With the right gear and the right attitude, you can tap into the lucrative deposition videomaking
The O.J. Simpson case raised public awareness about every facet of the legal system, video depositions
included. As a videomaker, you may have seen video depositions and thought, I could do that.
You may have also been thinking, I bet I could make money taping depositions. You’re probably
right in both cases.
Depositions are one of the basic fact-gathering tools of the legal profession. During a deposition,
an attorney questions a civil lawsuit witness prior to the trial, under oath and in the presence of the
witness’s attorneys and a court reporter.
The demand for video depositions has grown in recent years thanks to the continuing explosion in
litigation. Affordable, professional-quality video gear has made obtaining testimony from witnesses in
court cases simpler and often less costly than a traditional courtroom appearance. When a witness is ill,
deceased or out of the country, a video deposition becomes the only option. Experts also say video can
more fully capture the essence of a witness than a written transcript.
Jerry Goffe, head of Goffe Photographics in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is an acknowledged
expert in the field of videotaping depositions. He explains that video depositions are popular with attorneys
for reasons other than the unavailability of witnesses at trial time. Often, depositions are the most cost-
effective way to get a testimony into court. “Doctors, for example, don’t like to go to court–they’re busy,
and may charge $400 to $650 an hour to testify, and that includes time spent waiting in court to be called to
testify,” says Goffe. “With video, you can eliminate most of that waiting time. Also, witnesses may
contradict themselves, and it is easier for a lawyer to emphasize such contradictions in court with
A Serious Attitude
A serious, professional attitude is a key requirement for videomakers hoping to enter this field. As
anyone who deals regularly with attorneys knows, most have zero tolerance for anything less than
complete professionalism in their employees and vendors. And the bigger the attorney and lawsuit, the
more deadly serious the entire process becomes.
As a deposition videomaker, you are solely responsible for the proper execution of the taped
deposition, and must take great care to avoid making mistakes which could result (in a worst-case scenario)
in your client’s case being thrown out of court. Clearly, a basic familiarity with the legal world is
helpful in two ways: for understanding the special requirements of the discipline of videotaping
depositions, and for marketing your services.
The Association of Professional Videographers (APV) and the National Court Reporter’s
Association (NCRA) have established guidelines for videotaping depositions. Following these guidelines
can help the novice avoid making serious mistakes. The NCRA even offers a certification program, which
consists of a two-day seminar, a written and practical exam and the production of a mock deposition
videotape. You can reach the NCRA at 800-272-6272, or you can write to the Association of Professional
Videographers at 1000 Whitetail Court, Duncansville, PA 16635.
Though we all know great equipment doesn’t necessarily make a great video, having reliable, high-
quality gear is crucial for shooting depositions. According to Goffe, the basic equipment needed to
videotape depositions includes:
- a meticulously maintained high-band camcorder (and ideally, a back-up unit),
- a selection of at least four good wired and wireless lapel microphones,
- a microphone mixer,
- a good pair of headphones,
- a small color monitor,
- basic professional lighting gear,
- a good tripod with a fluid head,
- a strong cart or wheeled suitcase (to transport it all), and
- basic editing, duplicating and titling gear for a professional finished product.
According to Goffe, the most important features to look for when choosing a camera for
videotaping depositions include horizontal resolution of 350 lines or greater, manual audio level and iris
control, 1/4-inch or XLR mike input jack and good low-light sensitivity. Manual iris control is important to
avoid dramatic fluctuations of image brightness each time the deponent brings a piece of white paper into
Any camera used for depositions must produce a minimum of 350 lines of horizontal resolution,
according to the various professional guidelines and the requirements of most courts. This rules out the use
of almost all consumer VHS camcorders, most of which produce only 240 lines of resolution.
A popular camcorder for deposition work is the Panasonic Broadcast S-VHS AG-DP800
Supercam. The Supercam meets all of the above requirements and has a date/time stamp, which several
states require to be visible on the screen at all times. Other recommended cameras include the JVC
Professional GY-X2BU and the simpler Panasonic Broadcast AG-456U. This list is just a starting point–
there are other camcorders out there that will do a good job for depositions.
The next most important gear after the camera are the microphones and mixer. The APV and
NCRA guidelines call for at least four mikes and an active mixer for a typical deposition. Goffe highly
recommends a professional mixer, though some under-$100 units will suffice. It is important to have at
least one high-quality, reliable, interference-free wireless lavalier mike. Stay away from inexpensive mikes
that may not deliver consistent performance.
“Wired lapel mikes are a different story,” says Goffe. “I got really tired of careless attorneys
throwing my $200 wired lavs mikes on the floor, dropping books on them and winding the wires into
knots.” He now uses what he calls “disposable” lapel mikes, units that set him back about $40 each. “These
cheaper wired lapel mikes work very well, and they cost so little that using them in any situation is worry-
Be sure to write to the manufacturers of all of your lapel mikes and purchase extra clips, as these
always get lost or broken, no matter how careful you are. Table-top mikes (PZMs, for example) do not
meet the various video deposition guidelines, as they tend to pick up too much extraneous surface
Professional lighting gear is a must, though in most cases not much is needed. Goffe has found
that one 650-watt instrument, mounted on a lightweight stand and bounced off the ceiling or a wall (so it
does not shine in the deponent’s eyes), is sufficient for most situations.
