Producing the Ninety-Six Ranch Videodisc

The chain of events that led to the creation of the Ninety-Six videodisc began in 1979, when the American Folklife Center and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History began planning an exhibit about cowboy life in Paradise Valley. As work on this exhibit got under way, the center also began planning an additional exhibit that would analyze the role and importance of the image of the cowboy in America. The first exhibit was Buckaroos in Paradise, which opened in 1980, and the second, The American Cowboy, opened in 1983.

The planners for the Smithsonian exhibit said that the installation would be enhanced by the inclusion of film clips showing cowboys at work. The Folklife Center team was at work in Paradise Valley and--as a member of the project team--I expressed willingness to do some filming. The topic that recommended itself was the fall roundup and branding on the Ninety-Six Ranch; a film of the event would depict cowboy work, tools, and life. The roundup also offered an inherent story line, action and movement, and picturesque scenery. The activity lasted for a week or two and could be filmed with reasonable efficiency.

Filmmaker William H. "Bill" Smock and I filmed the roundup in October 1979. Our budget allowed us seventeen rolls of movie film, which amounts to a bit over three hours of raw footage. We completed the two film clips as planned, and the first one was used in the Smithsonian exhibit. The clips had running times of about seven minutes. The main segments pertaining to the roundup and branding that followed were created by assembling the component parts of the two clips. Before we began to rearrange our footage in the course of editing the clips, we wanted to make a copy of our shooting sequence, to retain the actual structure of what was shot in the field. We also wanted to protect the original "camera" negative. These steps would make our unedited information and film materials available to future researchers whose interests might differ from ours. This idea was inspired by Tim Asch and Napoleon Chagnon's anthropological films about Venezuela's Yanamamo Indians (filmed 1968-71) and Asen Balikci's films of the Netsilik Eskimo (filmed 1968). These projects created finished, edited films for the classroom and the public but also maintained a copy of the complete, unedited film for an archive.

We began in the normal way, producing a workprint of the camera negative and synchronizing this copy to the soundtrack we had recorded in the field. Then we took the unusual step of transferring the full three hours to 3/4-inch videotape. A written log of the video copy provides information that will allow researchers to locate particular sections of the original film footage. When we printed our two film clips we avoided the usual procedure of cutting up the camera negative. In a normal production, an editor--using the workprint--chooses segments of whole shots and arranges them into the film's final sequence. Next the matching segments are cut out of the original rolls and spliced together to make the printing rolls. These cuts and splices are irrevocable, since at least one frame of picture is lost wherever the negative is cut.

We made our editing choices in the normal way, provisionally cutting the workprint. But we didn't cut and splice the original negative in customary fashion. Instead, we removed whole shots and duplicated them as an interpositive. A whole shot begins at the point where the camera was turned on and continues to the point where it was turned off, thus including all frames which contain visual information. This duplicate substituted for the original camera negative; it, instead of the original, was cut in the irrevocable manner and served as the master for printing.

It is worth noting--in this note added in 1998--that a videomaker or filmmaker working in the 1990s would use a component video format like BetaCam for the field footage. Since video production techniques employ copying and do not entail the physical cutting of the original material, the goal of retaining the original sequence and footage is a far easier matter than it had been when we used motion picture film.

After Bill and I produced the seven-minute film clips for the exhibitions, we saw that we had interesting additional coverage of various activities on the Ninety-Six Ranch and knew that we could offer a more thorough statement. We began receiving requests to borrow our film and we wished that we had a longer version to distribute. We also saw that the Paradise Valley folklife project collection contained additional non-moving-image materials that could contribute to a longer product.

Bill and I began planning a longer program during 1981-82. As we worked on the project, we debated film form. Most conventional documentaries take the form of an essay, i.e., a unified and cohesive presentation well suited to general audiences and broadcast television. Bill sometimes espoused this form, while I tended to argue in favor of segmentation. I am not sure if Bill was fully persuaded by my arguments, but at some point we began designing a collection of segments rather than one long film.

Producers of instructional media sometimes use the term "single concept series" to name a segmented group of films. Each short film loop in, say, a science series may describe a single subject or experiment. In the Yanamamo and Netsilik film series, and in John Marshall's series on the San, or Kung bushmen (filmed 1951-58), an ethnography is presented in a group of separate films. Such a series may contain from ten to thirty titles, each of which has a running time of from ten to thirty minutes. These series were designed for semester-long anthropology courses, and each film is accompanied by a written monograph.

The single-concept form allows for a reasonably thorough examination of the separate parts of a larger question; the synthesis of the larger question depends upon the viewer, aided by a teacher or accompanying books and articles. The principal arguments against segmentation are that it inhibits synthesis and that it is graceless. But accompanying matter and repeated viewings can overcome the first objection. As for the second, while conventional aesthetics may be violated, it is the case that segmentation is a feature of some art films. In any case, conventional, seamless film narrative demands elisions and simplifications that we wanted to avoid.

