Student project ‘Sweetness’ showcases intersection between Pitt arts programs

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Image Via [email protected], Photographer: Zoe Benson

Members of [email protected] operate cameras while working on the interactive music video for “Sweetness.”

By Trinity Foster, Staff Writer

Htet “Wisdom” Shine’s 2022 music video “Sweetness” is reinventing what it means to be a Pitt arts student. The first project of its kind at Pitt, “Sweetness” began as a music video featuring music by Mario Quinn and became something much bigger — an in-person, interactive music video premiere, hosted before winter break, allowing an audience of 60 people to “choose their own adventure.” The project involved more than 20 people across Pitt arts disciplines. 

For Shine, a junior film and business major, the project was a new step as a director and producer. He’s releasing a video on YouTube documenting the entire process next week.

“The point is to take somebody’s story and display it to people as an interactive experience. The audience can become the directors, they can get inside of my head,” Shine said. 

Shine partnered with Mario Quinn, a local dancer, educator and CEO of Level Up Studios, on “Sweetness,” beginning in May 2022. A foreign exchange student from Myanmar with a passion for dance, Shine came to the U.S. searching for a studio in Pittsburgh — and then he met Quinn.

“Mario was the founder of Level Up Studios and was kind of the lead of that Pittsburgh subculture. I was like, ‘How about we trade? I’ll come to your classes for free, but I’ll make videos for you,’” Shine said. “I made videos for fun, but then he said, ‘I’m recording music in my studio, do you want to shoot a music video?’”

Shine created “Sweetness,” along with local dancers and a team of Pitt students on production. It was a two-step process — first, Shine created the music video which he released in the summer of 2022, and then he created the interactive music video this past December, taking the production to a new level.

“I didn’t think about collaboration at first, but how participants can go inside of my head. I was inspired by ‘Black Mirror.’ In ‘Black Mirror,’ you can choose between two stories. My second thought was, ‘How can multiple people interact with it?’” Shine said. “I got started producing an initiative back in Southeast Asia, for Southeast Asian hip-hop communities. In that scene, they have different types of elements as well. They have writers, they have break dancers, they have subcultural communities.”

Panel members during [email protected]’s presentation of “Sweetness.” (Image Via [email protected], Photographer: Zoe Benson)

Elizabeth Amstutz, a junior theater and film major, participated as head writer on the project. She said the interactive experience prompted participants to vote on the story’s path, with the music video itself shown at its conclusion.

“The choose-your-own-adventure all had the same ending, just with minor changes. We had a production team film different options, like, ‘Look at the fountain outside of Frick Fine Arts,’ or ‘Go to the basement,’” Amstutz said. “It was an online thing. People voted on their phones. We had a C.S. student build a program. It was different than anything I’d ever done.”

The project was a new experience for all students involved, including Olivia Jefferson, a sophomore physics and astronomy major who ran sound design, sound engineering, editing and live mixing. Jefferson said the collaboration between students across different disciplines was the most innovative aspect of the project. 

“All of [the departments] are closed off, not because one person is bad, but because it’s ingrained, it’s rooted in some kind of system of ‘You have your group, stay in your group.’ Then, someone like Wisdom comes along and brings everyone together. It’s scary, but it’s really cool when it works out,” Jefferson said.

The project also combined talents from student organizations, including [email protected] and UPTV, along with local businesses such as Level Up Studios, StudioMe and Parish Digital. Aditi Sridhar, a senior film and media studies major and president of [email protected], said the club brings Pitt alumni and Pittsburgh natives back to connect with students. 

Live performance during [email protected]’s presentation of “Sweetness.” (Image Via [email protected], Photographer: Zoe Benson)

“It’s bridging these alumni to students and forging relationships and networks. It’s about bringing communities together while providing a platform for creative communities to be on one hub, one database,” Sridhar said. 

Amstutz said the “Sweetness” project fostered relationships unrivaled by any other production experience. 

“I got to meet a lot of cool professional people, like the director of photography for the music video. I got to meet the actual music artist in the video and the professional dancers,” Amstutz said. “It’s nice to be around other people who are professionally doing what you want to do. In a way, it makes it feel less intimidating — they’re just normal people.”

The innovative interactive experience was not without its challenges, however. The project ran during finals week after about two months to conceptualize, plan and perform the idea. There wasn’t even a full rehearsal before the show, according to Jefferson. Despite the challenge, the time crunch created a special bond.

“I think that, when everything was going wrong, people got more and more invested in it because they already put so much time and effort into it. The farther it went on, the more they were like, ‘We have to do this correctly, we have to do it now,’” Jefferson said. “I’ve probably gotten closer to this production team than anyone in the past.”

This camaraderie became central to the success of the event, Shine said. Although he initially struggled to release control over his work, he said he learned how combining different skills and talents can create something powerful. 

“[I learned] the importance of teamwork, for sure. Usually, whenever I do my projects, I have a couple people working together with me, but it’s kind of just my ideas. I don’t want to let go of my stuff. But this production, you have to let go. You have to let people do their job. There’s collaboration, and with that collaboration comes creativity,” Shine said.

Jefferson said she hopes the video’s audience can learn something from the project as well.

“I think it’s kind of a stepping stone for people to see that media can go in a lot of different directions besides just TV shows and movies. You can put it into the hands of the audience. It’s not just the directors, producers and actors with talent,” Jefferson said. “You can have this talent, and you can decide what you want to see and what you want to take away from media.”