Home Truths?: Video Production and Domestic Life

Home Truths?: Video Production and Domestic Life




Over the past decade, the video camera has become a commonplace household technology. With falling prices on compact and easy-to-use cameras, as well as mobile phones and digital still cameras with video recording capabilities, access to moving image production technology is becoming virtually universal. Home Truths? represents one of the few academic research studies exploring this everyday, popular use of video production technology, looking particularly at how families use and engage with the technology and how it fits into the routines of everyday life.

The authors draw on interviews, observations, and the participants' videos themselves, seeking to paint a comprehensive picture of the role of video making in their everyday lives. While readers gain a sense of the individual characters involved in the project and the complexities and diversities of their lives, the analysis also raises a range of broader issues about the nature of learning and creativity, subjectivity and representation, and the "domestication" of technology---issues that are of interest to many in the fields of sociology and media/cultural studies.

David Buckingham is Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, University of London, and Director of the Institute's Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media.

Rebekah Willett is Lecturer at the Institute of Education, University of London, where she teaches in Media, Culture and Communication.

Maria Pini previously worked as Lecturer in Media and Communications at Goldsmiths College, London University, and is now a researcher on the Camcorder Cultures project at the Institute of Education.

Cover art: Young videomaker ©iStockphoto.com/ kaisersosa67

Technologies of the Imagination: New Media in Everyday Life

digitalculturebooks is an imprint of the University of Michigan Press and the Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan Library dedicated to publishing innovative and accessible work exploring new media and their impact on society, culture, and scholarly communication. Visit the website at www.digitalculture.org.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472051373
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 01/10/2011
Series: Technologies of the Imagination: New Media in Everyday Life Series
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Home Truths?

By David Buckingham Rebekah Willett Maria Pini

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2011 David Buckingham, Rebekah Willett, and Maria Pini
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-05137-3

Chapter One

Understanding Home Video

Media representations of home video making tend to portray it as a rather comical, even somewhat ludicrous, practice. Typical scenarios involve earnest fathers carefully staging "spontaneous" performances by their bored and reluctant children, friends and neighbors being lulled to sleep by endless screenings of family holiday films, or teenagers misguidedly emulating the dangerous stunts on TV shows like Jackass. The films themselves are generally deemed uninteresting, unimaginative, and unwatchable. At best, perhaps, enthusiasts might hope to capture some of the pratfalls and bloopers routinely featured on America's Funniest Home Videos or the United Kingdom's You've Been Framed—albeit with the wobbly camera work, poor framing, and uneven focus that are seen as indispensable characteristics of the genre. But is home video making simply an infinite wilderness of domestic trivia? Is it merely the last refuge of the annoyingly proud parent, the obsessive hobbyist, or the teenager vainly seeking to become the next Steven Spielberg? And in the face of these apparently obvious limitations, why do people obstinately persist in wanting to record their children's birthday parties and holidays or in capturing hours of footage of family and friends waving and mugging for the camera?

In this chapter, we provide some pointers toward a less dismissive account of home video making. We review previous research on home movies, family photography, and home video, and we consider some of the broader claims that have been made about the significance—or indeed, insignificance—of such popular representational practices. Some of the research we address here is taken up in more detail in our discussion of our own data in chapters 3, 4, and 5. To begin, however, we need briefly to set home video making within a historical context and to consider how this practice is framed and defined within the commercial market.


