Why does digital video matter?
Virtually all History teachers have their own video collection. Video is such a terrific resource for History. There is nothing quite so engaging for students as seeing actual events unfold. Moving images are extremely effective in conveying a sense of ‘being there’. Real people do real things, even if it is often in silence. Students get a feel for what it might have been like to have been there, because moving images convey body language, facial expressions, a hint of atmosphere.
However, one curious thing about the use of moving image in the classroom is that there is often a contrast between the way it is used and the way other original source material is used. Teachers of History, Citizenship, Media Studies, English and many other subjects all look in detail at media products:
* Text based reports are analysed in detail. History students are well versed in the art of hunting for and isolating examples of language which gives away the aims or background of an author and casts doubt on how far we can accept at face value what we are being told.
* Photographs are scrutinised carefully for evidence of tampering. They are assessed in terms of whether they isolate a point in time and exaggerate an event or development in context with the events preceding and following it.
* Cartoons are analysed to the deepest levels. Most history students can spot caricature, exaggeration and similar techniques, as well as being able to identify the messages being conveyed through these imperfections.
Moving image is generally not scrutinised in the same way in our classrooms. It has traditionally carried an authority which in some cases is deserved, and in some cases is not. If we think about landmark television series such as The World At War or even many schools TV programmes in the 1980s and 1990s they were effectively radio programmes with moving pictures. The moving images were present solely to provide a visual representation of the narrative which had been written independently of those moving images. In some instances they did show the events being described in the narrative, but not always. We also now know that in some series distinct liberties were taken with the original footage. For example, in at least one series on the Great War certain pieces of film so that in the Great War British forces always fought from left to right and Germans vice versa.
Rightly or wrongly, we have tended to ignore the fact that film is just as much an authored medium as those alluded to above. British Pathe newsreels have been manipulated by film makers, but of course they carry their own agenda as well. Pathe clips from the 1930s or the Great War might not be as blatantly manipulated as the news media in the Communist states during the Cold War, they nonetheless have an agenda and a message behind them. Technology has now caught up with our analytical skills and has given us the tools to tackle this source in new ways.
Where to find digital video resources
It seems fairly obvious that before we can exploit this new technology and achieve the lofty aims set out in the previous paragraphs then we need to know where we can get hold of digital video resources.
Ad hoc access to digital video: PC TV and PVR
If you are a little bit technically minded, you may wish to consider PC TV software. This involves a special card in your computer and specialist software. If you are buying a new computer this facility is sometimes provided as an option in the package you buy. Alternatively you can purchase a Personal Video Recorder (PVR) which plugs into one of the ports of your computer. These options allow you to receive TV programmes on your computer. You can also watch programmes from a VHS on your computer screen. You can save the programmes to your hard disk, take still shots from the programmes and with the right editing software you can create edited highlights. The great advantage of this is the ease of showing short clips from different sources. An increasing number of companies now supply this equipment. Two well established companies are Hauppage and Pinnacly Systems
A far easier way to access large collections of digital video material is via the British Pathe web site (http://www.britishpathe.com/). This site contains a huge catalogue of thousands of news clips which start in the 1890s and end in the 1970s. It is easy to search and schools in England and Wales are able to access high quality clips without the watermark free of charge. This is one of the most exciting resources to become available to History teachers in many years. There is also an excellent support web site for Pathe called Shapes of Time.
The Hulton Archive is a large collection of still images but also holds a large collection of downloadable moving images, with similar restrictions to British Pathe. As it is an American archive it is especially useful to schools examining 20th century American history.
German Archive Videos
This site is similar in structure and aim to the British Pathe web site. It is all in German and so it can be a little hard to navigate, but perseverance will be well rewarded with a marvellous collection of archive material. Downloads are only available at preview quality, so can be a bit fuzzy.
