The Advanced Laboratory for Visual Anthropology at California State University, Chico

The Advanced Laboratory for Visual Anthropology at California State University­–Chico is the first facility to adopt digital cinema technology for anthropological research and the diffusion of its results. This unique laboratory, created with support from the National Science Foundation, Major Research Instrumentation Grant, holds the potential to transform the relationships among scholars, students and the mass media. Digital cinema is a cover term for new technologies that produce moving images of a much higher quality than conventional video. These technologies can enable anthropologists to produce motion pictures whose production values equal or surpass those of professional media production companies. Digital Cinema is revolutionizing Hollywood and independent film production alike. It holds the potential to revolutionize the field of visual anthropology as well.

Motion picture cameras have been part of anthropologists’ methodological toolkits since the inception and professionalization of the discipline. Mead and Malinowski shot films in their field sites. Notes and Queries in Anthropology offers advice and prescient words of warning to budding ethnographers who would bring motion picture cameras to the field. The advent and wide dissemination of digital video cameras has democratized access to the medium. Today, motion picture capture technology is well within the reach of most anthropologists and many of the people with whom we study.

However, in spite of the profusion of digital video capture devices, anthropologists have rarely succeeded in using them to convey the results of their research to mass audiences. Luminaries of anthropological filmmaking like Jean Rouch, Robert Flaherty, Robert Gardner and Timothy Asch challenged and ultimately transformed the conventions of documentary film. They also succeeded in conveying the insights derived from anthropological research far beyond the confines of the academy. They worked in an extraordinarily difficult and expensive medium. However, the advent of cheap and simple digital video cameras has not always enabled contemporary anthropologists to reach the same broad publics.

Anthropological Research and the Mass Media

There is ample interest in anthropological topics in mass media outlets. Programs devoted to themes from cultural anthropology, archaeology, physical and especially forensic anthropology attract millions of viewers on cable and network channels alike. Anthropologists are often called in as consultants on these programs. We pose in front of our bookcases and provide soundbites to fill the gaps in a producer’s script. But our research is presented inadequately and inaccurately at the moment when it has the potential to reach the largest number of people. This is because we do not possess the tools of professional media production or the wherewithal to use them effectively. This is the problem that the Advanced Laboratory for Visual Anthropology seeks to solve.

Our mission is to put the tools of professional media production into the hands of anthropological researchers from across the four fields. We can help anthropologists convey the results of their research to broader publics by pairing them with crews of students who are trained in anthropological theories and methods as well as cinematic technique. We can create anthropological documentary films that will be effective in the classroom, on the Internet and on the airwaves. Our aim is to professionalize our cinematic craft while maintaining the rigor of our theories, our methods and the presentation of our data. We leverage some unique technological resources to accomplish this.

The Advanced Laboratory for Visual Anthropology is built around the Red Digital Cinema Camera System. At present, it houses a Red One and a Red Scarlet Camera. The Red camera is the first digital motion picture capture technology to equal, and perhaps surpass, 35mm motion picture film. It has been used in Hollywood blockbusters and independent films from The Artist to The Hobbit. This system dramatically lowers the cost of professional cinema production by introducing an entirely digital production and postproduction workflow. The 35mm film stock alone for a feature length-documentary would cost over a million dollars. Our solid state digital recording media can be reused indefinitely.

Opportunities and Challenges with a New Cinematic Technology

The Red camera system captures images with a resolution of 4,000 vertical pixels and 12 bits of color information. This is equivalent to taking 24, 12-megapixel raw photographs per second. Researchers use professional prime lenses to maximize the quality of the images we capture. Audio recording is performed with professional microphone kits. Three Canon DSLRs function as a “B-Cameras” for the Reds and also provide compact and workable field kits when those cameras are unavailable or logistically impractical to work with.

