College of Arts & Sciences

arts&sciences

Access to Genius

Aaron Rasmussen turns Serena Williams, Dustin Hoffman, and Usher into teachers

By Julie Butters | Photo by Allen Kee

As the tennis ball sails over the net, the young player hustles to his leftand returns it with a powerful backhand. “Killer shot, good job,” sayshis instructor, who’s been scrutinizing every move. “I want you to try to get your arm straight, get your left arm through it a little more.”

This isn’t your typical tennis lesson. The athlete is getting feedback on a video he posted online, and his teacher is Serena Williams, the top women’s tennis player in the world. Through the new online education company MasterClass, average Joes and Janes are learning tennis from Williams, acting from Oscar-winners Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Spacey, writing from bestselling author James Patterson, and the art of performance from eight-time Grammy-winner Usher. Classes in singing by Christina Aguilera and photography by Annie Leibovitz are slated to launch in 2016. Each $90 course provides lifetime access to a series of short video lessons by a virtuoso, instructor feedback on select students’ homework, a digital workbook, and an online student community.

Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman offers a lesson on learning lines during his MasterClass on the craft of acting. Video by MasterClass. Learn more at masterclass.com

Serial entrepreneur Aaron Rasmussen (CAS’06, COM’06) is MasterClass’ cofounder, creative director, and chief technology officer. Rasmussen, who studied communications and computer science at BU, says the idea for MasterClass developed from conversations with his friend and cofounder David Rogier about their shared love of education, and “the high you get off of learning a new concept.” The duo’s goal is to “democratize access to genius,” says Rasmussen, by offering classes with typically unattainable experts. “We want it to almost feel like you’re sitting across from this person on the couch…and they try to teach you everything.”

Since its launch in May 2015, MasterClass has taken off: as of September, more than 30,000 people had enrolled. For Rasmussen, the company is one in a string of enterprises that have allowed him to dive into areas that intrigue him. He describes himself as being “somewhere between an inventor and a mad scientist” who gets a lot of his inspiration from reading science fiction and playing video games. His past creations include an industrial robotics company, virtual reality games, and an iPhone attachment that detects electromagnetic radiation. As a BU student, he constructed what he calls the world’s first sentry gun, which took aim at anything that wandered into its electronic field of vision. His video of the gun brought the US Army to his dorm room with a job offer and an interest in buying the plans. (Rasmussen didn’t want to take the chance that the technology would be used for non-defensive purposes, and declined.)

“One of the reasons MasterClass is such a great place for me is every single month I get to learn something new,” says Rasmussen. “I have to become, in some ways, a temporary expert on each one of these subjects, because how else could I be able to do my job and help that master communicate their craft?”

Aaron Rasmussen cofounded MasterClass, an education company turning stars like tennis player Serena Williams and actor Kevin Spacey into teachers. Photo by Jordan Taylor Wright

Rogier met Hoffman through a friend—the actor’s daughter. The connection helped kick-start the venture, which launched out of San Francisco. In September 2015, Hoffman told the New York Times that his decision to work with the duo wasn’t about money, but creating an enduring legacy. He recalled hearing famed actor Sir Laurence Olivier share tales from his career: “Those stories are lost forever,” said Hoffman. This was a chance to ensure the same didn’t happen to his own wisdom and experiences.

Rasmussen has the final say on everything creative and technical at MasterClass, down to ensuring the website runs properly. Along with Rogier, he recruits instructors and works with them on their classes. Rasmussen also oversees the film production process, which includes hiring the producer and directors—Austin Powers director Jay Roach filmed Hoffman’s class. He collaborates with the director to bring life to the star instructors’ lessons: for example, he played an important role in a decision to hire actors for Hoffman to direct in some of his trainings. After working with the masters and crew on location, Rasmussen oversees editing. “I’m responsible for every single frame that comes out of this company in that it has to look good, it has to be educational, it has to be on-brand, it has to have value.”

Rasmussen also played a critical role in creating a distinctive MasterClass look on screen. It’s an intimate style of filming and editing that gives viewers the feeling they’re in the same room as their instructor. In lessons when masters give advice to the viewer, they speak to a camera fitted with a one-way mirror showing the director’s face. “So they’re having a conversation,” says Rasmussen, “and that allows us to have that much more casual feel than just sort of staring into the cold camera lens.”

Serena Williams, the top women’s tennis player in the world, gives tips on improving the backhand shot during her MasterClass. Video by MasterClass. Learn more at masterclass.com

Minimal footage cuts, natural conversation, and the visible crew and equipment add to the casual ambiance. In one series of lessons, Hoffman is shown sitting at a table on a Los Angeles film set, a microphone clipped to his button-down shirt and headphones slung around his neck. Seated with him are a young man and woman he’s directing in a scene from Jerry Maguire. To explain how to perform naturally, Hoffman tells the actors how Marlon Brando would chat with crew just before the camera started rolling. He demonstrates by asking a crewman, “So, David, what’d you do over the weekend?” Hoffman directs the actors to exchange small talk, and then transition into the scene—a technique they agree made the scene play out more organically. In total, viewers see roughly one hour of Hoffman and the actors working on the scene.

During the development of a MasterClass, Rasmussen and his team solicit feedback from educational consultants and conduct open polling and user testing. Students reviewing Patterson’s lessons clamored for a session on writer’s block; he accommodated with tips such as writing “TBD” for a troublesome chapter and returning to it later. Education is “not just about putting your opinion out there,” says Rasmussen. “It’s about talking to the students and finding out what helps them learn and then doing more of that.”

It takes roughly three to four months to create a MasterClass, time enough for Rasmussen to get to know the pros. He’s been impressed by their preparation (Christina Aguilera had “pages of handwritten notes and questions and edits”) and by their focus. Rasmussen recalls the perceptive feedback Usher offered as the two collaborated on edits to his class at the star’s home in Atlanta. “We have a lot of confidence in what we do,” he says, “but [I’d realize], ‘Damn, that’s actually a better cut.’” And he and Rogier joke that their intra-office emails “have gotten a whole lot more engaging” since they took Patterson’s class on first lines. But to cope with the daily stress of growing a start-up from “two guys in a borrowed office space” to a team of 21 in under two years, he turns to Williams’ advice on mental toughness: to simply focus on the next moment in the game. Just one more point, he reminds himself. Just win the next one.

MasterClass is interested in hiring BU alums with experience in marketing and advertising. Apply at careers.masterclass.com