways that they enjoyed was a great start to his college experience.
“For our final project, he said just to do something creative, so I made a film,” Smith said. “He has really been a huge help in allowing me to grow in classes that I have been taking. Being able to take his class and have that relationship with him has been huge because it has restored my understanding of how I want to do college.”
Anwarzai said he was blown away with Smith’s work.
“I thought that the project was not only very well made and very well shot and edited, but it was very mature for a freshman to make,” Anwarzai said. “He’s good at telling these big stories but telling them through the lens of students. That’s one of the things that stands out in my mind when I think of Thulani. It was a spectacular job.”
In Smith’s sophomore year, Anwarzai ended up as his professor for the Global and Historical Studies course “China and the Islamic Middle East.” This time, he and Smith worked together to write a short film for the students’ final project.
“Having not seen a lot of faculty and student collaboration in the humanities, I wanted to test that, and I thought Thulani would be the perfect person to work with,” Anwarzai said. “In the end, he and the other students created a marvelous work. It added a great layer of depth to the conditions we deal with today.”
The 20-minute film, which was made in nine days with no budget, dealt with the preconceived notions that many have about China and the Middle East.
Last summer, Smith had an internship with a company called Train918 that was started by 2016 Butler graduates Tim Valentine and Joshua Gaal. The pair started the company in their senior year at Butler and now create commercials and promotional videos for groups like Downtown Indy Inc. and Indiana University.
“Working with them was a blast because I was able to grow with them while I was still growing,” Smith said. “They had almost the same experiences that I had as far as being a creative on Butler’s campus so they could give me some insight.”
Smith said that Valentine and Gaal allowed him to take a larger role in the company than a typical intern would, and he was able to take control of certain projects. For example, Smith took photos at a fashion shoot over the summer, just a month into the internship.
“It gave me the opportunity to have the camera in my hands, to shoot everything and to come up with concepts, edit it, and call it my own,” Smith said.
In between class projects and internships, Smith still works on projects of his own. He has created video compilations of Butler Basketball games. This winter, Smith went on a trip to Northern Ireland where he took more photos of the Irish landscape and worked on one of his projects. Over the past few months, Smith has also been working on what he calls “The Portrait Project,” a series of photos and short videos of a subject that are compiled into a short, portrait-style video.
This spring Smith will be going abroad once again, this time through the College of Communication’s trip to Germany.
Through his work, both on his own and at Butler, Smith hopes that he will be able to grow as a filmmaker and one day be able to create on a higher level.
“I think over the next couple of months what I really want to do is just create more,” Smith said. “I’ve done [a lot of projects], but I want to be able to have examples of my best work so that I can point people to that.”
Photo via Thulani Smith