By Dave Block ’93
A film project made his senior year a blur for Sean Ryon ’12. He was either spending seemingly countless hours locked in his room, pouring over different rough cuts, or darting back and forth among Easton, Philadelphia, and New York to interview rappers and journalists.
It was when he presented the result, Renegades of Funk: The Art of Sampling in Hip-Hop, to an enthusiastic audience at Lafayette that he realized he wanted to pursue documentary film as a career.
“It had been an exhausting and somewhat stressful year of editing the film, but to see it come together on the screen was surreal and inspiring,” he says. “Since then, there have been a number of moments early in my career that reminded me why I want to continue down this path, but screening Renegades of Funk at Lafayette was the first.”
The 22-minute film, which covers the history, art, ethics, and legal aspects of sampling (using segments of other songs) in rap music, was an incredible first step into the world of documentary, says Ryon. It ultimately led him to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he produced Born Into This, an award-winning film about a professional boxer and his father/trainer. He’s since made a career of creating documentary films, branching out from an emphasis on hip-hop to his current work with the digital media company NationSwell.
“We maintain a focus on finding the solutions to the country’s biggest issues and using the video medium to create impact,” says Ryon. “We report on everything from gun violence in California, to crowd funding in Detroit, to urban farming in the Bronx.”
Ryon’s passion for his work lies in its location at the cross section between art and journalism.
“On one hand, you’re tasked with delivering a cohesive and well-reported story,” he says. “At the same time, there’s a certain artistic unity that I push myself to develop in every documentary I work on. Finding that balance between style and story is one of the most challenging aspects of documentary, but it’s what excites me most about video journalism.”
Ryon credits the film and media studies major with allowing him to explore video production. But what really made his education extraordinary, and Renegades possible, was Lafayette’s Creative and Performing Arts (CaPA) fellowship.
Funded by Bruce ’65 and Jackie Maggin, the CaPA fellowship enables students to pursue their interests and talents in the arts through special projects and experiences. The students also meet regularly with faculty, visiting artists, and one another to discuss the arts and their work. And they perform, exhibit, or present a major creative project with the College community.
“Working with [former program director] Jim Toia and the other CaPA [Scholars] gave me a creative support network that proved indispensible as I embarked on my first film,” says Ryon. “It also helped me look at the back end of documentary journalism in a more critical light – how do you meet deadlines, how do you relate your progress to others who haven’t seen your footage. There’s a lot more to filmmaking than picking up a camera and hitting ‘record’, and CaPA taught me how to organize those other aspects, too.”
One of the key elements of the program is the sense of community among the CaPA Scholars.
“It provided a creative and scholastic space for us to explore our individual passions, but also broaden our perspectives,” says Ryon. “We all supported each others’ endeavors in any way we could, and it was always exciting to see another CaPA [Scholar] realize their project. CaPA is more than just a monetary fellowship; it’s a creative think-tank for the students involved.”
Lafayette seeks to provide more special educational opportunities through a $10 million Student Research and Internships Fund, part of the Live Connected, Lead Change capital campaign. As Ryon’s journey demonstrates, enhanced learning experiences give students significant advantages when seeking jobs and graduate school placements.
They also inspire the desire to give back. Ryon recently brought production partner Lea Scruggs to campus and screened Born Into This for CaPA students.
“It was my first time back on campus in a few years, but it was amazing to connect with the new body of CaPA students and see how the program has grown so much,” he says.