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Summary

Digital Story Title: Clio and the Camera

Brief description:

Clio and the Camera is the story of how historical documentaries became standardized by the 1990′s. It will explore the development of the use of historical visual and material evidence to educate and influence public opinion and argue that these developments arose from a combination of technical and economic possibilities and limitations, audience demands, and the relationship between academic history and the public.

Main goal(s):

To show patterns of innovation and standardization in a particular form of public history, film and video.

To explain how historical evidence and narrative storytelling has been used to educate and influence the public.

To trace technical developments in film and video production and assess their impact on the presentation of historical evidence and the construction of historical narratives.

Who is your intended audience?

This work is intended to be accessible to a general audience. However, it will be of specific interest to students and professionals involved in historical interpretation for a general audience, specifically those implementing multi-media for source material and presentation.

Category: Final Summary  Comments off
Copyright confuses me

Copyright affects digital storytelling in two ways. First it affects the content of the stories themselves, and second it affects how the stories might be used after they are produced and ‘published’. As far as content goes, it seems like a good guideline is that if you are going to have copyrighted material in your story, you should be using it for something. Apparently, if have the Simpsons playing in the background, that’s dangerous, but if you are discussing the impact of prime-time network cartoons on commercial television, then you are in the realm of Fair Use. At Central Virginia’s Public Television they used to say, “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness, than permission.” This is probably not very good advice, but it is much easier for a copyright holder to know that you want to use something if you point it out to them. There seem to be more pre-release copyright stories than post.

For anyone interested in using film or television works, I can tell you it’s a lot easier to just study government films (but not as exciting). I have been spending a lot of time at the Film and Television sections of the Library of Congress (whose collections is primarily copyrighted or previously copyrighted works) and the National Archives (whose collection is primarily public-domanin government documents and donated materials). At the Library of Congress, it takes about a week, sometimes two, to get the films. You are not allowed to have recording devices in the viewing area. You have to have copies made by the LOC which takes a minimum of three weeks, (that’s ‘rushed’) and it costs around a two hundred dollars for a feature film length copy, not rushed. That’s if you can get copyright approval (luckily the office is down the hall), or permission from the copyright holder (correspondence can take a while).

On the other hand, at the National Archives, almost everything is already copied. You take tapes off the shelf yourself and they have DVD recorders attached to the tape machines. Outside recording devices are also allowed. For the donated materials, there is a little sticker on the box that says ‘materials may be copyrighted.’ I prefer the ‘use at your own risk’ approach. Anyway, copyright restricts access to historical materials. I’m not sure this impacts scholarship or documentary making to much of a degree, but it might? I will probably never profit off anything that I make, but guess I wouldn’t like it much if someone else did. Actually, if someone had the means to distribute my work and make money off of it, I’m not sure that I would mind. I would never be able to figure out how to use my digital story to sell Clorox.

The publishing part is a little confusing for me, but it seems clear that copyright law has little interest in protecting works that are published and not copyrighted, or not renewed. Thus, all the awesome B movies available online, which distracted me from the readings a bit. Creative Commons seems like a good solution. I walk by the copyright office all of the time, but I don’t think I will ever be depositing. What a hassle.

Progress Report

I have collected a number of documentary video sources and stills which will serve as the base of my project. I have been slowly trying to replace what was scripted as voice-over narration with video clips that say a similar thing. After storyboarding, I realized that my current mash up of source clips goal may be a little too…out there? So I decided that I would like to include some interviews with experts. (I am going to the OAH anyway) Interviews will break up the clip stream, and hopefully guide my storyline.

Smashing together talking heads is familiar to me. It puts me in a comfort zone. Using experts takes the pressure off of me. I mean, they said it right? I’m just the middle man. And to be honest, this would make it look like I did more work.
My original plan was to try to use as much source material as possible. I wanted to do a sort of zen, let the sources-speak-type mash up. After story-boarding, I was afraid that it would look like I didn’t do anything but slap together some clips and maybe I would lose any semblance of an argument or thread. So, I am at a crossroads a bit…

Either I can take a risk at weird genius video editing of old footage to tell a story (fairly open to interpretation) about history and film/video, or I can err on the side of caution and have a familiar balance of sources and interviews, with a clear identifiable interpretive focus. I’m sure that the answer is somewhere in between, as usual. Isn’t Tina doing two? I think I’ll do that as well.

Interactive Storytelling

Storytelling in an interactive environment can be as simple as making a relatively closed narrative available for reuse, like embedding a video on a social networking site, or more open to critique, for example, commenting on a blog. It can also be more complex, allowing for multiple authors, collaborating without the limits of time and space or as part of a puzzle or game space. A story can unfold through user choices in multiple environments.