The National Archives Learning Curve
Many Learning Curve exhibitions contain moving image clips as sources. The Home Front 1939-45 contains a wide range of newsreel clips, information films and assorted morale boosting productions on a wide range of aspects of WW2. The new exhibition on the Cold War contains audio and video clips relating to many different aspects of the Cold War. They are primarily news based clips but they range from interviews with refugees from East Berlin to a North Korean film giving that perspective on the Korean War. In addition to the Exhibitions there is also a special section of the site devoted to moving image sources called Onfilm. Onfilm is divided into two main sections, a Film Archive and an Activities section. The Film Archive pulls together a range of clips from different sources and organises them under standard curriculum headings.
As you might expect, the BBC has a collection of video clips relating to history. They are mostly from the Simon Schama History of Britain series. There’s no doubt they are well chosen, and the transformation of a modern church to its pre Reformation glory is worth waiting the time it takes to load up. It’s also one of the few places where digital video material relating to history is not solely confined to the 20th century. If you are looking specifically for video materials, then your best approach is to go though the History Multimedia Zone.
This index page will take you to the video collections and also the various animations, games, audio collections and other multimedia goodies on offer.
With so many free sources of digital video available it may seem wasteful to consider spending money n commercial resources. The publishers of such resources are aware of this, and have created products which add value to the collections of clips they hold. One way in which they add value is the higher quality of clip available on CD ROM as opposed to an online connection. Another is the provision of an educational pathway through the material and ideas for the use of the material.
Channel 4 Clipbank
Currently only on CD ROM but with plans to be an online service as well
Nelson Thornes History Live
History Live is a commercial resource published by Nelson Thornes. It consists of a large collection of clips from the ITN archive on CD. It is organised into 12 assignments and accessed by a content management system.
Digital video as a resource for teaching and learning
Although useful, having access to collections of video clips will not teach any student or encourage students to think critically about moving images as a source. As with any other resource, digital video needs to be used in a planned and structured way.
Activities using digital video
Digital video is an excellent resource for starting off a lesson. It can also be useful in illustrating events and even attitudes in a way that reading or talking cannot. Obscure clips can be useful in puzzling and intriguing students and getting them wondering what the explanation is for the activity being shown. With careful questioning a teacher can use a small batch of digital video clips and a data projector to really good effect. Some possible questions are:
* How realistic was the reportage?
* What was the aim of the reportage?
* What insight do films give us into contemporary values and thoughts?
* How are/were films made?
* What did the audience want/enjoy?
* Is there more to archive film than moving wallpaper?
* Compare the film with your own knowledge of the historical period shown.
* How has the film added to your understanding of the period?
* Do you think there is anything important that has been left out?
* How does the film represent the main historical characters and groups?
* Why do you think they were represented in the way they were?
* Make a list of the advantages and disadvantages of the film as a resource for historians.
* What do you think was the filmmaker's point of view?
Apart from questioning, there are many different activities involving digital video which might be termed theoretical, practical or potentially either one.
Make a news report from the time
Make a guide to using film sources
Documentary from present day perspective (about the events, about the film)
Demonstrate that film / history is a construct – take liberties
Transposing styles of film making / reportage
Create a storyboard from clips (reverse storyboarding)
Analyse relationship between film and other sources in other media
Would clip X be made today?
Storyboard your own film
Analyse a clip as you would any other kind of source
Add music, soundtracks etc
Create film about specific events/locations
Advise a company on the best clips to use for a film on
Sell an idea for a film to
Being a researcher
Turn a talking head or other interpretation into a presentation
In this instance practical implies that the students will be using editing software or some other software tool to create a product involving digital video, Theoretical implies that the students will carry out the same thinking and discussion which the practical task might involve but for whatever reasons it is not possible to create a video product.
Hollywood and History
One of the most engaging ways to make use of digital video is to get students to examine Hollywood films as historical interpretations. It is often possible to get hold of trailers and clips from web sites promoting the films or from the sites of movie enthusiasts such as Reel Classics.
