Of personal history and a special lunar eclipse.

It was about 1 AM in Tucson, Arizona, on the morning of December 21. I unlocked my front door, stepped into the night and looked up towards the heavens. There it was: a rust-colored moon in almost total eclipse, floating in and out of view behind a mottled layer of broken clouds. Even though the sky wasn’t as clear as I would have liked, the view was gorgeous, and it was made all the more special by the fact that the next winter solstice eclipse isn’t due until 2094 – eighty-four years distant. That’s pretty far away in human time, but not as far removed as we in 2010 are from the last folks who got to see such an awesome sight.

It was 372 years ago, 1638, when a lunar eclipse last coincided with a winter solstice. As I sat on my front steps enjoying the spectacle in the night sky above me, feeling the gentle breeze brushing my face and hearing the mournful cries of some nearby coyotes, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of connection with my distant ancestors. I don’t know who or where they were, but somewhere close to four centuries ago, my forbears gazed into a star-filled expanse to watch the full moon redden and dim. It may sound a bit silly, but I felt connected to them, as if this celestial event was bridging time and linking us together in spirit.

I think part of that connectedness stems from the fact that, like the light reflected by the moon, each of us is a reflection of the generations of our family that preceded us. My DNA, physical characteristics and maybe even personality traits were bequeathed to me by those long-lost relatives; precious gifts of identity for which I give thanks daily. One thing they didn’t pass along to their descendants were their personal stories – understandable given that, for them, just surviving was probably the order of the day. But thanks to today’s technology, we have opportunities our ancestors in 1638 didn’t have. You and I can pass along our life stories, including our reactions to the 2010 lunar eclipse, to coming generations in the form of personal video biographies. If we create these legacy videos now, before it’s too late, our descendants won’t be left wondering who we were. They’ll know, because we’ll be there to tell them each time they insert our DVDs and press “play.”

And won’t that be a wonderful reflection on us.

Why hire a video biography pro?

So you’ve decided that 2011 is the year you’re going to create that long overdue video biography featuring your grandparents, or your mom and dad. You own a pretty nice consumer camcorder. You’ve dabbled in editing. You’ve even created birthday video DVDs for family members. Who’s to say you shouldn’t take on that long-awaited video biography project yourself, instead of hiring a professional video biographer? Who indeed. But before you decide, you might want to think about what a professional has to offer:

In order to proceed smoothly, a video project needs to be organized from start to finish. A professional video biographer can bring years of organizational experience to the table. A pro can talk with you about your goals and wishes for your video and then design a production that meets your needs and your budget. A pro knows how to start a legacy video project and then proceed efficiently each step of the way. A true professional treats you, the client, like the executive producer – consulting you and ushering you and your family through the process.

A professional video biographer will be well-versed in visual storytelling techniques. He or she can offer you a number of ways to approach and treat your family stories and storytellers. And a pro will have a realistic idea of the cost and time involved in the different options he or she offers you. A real pro will be able to show you samples of past work so you can make informed decisions about the creative direction of your legacy video.

Production Experience
Your storytellers deserve to be presented in the most flattering way possible. A professional can insure that your storytellers look and sound their very best on camera. This means professional lighting, knowing how to compose a pleasing shot and using a high-end camera to capture the image, along with top-notch microphones to ensure great sound. A pro will also know how to make a storyteller feel safe and comfortable during the interview in order to ensure an effective “performance.”

Editing Expertise
The final edit is where the magic happens. A video biographer who is an experienced editor can take all the raw elements collected during the production process (interviews, photos, films, music, sound effects, etc.) and turn out a program that exceeds your wildest expectations.

Time Management
Best of all, a professional video biographer can be working on your project steadily, not squeezing it in during a free moment here and there like you may have to do. This means your video biography actually gets done in 2011 – and doesn’t get put off for yet another year.

True, you’ll have to pay for the service – but in the end, the value a professional can bring to your project can be well worth the price.

World Digital Library offers fascinating glimpses of world history & culture.

The history of the world is a complex tapestry of events, images and sounds. You’ll find a small sampling of those images and sounds is available at the World Digital Library. The WDL is a free, online resource that allows you to view and listen to primary materials from a wide variety of countries and cultures.

The WDL currently offers over one thousand items contributed by institutions around the world. Included in the collection are manuscripts, maps, rare books, musical scores, audio recordings, films, prints, photographs, and architectural drawings. Users can browse by place, time, topic, type of item and contributing institution, or by an open-ended search. Navigation tools and content descriptions are provided in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. Many more tongues are represented in the materials themselves, which are provided in their original languages.

So take some time to digitally explore cultural treasures from around the globe at the World Digital Library.

Have some fun with a “memory stir.”

My mission in life is to help individuals, families, businesses and organizations preserve, celebrate and share their memories and their stories. But once in a while, as a change of pace, it’s fun to delve into my own memories. I do this using a technique I call a “memory stir.” It’s pretty simple, actually. I sit down and ask myself a question meant to prompt a recollection or two. It can be amazing what memories float to the top once I start “stirring.”

