Capturing Oral History on Video

Tips for Storytellers and for behind the Camera
By Dan Shaw

What does it take to capture compelling video of personal stories? With just a basic grasp of the technology, and these tips and techniques, you will feel confident to tell your own stories on camera, and to gather others’ stories. Whether you are in front of the camera or behind it, you’ll find it useful to be familiar with some of the situations that often occur in capturing oral history on video, and how to prepare and respond with ease and professionalism. It’s common for people to film themselves as well, so we’ll begin from the perspective of you, the storyteller, proceed to some notes for you, the camera operator, and conclude with tips for people filming themselves. For simplicity, I use the terms film and video interchangeably, and make no distinction between stories and oral history.

You’ve got stories to tell
Stories are personal, and may be emotional. Keep some water handy for the speaker, and tissues. Choose a camera operator with whom you feel comfortable.

Plan Ahead
A well-planned video will go more smoothly, be easier to edit, and cost less.
Will you be sharing this video with family and friends? Putting it on DVD, or on the web, or both? Keeping the answers to these questions in mind will help you get the best results.

Makeup and Wardrobe
Be sure to bring a comb, and to look in the mirror before you go on camera. Get a haircut, perhaps, but avoid making drastic changes to your appearance just before your video shoot. Avoid wearing white clothes, they may be too bright especially under studio lights. Do not wear a color that is similar to the background color. Do not wear patterns such as narrow stripes that may create an unusual optical effect (moiré) on video.

Plan an introduction. Plan a strong close. Make notes of the points you want to be sure to include, but don’t read from a script.

Set a time and place where you will feel comfortable. Your home may be a good choice, or you may choose another location. An outdoor location may be nice, but avoid direct sunlight as it can be unflattering. Avoid the sound of water in the background. Use a mic screen to quiet a light wind but don’t film in a strong wind.

Do what you can to reduce background noise, although some background noises may be inevitable and acceptable, such as sirens, other noises are avoidable and can ruin a video, such as a fridge, air conditioner, squeaky chair, or a lawnmower. A professional will be able to put a microphone on you to get the best sound; consumer grade cameras do not have an input for an external microphone, so the camera should be as close to you as practical. Be sure to get a sound check. Record about 60 seconds of video, then rewind and listen to it to be sure the quality is satisfactory.

Good quality cameras work remarkably well in low light, but most homes are dimly lit, and you will get better results by bringing in a lamp or two from another room, and perhaps removing a lampshade. Avoid hats which may shade the eyes.

Camera Angle, etc.
It’s most likely that your camera is mounted on a tripod. In other words, the camera position does not change. In that case, you can still add some visual interest with zooming. Start with a ‘wide’ shot, taking in more of the setting and background. You might even start with a shot of the setting, then slowly pan (turn) the camera to face your storyteller. Listen for a natural break, such as the end of a sentence, then begin a slow zoom in closer. It may be appropriate to zoom in to a close-up as the story reaches an intense moment. Then return to the ‘regular’ shot. As the story comes to close, you can slowly zoom out again.

Choose a visually interesting background. Choose a chair that will help you sit up straight, or sit on the edge of your seat.

Monologue or interview format?
Often, people will make a few ‘false starts’ when they are talking in front of a camera. But, after a few minutes, they are on a roll. Some people may feel more comfortable answering questions than monologing. Be sure that the question can be clearly heard. If there is only one mic, make sure the storyteller answers in complete sentences. Also be sure that the questioner is not nearer to the microphone (or camera mic) than the storyteller, or the questions will be louder than the answers.

If two people are on camera, to place the camera is as close as possible, so that faces are as large as possible, seat people almost knee to knee.

Film a short segment, and review your storytelling and video quality. This kind of ‘bio-feedback’ is invaluable in improving your skills in front of the camera and behind it. If you are also editing the video, use this first, short segment as a practice run. If you have some problem with your video, it’s best to know sooner and to work it out on a five minute video instead of a longer segment.

Filming: Take as much time as you need
If you feel that you could have said something better, simply pause, back up a little, and start again from any point.

If you have limited time, you may want to have someone (the “stage manager”) at intervals hold up fingers or cards showing how many minutes you have remaining.

Filming things, photos and documents
If you have objects to film, this may be a good opportunity to add some movement. Slowly rotate the object to show both sides. Zoom in and zoom out slowly. Take still photos, too, as these may be useful in editing together the finished video. It is preferable to digitize (scan) photos and documents to add in post-production rather than filming them. If you are filming photos, be sure to the photos are steady, not hand-held, and beware of glare.

Review the unedited footage before you pay for editing
For any number of reasons you may decide that you do not want your video released, for example, “I didn’t realize there was that rude graffiti in the background!” Don’t pay for editing until you’re sure the raw footage is satisfactory. You can save money and time by taking notes of the editing that needs to be done. These notes showing “in times” and “out times” are called an “Edit Decision List” (EDL). You can download a blank EDL from DanShaw.com.

Filming Yourself
If you are filming yourself, do a test run.

You may to need your video edited before it is ready to share. Having video professionally edited may be expensive. You can minimize this expense with good planning. Most computers come with software that allows even a novice to do a passable job.

After editing, the video is ‘rendered’ into whatever format you need, and you may need DVD format and web format. You can burn DVDs yourself on your computer; you will need a program such as Nero. The duplication process is time-consuming. You can find duplicating services in most urban areas; check with your copy shop or camera shop.

If you intend to save your video for the future, then you will want to save it digitally, such as on a computer hard drive, and also on a ‘hard copy’ such as a DVD. As of this writing (2013), DVD remains the format of choice, despite the advent of Blu Ray disks. DVD’s and Blu Rays disks may seem durable, but they are not archival quality, and may not last for 10 years. The data is written on a thin film affixed to the top of the disk, so the serious archivist will not label disks at all, not with an adhesive label, and not with ink. Obviously unlabeled disks are difficult to manage. Fortunately there is a compromise. Since the data is written on the disks from the center to the edge, often there is blank space on the edge of the disk, so you can safely write on an arc around the edge without risk to the data.

Taking your next steps
Fortunately, capturing compelling stories on video does not require perfection. Yet storytelling and filmmaking are fine arts. Expert filmmaking actually requires a team of experts, but anyone can make a decent video with just a little practice. You will encounter new situations and you will learn every time you do a video.

Storytelling and filmmaking are intimately woven together and woven into the human experience. Both storytelling and filmmaking preserve historical and cultural knowledge and values. Storytelling and filmmaking thus play a vital role in transmitting knowledge and values now, and in bequeathing these gifts to future generations. You’ll find that capturing oral histories on video is also immensely rewarding personally.

Dan Shaw is the author of Business Website Boot Camp Workbook and he is available for video work within and outside the Rogue Valley. Related articles on Hiring a Filmmaker, Filming Conferences, Preparing for Video, What to do now that your video has been edited, are available at DanShaw.com.