It is important that using Hollywood film does not generate into a rather futile exercise in spotting minor continuity errors such as a Roman emperor wearing a wristwatch. These are undoubtedly entertaining, and indeed spotting a few such errors can be an excellent way of showing students what you are not looking for! An excellent source of such errors can be found at The Nitpickers Site because of the range of errors listed in the films and also because it is fully aware of how trivial the nit picking exercise is.
Oliver Cromwell and the British Civil Wars
In this example, the existence of reviews turned out to be extremely useful. I was able to use digital recordings of selected extracts of two films. One was the movie Cromwell starring Richard Harris and made in 1970. The other was To Kill A King made in 2003. The extracts from these films were carefully selected to help students analyse a selection of reviews of the films. To begin with, the whole class looked at the first review which was very short and uncontroversial.
Review 1: Review of Cromwell from the Movie site Movies2Go.Net
Setting: Great Britain in the 17th Century
Main Characters: Oliver Cromwell, King Charles I, Earl of Manchester, Queen Henrietta Maria, John Carter, Prince Rupert, Earl of Strafford, and Hugh Peters.
Produced by Irwin Allen; Columbia Pictures
Screenplay by Ken Hughes and Ronald Haswood
Music: Frank Cordell
Special Effects: Bill Warrington
Special Categories: Academy Awards®; British Movies; Duels; True Stories; Rulers; Kings and Queens; Academy Awards®:
Costume Design - Nino Novarese
Academy Award® Nominations:
Original Musical Score (Dramatic) - Frank Cordell
The historical battle between Oliver Cromwell, the revolutionary and King Charles I has great cinematography but falls short on story.
Students then worked in groups and were given a review to read and reflect on, and decide whether or not the review was a fair reflection based on the clips seen. Not surprisingly, few students quibbled with the first review because there was so little to quibble with. Then the fun started, using some fairly brutal reviews, extracts of which are shown below.
Review 2: Review of Cromwell by Professor Blair Worden published on the Channel 4 History Heads site. The Rating scale was 0-10 with 0 being truly terrible.
How much obligation lies on makers of historical films to keep to the historical record? How much fiction is permissible within the representation of fact? No cinematic description of the past, and certainly not one designed for a mass audience, could be expected to stay within the boundary of the known. The pace of fiction cannot be the pace of life. Complexities of chronology will need reduction. Buildings and landscapes that contained historical events have disappeared. Dialogue must be invented. Characterisation may need to be simplified.
But elaboration and modification are one thing: perversion of fact is another. Claims for artistic licence could not warrant the wilful and almost unrelenting misrepresentations of Cromwell, which, whatever else it is, is not art, and which invites us to suppose, through a voice-over, that its account is historically authentic.
Reviews 3-4: These were reviews of To Kill A King which were posted on the Amazon web site which was trying to sell the DVD of the film
http://www.amazon.co.uk – then look up To Kill A King
Review 3: This could have been a great film if the people in it had bothered to do any real research on the characters involved. Whoever wrote the screenplay should hang their head in shame for presenting this fiction as fact. This is the worst film I have ever seen on the English Civil War. Don't waste 90 minutes of your life on this one.
Review 4: This was a fairly informative, straight telling of the historical events surrounding the trial and execution of Charles I, played in an engaging manner by Rupert Everett. However, it was entirely set from the perspective of Lord Fairfax, played by Dougray Scott and his depiction as the true hero of the civil war and a moderator of the more caustic Cromwell. As a result it presents Cromwell in a very unflattering light, well portrayed in a maniacal form by Tim Roth. The message seems to be that had Fairfax prevailed then England might have been better served, the king would have lived but the power of monarchy ameliorated. All this seemed to play down the immense transition wrought in European as well as English history by the vision of Cromwell. A scant message to this effect appeared at the end.