Although our research focuses on video making at the beginning of the twenty-first century, amateur movie making has a long history, dating back to the early 1900s. Indeed, many of the key landmarks of early cinema—like those in the early history of photography—were produced by "gentlemen amateurs," mostly wealthy middle-class men with sufficient time and resources to dedicate to what was essentially a hobby. "Home movies" became more widely available with the development of the 16 mm Cine Kodak and Kodascope Projector in 1923. The camera weighed about seven pounds and had to be hand cranked at two turns per second during filming. It cost $335 (by comparison, a new Ford car could be bought for $550). The first major period of home movie making began after 1932, when Kodak developed the Cine Kodak Eight, which used 16 mm film but only exposed half the film at a time, enabling double use. Other manufacturers emulated Kodak, with Bell and Howell developing the Filmo Straight Eight camera, which carried 8 mm film only. In 1936 Kodachrome color film was developed to meet the ongoing boom in home cinematography, even though the equipment and film costs were still prohibitively expensive for most. World War II halted major technical advancements for the domestic film market, and it was not until the 1960s that technological changes created significant opportunities for those interested in home movie making.

With the launch in 1965 of Kodak's Super 8, an easy-load cartridge system that ran through the camera once, filming was made easier, while at the same time cheap plastic cameras were reducing the cost of home movie production. The 1960s also saw the advent of video, which allowed the filmmaker to watch a production back immediately, without having to send it away for expensive developing. In 1963, the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog included the Ampex "home video" system, which included a large camera (weighing 100 pounds), TV monitor, and video recorder, all costing about $30,000 (including home installation). The first affordable portable video recording system was released by Sony in 1965—although its affordability and portability are certainly arguable. Aimed partly at recording programs from television, Sony's CV-2000 "videocorder" weighed 66 pounds, videotaped in black and white, and cost $695 plus $40 for each one-hour reel of tape. The camera kit, which weighed 20 pounds, could be purchased for an additional $350, for a total of $1,085, including one tape. (Calculations based on the consumer price index indicate that with inflation, this would equate to over $7,000 in 2009.)

In 1967, the Sony DV-2400 Video Rover emerged as the first truly portable video recording system. According to the Sony product literature, "The Battery Operated Videocorder, in a comfortable, compact shoulder-pack, weighs a mere 11 pounds!" (SMECC n.d.). The Rover, or portapak, required separate playback equipment, had a maximum recording time of 20 minutes, and cost $1,250 (equivalent to over $8,000 in 2009). Panasonic and JVC followed soon after with their own portable models, eventually reducing the weight of the entire pack to 30 pounds.

In the 1970s, portapaks were mainly used by news agencies, as well as countercultural movements and avant-garde artists such as Nam June Paik. However, by the mid-1970s, home video making was becoming more economically viable, partly due to the introduction of domestic VCRs and the development of inexpensive half-inch videotape cassettes (with two main formats emerging, Sony's Betamax in 1975 and JVC's VHS in 1976). Sales in film cameras dropped dramatically with the introduction of cameras that could be attached to VCRs, although until the early 1980s, video making required separate camera and VCR devices. In 1982, Sony introduced a professional camera, the Betacam, which was both a camera and a recorder (or camcorder). This first camcorder was used primarily by news agencies, as the Betacam videotape recorder cost up to 100 times the price of a consumer VHS machine. In 1983, Sony released the first camcorder for domestic consumers, the Betamovie BMC-100, weighing just 5.5 pounds and costing $1,500 (equivalent to $3,230 in 2009). Sony's advertisements claimed:

Simply pop in a standard Beta cassette and you're ready to shoot continuously for up to 3 hours and 35 minutes. Without carrying an awkward separate recorder. Without getting tangled in wires and cables. And without being weighted down by heavy equipment.... Betamovie takes all the trouble out of making home movies and gives you all the fun. (Total Rewind n.d.).

In just two years, from 1981 to 1983, home movie production shot up, with 6 percent of U.S. households reporting owning a video camcorder in 1981 and 28 percent in 1983 (Chalfen 1987). During this time, JVC developed the compact VHS format (VHS-C), which was designed for more portable VHS players and was eventually used in the first JVC camcorder in 1984, the GR-C1. In 1985, Amstrad developed the first low-budget camcorder, the VMC100, which cost $400 (equivalent to $800 in 2009) and weighed just under 2 pounds. Cheap and simple camcorders were even developed for children as early as 1987, with the Fisher-Price PXL-2000, priced at $99 ($187 in 2009) (LabGuy's World n.d.).

