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Hold It, Hold It ... Start Again: The Perils of Project Video Production

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It's not like writing a paper. Film production, when the camera points at you, can challenge all sorts of sensitivities. Steve Hitchcock survived the ordeal to tell the story of the Preserv Project video.

Does anyone remember the first popular music video (emphasis on popular)? Now, does anyone remember the first JISC project video (emphasis on, er, project)? That is, a video about the project rather than about the subject of the project. If not then the Preserv video [1] produced to tell the story of the JISC Preserv Project [2] might claim the prize.

If you are stunned to learn of a project with this degree of bravado, vanity or sheer recklessness to commit to this format, then it's probably as nothing until you have seen the video. Given the popularity of video services such as YouTube and podcast services such as iTunes, is this an idea that will catch on with other projects? This article describes our experience so others can begin to assess some of the practicalities should they want to do the same.

Production of the Preserv video was generously sponsored by the Digital Curation Centre (DCC) [3], yet it is sobering to learn that some professional video editing software can cost 100 times more than our entire budget. That has obvious implications for the production values of the video. No it won't be Casino Royale; it won't even be Honey, We're Killing the Kids.

Resources

So what do you need to produce a video on limited resources, both financial and technical? Firstly you want people who know how to manage a video project, as well as operate the audio-visual equipment. Most people reading this article work in institutions, some large and diverse, so probably colleagues with experience can be found somewhere. Seek them out.

At Southampton University, in the School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) [4], our starting point was the School's Marketing and Communications team, including team manager Joyce Lewis, Sarah Prendergast, and David Tarrant, a PhD student, clearly destined for greater things in the media. A brilliant team. They not only set up the camera, charge the battery, mind the tapes, and mike up the participants. They produce, choose the shot locations and, not least, become mentor and advisor to enthusiastic but amateur performers. Overall, they bring authority and experience.

Where did the idea for a project video come from? Originally the DCC wanted to develop a curation and preservation seminar series and invited projects from the JISC 404 preservation programme [5] to pilot the series. What caught our attention was the idea of recording the seminars. We agreed to present a filmed seminar for DCC in Glasgow at the start of 2007, as the project came to its conclusion. The difficulties of liaising on production issues led us to relocate filming to Southampton, but we had just moved to a new building on the University's Highfield campus and the audio-visual studios were in the process of being fully equipped. Instead, David suggested we think about producing a video podcast. Preserv had a number of important partners, and we recognised immediately that with this new approach we were in a position to include a larger number of colleagues from across the participating institutions. We could tell the story of the project through its people rather than through one or two presenters.

The School of ECS began producing news videos in 2006, presented through its ECS-TV [6] Web site. A number of these videos emanated from the 15th International World Wide Web Conference, which the School organised in Edinburgh in May that year. In another notable video, Professor Greg Parker was interviewed introducing his exhibition of remarkable astronomical photographs (ECS News - July 2006). ECS is the first school at Southampton to use videos as communications tools, and we believe it is the first school anywhere in the UK to do so. Even ECS had not produced a project video until Preserv, however, so that might back up our claims to be the first JISC project video too.

At first entire programmes were filmed in one take and simply produced in the correct video format. With the Preserv Project the production team had the opportunity to take this to a new level, filming in several locations with many people, with presenters to top-and-tail the main content once all the other content had been filmed.

Practical Tips

In the expectation that project videos might represent a new wave of project dissemination, here are some tips and tricks from our experience, a few of which might help you make your own way forward in this area.

Your people are your assets
You aren't going to have great editing resources, in terms of time or money, or special effects to fall back on, so you have to make use of the one resource that all projects have, their people. The first effect of switching from filmed seminar to video podcast was that potentially all partners in the project could be represented. In Preserv, our team includes experts from world-renowned institutions: The British Library (BL), The National Archives (TNA) and Oxford University.

