Filming in the Field
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Regarding query: http://linguistlist.org/issues/17/17-281.html#1
My deepest gratitude to those who responded to my query about filming in
the field: Olga Lovick, Daniel Everett, Brendan Costello, Thorsten Trippel,
Idrani Roy and Sebastian Nordhoff.
A semi-final draft of the E-MELD School of Best Practices page can be found at:
If you have any suggestions, please feel free to leave a comment on that
page so that future readers of it can benefit from your insights. What
follows is the current text of that page, which summarizes responses to the
Step one: Respect community preferences
When collecting video data in the field, it is vital to understand and
respect the preferences of your language consultants. Some may prefer to be
filmed indoors or outdoors, in seclusion or within the community. In many
cases, speakers are less comfortable around obtrusive gear.
It is also important to understand community reservations about the use of
video data. Some may be entertained by the idea of strangers watching a
videotape of them, others may be horrified by it. Your greatest concern
when collecting data is to respect the wishes of the community.
Step two: Find a filming space
When searching for a filming space, it is important to find an area with
good light, little noise, and enough space for filming. It is important to
face your language consultant while they are speaking, or arrange for
another speaker to interact with them. This ensures more naturalistic data,
but also requires that the recording space be large enough for at least two
people and the filming equipment.
If you're in a small room, you can either use a wideangle lens or sit at
the opposite end of the room with a camera sitting on your lap, adjusting
the camera so that you can easily glance at the view screen while
interacting with your language consultant. If neither of these options are
available in your situation, you must find another location for collecting
useful video data.
Step three: Work with what light and electricity is available
Situations in the field vary greatly. You may be in a community where many
or all buildings have 24-hour electricity and lighting. You may be in a
community where there is no electricity and you must rely on natural
lighting. The full spectrum of possibilities is open; you must make do with
the resources that are available to you.
If you have easy access to electricity and artificial light, you'll have
few constraints on your filming opportunities. You'll likely be able to
film whenever if convenient for your language consultant, plug the camera
into the wall and recharge your camera's batteries as necessary.
However, if you do not have such access, you'll have to plan on recharging
the batteries whenever you have access to electricity and taking extra
batteries. Also, if you don't have access to artificial lighting, your
filming hours may be restricted to daylight hours. Finding locations that
allow enough natural light can be problematic - it's helpful to tour
available locations with your equipment and test to see which offers the
best light, then stick to that location if at all possible.
It is important to understand that the image you see in a viewscreen is not
necessarily identical to the video data that you are collecting. You can
take a shot in low light by changing the exposure on a digital camera.
However, the image on the viewscreen will typically look much better than
the film you are actually recording. Night shot can be used to film in
extremely low light, but is even more prone to looking good in the
viewscreen but being nearly indiscernible in the recording. If you use
either of these methods in filming in the field, it is imperative that you
test it first by viewing the recording on your laptop.
Step four: Frame the shot
When framing the shot, you must consider what sort of analysis you intend
to use the recording for. If you intend to use the recording to conduct a
phonetic study, you should focus on the mouth. You should also consider
using a mirror in order to get front and side views. If you plan to use the
recording for other purposes, you should frame the entire upper body,
allowing extra space for gestures. In this case, you should also frame any
other speakers in the room and yourself, to capture the entire interaction.
Of course, it would be ideal to make a recording that can fulfill either
aim, so if you have the resources, use two cameras and frame the mouth area
with one and the more extended area with the other. No matter what you're
framing, do not use the zoom feature.
Using a tripod ensures a steady shot and enables you to either sit within
the frame or leave the area while data is being collected. Sometimes,
however, the use of such obtrusive equipment inhibits the speakers. If you
are unable to use a tripod, set the camera on a steady surface. Do not try
to follow people's movements while filming - you may pan away from valuable
data and it will make the video very difficult to watch, especially if
viewers prone to motion sickness.
Remember that you are not married to one particular frame - you can adjust
your focus according to the objectives of a particular elicitation session.
It may also be possible to focus specifically on the mouth area by making
an edited copy particularly for phonetic analysis.
Step five: Incorporate audio
Video data without aligned audio data isn't terribly useful. While most
cameras are capable of recording audio data, many times these recordings
are less than optimal. It is therefore important to simultaneously capture
audio data with a separate audio recorder, labeling the tapes carefully to
make it clear that they are aligned with each other. For both the video and
audio recorder, use an external microphone. Take special care to control
for outside noise. If you are filming outside, it is helpful to use a
windscreen for the microphone.
Special considerations for sign languages
If you are studying a sign language, some special considerations must be
made when collecting video data. Because much articulation in sign language
is gestural, it is crucial to frame the shot in order to view the entire
gesture-area of the speaker. However, because a lot of information is
communicated on the speakers face, it is crucial to collect clear images of
the entire face as well. In order to collect usable data, it is important
to be able to view both sets of data clearly; if at all possible, you
should use two cameras, framing one on the face and the other on the total
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