In Alternate Reality Gaming, a story can exist over a number of websites as well as in the ‘real’ world of physical spaces, museums, phone booths, billboards. As Evan’s Thesis points out, game spaces do not often hold the same storytelling power as say, films, which depend heavily on voyeurism, identification with certain characters, narrative closure, and a host of other techniques in which the viewer becomes immersed as a spectator.

Not all storytelling in an interactive environment challenges the traditional role of reader or spectator. Breaking Ulysses into micro-chunks on twitter only effects the transmission of the story, challenging narrative coherence. Some storytelling might hold up better to fragmentation before becoming incoherent than James Joyce. Academic work might even benefit from increased fragmentation.

The Stolen Time Archive, in Vector’s Journal, is a good example of how academic writing can change in a digital environment. The emphasis in this project is on argumentation as part of a process of analysis and conjecture, rather than as a tool in service of a conclusion. Like much current digital scholarship, or historical scholarship, generally, Alice Gambrell’s work is based on an archive of materials, which can accessed through a list or a collage. All of the items have at least two rather disparate interpretations that reflect strands of current scholarship and develop sophisticated and coherent arguments. In contrast to text scholarship, the interpretation of primary source material appears more open and contingent. The reader may look at the archival material directly, before experiencing the context of the academic arguments. Digital presentation allows the creator to present competing interpretations without ultimately concluding that one is more ‘correct’ for the primary source.

Film on History, History on Film

The film and history communities have produced volumes of work on the filmic presentation of the past. The majority of this work concentrates on dramatic feature films. Though not as widely seen as Hollywood films, the evolution and development of the non-fiction or documentary film and its relationship to depiction of history is also relevant. While technological changes, like the advent of sound, and the influence of other disciplines, like theater and journalism, changed the content and form of early history non-fiction films, their authors chose to create narratives, formally and functionally, that reflected contemporary ideas about history.

I intend to show how the modes used in historical non-fiction films reflect ideas about narrative authority, storytelling conventions, temporality, causation, and counter-narrative construction. By analyzing the first historical re-creation films, omnipotent narration, expert interviewees, dramatic techniques, and the challenge of filmed archival evidence, I will argue that the struggle to depict history on film reflects the contingency of and shifting patterns within narrative, academic, and popular authority and its relationship to the past.

Teaching and Learning

Animoto is a very easy way to produce a pretty slick video.  I was surprised at many of the results.  Since it is limiting in ways, it proves that authors have to bend their strategies to certain mediums.  The videos that Animoto produces are very meditative.  McLuhan didn’t just say the medium is the message, he also said the medium is the massage.  This was my attempt at massaging in a few simple points.

It’s not a breakthrough or anything and might seem a little disjointed.  That’s my attempt at trying to get at the magic of animoto.  I am hesitant to say what the video is about, because I hoped being vague would make it seem more deep.  I wanted to show that, despite early attempts to ‘train minds’, the old media encouraged passivity.  Movies are a teacher that needs to be replaced, by a medium that can respond better to its audience.  The ‘found’ narrator is James Burke, and I think this video is from the late 80s or early 90s.  Now, his argument seems pretty obvious, but I am not sure if his prediction has quite come true.  Oh, and teachers shouldn’t have their students close their laptops or shut off their phones.  Also, a classroom can and should be democratic.  I tried to edit this one to make it a little better, but it just ended up worse.  I really didn’t mean to infer that Jack Black was the future of teaching and the ending is both more repetitive and abrupt that I would like, but here it is.

Category: W5: Animoto  7 Comments
Dramatizing the Past

Murder at Harvard is the dramatization of a past event based on incomplete historical evidence.  The work is an attempt to explore an historical mystery while also investigating the ‘making’ of history.  It is based rather loosely on the book by Simon Schama.  Given the time constraints of making a television program, all of the material covered in the book would be impossible to present.  Therefore, the makers departed significantly from the book in terms of the breadth of historical insight as well as the granular detail of Schama’s story.

One thing that struck me about this book/television combo however, is that it departs from many book-to-documentary presentations by being more transparent about historical knowledge and story telling than the text version.  Most history books are heavily footnoted, Dead Certainties is not.  Most non-fiction films obscure the process of their creation, but Murder at Harvard invites the viewer to engage with a number of interpretations and historical contingency.  The film’s historical recreation is generally more compact and precise than Schama’s, again due to time restraints.  But the docu-drama still seems unique because, while the medium would seem to invite a more dramatic experience than text, I found the book more suspenseful and dramatic and the visually oriented version to be more intellectually engaging.

