A Long Reflection on Writing a Digital Text (Part II: Diving Into Digital Production)

When I sit down to work on a digital document, I usually begin by trying to put three aspects of the piece into play at the same time. In no particular order… I need to decide or figure out what sorts of resources I have to work with, what sorts I might be willing to gather or create, and which might be most appropriate for the working ideas I have for the text. For this particular text, I knew that I had video footage from two different cameras we’d set up in the studio, and we’d also captured sound via an Edirol recorder. Because I’m not a pro, the video quality wasn’t exceptional. I have so much to learn. Our setup included two video cameras and an Edirol Audio recorder (all borrowed from the Digital Media Project at Ohio State). We were also lucky enough (with Cindy Selfe’s help) to snag some time in Ohio State’s production studio which had a sound proof room and an appropriately neutral visual background for an interview (I’ve seen enough interviews with bookshelf backgrounds to last me for a while).

The cameras we used weren’t anything super special, but we we still very thankful to be able to use them. It was very generous of Scott DeWitt and Cindy to allow us to use them. Just a pair of basic miniDV cameras. Well-worn and used lovingly by Ohio State’s students over the past couple of years. (You could get cameras of this quality new for a couple hundred bucks now. Much less than that if you’re willing to buy used as you get to know the technology.) And because the mics on these sorts of cameras are often not that great, we used a Roland Edirol E-09 audio recorder. I’ve been using one of these for the past several years, and I love it. There are other options now which, for the sake of most digital media texts, are fine. My only advice here, is to spend at least a couple of hundred bucks on your audio capture devices. There’s just no getting around it. Decent mics aren’t cheap yet. They will be eventually, but they’re not yet.

There are more production aspects to consider, but I’ll leave those for another time… maybe. It’s generally a good idea to starting learning a little bit about lighting (use natural sunlight if you can. think “big windows” at 10am or 2pm if you can). There’s also camera placement. The type of room in which you conduct the interview. Learning to use a monitor to check your sound levels. Stuff like that. None of it is really all that complicated. It just takes some experience with the equipment in different situations in order to start thinking about how it all works together at the same time. Seriously. Knowing these sorts of stuff doesn’t take a big brain. Just a little experience. Just a little paying attention.

I think the most important aspect of becoming competent with your equipment is to embrace the fact that you’re going to screw things up. And you’ll regularly lower the quality of texts you really care about (sometimes even ruin them!). But I think it’s best to sort of go running toward those mistakes. Try to avoid them, but accept that they’re going to happen. Reflect on how they happened and how to avoid or overcome them in the future. And keep making the mistakes.

For instance, with this Burns interview, I spent a TON of time thinking through the preparation and set-up. Everything seemed like it was going to work just fine. I had this idea that I wanted to test out. Sometimes, people don’t like to have their faces on camera for the whole interview. So I thought it would be cool to focus on their hands to add an expressive element to the production. That’s why we had two cameras for this shoot. But when we started setting up, Cheryl mentioned that shoot Hugh’s hands ended up being one long shot of Hugh’s crotch. That obviously wasn’t going to be appropriate. So we changed the set up to a pair of stereo cameras (one right, one left). Not that interesting.

I also made a mistake (which I still, to this day, don’t understand) because we used cameras with which we weren’t familiar (read: weren’t ours, nor had we bothered to practice with them). When I started exporting the footage to my computer, there was a bit of camera bounce. I couldn’t figure it out. The camera was on a tripod. No one was touching it. The floor was solid as a rock. And yet, the camera frame kept moving around as much as Hugh was moving around inside the frame. I eventually concluded that it had something to do with image stabilization (which should only be turned on for handheld videography). Ugh, but there was nothing really I could do at that point. I had no idea how to fix it, and I still don’t know how to turn that function off. I suppose I could have found the manual online and taken care of that, but it didn’t even occur to me that something like that could happen. This sort of mistake is the kind I’m trying to get you to embrace. How can I possibly think of everything, even when no one’s ever mentioned it, and I’ve never come up against it myself? There are millions of these little things. Get over it. Forgive yourself. Accept that it’s going to happen. Talk with other people about it, so they, too, know that it’s a sort of inevitability. And keep making texts.

(The more ideas coming soon: multimedia revision, multimedia as thinking-tools, and the bottle neck.)

(image, “Mark Swan Dive,” appears courtesy of Jamie Pichora’s Flickr page. Creative Commons Attribution-noncommercial 2.0 license applies.)