Remote interviewing on Setting the Record Straight/Gwir Gofnod o Gyfnod

“There’s this massive thing happening in China” I said to a friend in January last year. “Why is nobody talking about it? Why isn’t anyone worried?”….. I can’t quite believe that was only a year ago. 

In December 2019, I’d started working as a filmmaker for Archif Menywod Cymru / Women’s Archive Wales on Setting the Record Straight / Gwir Gofnod o Gyfnod – a Senedd Cymru and National Heritage Lottery funded oral history project, interviewing women Assembly Members / Members of Senedd on HD video, to celebrate 20 years of devolved government at the National Assembly Wales which was soon to become Senedd Cymru. 

By February of last year we were making good progress having interviewed the first few of around 60 current and past women members. However Wuhan was nagging somewhere at the back of my mind and the reports from first China, then Korea, Italy, Spain…  were becoming increasingly worrying… and closer to home. Then on the penultimate day of that month, the first Covid-19 case in Wales was confirmed.

Our face to face project interviews however, continued into March. But one late morning in the bowels of Tŷ Hywel, the Senedd’s administrative block, as we were exploring Assembly Member and Presiding Officer Elin Jones’ political beginnings and subsequent distinguished career, a dark suited man in the glass office next door determined to take her attention. She excused herself and stood up to leave: ”It seems I must go to Parc Cathays to sort out this Covid business… we’ll have to finish this interview some other time”.  And that was that. On March 16th 2020, all interviewing on the project was suspended.

As the virus detritus dust settled after its initial devastating impact, it became apparent that circumstances would not improve in the short term – we had to find a way to carry on with our work. It was suggested that we could use and record Skype, Teams or Zoom. But despite the usefulness and connectivity wonders of these platforms, I was very reluctant to pursue this path because of the platforms’ dodgy picture and sound quality coupled by the ever possible broadband dropout. After all, we were shooting these interviews for posterity, with one eye on the possibility that they might be used in documentaries or other programmes to be broadcast in the future. I felt strongly that our production values should not be compromised. 

There must be another way. I watched items on TV and online, spoke to media colleagues, read articles by BBC producers, Directors UK newsletter and the OHS website – all desperately trying to tackle the problems of recording and filming at a distance. But the light bulb moment for me was a suggestion that we used Zoom to conduct the interview remotely but actually filmed and recorded sound on location in the interviewee’s house. Why not! Many people can wield a camera or mobile phone and frame some kind of shot these days. Would somebody in an interviewees lockdown household be technically competent? Or at least camera curious?! 

I decided to ‘experiment’ with a younger Member, possibly not technophobic and probably technically savvy. Nerys Evans, an Assembly Member between 2007 – 2011, had already agreed to be interviewed and could possibly fit that bill! I was apprehensive when I rang her – it’s a big ask – but not only did she enthusiastically agree, but also revealed that her locked down husband Geraint is a professional freelance sound recordist who at the time was unable to work because of Covid restrictions. Well – that’s the sound sorted – I thought to myself! But what about the picture?

It transpired that Geraint had an old DSLR camera capable of recording video. We would have to record late one evening in order to make sure that their two small boisterous children were asleep The ‘shot’ would therefore have to be properly lit. I delivered some soft video lights and other equipment to their doorstep and Geraint armed with these resources created a ‘set’ for Nerys, framed a decent shot, phoned a camera man friend for some remote advice and lit it.              

The idea was that I interviewed Nerys on Zoom: there I am, on her laptop placed on top of the red box, on top of a cardboard packing box,  its height making sure that Nerys’ eye line on camera makes it look as if she’s talking to another person in the room. 

In the photograph, the camera is to the left of the laptop and the soft video key light is on the right. The only issue was with the older DSLR camera, basically a stills camera. The video recording switched off every 15 minutes which meant that conducting the interview was quite a long tortuous process and the clips had to be edited together after the event. 

However this first attempt exceeded all expectations. Geraint used some practical house lights to back up the key light and create background interest to complete the set up. And as you can see the visual result was superb. And it sounds pretty good too! A huge thanks to Nerys and Geraint for their patience, thoughtfulness and help – and for entering into the spirit of our remote interview experiment.

The first few months of lockdown were a struggle but eventually during the summer months we were thankfully allowed to film the interviews outdoors.  As the weather changed with the seasons, we switched to interviewing in large rooms in public buildings, where we could meet while maintaining social distance. However, since the second wave of the pandemic has taken its ghoulish grip, we’ve reverted to the remote safety of Zoom, sending packages of lights microphones and tripods to all corners by parcel post, meeting new interviewees on screen only … and then post interview, waiting eagerly in the warm security of home for the wildly varying results to return….

© Catrin Edwards February 2021

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