So let’s have some fun. What was your most memorable store as a child. What do you remember about it? What made it special?

The store that comes to mind for me is W.T. Grant, on Main St. in the town of Rahway, New Jersey. When I was growing up in the 1960s, Rahway had a thriving downtown and Grant’s was part of the mix. Some impressions: Old, single-story building. A slightly musty smell (not unpleasant) wafts out as the door opens. Thin-planked wood floors creak underfoot. Vintage tin ceiling. The main floor is stocked with linens and clothing; house wares, radios and toys are on the basement level. I feel a sense of excitement every time I descend the stairs to the basement – probably because that’s where the “neat” stuff (radios and toys) is.

But there’s one, specific memory related to Grant’s that’ll stay with me forever. I’m with my mom. She’s shopping for something, maybe a tablecloth or some curtains. She doesn’t see what she wants on the sales table. A salesman, neatly dressed in slacks, jacket and tie asks if he can help. She describes what she’s after. He crouches in order to slide open the door to the storage bin under the table. But – before he crouches, he reaches down and hikes the legs of his pants up just a bit – to give his slacks some slack, if you will. Well, I’d never seen a guy do this before. The action seemed so effortless, practical and “grown up.” Needless to say, the next time I wore slacks I copied the salesman’s technique. And I’ve been doing it ever since.

Get the idea? Now stir up some of your own memories!

Capture your family cooks – and their recipes – on video.

Stuffed cabbage: It’s one of my ultimate comfort foods, as well as a delicious reminder of my Polish heritage. Luckily for me, my mother-in-law is the “Queen of Cabbage.” She brought her family recipes with her when she emigrated from Poland in 1960. Forty-nine years later, she’s still at the top of her game in the kitchen. For me, her stuffed cabbage is the stuff of which dreams are made. Few of her recipes, however, are written down. And when it comes to measuring ingredients, she basically works on the “a little of this, a little of that” standard, which makes preserving her recipes and techniques a bit of a challenge.

Sound familiar? Is your mom, mother-in-law, grandmother or other relative a great cook who works from memory and not from written recipes? Do you want to be able to recreate those scrumptious dishes and pass along your family’s culinary traditions to your children and grandchildren? If so, how do you go about it?

Why not try video?

Heck, cooking shows and demonstrations continue to be all the rage on television. We even have entire cable channels filled with nothing but cooks and chefs frying, sautéing, poaching and baking up a storm. Why not take a cue from them and videotape your own family chef as he or she creates some of your clan’s signature dishes?

Let’s say your subject is stuffed cabbage and the cook in question is your mother-in-law. You might begin your video with a brief on-camera interview, during which she relates the history of the recipe: how she learned to cook it and any memories associated with it. Then we pick her up in the kitchen. She shows you the ingredients involved and then launches into the preparation. Along the way you check her food and spice measurements and she shows off her cooking techniques. Perhaps you throw a second camera into the mix in order to get some close-ups – just like they do on the Food Network. You also take advantage of your time together to chat her up and get her to tell some family stories. In the end, you not only document the creation of a wonderful dish, you also capture some fascinating and fun family lore. And what can be better than that?

After all, the tastes and aromas of our signature family recipes carry lots of associations linked to the special people and times in our lives, including the love that generations of family cooks have liberally sprinkled into the mix. That’s what I taste whenever I bite into one of my mother-in-law’s homemade stuffed cabbage. It’s also what you’ll pass along to your children, grandchildren and great-children when you celebrate your own family cooks on video.

The value of recording life stories.

Gene Edminster is a WWII veteran and a member of my Rotary club. I recently interviewed Gene for the Catalina Rotary Veterans Project, an initiative designed to preserve the military and Rotary service stories of veterans who are club members. At the end of our session, I impulsively asked Gene if he saw value in preserving his stories on video. He responded by talking about the war stories he heard from his father, a veteran of WWI, stories that are now thankfully preserved on audio cassettes. But then Gene turned his attention to his wife, recently lost to Alzheimer’s Disease, and how he wished he’d recorded her stories. His answer was poignant, heartfelt and direct, and spoke directly to the need to preserve personal life stories before it’s too late. To see some examples of ways life stories can be preserved and celebrated, visit the Family Legacy Video Theatre.

Study affirms benefits of personal legacy projects.

The reported benefits of family legacy videos are usually more anecdotal than clinical. But now and again an official study affirms what video biographers know: personal legacy projects often have profoundly positive mental and physical impacts on storytellers and their families. Who says so? Researchers at the University of Michigan and University of Alabama, that’s who.

The “Legacy Project” study is one of the first studies to examine the benefits of family life review efforts. The study concentrated on individuals with chronic, life-limiting illnesses, aged 60 and older. Researchers helped patients and their family caregivers create personal legacies in video or scrapbook formats; the participants were surveyed throughout the course of the project.

Less difficulty breathing, reduced stress and depression and greater social interaction are some the benefits documented by the study. According to co-author Louis Burgio, a research professor at the University of Michigan, “Working together on a joint project called a legacy improved the quality of life of both patients with life-limiting illness and their family caregivers.”

