Using video in oral history

Case Study: Using video in oral history—
learning from one woman’s experiences

by Joanna Hay

To video or not to video, that is the question.

Oral historians continue to discuss the use of video: its benefits and its pitfalls. There are significant additional costs and technical challenges with video, and oral historians are justifiably cautious about recommending video for projects. Everybody has seen the disastrous results of some video recordings: the floating head, poor composition, and poor sound and light. But there are also the quality projects where the image adds a valuable dimension to the oral history interview.

In this article, I would like to talk about my experiences doing video oral histories. Since video technology is increasingly affordable and accessible, it is rapidly gaining acceptance for oral histories. I came to the oral history arena as a video producer. I’ve been producing video since the early 1990s. In those days I hired a production company that shot in Beta and edited from one inch videotape using a huge linear editing system. By 2000, I had gone digital. I had a Canon XL1 mini-digital video camera and was shooting my own footage for my productions.

At about that time I met Doug Boyd. He worked at the Kentucky Oral History Commission I went to him for audio advice. With DV Mac computers and Final Cut Pro just hitting the market at affordable prices, I ventured into the digital editing realm. Following, there were many long days (and nights) of digital video editing when I cursed Doug Boyd’s name for his complicity in encouraging me to enter this digital world after yet another one of my inadequate 5400 rpm firewire hard drives had died, overloaded with too much video data. But I prevailed and overcame those early digital technology obstacles.

Much later, in 2006, I went to the Kentucky Oral History Commission with a proposal to do my first oral history project on Frankfort’s historic Grand Theatre. The proposal received grant funding and I began doing interviews inside the theatre using video. Concurrently, I took the community scholars training through the Kentucky Folklife Program. This training was invaluable. I learned the requirements for structuring the interview, including the simple task of a unified introduction (i.e. date, who, where, and subject). I realized the importance of having a microphone on both the interviewer and the interviewee. And we practiced techniques for developing and asking good interview questions.

Since then, my video oral history projects have included the Buffalo Trace Distillery Oral History Project in conjunction with the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky and the Cello Collection interviews in conjunction with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG). Each of these projects has had a different set of sound, composition, and lighting challenges.

In his book Doing Oral History, Donald Ritchie asks, “Considering all the expense and problems involved, is videotaping worth the effort?” The new Best Practices for Oral History Guidelines recently released by the Oral History Association emphasize the voice, suggesting that images be captured as appropriate: “Oral historians should use the best digital recording equipment within their means to reproduce the narrator’s voice accurately and if appropriate, other sounds as well as visual images.”

So, to video or not to video?

It still depends on the project, the subject, the location, and the technical expertise available. When I began working on “Stories from the Balcony” about the Grand Theatre in Frankfort, Kentucky, I knew that the visuals of the old theatre were really important and I had the technical skills to videotape the interviews. In addition, I was lucky enough to have access to the rich oral history resources available in Kentucky. So, for this project, video was a must.

The Grand Theatre was a vaudeville house from 1911 to 1941, a B-movie theater that showed a lot of cowboy movies from 1941 to 1966, and then a succession of downtown businesses until a nonprofit group, Save The Grand Theatre Inc., purchased the building. They have since renovated it and opened it as Frankfort’s first Center for the Arts.

As a movie theater in the 1940s to 1960s, the Grand played a particularly important, but controversial, role in the cultural life of Frankfort. For most of those decades it was the only place that African-Americans could go to see a movie; they were relegated to the balcony, while white movie-goers sat on the main level.

By 2006, all of Frankfort was talking about the old Grand Theatre because of the news of its restoration. Everyone had a really interesting story to tell. The Grand Theatre seemed to hold a lore of its own. Since the balcony had been shut off and virtually untouched for nearly 40 years, I had a unique window of opportunity in which to capture oral histories connected to the theater. The seats were gone, but old Milk Duds candy wrappers were still lying on the balcony risers. In the basement, old movie posters were molding on the floor. The main level had changed, but the balcony was frozen in time.

Once the first few interviews were scheduled, I began planning out the details. I decided to do the interview in two parts. First, I would capture the person’s reaction as they looked around the theater for the first time in more than 40 years. Secondly, I would do a sit-down interview. When each person arrived, we chatted for a moment, laughing and setting a relaxed tone. I explained that I was going to clip a cordless microphone on them and that a videographer was going to follow us as we looked around the theater. The cordless microphone was connected to a Sony Z1U HD camera that had an on-board video light.

Then, the discovery began. Most people remembered how the theater used to have two entrances from the street. Blacks would buy their tickets on the right side of the box office and go in the door that led straight to a staircase and the balcony. Whites would buy their tickets on the left and go through the double doors into the main lobby. I showed everyone the main level of the theater first. It wasn’t really recognizable from its days as a theater. Business offices and cubicles had been built and the sloped theater floor had been filled in and leveled. Interviewees who were black they said they’d never been downstairs anyway. For the whites, they remembered sitting downstairs, and a few of them remembered going to the balcony with their black housekeepers when they were children.

Going up the stairs to the balcony with anyone who was African-American was an exciting experience. This is where the light bulbs suddenly started popping. Memories came flooding back and the camera captured it. This strong reaction continued all along the hallway and into the theater balcony where they remembered where they sat, who they were with, what they saw. The walk-around part of the interview usually took about 30 minutes. Then we changed gears and moved to the sit-down interview.