Schama’s book, unlike many works of history, and similar to the popular format of a murder mystery, depends largely on suspense and the predictions on the part of the reader.  Few historical documentaries invite speculation on the part of the viewer.  In the context of PBS, the British TV murder mysteries (Mystery) probably invite more participation than American Experience does.  Murder mysteries are dreadfully formulaic, I know, but there is a teasing out which particular formula might be or is being used.  So, formulas are a very important part of the analysis of media, text being no exception.  What are the formula’s at work in Murder at Harvard?  Well, there are the oppositional talking heads, a must for any documentary.  It is extremely important that those on different sides are framed oppositely, and consistently.  Wide to wide, close to close.  Left, right, left, right.  Also, lest we look at scholars too long, their comments should be visually covered with archival photographs.  The minor detail that the actors in the recreation barely match the overused photographs will likely be forgiven by the audience, who is accustomed to this technique.  Also, intermittent teases are of the utmost importance.  Viewers apparently get bored with talking heads and it is necessary to break up a television show every ten minutes or so with a question-like tease, preferably from the over-arching narrator.

I may seem overly critical, but I am analyzing not criticizing.  If, while making a television show, one were to disregard convention altogether, the entire point or argument would likely be lost.  Television has a language, it has specific visual cues, dim lighting, (which you may have noticed), bright lighting, natural sounds, (shoveling?), etc.   Murder at Harvard has the difficult task of treading on fiction-film territory, which has a different language, and from my perspective a more complex one.  Documentary filmmakers are not particularly well versed in dramatic conventions, which is why Murder at Harvard‘s recreations are probably the weakest part of the film.  Doc TV folks use narrator teases for tension, or open ended ‘talking-head’ voiceover prompts, more often than lighting changes or eyebrow close-ups.  Either way, like Hitchcock said, it helps to have to have a ticking time bomb.  I applaud the film directors with engaging with historical disputes and temporal contingencies and feel that the film is an important contribution to understanding the professional critique of primary source material, or rather how historians might do ‘what they do’.  American Experience(s) are usually less forthright about the workings of narrative making, by themselves or others.

Still, the film rings pretty authoritarian.  We ‘know’ who done it.  And even if one doesn’t know who Schama and Haltunnen are, they are pretty academic types.

As an aside…if it were left to me, I would have sold the whole affair as an episode of Mystery using professional actors and fiction directors in a multi-view dramatization with a docu-segment at the end about the ‘true story’ and how the different viewpoints were developed by an historian, rather than adapting the story to an American Experience format, which seems to only bring success if one is a Ken Burns clone.  I would like to point out that, generally, success in public television is not gauged by viewership or the amount of underwriter support.  Though you might occasionally see Ken Burns described as the filmmaker who pulls the largest audience, you will rarely hear his name without award-winning preceding it.  Furthermore, at the expense of using this as a forum for some sort of animosity, I heard they look through a Ken Burns filter when judging historical documentaries for awards.   Burns has no Academy Awards, though.  It’s television after all.  Knowing a little about lighting is a very important asset for video-makers.  Shadows can have many layers.  In focusing the many lights on historical documentaries, I get the impression that it’s not the historians who do the trick, as large as personalities like Schama’s may seem to loom.

Category: W4: Murder at Harvard  Comments off
Defining Digital Storytelling

If google results are any indication, ‘digital storytelling’ is a fairly well defined entity. The University of Houston site outlines how to use digital storytelling for teaching and as a learning exercise. Their suggestions, rules, and guidelines are based on those of the Center for Digital Storytelling at Berkeley.  It seems most people construct ‘digital stories’ as part of an assignment that teaches them to use audio and video as primary source material or as a way to rather quickly present an argument with multi-media.

To tell the truth I don’t see much difference between the methodology of digital storytelling and historical documentaries produced for television broadcast. The former, having the advantage of being more easily produced and distributed, are surely at a huge disadvantage in terms of attracting audiences. Historical documentaries use interviews, archival footage and narrative voice-over to make arguments. This seems also to be the major thrust of digital storytelling. The argument does seem to be of more importance in digital storytelling, or at least seems less obscured than the historical documentary’s often inevitable seeming conclusion. However, digital storytelling inherits many of the problems of the historical documentary, particularly in terms of narrative authority, causation, and the use of experience as evidence. Like its linear counterpart, writing, the choice of evidence and its arrangement in documentary often suggests a causation that may be questionable or presentist. Also, the Center for Digital Storytelling encourages participatory production methods, surely an unsettling issue for academics who prize critical distance in analysis. In short, the digital story as it is currently being defined seems to take advantage of online materials and the ease which software allows them to be arranged and interpreted, but doesn’t offer much in the way of new interpretation methods.

