I’m in St. Petersburg, Russia this summer working on a tech-enhanced research project with the William & Mary Study Abroad group, and in preparing for the trip one of my most important considerations was what equipment to bring. Each student project involves telling stories about particular city spaces. There’s a little photography, several video interviews, mapping their locations on Google Maps, and then integrating all this into a narrative that will be posted to a college-wide research website. All very cool, but the problem is that we basically had to pack up everything with us to bring over here: computers, cameras, audio recording devices, etc.
We’ve been here for several weeks now, and I can really say the key to our success has been to be as self-contained as possible. And that means bringing lots of equipment. And that means the equipment I was bringing had to be light and small, but still good quality. So here’s what we did:
Video for Interviews
For videotaping interviews, we are using Flip cameras. While they don’t make these anymore, there are other varieties of this little video camera that’s smaller than a pack of cards and has beautiful HD quality video (except the picture tends to degrade in low light settings). Pick your spaces carefully. I coupled the Flip camera with a lightweight tripod, which is really mandatory for keeping the camera steady for long interviews. The tripod I brought also allows for fairly smooth horizontal panning, so we can even get a little fancy. The resulting video, especially when we can get on location in some of St. Petersburg’s lovelier spots is first rate. The only problem is those little Flip cameras are terrible with sound. Lots of noise, lots of background sound, basically the sound capture capabilities of the Flip are limited to the narration of the person holding the camera. However, this is not a deal breaker. The Flip’s impossibly small size in proportion to its image quality can’t be beat, and there are ways to overcome its limitations (see below)…
Audio for Interviews
For audiotaping interviews, we brought a few Zoom H2 audio recorders with us. These little audio recorders provide beautiful sound and noise cancellation even in the noisiest areas in the city. We’ve had students holding the Zoom recorder doing their presentations right next to busy streets, with people talking loudly and walking past, with music all of a sudden blaring from speakers nearby, and although it was sometimes difficult for the humans in attendance to hear what was being said, and the Flip camera audio was impossible to use, the audio from the Zoom H2 recorder was crystal clear and the noise cancellation was first-rate. Anyway, the Flip cameras are great, but they don’t have a line in for a microphone, and besides, I didn’t want to fiddle with all those wires in the middle of a public park. Too many moving parts in the field can cause trouble, especially for novice filmmakers with a skeleton crew. So the idea was to capture the audio and video separately and then merge them post production. This was fixing to become its own little nightmare, with lots of little video interviews to merge with lots of little audio files, which I was thinking we’d have to match up manually. Thankfully, we found a piece of software, called DualEyes, that basically allows you to drag and drop audio from one source and video from another source and it very quickly merges the good sound with the good video, producing great results, even in the harshest conditions. Here’s an example of the video as-is from the Flip camera, and then the video merged with good audio from the Zoom H2 recorder:
A couple of things to note: the weather in St. Petersburg is pretty unpredictable, so there’s always a chance of rain, but not always a chance to reschedule an interview. So our students always carried umbrellas (as did the interviewees) and we usually wrapped the video and audio equipment in plastic, which came in handy more than once.
One of the problems with capturing all this audio and video is what to do with it while you’re in the field. If you plan to capture everything in the field and then come back home to take care of video editing, web development, mapping, etc., then you don’t need to worry about this issue too much. While this is probably fine for a short trip with smaller-scale multimedia projects, a longer stay with a more ambitious multimedia project will probably require at least some multimedia production while in the field. Going light is again an important consideration for me here, and what we did this year was to bring a 13″ MacBook Pro for video editing, multimedia production, web development, etc., and we also took along a small USB/Firewire powered hard drive for backup. We also have with us a USB card reader for importing pictures, transferring files, etc.
This will probably vary drastically depending on where you are going and what sort of access you will require, but in St. Petersburg, we have invested in a USB Modem with unlimited bandwidth so that we have constant, reliable access. Not cheap, but well worth it. Posting photos to Picasa and videos to Youtube can take a long time, so I reserve these chores to bedtime, when I can queue up a bunch of uploads to go all night. These uploads occasionally fail, but with persistence we’ve been able to upload many gigabytes of photos and videos since we’ve arrived. This is not only useful for the students who need to look at the interviews and other work they’ve done so they can plan for future parts of their projects, but it has also been a relief to get as much video and photos up on the internet in case of computer and external hard drive failure or loss.
Again, my ethos this summer is to keep it simple, especially since I’m teaching students how to do their video editing themselves. So besides the aforementioned DualEyes software to help merge video and audio together, the only other software I’m using to any great extent is Apple’s Quicktime, which allows for very simple trimming and minor editing tasks. Once the video is trimmed to the right length, We’ve been uploading videos to Youtube for further editing, like subtitling and annotating.
Well, good photography is kind of important to me when working on a research project that plans on telling a story, and while you see my little Pentax Optio camera in the picture above, that was just the camera I’d bring on rainy days, since it is weather-proof. It can do a few other things, like automatic time-lapse, but let me leave the photography portion of the discussion for my next installment.