Monday, April 14, 2014

Tedious Work with Big Results: The Technicalities of Digital Oral History

Jordan at the Final Cut Pro station, editing clips from Keith Brooks' interview

Jordan Weber is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin and a TAVP Human Rights & Archives intern this semester. Read more about Jordan in the Meet the Interns post! 

This post is part of our series titled Digital archives internship (also tagged as Archiving the death penalty), where TAVP interns publish their reflections on processing the TAVP collection. Check back for future posts. 

Tedious Work with Big Results: The Technicalities of Digital Oral History 
by Jordan Weber

Throughout the course of my internship experience with Texas After Violence Project, I have been fascinated and fully engaged with the topic and content of materials that TAVP has compiled over the course of its existence. As a burgeoning human rights advocate, I have felt honored to be able to hear, and, in some indirect way, experience, the deeply personal and important stories of ordinary Texans who have been affected by the death penalty. 

Despite my interest in the subject matter, I have been challenged by the detailed and tedious work that is often involved in oral history projects like TAVP. However, with guidance and practice, I have experienced the satisfaction of producing final transcripts and edited videos, and through this experience have learned about the significance of the vision of compiling a popular history of Texas and the death penalty.

I was first confronted with the minute amount of detail involved in oral history work on  my first day with TAVP earlier this year. Our first day, my fellow interns and I were familiarized with the task of formatting, which entailed taking completed transcripts and making them conform to a set of pre-fixed and standardized aesthetic guidelines, including rules for margins, for header and footer, for font size and even a rule for the use of em-dash to indicate a break in thought by narrator or interviewer. 

(click on 'Read More' below to read Jordan's entire post)
A screenshot of a portion of the formatted transcript of Keith Brooks' interview

At first I was confused by the sheer amount of attention that must be paid to this specific task, but soon came to realize that the way an interview looks on the page--and the conventions we use to shape the transcript--is deeply connected to the reader's experience. Later that week, we were tasked with transcribing from scratch. This task involved a variety of challenges--from carefully listening to every word of an interview, determining which individual sounds or filler words to include or exclude, to following and documenting thoughts that had no clear ending. Transcribing was by far the most challenging for me throughout this project. But, at the end of transcribing my particular interview with Keith Brooks, son of the first man executed by lethal injection in the United States, I took pride is my role in conveying Keith's words on the page. 

This week, I have been reacquainted with the kind of detail at the core of oral history work, but this time in a more technical manner. I have been learning to use the video editing software Final Cut Pro in order to cut featured clips from Keith's interview to upload on YouTube and include on his narrator page on the TAVP website. I had a lot of material to choose from in Keith's rich interview, but actually making the clips was an exercise in patience.

Screenshot of Keith Brooks' interview in Final Cut Pro editing software

Learning how to use the video editing software--the razor blade tool to cut with sharp accuracy, the arrow tool to select and move clips of all sizes; the various types of transitions (fade in fade out dissolve; cross dissolve; additive dissolve); the rendering process, etc. involved a minute amount of detail that was sometimes, frankly, frustrating. However, once I was able to view the clips--tangible products that will be used to educate the public about the history and effects of the death penalty in our state--I immediately realized that the attention I had paid was more than worth it. 

Keith Brooks on the death penalty

In the clip shared here, Keith shares the ways an execution leaves a legacy that affects those left behind. To create this excerpt, I had to edit together two separate parts from Keith's interview, and make choices about what to leave in and take out to produce the most concise, but faithful, rendering of his ideas. As I was preparing the clip, I was very aware of the ways my editing would shape the flow of the narrator's thoughts. 

In certain ways, the nature of an oral history interview--which allows for a slow and reflective pace, repetition, and nonlinearity--is counter to the sound bite one feels pressured to produce for the YouTube context. I had to balance my desire to remain faithful to the interview and yet also create a digestible nugget for our YouTube audience. I spent quite a lot of time moving the cursor millisecond by millisecond to find the right place to pause for a cut or transition.

Although becoming acquainted with the everyday realities of oral history has been a challenge, I feel lucky to be able to do so. Not only does it allow me to more deeply interact with the material, it also gives me a chance to be directly involved in creating, managing and preserving an oral history record. 

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