Tell a story: Storyboard
We decided not to use an interview-style Question & Answer approach, but to invite participants to tell their part of the project story in their own words. Each contribution has to be framed and co-ordinated by a prior understanding of where it fits in the development of the whole story. This is where the storyboard comes in. It amounted simply to a series of 'shot cards', written on old library-style catalogue cards, describing who would be in each shot, where it was to be taken, and what the shot was to be about. Since shots are rarely perfect first time, the same shot may be recorded a number of times, with the producer noting each 'take' and its timing on the card.

A presenter might be asked to talk about his or her role in the project; if the presenter is to appear in more than one shot, the brief for each shot has to be more specific. The order of the shot cards defines the presentation order of the edited video, and every shot has to be captured and accounted for. As the credited writer I wrote the storyboard, not what was said by the participants. The storyboard, as implemented here by shot cards, is the critical tool in the production process. It informs the whole team - producer, director, and presenters - and without it direction and co-ordination would break down.

Storyboarding also makes the editing process easier. Clips were captured and correctly ordered in Final Cut Studio - our editing package [7], which is a professional-level editing package that costs hundreds rather than thousands of pounds, and is reported to be used in production by local television stations - before being cut down to try and keep the story coherent and interesting; cue, inevitably, disputes between editor and director! Eventually a final draft was agreed and then came the additional processes of adding transitions, music, voiceovers and name banners before, finally, the credit sequence and out-takes.

Find a good producer
Filming challenges sensitivities in ways for which most projects, other than through the more fiery listservs, do not prepare us. A good producer will get the best from a cast, understanding when to praise - mostly in the case of this video - and occasionally when to castigate. So who was the recipient of the admonishment that gives this article its title? Me of course. All shots were to be complete within one take, so that ideally no in-shot editing is needed. By getting tongue-tied, drying up, or blurting out the wrong word in the umpteenth take, even an edit-averse producer will try to avoid starting the shot again. Ours calmly advised, "hold it, hold, it ... pause and keep absolutely still, now carry on from where you stopped". That was before spotting the slightest movement on my part which meant that continuity and the take were lost; and, understandably, uttering the frustrated cry that the Ariadne editor removed from my article title on the grounds it was inappropriate for an international audience.

Participants: prepare what you want to say, but don't script
The storyboard is used to brief participants, who are further directed at the time of filming. Between these two stages participants will prepare, to different degrees, what they want to say. It seems counter-intuitive to advise them not to script what they plan to say. My unfortunate experience, related above, shows why you should not script what you say. Scripting takes away spontaneity, and this is hard to disguise by those not trained as actors. The more exacting requirements of performing to a script means more mistakes, because you have something to deviate from, and so forcing more takes.

Plan well; if it can go wrong, it will
Traffic chaos will ensue, and contractors will turn up with noisy equipment at just the moment you want to start filming. It's a cliché, it's obvious, and it happened to us too! We wanted to do some outside filming, and the BL and TNA kindly offered fine picturesque locations. We filmed at both locations on the same day, with a carefully worked out schedule. We left Southampton in the dark hours, and arrived just over 80 miles (130 km) away at the BL in London ... 5 hours later. It might have been quicker to go to Glasgow after all. Panic and diversions completely overwhelmed our vehicle's satellite navigation system. Fortunately our participants were less fazed, and stoically endured those few extra hours in the BL coffee shop.

Get the permissions
You cannot film anywhere you like, especially not at public institutions, unless you want to attract the attention of the resident security heavyweights. Obtaining permissions can take longer than you think - TNA asks for at least two weeks notice - unless you have insider contacts, in which case they might even turn on the fountains for you. At the BL we were told not to interview or interfere with the public, to which broadly we were inclined to adhere. Although on spotting that a tour party had positioned itself behind one of our filming locations, and was intending to stay another 15 minutes, we politely persuaded them to move on - purely for continuity reasons you understand - after the traffic hold-ups of the morning we just didn't have time to wait.

A wardrobe assistant can help
Continuity can be a problem in visual productions. Take, for example, the tale of Tim Brody's segments. We began filming Tim, towards the end of a February afternoon, in front of a window. Before his final section could be completed, the producer noticed that, with darkness falling, we were picking up reflections from the window panes behind our subject. Consequently Tim had to be ready to continue two days later; and, for continuity purposes, looking exactly the same as in the initial filming: no hair cut, same clothes.

