My earliest work with history and research began as a small child, helping to prepare a historic home my family maintains for restoration. The archivist in my library’s local history collectionencouraged my interest in archives, allowing me expanded access to the collection. Local history organizations also welcomed me.
A 7th grade research paper about women in the American led me to a Revolutionary War network of spies, called the Culper Spy Ring, and a sloppy news article left me determined to disprove the author and identify the unknown female member. A decade later, I’m still researching the spies, presenting my research to leading historians in American History, including a presentation at the New York American Revolution Round Table.
As a graduate student in the NYU Archives and Public History program, I created a websitecollecting material on the Culper Ring, while working at the Wagner Library processing a performing artists’ union collection. This Summer, I completed the dual degree program with the Palmer School, and had the joy of consulting for the local history collection that started my interest! Before NYU, I worked in several collections including the New Jersey State Archives. My undergraduate education at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia allowed me to study with a leading Historic Preservation program, and write my undergraduate thesis on the connections between the Culper Ring and Benedict Arnold’s treason.
This thesis was adapted for publication in the New York State Archives magazine October 2009 edition. Archival search engine optimization techniques helped this article catch the attention of a production company working for the History Channel this summer, allowing me to communicate with the production company as they developed the episode, eventually interviewing me this fall. Despite my Public History readings on film and history, most of the time I felt terrified and lost because I didn’t understand enough about the dynamics. Whether it’s your research or your manuscripts, here are some things to consider:
- I remembered film crews’ reputations for running late, which held true. I blamed delays solely on poor planning. But what GPS travel estimates reflect time to film a moving car from another vehicle? I brought books and snacks [good thing, since I was gone for 9 hours!]; the contact person for our location didn’t. She was cranky, but she could have asked for notice when the crew reached a local landmark, instead of relying on their guesses.
- An insider’s secret: the History Channel outsources everything to production companies with tiny budgets. Historians appear for the publicity—even the big names rarely get paid. Ask for other things like travel compensation.
- I received talking points, but most of them had accuracy issues. The producers accepted my corrections but most didn’t reach the film crew. Making the changes onsite wasn’t a problem, particularly when they were simple and about accuracy.
- Historians and filmmakers often have little overlap in expertise: you may need to explain 18th century “dating,” just like sound guys explain “vampire clips.” Remember, this goes two ways, having some sense of “What do these people each do?” helps. Each crew is unique, but I wish I’d asked more questions like these: How many producers are there? Who will be at the shooting? Who will answer my questions onsite? I wish I understood the director answered to the producers, and cared about their approval!
- Try to get a sense of how you will be recorded and what information is repetitive or irrelevant. Talking points don’t always demonstrate how dialogue will progress. These questions will help: Will we be able to retake certain parts if I get one portion wrong? Can someone explain how this will flow? Will there be dialogue like an interview or will this be a monologue? This question/point doesn’t make sense to me; can you explain what you hope to cover here?
- Be specific when discussing code and colors. Online guidelines help, but every show is different. “Professional” clothing or “bright” colors are not universal terms. In L.A. “suit” may not mean “professional.” Ask about HD cameras and look at reporters’ clothing. Colors are also important when considering drapes for displays. Red doesn’t work with a lot of cameras.
- Providing specific reasons for archival restrictions really helps. The film crew stopped complaining about archival restrictions once they understood about previous thefts and the disruption they would cause both staff and patrons by filming in the reading room.
- Background noise provides formidable challenges. You may have to restart every sentence because of trains, planes, or even wind. Be aware of how noises change with time and weather—we filmed overlooking the Hudson, but we didn’t start recording until peak rush hour!
- Legal documents drive everything if your production company is legitimate. Video productions require releases for all locations, items, and individuals. Expect to check the terms with both the producers and someone independent. Know that contracts are often overly restrictive, and reasonable concerns—like future plans to publish on a topic—can be addressed in a supplement like an addenda or “side letter,” even when a contract can’t be changed. Understanding the role of contract agreements—and negotiators’ penchant for playing chicken—explains a lot of the notorious delays.
The program will air this winter.
Posted November 2010