ORAL HISTORY REVIEW 9 (1981), pp.

115-124

Why Not Try Videotaping Oral History?

Downloaded from http://ohr.oxfordjournals.org/ at Hong Kong Baptist University on March 24, 2012

W. RICHARD WHITAKER

Postwar scholars, as everyone is quite aware, have greatly benefited by technological advancement. One pertinent example for readers of this journal has been the way in which the tape-recorded interview has profoundly changed the chronicling of human experience. Put simply, oral history has provided researchers with yet another means of preserving cultural traditions and developing a social context for experienced events. By employing electronic oral history techniques, scholars—whether historians, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, folklorists, et cetera—have imparted to the life experience of individuals and communities alike a wider dimension than heretofore allowable through the exclusive use of traditional documentation.
W. RICHARD WHITAKER is Visiting Associate Professor of Mass Communication at American University in Cairo, Egypt. A former television newsman, he has also participated as an interviewer in an ongoing oral history project of journalism educators and worked with a film and video production studio. This article is based on a paper the author presented as part of a panel on "Oral History in the 1980s" sponsored by the History Division of the Association for Education in Journalism convention held in Boston, Massachusetts, in August 1980. 115

then by all means use it. There is also the argument of information versus entertainment and whether videotaping is a help or a hindrance in this regard. it will be used here as the example. Panasonic. Since Sony appears to be on the way to becoming the industry standard. and if this is the only equipment available. those who have considered beginning videotaping oral history projects still have some reservations about the idea of embarking upon this endeavor. Hitachi. however. These are halfinch systems—Sony's Betamax. This does not mean that videotaping oral history is without drawbacks.116 ORAL HISTORY REVIEW/1981 In the 1980s. And because much of the technology is new and changing. JVC. the researcher now has the chance to examine body language and reactions. and others—adequate for low-budget production. In addition to analyzing voice inflection and word choice. and others—but the industry leader is Sony. JVC. Costs are coming down drastically. to consider the current state of the technological art in videotape systems.oxfordjournals.org/ at Hong Kong Baptist University on March 24. is the three-quarter-inch cassette. Again. Why greater? Because the visual element creates a more comprehensive interview package than the standard audio model. These elements add both depth and breadth to recollected experience and can assist scholars in formulating explanatory statements about human behavior. a home-recorder system which now sells for $800 will probably be down to around $600 by the end of the year. General Electric. The half-inch tape format will do the job for the oral historian. and similar systems put out by Zenith. 2012 The Videotape Explosion The videotape industry is presently in the midst of a cassette revolution. Magnavox's Magnavision. Downloaded from http://ohr. and it also may freeze up the interview subject by thrusting the person into an unnatural situation which inhibits responses to questions. . humanistic scholars are offered an even greater opportunity: the use of videotechnology. a variety of manufacturers are producing the equipment— Panasonic. These are all valid concerns and ones which this article will address. Preferred. The need for equipment raises costs. It is first necessary. however.

is relatively precise and would be the recommended machine to use. with a thirteen-inch screen. When editing. earphones. There are several editing consoles. and a battery case (battery extra). The DXC-1630 camera package includes an AC power adapter. This three-quarter-inch camera. runs about $710 and should do for monitoring and playback purposes. gives an adequate picture without additional room lighting.000.000. it still gives some unstable edits. The Sony RM-430 is a basic videotape editor at $1.625. 2012 . the Sony 2860-A or the BV series will give good broadcast quality. a 6-to-l zoom lens with an f/2.200. If you are purchasing a three-quarter-inch system.WHITAKER/Why Not Try Videotaping Oral History? 117 The Sony VO-4800 is a small. The VO-4800 is made to be moved around and will give adequate broadcast quality. although if you can find the earlier models—1600 and 1610— they will do the job at about half the investment price. under normal conditions. remote recording unit used extensively for television-news work. Do not Downloaded from http://ohr. If you wish lights.200.4 to f/16 lens (the camera lens is interchangeable with any " C " mount lens from a 16 mm camera). a camera-to-recorder cable. a kit runs about $500 for key. while the 2860-A runs about $6. an ECM-50 lapel microphone should be adequate and relatively inconspicuous. you will need two of these: one for the player and the other for the recorder. with the BV series superior to the 2860-A. back. you will find the 4800 priced under $4. you will find that they run from sixty seconds to sixty minutes in length. Television monitor-receivers come in sizes of from five-inch to twenty-one-inch screens. A controltrack editor. For in-studio work. The CVM-13. at $4. and fill lights with stands and barn doors. But while it is more precise than attempting to edit by using the VO-4800 and 2860-A recorders together. The cost is about $3. The Sony camera that goes with this is the DXC-1630. There is no need to have one of broadcast quality. In considering videotape cassettes. for you will be paying more for something you do not really need. a viewfinder.oxfordjournals.org/ at Hong Kong Baptist University on March 24. This is the recorder to have if much on-the-scene location shooting of oral history interviews is planned. For audio.

