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Court DV
Posted Oct 6, 2004 - March 1998 [Volume 7, Issue 4] Issue Print Version     Page 1of 5 next »

From Inherit the Wind and The Caine Mutiny to Perry Mason, A Few Good Men, and the O.J. Simpson trial, we've all seen the spellbinding drama that affairs of the court can yield. Thus one would assume that the growing field of legal videography might lend event videographers looking to broaden their horizons the perfect opportunity to showcase their dramatic chops. As in litigation itself, in some cases that's true, but more often than not, legal videography involves little or no theatrics. It's less about drama than the law itself.

But that doesn't mean it's not a potentially lucrative, challenging pursuit in which ambitious videographers can make their mark, even if the work is predominantly pro forma. Credentials and reputation may be even more important on the legal side of videography than on the event side.

After all, we're not just talking about video that makes the grade of personal preference, or does a given event justice (which is not to denigrate the quality or professionalism of event video in any way). We're talking about video that may or may not be deemed admissible in a court of law, and thus isn't measured in subjective terms of quality so much as conformity to clearly delineated federal rules of evidence and civil procedure. And while most of us think of legal videography as taping depositions and little else, there's much more to it than that.

Courting Videography
Often called court videography or forensic videography, legal video has expanded categorically as attorneys have seen what a powerful weapon video evidence can be. Today, lawyers increasingly call on videographers to assist with their cases in a variety of ways. Says American Guild of Court Videographers (AGCV) founder Gayle Marquette, "Depositions are a very small part of legal videography. But they've opened the doors to all other types of legal video." Today, legal videography breaks down into six major categories.

Video depositions: taped depositions for use and presentation in trial
Video wills: on-camera readings and signings of a testator or testatrix' last will and testament
• Video settlement documentaries (VSDs): video demonstrations of a plaintiff or defendant's case to be shown at a preliminary hearing, designed to prevent a case from going to court
Day in the Life video: brief documentaries in which an attorney can illustrate how an injury or incident affected the daily life of his or her client • Pre-construction video surveys: comprehensive documentation of the areas surrounding a construction site before work begins, designed to pre-empt future lawsuits alleging property damage caused by construction in those areas
Construction draw videos: videos that document the completion of contractor "milestones" in a construction project.

Some of these sound rather dry, even tedious, and they are—by definition. With pre-construction and construction draw videos, for example, much of the videographer's skill is applied to exhaustive coverage and attention to detail; with depositions, it's adhering to the relevant rules of evidence (see "The Letter of the Law") and producing a document that a judge won't dismiss.

If you're an accomplished event videographer considering branching out into legal video work, much of the wizardry that you achieve in the editing suite will have no place in legal projects. In fact, as enriching as it's been to have legal videography go digital and embrace both DV and DVD—"That's the newest and most exciting part of doing legal video," says Marquette—non-linear editing and DVD output were initially met with as much apprehension as appreciation. "There was a lot of concern that judges would not allow it," Marquette says, given "the ease of altering digital recordings."

The key issue in almost all instances with legal video is that you're not presenting entertainment, drama, or even argument, per se; you're presenting evidence. Day in the Life documentaries—used, at least in part, to draw an emotional response from the jury—run the greatest risk of being ruled inadmissible at the first hint of emotional manipulation. Music and narration, for example, are verboten.

If you do try to edit for emotional impact, you'll have to be subtle enough about it that the judge won't see what you're doing and throw it out. "The main thing a judge will not allow is for these documentaries to appeal to the emotions of the jury. They want the facts. That doesn't mean that a juror won't get emotional when they see how someone's life has been destroyed by someone else's cause. We just don't show all the blood and guts," says Marquette.

This translates into specific video editing techniques—and most importantly, a lack of artifice. "We instruct our members not to use any fancy bells and whistles, fancy backgrounds or music, or CG [computer-generated] reenactments," Marquette continues. "We can do live interviews, but we don't use pro voice-overs or actors or scripted narration." An effective and acceptable Day in the Life video, he says, is "pretty much a straightforward videotape of the person trying to do what they do every day to show how their life has been altered." He also recommends keeping it short—10-15 minutes at most. "You're going to have to try and hold a jury's attention. Go past 15 minutes and you have a problem."

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