For more details, click here.

Family Legacy Video wins two awards!

Exciting news! Just got word that Family Legacy Video, Inc., has won two Awards of Distinction in the 2010 Communicator Awards competition. Our honors came in the History/Biography category. The winning entries were A Legacy of Family, featuring the life stories of Tucson couple Bill and Wilma Hansen and Charlie’s Story, featuring WWII B-17 pilot Charlie Wilson of Austin, Texas.

The Communicator Awards is the leading international awards program honoring creative excellence for communications professionals. The international video competition attracted 7,000 entries this year. The Communicator Awards are judged and overseen by the International Academy of the Visual Arts (IAVA), a 550+ member organization of leading professionals from various disciplines of the visual arts dedicated to embracing progress and the evolving nature of traditional and interactive media.

Jump cuts: Now you see ’em – now you don’t.

So you’re watching a taped interview on the evening news. The interview subject starts to answer a question, but after about ten words the position of her head suddenly changes from leaning forward to leaning backward. Then, after a few more words, her head suddenly tilts to the left. The audio sounds fine, so what’s going on with the video?

What’s going on is this: When they got the tape back to the studio, the producer and editor decided to slice and dice the interview a bit. Maybe the subject made a mistake that needed to be eliminated; maybe the producer decided to slap the beginning of one answer onto the end of another; maybe the answer ran too long so the producer had to trim a bit to stay within a defined time. Whatever the reason, the driving factor behind the editing was the audio. And if you closed your eyes and listened to the interview again you probably wouldn’t guess it had been edited. But with your eyes open, the edits are obvious. These kinds of edits are called “jump cuts” – because the video image seems to jump at the point of the edit. Jump cuts can be pretty ugly and distracting. But there are ways to apply a little video “sleight of hand” to either hide the jump cuts or at least minimize them.

Cover ’em up:
The best way of dealing with jump cuts is to hide them under visuals. If you have photos, films or other visuals that apply to the subject being discussed, insert them before the jump cuts occur and continue with them on screen until it makes sense to return to your interview subject. If you don’t have photos, you might be able to construct something – maybe a text screen that has some relevant information. Whatever you use, just make sure it relates to the topic at hand. Throwing in a visual that doesn’t pertain to what’s being covered in the interview distracts your viewers from what’s being said. Choose the right visuals, however, and they’ll reinforce and enhance the interview while hiding those distracting jump cuts. Your viewers will be none the wiser.

Smooth ’em out:
What if you really need to make a cut but you don’t have a visual to use as cover? In this case, your best option is to “soften” the cut. One way to do this is to place a dissolve at the cut point. The duration of the dissolve could be as short as three to four frames (known as a “soft cut”) or as many as ten. You’ll have to experiment and see what looks best to you. While it’ll be obvious to viewers that you’re making a cut, at least it’ll be easier on their eyes.

Another technique you can use is known as a “white flash.” Using your editing software, or graphics software like Photoshop, create a graphic screen that is white. Place the screen at the point of the interview edit, let it sit for a few frames, and then dissolve back to the interview. Experiment to see what looks best to you. You might even want to dissolve to the white screen a few frames before the cut, let it linger for several frames, and then use a longer dissolve as you return to your interview. The white flash will help “dress up” the cut a little and make it less distracting.

Chapters: A great way to organize a video biography.

You’ve videotaped your family interviews and collected your photos, films and other visuals. But now that you sit down to edit, the prospect of creating a video that may run a hour or longer is daunting. Just how do you put together a video biography that’s informative and entertaining without getting overwhelmed in the process?

Think: Chapters.

Any large project can be intimidating until you break it down into smaller steps or tasks. Editing your video biography is no different. And organizing your video by chapters is a great way to whittle away at it a little at a time.

If you organized your interview questions efficiently you’re probably ahead of the game. It should be easy for you to group your interview segments by themes like “Grandparents,” “Parents,” “Earliest Memories,” “School Days,” “The War Years,” etc. As you edit, focus on one chapter at a time. Treat each chapter as a “video within a video” with it’s own title, musical theme, tempo and unique beginning, middle and end. Focusing only on the chapter you’re currently editing will prevent you from being overwhelmed by the total length of your project. Before you know it, you’ll be done.

Structuring your video biography around chapters also makes the viewing experience more enjoyable and manageable. It’s much easier for your audience to digest material in smaller bits. And by varying the mood and feeling of each chapter you help keep your viewers engaged and interested. A long video without chapter breaks and no variety in music, mood and pacing can lull your audience to sleep – and the last thing you want your family members to do is to wind up using your video biography as a sleep aid.

Chapters also make things easier for folks who don’t have the time or the attention span to view an entire video in one sitting. By keeping track of the chapters they watched they’ll know exactly where to pick up when they sit down to continue. And if someone wants to revisit a particular section of the video, chapters make it easier to do that, too.

So learn to put together your video biographies one chapter at a time. It’ll make things easier on you and more enjoyable for your audience.