the number the minutes of tape on the cassette (a KCA-60 runs sixty minutes. thus. you might be able to take older tapes off their hands. and have a firm understanding of all the warranties and guarantees. so named because of the way the tape is run around the recording heads. while the two-letter tapes result in snow or a series of scrambled lines. whether it is a dozen tapes or a complete recording-editing outfit.oxfordjournals.000. Be careful in bargain tapes. ABC used twenty-five of these to cover the 1980 Olympics. jamming and tearing occurs more easily. You should expect to pay twenty-five dollars for a thirty-minute broadcast-quality tape. Half-inch reel-to-reel tape is of low quality. as is the big and expensive two-inch "quad" tape in use since 1956. Television networks are now using a one-inch "C" format. Deal with reputable firms. Discount houses offer thirty-minute tapes for as low as ten dollars. and is usually monochrome. The cost of secondhand tapes would be lower or. is easily damaged. 2012 . which usually cost no more. the best tapes seem to be Sony. the biggest made for the VO-4800 is a twenty-minute minicassette. you can erase and start over (and over and over) if need be. Manufacturers' claims to the contrary. the station might even agree to donate them as a tax write-off. The unique thing about videotape is that although the initial outlay may be high. et cetera). Whatever you buy. costs are relatively insignificant once the investment has been made. but cassette is far superior. Every tape is coded with two or three letters and a number: the letters indicate the manufacturer. The three-letter tapes. when they are made over that length. but the recorders alone run $50. or Ampex. Reel-to-reel tape is being used. if you are affiliated with a college or university. Unlike film. Downloaded from http://ohr. Half-inch tape is on its way out. The best is a thirty-minute cassette. Memorex.118 ORAL HISTORY REVIEW/1981 purchase a cassette tape of over sixty minutes in length. especially if you are not concerned with broadcast quality.org/ at Hong Kong Baptist University on March 24. If you are near a television station. the tape has to be very thin to fit in the cassette and. however. but they are of poor quality and never airable. the rule of good shopping prevails. permit stop action (the tape may be stopped with the image remaining on the monitor). be alert to take advantage of any discounts.

et cetera). selecting interviewees. Let me. an individual who undertakes a videographic oral history project shares many of the concerns and confronts many of the same problems as standard oral history practitioners. and taking care of the myriad technical details which crop up during the recording session. the technician is responsible for quality control: color levels must be balanced. These are details the interviewer cannot be concerned with during the taping session. How tight should the head shots be? How should zoom and angle shots be handled? What mood are you trying to create? How can the camera take advantage of any striking visual characteristics or mannerisms of the subject? It means that the interviewer must sit down with the technician and discuss the objectives. Work with at least one other person— namely. right at the outset. and zooms and pans must be done smoothly. for when the video element is added. But when embarking upon a videotaping project. the technician can be concerned with running the camera. A sloppily produced Downloaded from http://ohr. make one major suggestion: Do not try to do the engineering and the interview as well. 2012 . peculiar.oxfordjournals. Remember that unless the production is done in a polished manner most people are not going to want to watch it. an extra person is essential. the subject should be framed well in the camera (the technician being alert to sudden movements which can throw the subject out of frame).org/ at Hong Kong Baptist University on March 24. recording levels must be tracking properly. considerations. you must. if you are the interviewer. as producer-director. but they are vital details. is that the technician has a full understanding of what you. maintaining proper audio and recording levels. Once this is done. While you are concentrating on the questions and working to create a conversational flow of information. Both will suffer in the process. determining topical foci for the interviews. of course. audio must be in a proper range. want. Implicit in this. a technician who knows and understands the equipment. quite apart from the customary operating procedure of tape-recorded projects (developing an overall research design. be alert to a number of other.WHITAKER/Why Not Try Videotaping Oral History? 119 The Interviewer as Producer-Director Naturally.