Be prepared for ridicule
For us this is yet to come, after the launch of the video, perhaps; so we can't advise directly, for the moment. No doubt novel ways will be found to manipulate such works for general hilarity. Just don't tell your children about it. For those inclined towards more serious appraisal, bear in mind that we were not just novices; we didn't even have the benefit of a screen test. You might think that those rather passé out-takes presented alongside the closing credits are there for your amusement. For those involved, they are considerably therapeutic. As a colleague told us, they show you're actually not as stuffy as you look in the film.

Give it a try
You never know what you can achieve. In retrospect is seems incredible that all our project partners signed up to the idea straight away, and didn't question the premise that we might all be just a little bit inexperienced at this type of thing. Neil Jefferies of Oxford University is clearly a natural. After being placed in rather an awkward position beside a replica of an historical printing press on display at the British Library, Neil looked down, composed himself, and then simply reeled off his contribution in one take. Helen Hockx-Yu of JISC glanced nervously at her notes during a couple of takes, then put the notes away and found it much less daunting. Adam Farquhar of the BL didn't need his notes; it's more a question of where to stop than where to start with Adam.

Apparently I'm a director now. To think, before being involved in this video I didn't even know what a director was! I won't be giving up the day job just yet, but I'd like to do another video, and hopefully I've learned enough to do better next time.

Should you tire of listening to our video, mute the sound and you will see plenty of positive body language. Even if you learn nothing about digital preservation and institutional repositories, you'll recognise that we were honest, and, for the most part, having fun too.

Conclusion

If, in comparison with the production of a podcast, this process sounds complex, that's because it is; podcasts typically require considerably less work. Off-the-shelf equipment is available to allow you to produce a simple podcast (Apple Macs come with the video editing software built-in) and you can even use your mobile phone to film the content, rather than needing a camera costing thousands of pounds, as used for the Preserv video. Of course, the YouTube generation already knows this.

Moreover, it was only 10 years ago, or so, that we started producing project Web pages and placing our papers on the Web. They may not have been the best examples of Web production, and production values have improved enormously since then; but those papers were noticed. I suspect that, whatever the quality, novelty value will do the same for project videos, if only briefly. Beyond that we will all have to develop our audio-visual skills, sharpen our wits to anticipate cultural trends, and make sure we are sufficiently de-sensitised to join in.

A Final Word

My thanks of course to the entire cast of the Preserv Project video, in order of appearance:

Jessie Hey
Helen Hockx-Yu
Les Carr
Adam Farquhar
Adrian Brown
Tim Brody
Neil Jefferies

By the way, sorry, Tim. Filming has overrun again. Can you come back tomorrow? And don't forget to wash and iron those shirts again.

References

  1. The Preserv Project video: Warning! Embedded video player plugin starts to download the video on loading this Web page
    http://preserv.eprints.org/video-coverpage.html
  2. JISC Preserv (Preservation Eprints Services) Project - Enabling long-term open access to materials in institutional repositories
    http://preserv.eprints.org/
  3. Digital Curation Centre http://www.dcc.ac.uk/
  4. University of Southampton School of Electronics and Computer Science
    http://www.ecs.soton.ac.uk/
  5. JISC digital preservation and asset management strand (404 programme)
    http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/programme_preservation/programme_404.aspx
  6. ECS-TV http://www.zepler.tv/podcasts.php
  7. Apple Final Cut Studio http://www.apple.com/finalcutstudio/

Author Details

Steve Hitchcock
School of Electronics and Computer Science
University of Southampton

Email: sh94r@ecs.soton.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.ecs.soton.ac.uk/

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Date published: 
30 April 2007

This article has been published under copyright; please see our access terms and copyright guidance regarding use of content from this article. See also our explanations of how to cite Ariadne articles for examples of bibliographic format.

How to cite this article

Steve Hitchcock. "Hold It, Hold It ... Start Again: The Perils of Project Video Production". April 2007, Ariadne Issue 51 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue51/hitchcock/


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