I myself recall the time-consuming matter of driving to archives, setting up an easel, and videotaping documents, then copying the video footage to the tape on which my interview or voiceover audio was recorded. Digital storytelling is faster, no doubt, but those setting the rules seem to downplay some of the other advantages of the digital. Those that allow evidence to be annotated, linked or footnoted instead of buried in the credits. Those that might question voice-overs as authority, break down narrative structures, present fuller and more varied patterns of causation, or even deny causation altogether.  For many of us, I’m pretty sure it’s time to stop making the rules and start breaking them.

Defensive

Category: W3: 5 Photos  2 Comments
Tracking Theory, Terminal Time, and Closer

Note:  Links to the first two projects are completely optional views.

My favorite digital story is Eric Faden’s Tracking Theory:  The Synthetic Philosophy of the Glance, published in the Perception Issue of Vectors Journal:

The Synthetic Philosophy of The Glance derives from a quote by 19th century French writer Benjamin Gastineau describing a new type of perception initiated by rail travel.

Scholar Wolfgang Schivelsbusch noted this new perception–what he called “Panoramic Perception”–was especially suited to new visual technologies like cinema that could effortlessly and instantly move across space and time with a simple cut. The film explores how the railroad and cinema changed human perception in the late 19th century.

This work is what Faden calls a “media stylo”.  It works like a historical documentary, but puts a fairly unique spin on reenactment and archival footage, which is documented in a ‘Behind the Scenes’ section:

The Synthetic Philosophy of The Glance plays with the idea that early cinema had numerous functions beyond storytelling and imagines what an early “essay” film might be like. Rather than exclusively repurposing original early films, we simulated early cinema’s look and texture by compositing live action video with vintage photographs.

But…this work is 12 minutes long, so I went searching for another digital story for my blog post.  During my search, I found the Terminal Time project from 1999-2000:

Terminal Time is a cutting edge, audience-powered history engine combining mass participation, reel-time documentary graphics and artificial intelligence to bring you the history you deserve.  Each half-hour cinematic experience is custom-made to YOUR values, biases and desires and covers one thousand years of human history.

This project, however, was a live action experience and the content is not saved on the site.  Furthermore, the user driven products were thirty minutes.  Still, I couldn’t resist linking to it and thought this was as good a time as any.

I looked at some other academic type works, but decided to post on a fairly widely seen video, at almost a million and a half youtube views. Since it was a featured selection at last year’s 24/7 a DIY Video Summit at USC, I’ve deemed this pop culture artifact a digital story worth analyzing. I’m sure most of you have seen this sort of “vid” or “fanvid” on youtube.  They are basically music videos which reassemble or mash up source material to provide an alternate take on a movie or television show’s plot or characterization. This one is called Closer.

It uses clips from an episode, or perhaps a couple of episodes, of Star Trek to suggest sexual tension and unrequited desire between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. From my understanding, this love affair is a long standing practice in written fan fiction, which uses characters from popular television, often Star Trek, as the basis for new, fan generated stories. Through visual juxtaposition of shots and provocative soundtrack, the story is laid out quickly. The video is made to fit the length of the song, and goes on a little longer than the story probably needs. For an entire three and a half minute video, a little more of a story might have been developed, but Closer serves as a good, clear, example of how “fanvids” tell stories.

First, the video begins with a prompt.: “What if they hadn’t made it to Vulcan in time?” This sets up the video as an exercise in counter-factual thinking, if we suspend our idea of facts/past actions to include the events which occurred in the original episode. In this context, we can assume that’s fair. I find this interesting because one of the lauded abilities of documentary film is its ability to provide a counter-history, primarily by introducing new evidence. Closer does not provide any new evidence, but instead calls attention to the more overarching power of any filmic product, the assembly of shots.

In this case, the same source material is rearranged to tell an alternate story. The original is also altered by video effects, which pull the images slightly out of context and give them a tone more aligned with the soundtrack. The sepia tone and shutter flashes also give the video a somewhat archival or dreamlike quality, which adds to the overall tone. Finally, the video works because it uses characters which are extremely familiar in popular culture, Kirk and Spock, but a theme that is a little less common, male homosexual love affairs. If the story-tellers had assembled a series of shots with Kirk and his numerous female love interests, that would be cliche and fairly uninteresting. A buddy song with Kirk and Spock would be an equal bore.

By using images and characters with which viewers would be familiar and perhaps identify with in some ways and putting them off-axis the videomakers create drama without having to create their own characters, film their own scenes, or even provide their own score.  This exercise might seem fairly simple, but there are many examples of fanvids of this sort that completely miss the mark.