With the assistance of a good technician. and possibly lights. the role of the technician becomes important. This not only serves as good preparation for the interview. It does not require much in the way of time or trouble to make the product visually interesting. you may want to sit down with the subject in the interview setting and talk about what is to be covered during the interview. The interviewerproducer-director should be thinking visually when the interview is being planned. some persons experience anxiety when confronted by a microphone. Is there a demonstration which can be taped. the first task is to make the subject feel at ease. you find you have a series of good interviews that you wish to have replayed over a local cable or television channel or the university PBS station? Unless you have a well-produced. As is commonly known by oral historians. But what if. This is not as important for an interview that only a few scholars will watch. playback monitor. but also allows the subject to become further acclimated to the setting and equipment. Downloaded from http://ohr. But sometimes this sort of explanation is insufficient.oxfordjournals.120 ORAL HISTORY REVIEW/1981 videotape. defeats the entire effort. The camera operator should strive for a variety of visual angles and be alert for good facial expressions or effective hand gestures. and the problem may be compounded.org/ at Hong Kong Baptist University on March 24. 2012 Making It Visually Interesting The videotaped oral history interview carries the same elements of production style as does a television program. with the subject doing something while talking? Are there . before the tape begins rolling. it is often wise to explain the equipment to the subject and demonstrate how it operates. Therefore. Often. Add to that a television camera. you will be denying a potentially larger audience the possibility of sharing what you have uncovered. To reduce the initial apprehension. for instance. It must be made visually interesting. videotape recorder. visually interesting package. the interviewer can then devote full attention to the person being interviewed. Here again. no matter how good the interview.

must physically move the camera. it is best to start out on an opening "two-shot" as the interviewer asks the first question. then start to move the camera in as the subject gets into the answer. the interviewer again asks most of the questions which were posed during the course of the interview. it is best for editing purposes to back out to the two-shot or. they allow the subject's responses to be cut when they become too long or when the respondent wanders off into an undesired tangent. and in the finished tape the picture dissolves from the narrator to the location shot while the voice track continues)? Old-time pictures can also be used as an effective visual break from the monotony of the "talking head" interview. A reverse question is exactly that: the camera should be physically moved to a position facing the interviewer. The subject should be instructed in advance not to respond. as is done anytime the recorder is restarted. With the respondent looking at the interviewer.WHITAKER/Why Not Try Videotaping Oral History? 121 location shots that may be taped before or after the interview to provide " B " roll when the tape is edited (the subject talks about an old building. into a wide solo shot.oxfordjournals. the camera will be positioned facing the subject. The camera operator should avoid excessive zooming. at least. Once completed. Usually. Cutaways are extremely important. During the interview. After the interview is over. behind and slightly to the right of the subject. in order to frame the subject tighter in the viewfinder. Here is where there is an advantage to replacing the television camera zoom lens with a film lens—the camera operator. shooting over the interviewer's left shoulder. Shot in the same manner as reverse questions. the interviewer should take care to pause at least five seconds between questions. The camera may be moved in tighter after the second question has been asked.org/ at Hong Kong Baptist University on March 24. This frames a two-shot over the subject's right shoulder. the reverse questions may then be inserted into the finished interview tape to provide that additional visual interest. They provide a pleasing Downloaded from http://ohr. Any time the camera is stopped and then restarted (allow at least five seconds for the tape to stabilize and get up to speed). it is most important for editing to shoot reverse questions and cutaways. This effectively cuts down on needless motion. 2012 .