Before the person arrived, I had arranged the interview set, positioning the Canon XL1 camera on a tripod and setting up the shot. I had someone sit in the chair while I worked on the lighting and the framing. The microphones and the mixer had been thoroughly tested, batteries charged and ready to go. We just had to switch the cordless microphone receiver from the Sony camera over to the Canon XL1, leaving the lavaliere microphone on the person. I also put on a lavaliere microphone. We then settled in for interviews that usually lasted between 30 to 90 minutes.

For those sit-down interviews, I normally ran the camera and the sound and as well as conducted the interviews. However, that had its challenges. If you can get someone who knows what they’re doing to run the camera and monitor the sound levels, that would be ideal. You must continually check your shot. People will adjust themselves as the interview progresses. You’ll look at your viewfinder and find that the person has tilted halfway out of the shot or sunk down in the chair.

I separate the two voices onto two audio channels for greater control in post-production. Lavaliere microphones work well but can cause problems. Clothing, jewelry and body movements can create a rustling or clinking sound. I always wear a headset during the interview so I can listen for these kinds of sounds or other distracting noises, such as fans, motors, or people next door. If there is a disruptive technical issue, I pause the interview, fix the problem, and then continue.

I tried quite a few different setups for the sit-down interviews. Some worked better than others. I always want evidence of the location in the shot. For instance, on the wall of the balcony, even though the seats were gone, you could see where someone had painted around the arms of the seats. The pipe railings also established the location. I was the happiest with the balcony setup when the person could look to his or her right and glance up the rows into the balcony or look left toward the screen. You could see the memories appearing across their faces.

But I didn’t end up doing all of the interviews in the balcony. There were some significant problems. First, it was dirty , dusty, and looked really dreary- although the added lighting made the footage valuable enough. Second, I had to run long extension cords. Finally, as winter set in, it was really cold. I did some of the interviews downstairs with the 1940s stenciled motifs as a background. But as the winter deepened, I moved the interviews into the lobby, which was warm. The lobby has a colorful historic wall that looked great as a background. It was from the theater’s first incarnation as a vaudeville house, which added another dimension to the story.

My ultimate goal is to create a one hour documentary out of “Stories from the Balcony,” but in the meantime, interview clips and a short historical film will be put online. The project has received support from the Kentucky Oral History Commission, the Grand Theatre, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women, which has encouraged my continued work on this project. Meanwhile, the full collection is archived at the Kentucky Historical Society, a repository that is able to handle various video formats.

If you are planning to do video interviews, think beyond the camera. And unless you do a lot of video work, get a videographer to assist you. You can get such great consumer camcorders these days but what really counts are the extras — good audio and good lighting. You’ll need a professional tripod with a floating head. And, like any recording equipment, really know your camera. Experiment with the viewfinder, monitor VU meters so you can be sure your sound is not peaking or too low, and study video lighting diagrams online.

Ask yourself why are you doing the interview in the location you have selected. What will the location tell the viewer about the individual and the topic of discussion? Will it add or detract from the history? Can you compose a good shot within the confines of the space? How will you light the person and the room? Harsh shadows or washed-out light are distracting. Really take time with the composition of your shot; check for balance, texture, and color and adjust background objects as needed.

Each project will have a different set of challenges. But all interviews must have excellent sound. Choose your microphones carefully. For instance, if your narrator is a musician or needs to demonstrate an activity, you will have to consider how movement will affect the sound and whether you’ll need a supplemental microphone for the instrument or other activity.

For example, in my recent video interview with Bernard Greenhouse, who plays a beautiful Stradivarius cello, I used an additional condenser microphone dedicated to the cello and I was careful to pin the lavaliere away from the neck of the cello. With the Greenhouse interview, all we planned to achieve was a video oral history interview with the 93-year-old cellist, shot at his house on Cape Cod. But what we got was three days of interviews, students, cello lessons, and boxes of precious letters, photos, and memorabilia from his stellar career. This project is an example of the dimension that video can add, since out of the material shot over those days I have made a beautiful short film. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro will add this film to its cello music collection, use it in presentations, and put the film on its Web site.

I love working with video on these oral history projects. Here are my technical priorities as I do my planning: 1) excellent sound for both interviewer and interviewee, 2) good lighting on the narrator and in the room, 3) a meaningful setting, 4) a well-composed shot, and 5) a reference shot of the narrator, the interviewer and the camera to establish place and circumstance.

Be sure to work closely with a repository in your area that has the capacity to archive your video formats. Video is notoriously fragile and the resulting digital file sizes are too large for some repositories to handle, especially with the proliferation of high definition footage.

The foundation of all oral histories is the story. And the way oral historians are capturing the stories is changing. If done well, a video oral history can not only document the story, but shed additional light on the story through facial expressions, hand gestures, and a physical response to the setting itself. This creates additional uses for the oral history beyond the archive.

As a filmmaker and video producer, using video is a natural for me. For many others, collecting high quality video interviews is doable, even though it is not suitable for all projects. With technical experience, drawing from professional oral history resources in your area, and using best practices, video can tell a great story.

Citation for Article


Hay, J. (2012). Case Study: Using video in oral history—learning from one woman’s experiences. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from


Hay, Joanna. “Case Study: Using video in oral history—learning from one woman’s experiences,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012,

This is a production of the Oral History in the Digital Age Project ( sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).  Please consult for information on rights, licensing, and citation. 

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