The guidelines all call for a fluid-head camera support on a sturdy tripod. A small color monitor,
either of the industrial or consumer variety, is a must. You’ll need to monitor the video and the audio
constantly, and it’s no fun to squint into a camcorder viewfinder for several hours at a time. Plenty of
extension cords and a surge protector are also must-have items.
Videomakers should shoot all depositions on VHS standard speed (SP) unless otherwise specified.
You can use a different format camcorder, but almost every court’s rules for depositions dictate final
product delivery on VHS tape.
Goffe’s advice for the video pro or very serious amateur wishing to enter the video deposition field is,
“Study the guidelines issued by the APV and NCRA, then go to court reporters and attorneys and show
them other video work you have done. Let them see that you know what you’re talking about, and offer to
do the first videotaped deposition for free.
“And make sure, especially if your client is a court reporter, that you offer them a high-quality
audio cassette of the deposition for free,” Goffe adds. Note that this does not mean setting your cassette
recorder on the table. To be of any value, the tape must use the feed from the mikes providing the audio to
the videotape. Goffe takes the audio-out line from his Panasonic Supercam and runs it through an
attenuator box, to change the output from a line to a mike input. Goffe then plugs that into “any standard
size cassette recorder, using good quality virgin tape, of course.”
Once your first videotaped deposition is under your belt, the next step is to network within the
local legal community. A standard marketing approach of videomakers and evidence photographers is to
compile a list of phone and fax numbers, addresses and names of people and places that their potential
clients frequently call. These include key personnel for all of the courts in the local jurisdiction. You can
print these on a card with your logo and phone number, and mail them to lawyers and court reporters. The
card serves as a handy reminder, putting the videomaker’s name in front of potential clients every time they
use the card as a short-cut when looking up a phone number.
Giving talks in front of local legal organizations is another way to drum up business. However,
Goffe says the best way to keep repeat business coming is “to be the best, keep your prices in-line with
your competitors, and to be totally professional at every step of the process.”
Raise Your Right Hand
With the general stuff out of the way, let’s take a look at some specifics of shooting depositions. Prior
to the start of a deposition, the videomaker should inquire with the lawyers to identify any rules, court
orders or stipulations regarding the production procedures or techniques to be used (or avoided). You
should know the applicable rules going in, but make the inquiry nonetheless.
Unless specified to the contrary, the basic shot of the deposition is the medium shot. This shows
the head and shoulders of the deponent, as well as any documents they read. With this approach, you’ll
want to avoid zooming and panning. Change your shot only with the counsel’s permission, and then only to
cover an exhibit.
Another approach is to frame the deponent more tightly, zooming and/or panning to capture
documents or exhibits. Whichever format you use, be sure and discuss it with counsel before the deposition
Make sure all counsel understand that the taping will need to be stopped in the event of acoustical
noise (such as from ventilation systems or loud conversation from an adjoining room), technical difficulty,
inability to accomplish recording of exhibits and at the end of each videocassette. When you’re nearing the
end of a tape, indicate the time remaining to all counsel by holding up printed sheets stating 15, 10 and 5
minutes of tape remaining.
Also, inform counsel that sensitive lapel mikes will pick up paper shuffling, coughing, finger-
tapping, beverage sipping and other unwanted noises. Likewise, mikes will pick up other sounds not
intended to be a part of the record, such as whispered conferences among counsel and between counsel and
Prior to the start of the deposition, test all of your gear by shooting some footage of the seated
deponent. Then play back the test to determine that the video and audio gear is working properly. Leave
this test on all copies of the final videotape.
Next, the videomaker should read a statement into the record, identifying the court reporter, video
operator, date and location, case caption (such as Smith v. Jones), docket number, court and
jurisdiction, and the name of the deponent. State the time, and ask all counsel to announce themselves and
all others present. The court reporter then gives an oath to the deponent. You should also announce the
time audibly whenever the session goes on or off the record, including at the conclusion of the deposition
(or that day’s portion of it).
After the deposition, the last step is titling and labeling. Goffe explains, “In post-production, we
insert the title over our spoken introduction. What the court sees on the screen matches what they’re
hearing at the start of the deposition.” This information includes the caption of the case, the case docket
number, court and jurisdiction, names of all attorneys present and, of course, the name of the deponent.
Label the tape (and tape box) with the same information, and also include the location of the deposition,
name of court reporter, number of tape in sequence, running time and whether the tape is a master or
For serious-minded videomakers with the right kind of gear and lots of patience, videotaping
depositions is a profitable and rewarding enterprise. However, the stakes in this game are very high–it’s not
an enterprise to be undertaken casually.
Goffe recommends serious study of the guidelines and if at all possible, completion of the
NCRA’s certification program. Also, always make sure you conform to any specific regional or state
requirements for shooting depositions. You don’t want to make mistakes which could ultimately find you
on the other side of the deposition camcorder!