Which is better – video or audio only?

Does the use of video to capture a life story add anything to the integrity of the interview itself?

Image of over-shoulder camcorder with female interviewee
Using a camcorder to record an interview

Traditionally, the spoken word has been captured aurally using an audio recording device; in years gone by this would have been a reel-to-reel audio tape recorder, audio-cassette recorder or – more recently – a digital audio recording device.

However, with the increasing accessibility of low-cost, high-quality video camcorders it’s now common for oral history interviews to be recorded on video. The obvious advantage of this approach is that the individual or organisation undertaking the recording has moving pictures of the interviewee as well as high quality audio.

But what effect does the addition of video have to the nature of the recording itself? How does it affect the dynamic of the interview? Is it likely to affect the quality of the responses? These are important questions to be answered.

The benefit of keeping it simple

You’ll often find that the more established oral history practitioners prefer to record their interviews with only audio equipment. It’s not difficult to understand why. For a start, the only required equipment is an audio recording device, a microphone and a pair of headphones. With this basic set alone, it’s possible to record lengthy interviews while remaining relatively unimposing in the presence of the interviewee.

It also provides for considerable flexibility in the interview situation; do you both sit at a table or in comfy armchairs? If recording in a business setting, can you sit comfortably around a desk while sharing a microphone?

The big advantage of recording in sound only is that it’s just you, the person asking the questions, and the person you hope will provide you with wholesome and meaningful responses to your well-considered questions. Some oral history interviewers prefer to sit opposite their interviewees, face to face, while conversation is underway. Others prefer to sit side-by-side on a sofa with minimal facial contact. The theory is that it affords the interviewee more privacy or room to think without being observed. It’s all a question of acquired, and developed, technique. Whatever works best for you in your quest to acquire the perfect recorded interview is your best practice.

Adding another dimension

As you can see, the use of audio recording equipment alone in the recording of an oral history interview is quite straightforward and – let’s be honest – relatively unimposing. Once you’ve engaged your interviewee in conversation and he or she is started to enjoy it, the presence of the equipment will most likely be forgotten.

However, as soon as you introduce video equipment into the setting, you immediately introduce another level of complexity to the exercise. While it’s true to say that professional-quality video equipment is now much smaller and inconspicuous that it was in – say – 2005 – the fact that you need more than just a video camera or camcorder means that you’re entering new territory. But why?

Well, for a start you need more than just the video camera; of course, it’s possible to record your interview while manually holding the camera as you engage in conversation but it’s not ideal for all sorts of reasons. A very good reason for your not adopting this approach is that it’s aesthetically and practically advantageous to mount the camera on a firm platform during recording. In other words, it really ought to be mounted on a tripod. Then you need to think about audio; the camera’s built-in microphone will be insufficient and will definitely not do the same job as would the mic on a portable audio recorder simply because it won’t be as close to the source of the sound (the interviewee’s voice). You’ll therefore need a separate microphone which should be plugged in to the camera. And, just as you would for audio-only recording, you also need to be able to monitor the recording as you’re making it, which entails the use of headphones which are also connected to the appropriate socket on the camcera or camcorder – assuming it has one.

In some cases, you may even need to consider adding some additional sources of light. This is particularly true if your choice of location doesn’t provide much natural light. Are you getting the general picture?

The art of looking as well as listening

If you have experience of recording oral history interviews using audio recording techniques only you’ll be aware that you have a constant need to be listening not only to what your interviewee is saying but also to other sounds that occur around you. You’ll know, for instance, that if the budgie starts chirping, the dog barks loudly or an express train rumbles past the back garden you’ll probably need to pause and ask the question once again.

Image of man being interviewed with audio recorder on desk
An interview is much easier when conducted in sound only!

Even if you’ve chosen the most basic, lightweight, equipment it will still require setting up before you can record. Whereas it’s possible to record audio anywhere that’s quiet and comfortable, the video camera requires some planning in terms of where you’ll both be seated; will you be recording against a background of clutter or where there’s a number of imposing objects that will only serve to distract the viewer?

Ask yourself whether the light good enough for filming. Are you thinking of shooting against a bright window (bleaching out the lens when the sun is at its strongest) or in a dark and murky looking corner? Will the light and sound be consistent during your recording?

In short, the introduction of video into the equation brings with it another set of problems – problems that you cannot afford to ignore if you hope to secure a good set of interview recordings that will serve their purpose by engaging your audiences and adding to an invaluable oral history archive.

Think carefully before embarking on your chosen task of using video in this context!

(Images source: Flickr. Subject to Creative Commons usage guidelines)

About Colin 6 Articles
Creator of video-based content since 1970s - shooting and editing video, writing books and articles about it, training others to do it and all that. Experienced in the use of video in social and community settings.