The Secret Behind Thunderbird’s Media Control Room

By Nash Wills, Co-Editor

James Chalifoux
James Chalifoux

“If there’s one thing that I’ve noticed at this school over the years, it’s that you get out what you put in.” I nodded in empathetic agreement as I sat with James Chalifoux, Thunderbird’s main Audio-Visual (AV) guy, in what seemingly could have been either the control room at CNN or the inside of a spaceship. He was telling me about his T-bird experience and, unbeknownst to me, his behind-the-scenes role in mine. I had always known who James was—I think everyone meets him for a split second during Foundations—but this was my first legitimate conversation with him. We were discussing what he refers to as “Thunderbird’s hidden gem,” or, as you may better know it, the Yount TV Studio.

The story of how I ended up interviewing James begins at the end of last semester when the time came for my consulting practicum team to give our final presentation to our client in Lima, Peru. Up until that point in early December, all of our communication with 3M had taken place via Skype for Business, which, as anyone who has ever had to use it for an extended period of time knows, is not the most ideal tool for making that “emotional connection.” And that’s why I was determined things would be different for the final presentation. I was in grad school, a burgeoning professional, and I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to look the part. Call to the scene James and the media room.

The Media Control Center
The Media Control Center

Although I’d never used it before, I had definitely heard of it, and it just so happened that one of my teammates knew James, so we called him up and scheduled the all-important presentation. When we arrived early that Monday morning dressed in our best professional garb, James had already set everything up. The camera’s were locked in, the lights glaring, the green screen superimposing, and the nerves running high. We sat there like a couple of news anchors listening for the countdown to show time. 4…3…2…1… Unfortunately the Peruvian broadband speeds didn’t match our nerves. We were relegated back to Skype for Business. Oh, how I loathingly rely upon thee. Amidst the chaos of that morning though, I left with a fascination and thirst to learn more about that futuristic room. That fascination followed me around over the next few days and eventually turned into an idea, which, dear reader, came to fruition as the words that now lie in front of you.

James is just one in a line of many Chalifoux with a natural affinity for electronics. Both his father and grandfather were drawn to innovation, and James fondly recalls memories of watching films on what now would be considered an ancient projector screen while growing up in Chicago. When high school graduation came around and it was time to choose a school, he had his eyes set on SMU, which had a reputable Radio & Television program. A last minute trip to visit a friend in Phoenix would change those plans, though. The weather was just too nice, the vast, open country too beautiful. And that was all it took. The conversion to snowbird would take place 40 years sooner than expected and his studies within the Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU would begin in 1973.

The Green Screen Room
The Green Screen Room

After graduation James pursued a career in TV for a while before eventually switching to AV sales. Although he initially doubted his abilities as a salesman, he soon discovered that his immense knowledge on the subject made him perfect for the trade. Fast-forward a number of years into the 21st century and in 2004 he started his own AV consulting firm called Digital Media Design. His career as an AV salesman and consultant took him all throughout Arizona and the rest of the United States. “I’ve designed the AV for around 30 buildings and classrooms for Maricopa County Community Colleges and built studios all over the country.” Being the industry expert he was, it was inevitable then that his path would eventually lead him out to that strange campus in Glendale that we call home.

Although you probably don’t realize it, pretty much every classroom at Thunderbird has James’s fingerprints on it somewhere. It all started back in 1996 when he was hired on as a consultant to design the Yount Distance Learning Center, which in those days was the old library. He remembers gutting the whole room and building and installing everything. The first cameras were “tube” video cameras, but as he tells it, “Even back in ’96 Thunderbird was 10 years ahead in terms of thinking about tech.” Along with the Distance Learning Center, he designed and installed the TV Studio, where many a professor would go on to teach online courses.

His work in ’96 must have made an impression, because he has since been hired on to redesign all of the classrooms here on campus. The Lecture Halls? James. The Snell Rooms? James. AT&T Auditorium? James. Yount? James. DeVos Auditorium? James. The TV Studio itself has been redesigned on 3 separate occasions. In 2001 the now-familiar green screen was added in so that our cool backgrounds can be projected while presenting. In 2007 everything was upgraded to HD. In 2011 an entirely new control room was built into Yount, thereby bringing the control room count up to 4, if you’re counting AT&T and Lecture Hall 53.

A view from behind the presentation desk
A view from behind the presentation desk

James says, “Not too many universities have what we have.” He then points to the reason why: The Tricaster. It does everything—virtual 3D sets, graphics, recording, audio—simultaneously. Whereas most production rooms have to edit everything together after recording, the Tricaster can do it all at once. “It’s the God of video production switchers.” And the crazy thing is, we have 6 of them. James smiles when he tells me that “most peoples’ jaws drop when they hear that.”

After hearing all of this, my curiosity gets the best of me and I have to ask: How much do you think this media room we are sitting in is worth? The answer: at least $150,000. James calls it “the world’s most expensive webcam.” So if you didn’t know it before, hear me now: In terms of tech capabilities, here at Thunderbird we are way up there. And according to James, it’s all worth it. “For global business you need to have collaborative technology.”

So how did James go from outside contractor to full-time employee? Well, back in 2012 the AV manager left, subsequently pushing the department into IT. Even though the position never formally opened up, James knew that he would regret not making a proposal–for some reason he had always been drawn to the school. So in 2013 he wrote the powers that be a letter and the rest is history. When I asked him why he came to Thunderbird when he already had a successful consulting business, though, he gave me the type of response that only a true member of the Thunderbird community can articulate: “All of those years I sold stuff here. Thunderbird was my customer. I had always heard of the Thunderbird Mystique, but never completely understood what it was until I started working here. It’s not only the students, but the faculty, administration, professors, alumni, and staff too. They are all special people and I wanted to be a part of it.”

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