At full 4K resolution, the Red camera generates approximately 8GB of data every five minutes. In the field, this data is recorded to Compact Flash cards and Solid State Drives and stored on 500 GB portable harddrives. In the laboratory this data is housed and processed on a 32 terabyte Redundant Array of Inexpensive Drive (RAID) subsystem. This subsystem is connected to two editing bays over a Fibre Channel network and a parallel, Ethernet-based, local area network. This network ensures that data can move freely between the storage system and the editing workstations at the extraordinarily high speeds necessary for 4K video editing. It also ensures that multiple researchers can access their project files at the same time.

Our editing workstations have high-speed multicore processors, ample RAM and powerful graphics processing units. The network allows this processor power to be allocated to the tasks where it is needed most. Researchers use cinema display monitors for online editing. In order to take advantage of the flexibility to adjust exposure and color offered by the Red system, we also use a broadcast HD monitor calibrated for precise color rendition. We have a full complement of professional software for non-linear editing as well as technical support for final color correction, audio mixing and mastering.

Video formats change over time. This often leads to the loss of anthropological work. We seek to avoid the obsolescence our motion pictures by adopting multiple video mastering and archiving solutions. We use an LTO-5 digital linear tape system to create legacy copies of the motion pictures at full 4k resolution. This is the most stable archiving mechanism currently available. These legacy copies can be opened and adapted to multiple formats creating a “future-proof” storage solution. Raw footage is also archived in this medium to make it accessible for future generations of researchers.

We strive for the widest-possible dissemination of our research results through classrooms, film festivals and television broadcasts. For this purpose we have an HD DVCPRO video recording deck. This creates high definition (1080p) video tape that is up to the standards of broadcasters and some film festivals. Individuals and academic institutions are more likely to have Blu Ray players for HD playback. We have a Blu Ray burner drive to enable the creation and distribution of HD Blu Ray discs. We can also master standard definition DVD’s, Digital Cinema Packages and almost any other commercial or consumer format.

Digitial Cinema in Anthropological Research Contexts

The Red camera system is compact and robust. It is able to withstand the rigors of anthropological filmmaking. It offers unparalleled image quality as well as flexibility in the post-production workflow. Films produced by anthropologists using this technology meet and exceed the standards required for television broadcast. Our films have screened on public broadcast affiliates and will screen on cable networks across the West Coast and across the country, reaching millions of people. We have completed four films and have many more in various stages of the production pipeline. Undergraduate and graduate students have been involved in directing, shooting and editing all of these films. A novel curriculum has allowed our students to succeed in designing, executing and completing independent ethnographic film projects.

We look forward to building on our track record of innovation in anthropological imaging by producing live-action anthropological films for the immersive environment of the hemispheric planetarium dome. We are also exploring the possibilities of 3-D anthropological filmmaking as well as aerial videography for ethnographic and archaeological projects. We have facilities for professional still photography for cultural anthropological, archaeological and forensic applications. We also offer contract filmmaking services to state agencies and cultural resource management companies to help them fulfill their obligations under Section 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act.

The initial cost as well as the technological complexity of this camera system and the data storage and processing architecture it requires may prove prohibitive for many anthropological researchers and their departments. However, we invite informal proposals for collaborative film projects that will involve our graduate and advanced undergraduate students and take advantage of our unique equipment and facilities. Budgets for such projects need not be extravagant but should minimally include transportation, room and board and insurance for participants and equipment. We also solicit applications to our four-fields Masters program in anthropology and offer students the opportunity to make a film in partial fulfillment of the thesis requirement. Please direct inquiries to Brian Brazeal at

It is our hope that the Advanced Laboratory for Visual Anthropology will be a resource for researchers across the discipline and around the world. We also hope that the films we produce will be a resource for teachers in universities and K-12 institutions alike. Our ambition is to transform this laboratory into a global center for anthropological documentary film production. It will take researchers who are committed to the broad dissemination of the insights of our discipline to transform this vision into a reality.

Brian Brazeal is an assistant professor of anthropology at California State U–Chico. His research interests include the African-derived religions of Brazil as well as the religious dimensions of the global trade in emeralds. He founded and directs the Advanced Laboratory for Visual Anthropology at California State University–Chico.

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