Most teachers will see the fascinating possibilities which these reviews offer in terms of analysing the movies as historical interpretations, particularly the contrasting reviews of To Kill A King. In this exercise students were asked to study the reviews and suggest which scenes from the clips shown might be selected by the reviewers to support their case. This discussion was then followed by concentrating on Worden’s opening point in Review 2 about the intentions and responsibilities of the film maker. In order to support this discussion students were presented with a final review commenting on the wider issues of film literacy. An extract is shown below. It is very challenging stuff intellectually, but it does raise the critical issue of how we often invoke the past, or section of the past which suit us, in order to explain or justify a present day situation.
Review 5: Extract from a review of Cromwell on the web site Popmatters.com
But although this interpretation of Cromwell is wholly invented, the number of history teachers posting enthusiastic reviews of this movie on sites like amazon.com and Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) suggests that Hughes' fantasy of Cromwell is alive, well, and ideologically active (maybe even in the classroom) …
The susceptibility of contemporary America to this image undoubtedly comes from its persistent rewriting of its own revolution (in which an aristocratic oligarchy successfully paid lip service to the rights of all in return for the concentration of national power in the hands of the few, and managed to spin George Washington's return to his slave-run plantation into a resumption of life as a simple farmer) as a triumph for the "ordinary" American. In light of this, and given the current situation in Iraq, Hughes' willful remaking of the civil wars and revolutions in 17th-century Britain is a far more potent obfuscator of rational political debate today than it was in 1970.
How did the Poor Law get its dark reputation?
This last theme was also explored in this investigation into the the historical reputation of the New Poor Law after its introduction in 1834. Reputation is an excellent vehicle for making the study of historical interpretations accessible to students. Almost all students will understand that people they know, or perhaps film stars, may have reputations which may or may not be deserved. The Poor Law certainly has a grim reputation because of its associations with the misery of the workhouse. However, this reputation is somewhat at odds with what academic historians are saying about it. This became the basis for the ‘Learning Package’ set out below.
* A simple surveyThis involved students asking family, friends, other students:
* whether they had ever heard of the Poor Law, workhouses etc· what they thought of the Poor Law if they had heard of it.
* if they could say where they got their information from
Study of the views of a modern historian
Here students studied the following amended extract from The Evolution of the British Welfare State by Prof Derek Fraser:
Most research suggests that when we look at the overall picture the authorities usually… gave relief (food, clothes, money) without forcing people to enter the workhouse. Indeed in the mid Victorian period something like 5 out of 6 paupers received relief without going into the workhouse. Novels such as Oliver Twist … created an image of the workhouse as an instrument of cruelty and of the Poor Law authorities as being determined on crushing the poor. When we look at the big picture there is little evidence to support this view. Paupers were better housed, better fed, and better cared for than the poor outside the workhouse. Poor Law officials were usually trying to raise living standards rather than make them worse. Where scandals occurred they were usually the result of local officials abusing the system.
Students were asked to ponder how this view differed from the popular view of the Poor Law and why this difference might exist.
Study a clip from the 1948 movie Oliver TwistStudents had already used extracts from the Dickens novel as primary source material. In stage 1 they generally found that people had heard of the novel but generally because it had been turned into a movie! After watching the clip, students were asked to identify the ways in which the director had created a particular impression of the Poor Law officials and the workhouse. In this exercise a handy feature of digital video was the ability to pause a clip and get a clean view of the frame without the usual buzzing or jumping in the picture when a VHS recording is paused. These frames can usually be copied as well to create still images. The frame below shows clearly how the director was presenting a dark view of the workhouse. In 1948 most audiences would have connected this scene with the recent scenes of Nazi death camps in Eastern Europe.
Study a clip from the 1948 musical movie Oliver TwistWith this clip students were asked to consider the ways in which the earlier film had influenced the later film. A detailed analysis made this strikingly clear. The Poor Law officials were recreated in very similar ways. This pointed to the ways in which the earlier film had laid down a popular understanding of the workhouse which was then reinforced by the 1968 film.