be questions or responses deemed to have marginal value.122 ORAL HISTORY REVIEW/1981 visual transition to permit the interview to resume without a visually jarring jump for the viewer. to edit cleanly. Oral history. The subject and interviewer did not just happen to meet in the place where the interview took place. at times. it does not seem improper. then it is a small matter to set another camera on a two-shot of the subject and interviewer and leave it untouched for the duration of the interview. Record two tapes (two recorders must be used rather than one). at least to me. Enough time should be budgeted to complete the shooting session. Therefore. the subject says nothing. go ahead and get to work on editing down the other videotape. involves editing and publishing at the same time. for those who view the editing of videotapes as violative to the purity of the experiential record. Then. and file the complete. a transcriber eliminates some portions of an audiotape interview). 2012 Any oral history interview is necessarily an artificial situation. trimming excess length from responses. it is better to let a technician operate the tapeediting machine: inserting reverse questions and cutaways. as were the questions or. It is assumed that more tape will have been shot than can be used. for the purposes of wider public consumption. A cutaway may merely be the interviewer listening or nodding in a reverse two-shot.org/ at Hong Kong Baptist University on March 24. bearing in mind that there is at least a threeto-one ratio between shooting time and edited tape time (figure that it will take an hour to shoot what will be a twentyminute interview). and remembering not to cut in the middle of a zoom or during camera motion.oxfordjournals. for there will. and the interviewer has only a . the time was worked out well in advance. to say that all videotaped oral history interviews should be edited down from the total length of material (just as. The videotape editor must consolidate. the topic areas. unedited two-shot interview away where it can be reached if needed by a scholar. Again. Nonetheless. Editing the Oral History Interview Downloaded from http://ohr. cutting audio without overlap. at least. Unless the oral historian is also a proficient tape editor. whether or not it is videotaped. customarily.

and it seems that oral historians should take advantage of this medium which is still a relatively misused educational tool. during the 1940s. it seems. time. Conclusion The question will most likely arise as to whether the addition of a visual element to the oral history interview is worth the expense. Transcribing and Editing Oral History. The scholar viewing the production becomes a member of the audience looking on and not only hears the voice and its inflection. the hand motions. . from clothing to reaction gestures and mannerisms. is the case with videotaping an oral history interview. Willa K. 2012 Sources Baum.WHITAKER/Why Not Try Videotaping Oral History? 123 brief time under intense pressure to create a meaningful body of information. then. A case can be made for either side of the debate. A good. The camera can add so much more. can add much more to the process of preserving the story of anyone whose observations should be retained. It may sound difficult. everything. So. Experience has shown to the contrary. 1977. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History. but the effort will prove to be worthwhile once the project is completed. It is a unique and difficult experience. A good oral history interview should have some of the characteristics of good conversation—interaction between subject and interviewer. warmth. and work required. in short. and sufficient flexibility to follow unexpected turns in the course of the interview. Why not try it? Downloaded from http://ohr. Videotaping—one is really talking about television—can illuminate this conversational quality of oral history if it is effectively executed and edited. the unspoken body language. but also sees the subject—the raised eyebrows. well-planned videotaped oral history interview. argued that the new medium of television would never replace radio because the visual element would detract from the story line of a dramatic or comedy production.org/ at Hong Kong Baptist University on March 24. There were many people in broadcasting who. real interest in the subject being pursued. This is the television generation.oxfordjournals.

Chicago: American Library Association. Don. Louis. J. 2nd ed. 111. Oral History from Tape to Type. J. 1975. Washington. Robinson. Cullom. Paul. A Guide to Historical Method. and Beards." In Advances in Librarianship. John. 2012 . 1971. 1976. Neuenschwander. Homewood. 1973. Back.C. Grayson. New York: Macmillan. HarwQod. Weiner. The Voice of the Past: Oral History. 1. MacLean.: VTR. 1973. H. Syosset.: National Education Association.Y. Mattingly. R. Kay. Thompson. 1978. Peter. D. Oral History as a Teaching Approach.org/ at Hong Kong Baptist University on March 24. Using Videotape. P. New York: Scribner's. 1976.. Making the Media Revolution: A Handbook for Video-Tape Production. Vol. Starr. New York: Hastings House.: Dorsey Press. Voight. 1977. Introducing the Single-Camera VTR System: A Layman's Guide to Videotape Recording. F. Downloaded from http://ohr. Shafer. New York: Seminar Press. 1974. Edited by Melvin J.oxfordjournals. N. "Oral History: Problems and Prospects. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Video Tape Recording.124 ORAL HISTORY REVIEW/1981 Davis. Kathryn. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ed. Rev.