MA (Philosophy and Psychology), 1994
SFU Philosophy Alumna Shannon Densmore is a vibrant force in the digital media industry. She is Executive Producer of Digital Content for Group Delphi, a California production firm. Her portfolio includes contributions to an array of projects including the PBS film A Midwife’s Tale, the SPAM™ Museum in Minnesota, McGraw-Hill’s online student support product, LearnSmart, The Mob Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the National Geographic documentary series Goldfathers.
After graduating with a BA in Philosophy from SFU in 1994, Densmore completed her Masters in Philosophy at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts in 1997. Recalling her undergraduate career at SFU, Densmore remarks, “Unlike most of my American friends I got to go to school for 5 years because higher education is so much more affordable in Canada. So, I took courses at SFU in German and Education and dabbled in different areas before I sort of stumbled into Philosophy through taking a Philosophy of Education course.”
Several SFU professors left an impression on Densmore, including Dr. Bjørn Ramberg, now at the University of Oslo, Norway, Dr. Barry Smith, then a visiting scholar at SFU who is founder and co-director of CenSes: The Centre for the Study of the Senses at the University of London, and SFU Philosophy Graduate Chair, Dr. Kathleen Akins, who was—at that time—a new hire for the Department. Densmore says Akins was “crucial at that time when there were very few women philosophers at SFU…She was really making waves, shaking things up by introducing us to contemporary philosophers and she and I really got along.” Akins herself remembers Densmore as one of her “all-time favourite students.”
Studying with Akins was a big part of the reason Densmore ended up at Tufts working with philosopher Dr. Daniel Dennett, who is Co-director of the Centre for Cognitive Studies and gave a compelling TED talk “The Illusion of Consciousness” in 2003. Densmore says Dennett is “incredibly smart and brings a refreshing and very practical approach to problems in studying the philosophy of mind.”
So how does one go from cognitive philosophy to digital media producer? Densmore says her move away from an academic career came from the realization that she is “results driven by nature and philosophy is more of an intellectual quest.” But Densmore’s work can certainly be characterized as requiring a knack for inquiry and a sharp intellect.
For example, her work as a producer rests on her ability to construct immersive media projects that bridge the education and entertainment industries. While in Boston, Densmore began this learning process when she met filmmaker Laurie Kahn-Leavitt and contributed to her project, A Midwife’s Tale, a film for the series The American Experience on PBS. Constructing captivating narratives out of historical research was a skillset that put her on the path to working on video and interactive media projects specifically for museums.
Densmore’s first job as a producer was the SPAM™ Museum in Austin, Minnesota. An attraction that receives 4½ stars on TripAdvisor, the 16,500 sq. foot museum celebrates the history of canned luncheon meat. Densmore says, as “ridiculous” as it sounds, the SPAM™ Museum project was an incredible experience that required much responsibility and logistical planning. The SPAM™ project also combined her interest in pop culture with education and history, as did a recent project, the digital movie Seeing the Elephant, an immersive film experience launched in February 2014 at The Civil War Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
As Densmore describes the work, “producing the film required an immense amount of inquiry, vision, and problem-solving.” In June 2013, Densmore managed a cast and crew of over 200 people for five days of location production that involved horses, pyrotechnics, children and 6 cameras, including a 360° degree camera. Densmore explains that the phrase “seeing the elephant” is what Civil War soldiers would say when they saw battle through their own eyes rather than as they had imagined it when they signed up to fight. As the museum website explains, the film offers visitors a glimpse at “the elephant” through movie technology that “incorporates visual and sound effects as well as ground motion to enhance viewer’s movie experience”.
Another unique project Densmore contributed to is the 1863 Civil War Journey, for the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park. The experience takes place in a historical town raided by Confederates, in which townspeople enlist museum visitors to defend against the invasion. Densmore explains: “Scenes play out on numerous screens of various sizes—some playing film, some constructed as windows—there is surround sound, mechanical devices, and physical objects that actually fall down around the audience.” The project takes visitors back in time and creates, Densmore says, “a truly visceral experience of the time period.”
The ability to tackle such a multi-faceted project stems largely from Densmore’s training in philosophy. “As a discipline, philosophy teaches you how to look at topics and construct questions from a variety of angles or perspectives and teaches you how to think critically.” In addition to critical thinking, good argumentation and clear writing are key skills she acquired at SFU, and which prepared her for her role as a producer: “They have made me great at negotiating, solving problems and dealing with the unpredictable.”
What really stuck with Densmore from her philosophy training was the methodology: “To be critical and skeptical when asking questions or seeing the world rather than unquestioningly accepting things as they are. I think I got in the habit of asking lots of questions from studying philosophy and that is a great way to peel back the layers and discover what is interesting about a topic or person that you might not have given much thought to before.”
What would Densmore say to students studying philosophy at the undergraduate or graduate levels today? “I would say that I was very lucky to have picked a field as old as schooling itself to major and specialize in […] Technology will always change and you can learn how to use different tools, programs and methods no matter what career you choose. More importantly, though, is if you know how to think about the world, if you know how to think and construct creative questions, you can apply that skill in so many different ways.”
- Written by the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences