Stories of the Storytellers: Brad Jacobsen

If you’ve watched a video story from the University of St. Thomas in the last 20 years, odds are the man behind the camera was Brad Jacobsen. The 1986 alum has worked since 1997 with the likes of storied storytellers Dave Nimmer, Doug Hennes, Greg Vandegrift and Paul David, putting out hundreds of tales about all things St. Thomas.

The Newsroom sat down with Jacobsen to talk about the work he did before coming back to St. Thomas and lessons from what he has done since.

What were you up to after graduating?

I worked for a small ad agency, then for Continental Cablevision in St. Paul, doing video stuff … I also did [a] reality TV show ... which was on the St. Paul Saints in 1996 [called "Baseball, Minnesota"]. Our director directed those pilot episodes of MTV's “Real World.” He left because MTV wanted to cast it and he wanted to do something completely un-casted. … I got wind of this and was one of four or five people that spent the summer with [the Saints]. That was the summer they had Darryl Strawberry and Jack Morris – they won the championship.

What was it like working with Dave Nimmer for more than a decade?

It didn’t matter what you did, he would figure out a way. He was such a good writer, so good at talking to people. He took people to places and got them to tell us things; how he did it I have no idea. It was a gift he had. All I had to do was point, hit record and let it happen. It was almost kind of easy.

What were the biggest lessons you learned about visually putting together a story?

The summer of intense shooting with [Saints] baseball stuff, you would go out with two or three guys and you had to come back with a scene. Beginning, middle and end. … It almost became more about the sound; you can do anything with good sound. You can craft the story around the sound. What we would do here [at St. Thomas], Dave would look through the interviews and find the good sound bites, and he would say, “You go find your best stuff and figure out how it marries into our story.”

Is the natural component of that what’s most important to storytelling?

Yes. When we did the reality TV show our theme was always, “Put yourself in a position for good things to happen.” It was that notion of being around someone long enough so they’re comfortable with you, so that when the good stuff happens, and by that I mean good or bad, that you are in with them. It’s going to a classroom or wherever you’re going, and being invested and deep enough into it that people sort of naturally expect you’re going to be there and that when the good stuff happens they don’t think, “Oh, you have to leave.” The best thing that happens is when someone comes up to you afterward and says, “I forgot you were here,” or, “I forgot the mic was on.” ...

You put a wireless mic on someone and let them go, and try to disappear into the background. You try to make sure you’re in a place where, when something happens, you’re just there to get that natural moment. … You let things happen and let things unfold and see where it takes you. It’s almost documentary style where you shoot a lot of tape and wait for the right thing to happen.

What are the common elements of great stories you’ve gotten to see and tell?

It was always just the people, right? It’s also the surprise element of it, where you go out thinking it’s about one thing and it turns out to be completely different. It’s just taking time to get to know people and having them have the trust in you that they’ll tell their story in a way they’ll feel good about.

Are there any stories in particular that stand out as favorites to you?

One of the most fun moments was when the volleyball team won the national championship … and they had split and had to play the 15-point [tiebreaker set]. I’m shooting by the net and across the way there’s a tiny contingent of maybe 100 St. Thomas people in a packed gym, because the team they’re playing is from just down the road. The other fans started the night by chanting “We believe that we will win!” For the finals I’m right down by the edge of the court, and we’re beating them and with rally scoring it doesn’t take long. Two people behind me go, “We’re going to lose. They’re going to beat us.” And not a moment later this St. Thomas contingent starts chanting, “We believe that we will win!” Two points later they win the national championship. It was so fun to be in that moment of time. ...

We’ve gotten to meet a lot of really interesting people and do a lot of fun stories. I’ve gotten to do this work with four guys: Doug Hennes, Greg [Vandegrift], Nimmer and Paul David. They’re all great storytellers in their own right. I’ve just gotten to go along with them. ...

They don’t all have to be the big trips; just meeting people around here is equally fun. … It all comes down to people. Everything from students who struggled to come through here, people that are unbelievably successful – you get to talk to the gamut. It is fun to get to see a whole side of the university that most people don’t – every facet and nook and cranny of it.