Historical details add depth to personal histories

You’ve decided to create a video biography chronicling your life, or the life of one of your family members. That’s great! You’re sure to capture lots of great personal stories. But as you go about planning your interview, don’t forget to include some questions that put your subject’s personal history in the context of national and/or world history.

We all know how quickly times change. Asking your subject to reminisce about what things were like on the home front during World War II, for example, or during other times of nationwide joy or catastrophe can provide details that evoke a sense of time and place and add depth and texture to the story.

Here’s an example. I recently received a wonderful e-mail from a new Family Legacy Video customer in England. She lives in Eastbourne, on England’s south coast. She has a love for personal and oral history and is a budding video biographer. I thought you’d enjoy some of what she had to say:

“Being right on the south coast, you can imagine how many Battle of Britain stories people have. All the hotels along the seafront were billeted to Canadian and American soldiers. Eastbourne was a major target for German planes during WW II, and was the second most bombed town on the south coast. I’ll finish with a ‘little history’ from the last interview I transcribed:

Anyhow, we heard these aircraft and then one or two came over the woods, so low that you could actually see the Germans in their cock pits, only a matter of a few hundred feet. I suppose they were flying low to escape the RAF, and they’d obviously been on an attack, probably on London, and they came back and they still had their bombs onboard. And having seen them pass so low over the farm, we then ran round the back. We watched them heading off toward the English Channel and then they dropped their bombs-trying to hit the railway just between Stone Cross and Westham. We saw the plumes of earth going up from these bombs. The other thing about aircraft noise was; the house or the farm opposite the Hall was called Montague, and they had some evacuated horses, dray horses from London, grazing on the field there. And the extraordinary thing about these horses that had experienced the Blitz in London was; if they heard the German aircraft they would rush round the field in great panic but an RAF aircraft didn’t stir them, they didn’t react the same way and they were quite content to graze. They obviously associated the German aircraft noises with the noise and threat of bombs.

I love the ‘little’ history about the dray horses, how many people would know that unless the lived on the farm next door?”

What a great picture that story paints – and who would’ve thought horses could tell the difference between German and British airplane engines! These are the kinds of details that really help evoke a sense of time and place and that you should strive to bring out during your next video biography interview.

Join our September video biography workshop!


“Create Your Own Video Biography” workshops from Family Legacy Video offer three jam-packed days filled with inspiration, learning and fun – and leave you with the tools you need to preserve your own precious family stories on video. Our next workshop takes place this September – and you’re invited!

The workshop will run from September 8 to 10 (Friday to Sunday). And this time we’re holding the event in an actual television production facility – Skyline Productions, 65 S. Sycamore in Mesa, Arizona. For those of you outside of the area, there are nearby hotels and motels. And September in Arizona is a good time to get off-season hotel rates.

SO if you’re itching to tackle your own do-it-yourself video biography project –
BUT you lack the skills and experience you need to move forward –
THIS IS YOUR CHANCE to learn professional video production tips and techniques.

Reserve your spot for the September workshop now. Early bird rates apply until August 4. Complete details (along with testimonials from past workshop participants) are on the workshop page of the Family Legacy Video Web site.

Why create a video biography? Some reasons for reluctant relatives.

It’s too much work. I don’t look good on camera. I don’t have much to say. I already have lots of photo albums – why should I make a video?

If you’ve tried to convince a reticent parent or grandparent to sit for a video biography interview, you’ve probably heard excuses like these. Than again, maybe you’re the parent or grandparent offering up the excuses. So why is a video biography an invaluable addition to any family history effort? And how can you overcome resistance to such a project, either from other family members or yourself? Here are some answers to those excuses.

It’s too much work. No doubt about it – a video biography requires organization, planning, passion and some technical savvy. But that doesn’t mean the project needs to be overwhelming. If your family is creating the video, the key to success is breaking the process down into steps, like those outlined in the Family Legacy Video Producer’s Guide. If you’re hiring a video biography company to produce the video for you, make sure you find a company that will clearly explain and usher you and your family through each stage of the production – and let you know what role you need to play and what elements you need to provide.

If you’re the one pushing for the video, offer your subject lots of support. Tell him or her you’ll help sort and organize photos, films and memorabilia. Schedule regular visits or phone calls in order to delve into family history and life stories. Tell him/her that you’ll keep all the notes and write the questions; all he/she will have to do is sit down in front of a camera and talk to you. Offer any and all help needed to relieve your subject’s burden (or perceived burden).

I don’t look good on camera. Let’s face it: A lot of people just don’t like cameras. But a lot of people do like television. And this is a chance to tell his/her life story on TV. It’ll be fun, it’ll be exciting, it’ll be a chance to see how television programs are made. And, for your subject, it’ll be easy. Offer to videotape in your subject’s home, or in another location in which he/she is comfortable. Let your subject know that he/she is a revered family figure and you’re creating this video for posterity. Of course you’ll use professional lighting and sound techniques to make him/her look and sound great.

I don’t have much to say. Well, we know this isn’t true. Your parents, grandparents (or you, if you’re the subject) have lived very full and interesting lives. Let your subjects know how important their stories and recollections are to you and how much they’ll be treasured by future generations. If they’re worried about freezing up during the interview, reassure them that you’ll be there with them and that the experience will be less of an interview than a conversation between the two of you, or between your subject and a caring and interested professional interviewer. In short, they’ll be in a very safe environment, surrounded by people who care what they have to say and will do their best to make them comfortable saying it. In the end, your parents or grandparents (or you) will probably be surprised at how much they did have to say.