In spite of these developments, camcorders were still significant financial investments for the average household. Issue One of the United Kingdom's Camcorder User magazine (Spring 1988) listed the average selling prices of a camcorder as around £1,100 ($2,035, equivalent to about $3,700 in 2009). Numerous advertisements in this issue offered 0 percent finance deals for camcorder purchases, and one article discussed negotiating with sellers to have a two- to four-day trial period, describing the purchase of a camcorder as "an awesome task" that "can be a very frustrating experience ... and a very costly one if you make a mistake!" (Hi- Spek Electronics 1988). Clearly, camcorders were not yet for the average consumer.

The next significant technological breakthrough was in 1995, when the first digital camcorders were introduced. More than 50 companies had agreed on a DV tape format the previous year, and these first camcorders released in 1995 were aimed at professionals. In 1996, the digital camcorder hit the amateur market with miniDV tapes that allowed transfer to computer hard drives via Firewire or USB. This would lead to various digital formats, including Digital8, DVD, micromv, hard drive, and solid-state (flash) semiconductor memory. In combination with Firewire technology, "bundled as standard" digital editing software on home computers brought sophisticated and good-quality filmmaking and editing within reach of ordinary people.

In 2000, video-related sales in the United States grew by 15 percent, with total sales of $3.3 billion. Prices continued to drop: from 2001 through 2005, the average unit price fell from $423 to $319 (Consumer Electronics Association 2006). In 2005, disposable camcorders were available for just $30 (plus a $12 processing fee). Camcorder sales rose 11 percent to 5.9 million units in 2007 and were forecast to rise another 4 percent in 2008 to 6.16 million (Consumer Electronics Association 2008).

The turn of the century also brought video to other platforms such as mobile (cell) phones and still cameras. In 2000, the first mobile phones with built-in cameras were launched, followed shortly by the development of phones with built-in video recording facilities and large memory cards. By 2004, camera and video came as standard on new mobile phones, and in 2007, 87 percent of camera phone owners reported using the camera function on their phone (PMA Foresight 2008).

The distribution of video footage was radically transformed with the emergence of free video sharing sites, particularly YouTube, which was launched in December 2005. YouTube was an instant success: during its public preview the month before the official launch, cofounder Chad Hurley claimed that YouTube was moving "8 terabytes of data per day through the YouTube community—the equivalent of moving one Blockbuster store a day over the Internet" (Market Wire 2005)—although clearly much of this material was not produced by amateurs. Numerous video sharing sites followed, some of which promised to distribute advertising revenue to contributors, and Google ultimately bought YouTube for $1.65 billion in October 2006, less than a year after its original launch (Geist 2006). News stories suggest that in January 2008 alone, "nearly 79 million viewers, or a third of all online viewers in the US, watched more than three billion user-posted videos on YouTube" (Yen 2008), while the number of videos on the site is rapidly approaching one hundred million.

These technological developments have undoubtedly made video production available to far more people. At present, video comes standard with mobile (cell) phones, costing as little as $50, as well as with many digital still cameras. Camcorders (with memory cards) cost as little as $90 and weigh less than 0.25 pounds (compared with the very first $1,500 camcorder, equivalent to $3,230 in 2009, which weighed 5.5 pounds), while the Flip camcorder, which plugs directly into a computer (without a wire), is the size and weight of a small digital still camera and costs around $100. Yet with the availability of video facilities on so many different platforms, it is difficult to assess current levels of video making. While the technology is undoubtedly available to more and more people, questions remain about whether more videos actually are being made; who is making them and for what purpose; and whether different kinds of things are being videotaped, edited, and distributed than was the case in earlier decades. Video appears to be ubiquitous, to the point where it has become a taken-for-granted aspect of everyday life for many people, yet there has been relatively little systematic analysis of what this entails or, indeed, of its consequences.


