October 1, 2002

From DV to PC: Shooting Documentaries Exclusively for the Web

David Weisman, David Todd and Gary Spalding making their Web-based project, <em>Texas Legacy</em>. Photo: David Todd

In the realm of documentary, the Internet as an alternative method of distribution has been used primarily to present and market completed documentaries. With Texas Legacy, (www.texaslegacy.org) a project of the nonprofit Conservation History Association of Texas (CHAT), we sought to use the Internet and the PC as the venue for visual oral history. By accessing an interactive database, users can search various topics, then download the collected wisdom, courage and humor of hundreds of pioneers who experienced the changes and challenges visited on the Texas environment throughout the 20th century.

To date, we have located and interviewed nearly 200 individuals—from wildlife biologists to farmers and fisherman to anti-nuclear crusaders, politicians and educators. Since most of the participants approached their achievements from a “grass-roots” basis, we believe the Internet is the appropriate tool for sharing, and thus “democratizing,” this material—allowing users to build their own stories in a non-linear fashion. As David Todd, an environmental attorney who initiated and directs CHAT, says, “We ask the participants to explain why they were interested in these issues, how they got involved, what gave those who were harassed the fortitude to carry on, and what changes they've seen.... Most people are aware of battles over rain forests—as PBS might broadcast—but they might not realize there are local people here having an impact on the local environment. If they see how and why others made a difference, they might decide they can, too.”

The model for such visual oral histories is the SHOAH Foundation, which recorded and catalogued some 50,000 oral histories of survivors of the Holocaust. The complexity of the subject matter, multiple languages and international scope required resources beyond the modest goals of CHAT. But the principle—first-person witness to events—could be accomplished locally on a smaller scale—SHOAH on a shoestring, if you will. Computer technology has advanced radically in the decade since the SHOAH project began, and streaming video, which had been intended for use over fiber-optic lines between research centers, can now reach the general public directly through home cable and DSL lines, or even 28k or 56k modems. With off-the-shelf solutions such as mini-DV for acquisition, Microsoft Excel for the logs and database, and Media 100/Media Cleaner for digitizing and compression, we can operate economically and with an “open architecture” and non-proprietary interface for our end-users.

Given the vastness of Texas—and the limits of our budget—we divided the state into geographic regions and, beginning in June 1999, we visited each for about two weeks, taping between 15 to 25 interviews per trip. We operate with a video crew of two: I am the director/cameraman, and Gary Spalding lights and records sound. David Todd serves as the interviewer. One of our initial decisions involved equipment: Purchase or rent? I have always advocated renting, particularly for video, with its rapidly evolving technology. We knew that in order to create high quality streaming video we would need superb original images and sound, as the compression process would compromise them. It might seem reasonable to invest $3,000 in a Sony VX-1000 camera, but a decent tripod, audio mixer, high quality directional and radio microphones, and complete fresnel light kit with grip stands would add thousands to the budget; they would only cost a couple of hundred dollars a day to rent. Given that we only shoot for a few weeks at a time, this strategy allows us to spend more of our budget in the field and acquire the new, improved Sony PD-150 mini-DV camera for the same rental price we had paid for the VX-1000.

As an oral history interview involves watching a person speak for one or two hours, we attempt to make each frame as aesthetically pleasing as possible. The Internet is an unforgiving delivery medium, so a good tripod helps us avoid camera movement. I use only two compositions: First, a medium wide shot that includes either a background or location that evokes the participant’s work or activities, or an interior that we “dress” with appropriate artifacts or objects that the subjects themselves often help us choose; and second, a close-up. I do not zoom during the interviews, as this would produce a “pixilated”" image on the Web, but I use the pauses between questions to re-frame. I also learned the hard way what is inappropriate for Web video: We placed a conservationist on a slightly swaying swing, hung from a picturesque old tree, whose green, leafy branches blew gently in the breeze. The image looked great in video, but compressed for the Internet, the constant motion created a gently swaying blur and blob of shapes and colors. The moral: until broadband Web-streaming becomes more commonplace, the majority of our interviews will be stationary. However, in anticipation of future breakthroughs, we will often take a “walk-and-talk” interview with our subjects, after we have already recorded the bulk of the oral history in a seated interview.

Lighting and sound are also of great importance to our work. Gary Spalding usually works with a four- or five-head Arri-light fresnel kit, which gives him better control than typical broad lights. He uses a Chimera “soft box” on the key light, often with an Opal or 216 gel to add a pleasing diffusion—and to prevent our subjects from squinting! In his arsenal of tools are also various flags and scrims, foam core and C-stands, all of which help him create interesting backlights and background lights. For our exterior work, we use silks and reflectors to control the harsh light, which is anathema to mini-DV. This equipment is not overly expensive—averaging $50-75 per day for the grip package. The same holds true for audio: We use a Sennheiser 416 short shotgun mic for the interviews, supported over the subject’s head on a boom stand. We have an assortment of windscreens for some of our gusty locations. The Shure FP 33 mixer, with all XLR-connections, helps us avoid the “buzz” and “hums” so prevalent in many consumer “mic-level” sound accessories.

For many documentarians, the portability of the compact mini-DV camera, with its on-board microphone, has created an acceptable aesthetic for many “reality” filmmaking situations, but grainy, muffled and shaky images wouldn’t be optimal for streaming applications. When treated with care, however, our results have often been mistaken for Beta-Cam at various post-houses!

After shooting, the mini-DV is cloned for safety, and dubbed four times to VHS: for my library, CHAT, the archive at the University of Texas, and the participant. One copy is sent out for a verbatim transcription, which is also available on-line. I then log the tapes using an Excel spreadsheet, making an entry every one or two minutes. The data fields include reel number, time code, name, city, category, sub-category, shot type and a detailed 15-word description. This would allow a user to sort, say, by “Houston,” “Air Pollution,” or “Activism” to find out who has been working on cleaning up the air problems in that city. When the site is fully operational, the user would click on the description of the desired video segment, which would be linked to the interview, via time code and reel number, then streamed to the viewer—with the written transcript scrolling simultaneously underneath the viewing “window.” Ultimately, when our site is fully functional, a set of electronic links could be forged on a home computer among grass-roots activists, senior scientists and retired politicians. Students, researchers and others could begin to form their own opinions from these primary sources, free of pundits and advertisers.

Currently, the web site, www.texaslegacy.org, is hosted by the Center for American History at the University of Texas, Austin. Students from the university’s Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences have been encoding, compressing and scripting the interviews in open-source code for Web streaming, but these are not available to the general public at this writing. In advance of the fully-streaming website, however, I am selecting and compiling three-minute “best of” clips from each interview, editing them on a Media 100, and compressing them into Quicktime and Real Media movies, which we are burning to CD ROM, one for each region in Texas. We hope to begin distributing these as educational outreach to primary and secondary schools in Texas.

As an activist, I have found one of the great rewards of working on this project to be the realization that the movement for justice is more widespread than I had imagined; this “archive,” far from gathering dust in a box on a shelf, can have an “electronic” life that is a living treasure—educating, inspiring and uniting those for whom access has been denied in the conventional broadcast medium.


David Weisman, in addition to working with CHAT, produced a 28-part series on the global environmental crisis for PBS distance learning, Preserving the Legacy, as well as documentaries on housing, urban poverty and development issues in Asia and Africa. He can be contacted at davidjweisman@earthlink.net.