In 1980-81, I talked about our project with a number of people and received much encouragement. One informal consultant was Cameron Macauley, then director of the Extension Media Center at the University of California at Berkeley. When I explained that our collection included film, video, and still photography, he immediately suggested that I consider using the relatively new medium of the laser videodisc. Macauley pointed out that it lent itself to the presentation of short film clips in the classroom and readily accommodated still photographs.

This suggestion was transformed into reality by the Library of Congress Optical Disk Pilot Program (ODPP). From 1982-1987, the ODPP tested a number of types of optical disks, including a custom-designed digital disk for text materials, the then-new compact audio disc, and laser videodiscs. The program's main concern was the preservation and access to Library collections. But even though the Folklife Center project was oriented toward communications, the ODPP was interested and willing to support the effort. They were just getting under way when we were ready to start production, and our disc offered an early opportunity for learning.

Disc production began in 1982, coincident with the final design phase of The American Cowboy exhibition. The seven-minute film clip originally planned for the exhibit was ready to go, but the creation of the disc offered a new possibility. Film loops or videotapes are subject to scratching, breaking, or stretching, but laser videodiscs do not suffer from wear and tear and thus are an excellent medium for an exhibit display. In addition, a laser videodisc linked to a computer can offer an interactive program for visitors. The exhibit designers, Bob Staples and Barbara Charles, had used videodiscs in a previous show, and urged that our disc be made available for the The American Cowboy. They also supported the idea of an interactive program. We readily acceded, knowing that exhibit visitors would constitute a large audience, giving us greater value for our investment and greater exposure for the material.

The exhibit program was titled "Autumn Work on the Ninety-Six Ranch" and consisted of a five-part main narrative and twelve additional information segments. This selection of materials, with a few additions, was reconstituted in 1998 for this online collection. In the exhibition, at the end of each part of the main narrative, visitors were offered a menu with two or three additional information segments and the option of proceeding with the main narrative. Selections from the menus were made from four numbered buttons on a custom remote control panel. The interactive program was a popular feature of the exhibit.

Our original goal in developing the videodisc had been to fashion a tool for education and research. We were pleased that our materials served The American Cowboy exhibition in 1983-84 but we didn't want to lose sight of an important audience for the Folklife Center and for the Library: teachers and students in folklore, anthropology, American studies, agriculture, and in other secondary school and college settings. For them, our videodisc needed content elements beyond those required by the exhibit: additional moving image and audio segments, some representation of the project's archive of still photographs, and written annotations.

Thus we began selecting additional film, video, and audio segments, and drafting texts to accompanying the media materials. We also tackled the question of how to select and organize still photographs. Still photography had been the research project's principal form of pictorial documentation, and the team's photographs represented many facets of Paradise Valley and its environs. We decided to include a broadly based collection of stills, thinking that they would complement our video and film footage of the Ninety-Six Ranch and provide some basis for comparing the Ninety-Six to other ranches. In contrast to the relatively instructional approach of the motion footage--at least in terms of the structure given to the interactive presentation the the exhibition--we decided to shape the still photographs into a less didactic research archive.

The project collection held at the Library's American Folklife Center includes about 13,000 color slides, over 15,000 black-and-white negatives, and miscellaneous other photographic materials. In general, the color and black-and-white photographs cover the same subjects. Since the videodisc would reproduce color, we decided to limit our selection to slides. We selected and arranged 2,400 photographs ranch by ranch. The mini-archive was reconstituted in 1998 for the online collection, where the images are linked to a searchable database.

In 1983-84, folklorist Jay Orr edited and captioned the photographs. The captions were written into a computerized database that generated the printed index included in a booklet that accompanied the videodisc. In 1998, this data was expanded and enhanced by Catherine H. Kerst and Christa Maher, staff members at the American Folklife Center, to produce the database included in the online collection.

Videodiscs are pressed from a metal master that is manufactured in a single pass from a "premaster" videotape. This premaster tape was used again in 1998 to produce the digital files in this online presentation. Many of our film and video chapters fail to achieve the highest-possible image quality. Our field video was recorded with a very modest one-tube camera that did not match the quality of the three-tube cameras used by broadcasters at that time, and the recording format is inferior to more recent developments in component video, such as BetaCam. The l6mm film that comprises the main narrative about the roundup was edited from the added-generation copies made to protect the film archive, as described above. Had we known from the start that our final product would be video, we would have chosen an alternate production path. In contrast, newly made, first-generation l6mm prints with very little grain were used to produce some of the "added information" chapters like "Breakfast in Camp," and "Buckaroo Parts a Cow from the Herd."

The Folklife Center offered the videodisc for sale in 1985. The laser videodisc format, however, was being overwhelmed in the marketplace by videocassettes and the Ninety-Six Ranch disc never received widespread acceptance. Thus we are doubly glad to place the materials on the World Wide Web. Not only does this new medium offer more flexible interactivity but it also has greater reach. We are confident that this version of the Paradise Valley folklife collection will reach educators and the general public in an effective way.

This text, by Carl Fleischhauer, is an updated version of the Appendix of the booklet that accompanied the laser videodisc The Ninety-Six: A Cattle Ranch in Northern Nevada, published by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in 1985.