Anyone who uses—or even considers purchasing—a video camera is bound to encounter a large amount of advice of different kinds. Family members, friends, and salespeople are likely to offer more or less helpful suggestions, but beyond personal contact, there is a whole world of advice literature in the form of manufacturers' publicity materials, handbooks, consumer and hobby magazines, television programs, and Web sites aimed both at novices and more experienced users. Such material typically offers quite prescriptive ideas about what to film, where to film, who to film, and how to film. While it is certainly diverse, it all serves to define and construct the meaning of amateur video making in particular ways.

Elsewhere, we have undertaken an extensive analysis of the discursive construction of amateur film and video making within books, manuals, consumer magazines, and other material, dating from 1921 to the present day (Buckingham, Pini, and Willett 2007). While much of this material is implicitly targeted at the "serious amateur" or hobbyist rather than the casual user, it generally assumes that "personal," family-oriented films are likely to dominate. Thus, in his introduction to Amateur Cinematography, published in 1962, Bordwell writes of amateur films:

These films are a faithful record of our lives. Big events and small have been telescoped into a few vivid moments, which we can experience again as often as we wish. Intimate family reunions or crowded public meetings; the back garden or a panorama of woods and mountains; scenes from childhood, from holidays at home and abroad—it's all there, only needing the projector to bring it to life. (13)

Likewise, in Kodak's How to Make Good Home Movies, written in 1966, the authors assert, "Most [film-camera] owners are not at all interested in using their cameras for subjects other than purely personal films of family and friends" (Kodak 1966, 5). Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the home mode continues to be identified as the central function of amateur film and video making. Alan Cleave (1988), for example, provides a typical list of subjects for filming, including weddings, family holidays, sports events, and children's birthday parties; and the same categories routinely recur in subsequent handbooks and manuals. More recently, Steven Beal's Complete Idiot's Guide to Making Home Videos acknowledges that

many people buy camcorders for one reason: to document their children's lives as they grow up.... Never before in human history have we been able to record and document with such accuracy the most important events in our lives. (2000, 203)

This emphasis on the home mode, or at least on the private and personal nature of video making, is also strongly apparent in marketing pitches. A Sony advertisement from 1991, for example, attempts to entice younger consumers to buy smaller camcorders for their holidays:

Something happens between the milestones. Between the weddings and the birthday parties. It's called the rest of your life. (quoted in Baum 1991)

A similar emphasis is apparent in a more recent example from 2007:

Your trip to Paris. Your child's first steps. College graduation. Life is full of moments that are well worth remembering. There's no better way to capture those moments than with a Sony Handycam® camcorder. (Sony Electronics 2007)

Even so, the material we have analyzed is also concerned with distinguishing between the serious amateur, the enthusiast who invests in technology and creates "artistic" finished products, and the everyday user, who owns relatively inexpensive technology (with no accessories) and does not plan or edit his or her films. Everyday users are typically identified with the home mode in its crudest and most unreconstructed form: their video cameras are used simply for keeping "records" of family life. By contrast, most of the books and consumer magazines are addressed to readers who are aspiring to move (or are in the process of moving) from being everyday users to becoming more committed amateurs and hence have an interest in improving their practice (and in investing in more expensive equipment). It is through the process of "othering" the everyday users that this key distinction is created and sustained: it is always others who are uncreative, who do not plan their filming, and who bore their audiences with poorly shot, unedited family movies.


Excerpted from Home Truths? by David Buckingham Rebekah Willett Maria Pini Copyright © 2011 by David Buckingham, Rebekah Willett, and Maria Pini . Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 Understanding Home Video 7

Chapter 2 Exploring the Home Mode: Researching Video Practices 29

Chapter 3 Domesticating Video 48

Chapter 4 The Subject of Video 82

Chapter 5 Learning Video: The Making of Media Literacy 107

Chapter 6 Conclusion 142

References 155

Index 161

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