Monday, May 12, 2014

Lights! Camera! Action!

Ladies and gentleman, yours truly has made her directorial debut! My major professional organization, the American Association for the History of Medicine, is trying to find ways to join the 21st century, as it were, by supporting digital humanities. That includes a revamped website, a blog, live tweeting during the conference, and a call for short films on medical history topics. I took an episode from one of the chapters in my dissertation to compose the following 3-minute piece. It represents three days' worth of work between the dissertation deposit deadline and the film submission deadline. My efforts were nearly ruined by uncooperative video capture software and a thunderstorm that threatened to foil my attempts to record the voice track. The finished product isn't bad for an inaugural cinematic attempt, if I do say so myself.

Mine was one of five works selected for a special screening (with popcorn!) on the first night of the conference, so I also sat on a panel with the two organizers and one other auteur, who managed to condense his entire book into three 3-minute clips(!). His and another submission by a graduate student were beautiful, almost cinematic. Mine and one from a professor were more basic Power-Point types with a voice over. A gorgeous cartoon advertising an online resource capped it all off.

The session was well attended, with 50-60 people squeezing into a narrow hotel conference room to debate the de/merits of digital shorts and podcasts in teaching and conferencing. How do we ensure students use open-access material or teach proper citation? How long does it take to make one of these? What about the risk of making the subject "too cartoonish"? Aren't there still barriers to using and accessing these technologies--say, for students who can't afford their own laptop, or those with audiovisual disabilities?

For my part, the exercise taught me that it really is possible to say something worth saying in only one page of double-spaced text--just four short paragraphs. What took the longest for me was coming up with an interesting question that could be answered with visual cues in the time allotted. What took the second longest was being unable to resist the urge to immediately open Power Point and start creating slides. I should have researched and written the script first, to save the time I spent animating two slides that didn't make the final cut.

At first I had worried that my short would look "too cartoonish" with all that Clip Art, but then I decided that its visual aesthetic of bright colors fits the subject. Audience members shared during the Q&A that the features that really stuck out to them from all the films were movement, sound, and humor. For instance, the red Xs are humorous but also effective, because they include an audible cue. I agreed that far from being "cartoonish," that effect draws on a common "vernacular language" and actually makes the historical point more easily comprehensible to non-historians.

At the very least, this project made one interesting episode from my dissertation research available to a much wider audience than the chapter on which it is based. I am not convinced that all the work that scholars do needs a general audience; sometimes we talk to each other to introduce, develop, or challenge ideas. But surely some of the insights we garner should be widely disseminated, as we contribute to the fund of historical knowledge. I will definitely come back to this genre in the future.

As a concluding thought, one of things I will work on is the audio. I have a lot of public speaking experience and think I read aloud well, but I found with this project that the range of my voice is too wide to make a good audio track, so the low register tends to drop off. I probably should have been a little closer to the microphone, too. This produced some interesting results when YouTube generated the automatic captions, which included such memorable lines as "and snow they exploited the specs tickling" and "skiing some and oil rest boat." I've edited the captions so they fit now, and it's something to remember for next time. I hope you'll come back to read and watch more!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your comments let me know that I am not just releasing these thoughts into the Ether...