A visual from the original edition of Oliver TwistThis final twist was designed to get students to see how careful we must be to avoid taking movies as factual record. In both the 1948 and 1968 movies Oliver Twist is invariably dressed in rags and is barefoot. In the illustration below from the British Library CD ROM Britain 1750-1900 the illustration from the book Oliver Twist shows Oliver with shoes and reasonably well dressed.
Soundtracks and Genres
Studying the soundtracks of video clips is one of the easiest and most effective ways to get students to start thinking of moving image sources as sources rather than as information which is value free and to be accepted unquestioningly. For many students this is quite a conceptual leap. Much of the video that students see (from TV History programmes) is simply used as background ‘moving wallpaper’ to accompany a soundtrack read by a narrator. The essence of the footage itself as a source is almost never analysed or even referred to.
The Model T Ford
To investigate this, I used a clip from an Internet resource which was a one minute advertisement from 1923 for the Model T Ford. The aim was to explore the soundtrack and it turned out to be a fruitful line of enquiry.
* After studying the US economy in the 1920s we then focused in on the motor industry. At the first pass this clip provided a neat activity by simply turning off the sound and asking the students to write a one minute soundtrack. That was a fun activity and they all wrote sensible soundtracks in a documentary genre.
* Interestingly, not one student wrote in the advertisement genre. So, when I then played the clip with the soundtrack we discussed the differences between their use of the clip and the actual use.
* We also looked at how both the genres of soundtracks went well with the clip. This is where the ability to advance digital clips one frame at a time really comes into its own. The students were able to see how the different styles of soundtrack correlated differently (but effectively) to different events in the clip.
* There was yet more mileage to be gained from this clip. As a finishing off exercise students were asked to create another soundtrack. This time they had to write a script for a film which was trying to explain that in many ways the story of the motor industry in 1920s USA was representative of the booming US economy as a whole.
More soundtrack tasks
Two activities and a discussion from a one minute clip seemed like pretty good value! In fact this is just the start of the mileage which can be gained from activities based around soundtracks. Another really interesting activity is to get students to work on the same clip and experiment with the impact of different voice overs on the clip. I have tried this out with silent clips from the Great War in which students write and read out voice overs which present the traditional ‘Blackadder’ view of the Great War and then read out voice overs which stress the positive aspects of wartime experience which the contemporary sources often refer to. It would be easy enough to replicate this task to other circumstances. Students might write and read out contrasting voice overs on clips showing evacuation in WW2, the impact of bombing, the importance of the creation of the National Health Service. Of course, writing and reading out soundtracks is a rather low tech approach to this activity. In an ideal situation, students would be recording their voice overs, editing them on to the soundtrack using video editing software and then playing them back to the class. Whether the high or low tech approach is used, the key learning experience is the discussion. It is very challenging but also quite thought provoking to get students explaining how a completely different story can be told using exactly the same video clip. This technique can be very powerful in getting students to realise that most programmes and films are constructed to say what the film maker wants, rather than necessarily being faithful reports of what actually happened.
News Footage as Primary Sources
A recurring theme in this section is the use of moving images as primary source materials. This can be a powerful way of involving students in source work, which research suggests is one of their least favourite activities. For many students one reason for this dislike is that source work generally involves analysing written texts. However, selected news clips can be very powerful in getting students to see the sub text of video clips and getting them to see that video and text sources can complement each other very powerfully. It is here that the VHS and even the projector become less useful than students accessing their own collections of clips either on their own or in small group work.
The Cuban Crisis
A good example of a video text is President Kennedy’s speech of October 1962 in which he announced the existence of Soviet missiles on Cuba and set out what he planned to do about it. Using a clip of this speech, students could be set the task of analysing Kennedy’s speech in much the same way as they would be asked to analyse a transcript of it. The speech is ideal for asking students to explain how Kennedy tries to justify the legitimacy of his actions to his audience. The difference in using digital video in this instance is that students can play and replay the clip as often as they need to gain the understanding they are looking for – clearly not possible if the only way to view the clip is on a projector or a VHS player.
