After wrapping up what went on to become the 2008 Emmy award-winning documentary "Making the Blue Band," WPSU filmmakers Jeff Hughes and Cole Cullen were already batting around ideas for what their next project would be.
"THON was at the top of that list," said Cullen, a 1996 Penn State graduate who joined WPSU/Penn State Public Broadcasting as a producer in 2005.
More than a year of filming every facet of Penn State's Dance Marathon has led to the production team's newest film, "Why We Dance: The Story of THON," which has already been seen at various private screenings and will debut publicly at 8 p.m. Thursday on WPSU-TV.
This image from the documentary “Why?We Dance: The Story of THON” shows students dancing during the annual event at the Bryce Jordan?Center in University Park.
THON is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world and has raised more than $80 million to date for patients and families affected by pediatric cancer through the Four Diamonds Fund at Hershey Medical Center.
Cullen said the crew began filming during THON weekend in 2011 "not knowing what they were getting into." The production team soon realized that THON was about so much more than those 46 hours spent in the Bryce Jordan Center.
"You can't tell the story of THON without telling the story of the work that happens every other month other than February," Cullen said. "We wanted to tell the story of the entire year."
So the crew spent the next year leading up to THON 2012 filming everything from committee meetings to canning and interviewing students, Four Diamonds families and workers at the Hershey Medical Center. One segment also highlights how mini-THONs have cropped up in middle and high schools across Pennsylvania.
"To have these kids giving back and learning how important that is so early in life is a great thing," Cullen said.
The filmmakers knew that Penn State students and alumni, as well as THON supporters, were going to like the documentary, Cullen said. However, they wanted to try to tell the story of THON to a general audience.
"I wanted the average Joe to love the story," he said.
The goal of the documentary was to highlight the students who work tirelessly to make a difference, and also to make viewers walk away with a desire to give back to THON or other charitable organizations.
"The best thing we heard is that we captured the essence of THON; we captured that feeling you get when you're in there," Cullen said. "I take that as a great compliment."
Kevin Brobson of Harrisburg, a Four Diamonds advisory board member, said the documentary is "very moving."
"It is a moving tribute to Penn State and the students of THON who for so many years have cared so much about kids and their families dealing with pediatric cancer," Brobson said.
"THON is an amazing thing, and it's very hard to capture in words, but I think the folks at WPSU have done a fabulous job at capturing it on video."
Brobson has been to THON every year since his 12-year-old daughter, Claire, was diagnosed with leukemia in December 2007. He said the documentary does a great job of outlining how THON is a "yearlong adventure and endeavor" for involved students.
And with the hardships Penn State has faced in the wake of the Sandusky scandal, Brobson said the documentary shows where the "true heart and soul" of the school lies.
"THON, in my view, has always been a shining light at Penn State," Brobson said. "Perhaps, over the past few months, people have forgotten about that. Hopefully, the documentary can remind them."
Cullen said that despite the developments in the scandal, the goal to tell the story of THON in the best way possible never changed for the documentary crew.
"I know had November never happened, we would still have the same documentary we have now," he said. "It's great timing for Penn Staters who need a positive anchor to look at. But as far as our approach, we never changed what we were doing."
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.