Leg Work: The Beginning Stages of Putting Together a Digital Text

I just finished my production work on a new digital text: “Remixing Our Scholarship: .” It’s basically a blog consisting of a series of videos recorded at the 2010 Cs Conference at a panel organized by Joanna Wolfe and the Cs Research Committee. I’m proud of it, but I’m also incredibly happy to be finished.

In the interests of making more visible the intellectual work of digital production and design, I’d like to briefly reflect on the process of having put together this text.

The Beginning

I’m lucky enough to be a graduate student at the University of Louisville, where Joanna Wolfe currently chairs the Composition department. She also happens to be the chairperson of the Cs research committee. About a week before the 2010 conference, she queried our graduate student listserv to see if anyone would like to volunteer the videotape the committees research panel. I saw it as a great opportunity. Not only would I be able to continue to hone my skills as a new media scholar, but I would also get to experiment with a few things I had wanted to try regarding videotaping panels. The fact that I would get to work with several scholars whose work I was back only made the opportunity more appealing.

The Challenges

From the moment I volunteered for the project, I knew there would be at least a couple challenges. First of all, there were a lot of panelists. actually, there were seven with an additional panel chair. And second, the panel was scheduled to run for more than two hours. As always, I knew that I wanted the best quality video and audio that I could capture. I gathered up as many video cameras as I could find (three from our department, and two of my own). Working with this many cameras can be a real headache. In this case I was working with four different camera models, four of which recorded to digital videotape, and one which recorded to an internal hard drive. I knew from mistakes on previous projects that there are a lot of details that need to be taken care of in order to make the media files consistent from one machine to the next. The best case scenario would have been to use identical tapes, in terms of type, quality, and manufacturer. But that wasn’t really realistic in this case. We just didn’t have the resources to put into tapes. We did manage to buy a set of five tapes and used three others cobbled together from other places. At least they were all the same length (60 minutes) And I had to make sure that each of the video cameras was recording in widescreen and at the same tape speed. And because some of the cameras were relatively old, I needed to run all of the cameras on AC power. (All this means is that I couldn’t trust the cameras to run on battery power.) it also meant that I was going to have extension cords running all over the place. And because the microphones on most digital cameras are not very good, I gathered up a few Edirol recorders (two from the department and one of my own) and placed them where I thought they could capture the best sound.

Now if you’re doing your math, you probably realize that this equation isn’t all that clean. Five video cameras, three audio recorders, and eight sixty-minute tapes. Eight participants, a projection screen, and about 135 minutes of recording time. Yikes.

Oh, and one more thing. We wanted this videos to be posted to YouTube (ideally), but each of the presenters what given 10 minutes to speak. Now if you know anything about academic speakers, you know that there’s no way that all seven of them were going to stay under 10 minutes. So I wasn’t sure how much editing I was going to have to do.

The Capture Process

I figured that, given enough lead time, I could handle the set up and recording myself. Turns out I had a lot of time, but I had underestimated the complexity of the setup. Luckily, my friend and fellow graduate student Brice Nordquist arrived to help me set up the machines. We trained one camera on the panel chair (Rebecca Rickly) because she was seated at a small table stage right of the large table where the rest of the panelists were seated. So we had four cameras left for the remaining seven speakers. I decided that we’d have to capture the panelists in pairs.We had a lot of options here, but we needed to make some choices. For instance, in once scenario, I figured we would leave one camera on the panel chair, one on the projection screen, and then use the others to zoom in on the panelist currently presenting. While that camera was trained on the panelist, I could be setting up the next camera to capture the next panelist. But there were two factors complicating this plan. The first was that I wanted to make sure to capture the question and answer portion of the discussion, and there would be no way of knowing who would be speaking and when they would start. And if the discussion was lively, there might be some back and forth discussion between the panelists. Without having a bunch of unstable camera shifts, there would be no way to capture this effectively with only five cameras. Additionally, when the panelists sat down at the table, they joked that they were all seated out of order. This meant that there was no way to tell which panelist was going to speak next. And finally, it’s not like these panelists were on a bright stage in a dark auditorium. They were in a conference room, at floor level, which meant that any adjustments to the cameras would be very distraction both for the audience and the panelists.

In hindsight, what I should have done here was to talk with the panel chair (she was so nice!) and get her to agree to a speaking order for the panelists. Then I could have left one camera on her, one on the projection screen, one on the speaking panelist, and one on the next panelist. This would have provided much better video quality because I could have zoomed in on each of the panelists, instead of having to be zoomed out enough to have two people always in the shot. It also would have been nice to have a capture of the panelists screen activities, so I could cut back and forth during the editing process. Ah, hindsight.

Needless to say, Brice and I got the cameras set up, got the power cords taped down (gaffers’ tape is a godsend!), and had all the cameras and Edirols ready to record (only a couple of minutes late; they were so patient!). We set everything recording and gave them the thumbs up. We double checked the recording indicators, and sat back to watch the discussion. When it came time for the tapes to start running out, we had to keep moving around in front of the audience. As expected, it was very distracting. I passed Rebecca a note asking if we could take a two-minute break to change the tapes. She obliged. We changed the tapes and set them running again. And rested. Again. Whew.

Production still from Buster Keaton's The Camera ManThen I realized that we needed to cover 135 minutes and that when the current tapes ran out, they would run roughy a half-hour short. But there was nothing we could do. I decided that I would try to turn off some of the cameras trained on presenters who’d already finished, in order to save some time to capture the ending discussion. But after a couple of efforts, it became clear that there was only one camera I could shut off because each camera was still trained on at least one person who had yet to speak. Ugh. So I gave up trying to fix that problem. I just put all the machines back to recording, and let them go as long as they could. And rested. With a glass of water this time. Ahh.

The panel and subsequent discussion were absolutely wonderful. Wow. Unfortunately, the discussion portion of the program didn’t capture well. We just didn’t have enough microphones, and the presenters didn’t consistently repeat the questions as they answered them. (It’s a hard skill to master, and even harder to remember!)

Once the panelists finished, they were all very appreciative and generous. We packed up the equipment, and I took it home for the next stage of the process…

The Editing Process

Getting the raw files off the machines and into my computer for editing. And that will be the topic for another post in the near future. (To be followed, eventually, by a discussion of why I chose WordPress as a platform (not a perfect or even elegant solution, btw) for distribution. And what has happened to the text since publication.

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