How to Film in the Field

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Video data provides the unique opportunity to study extra-linguistic communicators, such as gesticulations, and to analyze mouth movements after the field season. Futhermore, when studying sign languages, it provides the data necessary to witness speech. As video recorders become increasingly affordable and physically managable, more and more linguists are opting to take them into the field.

However, filming in the field creates a whole new bundle of considerations to be made. In this part of the School, we attempt to identify these concerns and outline some of the crucial factors involved.

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.

It can be especially difficult to get human subject approval for fieldwork when video data is involved. It is crucial to approach each step of fieldwork with ethics in mind, so care must be taken to collect video data appropriately. For more information on obtaining ethical approval, visit the Ethics Section of the Classroom.

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 are 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. You should never rely upon the built in mic on a video camera, and you should simultaneously capture audio data with a separate audio recorder, labelling the tapes carefully to make it clear that they are aligned with each other. When recording audio and video data simultaneously, it is important to have a way of synchronizing the recordings. This can easily be done by clapping at the beginning of each session. Lining up the recordings also enables you to see whether the sampling rates for the two recorders differ.

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. Also, to cut down on mechanical noise, it is important to use soft mounts or a lapel mic, rather than attaching a mic directly to the video or audio recorder.

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 speaker's 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 gesture-area.

Other considerations

Along with the general information given above, some specific things to be mindful of are:

For more information about filming in the field, check the Reading Room.

The content of this page was developed following the recommendations from respondents to a LINGUIST List query, including Olga Lovick, Daniel Everett, Brendan Costello, Thorsten Trippel, Indrani Roy, Mike Cahill, Sebastian Nordhoff, Tanya Matthews and Tim Thornes.

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Filming in the Field
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