In examinations students are often asked to consider two or more sources and explain which is more valuable or useful to the historian examining a particular topic. Bringing in digital video can make this type of exercise a powerful multimedia experience. Students asked to examine a scene from a movie based on the Vietnam War (such as Apocalypse Now) might struggle to explain how valuable this is as a source for the historian. However, faced with additional sources which support or contradict the impression given in the movie clip and the exercise becomes a familiar one, but with the added advantage of making use of what is for many students a more attractive medium. Thus the famous speech from Apocalypse Now in which Marlon Brando claims that the US simply cannot beat the Viet Cong because they never give up might be tested against contemporary written sources but also extracts from contemporary news footage. Both this exercise and the one on Cuba could be taken to another level again if students were able to use video editing software to extract the key sections of clips in just the same way that they would highlight key sections of text in a word processor. One of the most easy to use and flexible tools for this type of activity is QuickTime Pro. This is an upgraded version of the free QuickTime player which is free and commonly available on most computers. More details about this software are available from the QuickTime web site:
QuickTime Pro is just one of several excellent software tools which are available for the most exciting possibility which digital video offers – making your own documentaries. Another widely used package is Studio 9 from Pinnacle Systems. Other products are made by companies such as Roxio. Then there is the iMovie software for Macintosh machines and it is also worth remembering that Windows Moviemaker comes free of charge with the Windows XP operating system from Microsoft.
So there is no shortage of software tools, but as always the key is to make the creation of the film more than just a novelty. It is important that students consider the message they are trying to send in their film. It is vitally important that their films are researched at least as well as any written piece of work or oral presentation. In my experience the technical side of the movie making process is relatively straightforward and takes a relatively small amount of time. It is the above considerations of research and planning which actually take up time and make for a rule of thumb that about 1 hour’s preparation is needed to create about 1 minute of quality video.
The box below shows a newsroom simulation activity on the Vietnam War. It is not hard to see how such a task would motivate the vast majority of students, but again it is worth noting the importance of the storyboard in making sure that the end product is good quality History and that there is some kind of angle over and above a narrative of the war. It is a high technology exercise which will interest teachers looking to develop ICT skills both in the use of software but also in the way that software and presentation impact on audience. These are goals of teaching and learning in ICT as well as in History, which seems a fitting point to end.
Why were the USA and its allies not able to defeat the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War?
It is April 1975. Communist forces from North Vietnam have just taken over Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. The last American troops and officials were lifted out by helicopter in an embarrassing scramble as the North Vietnamese troops approached. The main American forces left Vietnam two years ago, partly because of the heavy losses they were suffering.
Your Assignment Your assignment is to prepare a 5 minute TV news report on the fall of Saigon. Your main angle is:The USA and South Vietnam forces had more money, more troops, better equipment, better food and better medicines than the Viet Cong. So how come they didn’t win?
1. Look at all the available clips (using the play list), and browse the other folders to see what images and sounds are available. If you need more images you can get these from the web sites listed in the Links page.
2. Plan your report using a storyboard. When you start using the storyboard don't use the link again. It will start a new blank storyboard. Keep updating your storyboard in Word.
3. Go to the editing studio and start selecting clips, recording voice overs, editing selections and producing your report.Stage
4. Your storyboardHere are some of the issues and areas you could cover in your report. You may not be able to cover all this in a 5 minute report. You will have to decide which of these points will feature in greater depth and which will be skimmed over:
* Why it seemed the USA was certain to win
* US tactics in Vietnam
* US weaknesses
* Viet Cong strengths
* Lack of support for US involvement in war
* Conclusion: What you think were the most important factors and how factors linked together.