I already have lots of photo albums – why should I make a video? Photo albums, especially those packed with vintage family photos, are wonderful keepsakes and family history resources. But, photos don’t talk. And to enjoy the photos you need to have the album in your hands. Video biographies lend new life to old photos. Combine them with your parents’ and grandparents’ recollections, add some music and movement, and those vintage photos are given a dramatic new lease on life. And its easy to distribute multiple copies of your video biography on DVD, giving your photos a much greater family audience than they would otherwise have.

Properly produced video biographies can emotionally engage an audience like no other medium, and allow family members for generations to come to share the experience of watching and listening to Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, or you relate precious life stories. If your subjects have already written personal histories in book form, a video biography makes a valuable companion piece.

Finally, video biographies, and the process of making them, are just plain FUN. Isn’t that reason enough?

Video biography workshops are coming!

Family Legacy Video’s mission is helping folks just like you preserve your stories and family history on video. While you can certainly hire Family Legacy Video to create your video biography, you may be a do-it-yourselfer who’d like to learn how to produce the video yourself. Well, you’re in luck. Family Legacy Video is holding two “Create Your Own Video Biography” workshops in the coming months – in Tucson, Arizona – that will teach you hands-on, professional video production tips and techniques!

From May 19-21, and again from August 11-13, a three-day workshop entitled “Create Your Own Video Biography” ushers you through the process of creating your own family history video projects. You’ll learn how to draft questions, light, shoot and conduct interviews and edit a video.

Family Legacy Video president Steve Pender will host the workshop. Pender is an award-winning scriptwriter, video editor, director and producer with over 27 years of experience. He is the author of the Family Legacy Video™ Producer’s Guide. Family Legacy Video has been featured in print, TV and on radio. The workshop also features presentations by the award-winning production team of Dan Crapsi and Ginny Temple.

An early bird registration discount is available through April 15 for the May workshop. Final registration deadline is May 10. Complete workshop details are available on the workshop page of the Family Legacy Video Web site, or by calling 520.743.4090 (local) or 888.662.1294 (toll-free).

Don’t wait! Register now.

Another opening, another show…

Imagine you’re in a theatre, waiting to see the latest hit musical. The house lights dim. Audience chatter ceases. Then, from the orchestra pit, comes the first notes of the overture. During the next few minutes you enjoy a sampling of the musical delights to come. Your excitement builds, your anticipation grows, and, by the time the curtain rises, you’re totally focused on the show.

Think of the opening of your family history video as the overture to your program. An effective opening can create a mood, establish a visual style and set the stage for your entire program. Do the job well and you’ll rivet your audience’s attention to the television screen.

You can have a lot of fun creating your opening. Look at it as an opportunity to let your creativity soar. An opening gives you the opportunity to pull together various elements from throughout your video and combine them in interesting ways. It also gives you the chance to use visuals or interview segments that might not fit in the body of the video.

Here’s what I mean. At one point during an interview with my grandmother, I asked her if she ever thought she’d be the head of such a large family. She paused, then asked me if I knew how many family members we had. “No,” I answered. She then looked off into space and quietly said, “We have a lot.” It was an amusing exchange and offered a wonderful glimpse into Gram’s personality – but it just didn’t fit anywhere in the main part of the program. So, I put it right up front. The show opens with that brief exchange. Then my grandmother’s image freezes, music begins, and we see a series of stills from throughout her life that culminate in the show’s title. Music ends, we fade to black, and then fade up on the first segment.

Opening sequences can be simple or complex. The route you take depends on your creativity, editing expertise, available visual and audio resources and, of course, the time you have to devote to it. Here are some (but certainly not all) of the elements you can use:

Music. A great way to establish mood. Try starting your music (just a few notes is usually fine) before showing the first visual. It’s a great way to alert your audience that the show (or segment) is beginning.

Text. A quote from a diary or letter can be an effective way to set the stage for what is to come. You can also create a short preamble that sets up your story, a technique George Lucas used in his Star Wars movies.

Interviews. A short “sound bite” from an interview (as described above) can be used to good effect.

Photos. A brief photo montage set to music can clue the audience in to the people and places the program will feature.

Animation. If you are advanced enough using your editing software and a program like Photoshop, you can “cut out” people and elements from photos and move them in and out of frame while layering them against an interesting background like a map, a slow pan of the old family homestead or a series of shots of the subject’s country of origin.

Start thinking about your “opening overture” now. It’s the key to a truly successful video. Not only will you have a great time creating it, but I’m sure you’ll earn “boffo” reviews from your audience.

Think visually when planning your family video

Most humans are visual thinkers. Our thoughts are composed of imagery and pictures. And the right combination of images and sound coming from a TV or movie screen can inspire a wide range of emotions that leave indelible memories behind.

In addition to emotional impact, photos, family films and other memorabilia like newspaper clippings, trophies and medals lend your documentary what video pros call “production value.” In short, interesting and well-placed visuals make your video more fun to watch. And you DO want your family to watch. This is just as true for your family history video as for any Hollywood film. That’s why, after a Family Legacy Video client lets me know what he or she wants to talk about during an interview, I always ask what visuals are available.

It’s certainly great to have that interview with grandma and to be able to watch her tell stories about growing up on the family farm. Couple those stories with photos of her riding the old tractor or milking Bessie, mix in music that evokes the country life, and you add visual and emotional components that serve her story and make it even more memorable.

As you plan your interview, make a list of all the visuals you’d like to have in the video. Ask your interview subject what he or she can provide. Reach out to any other family members who may have resources. Collect those visuals and keep them safe. Don’t have anyone mail you one-of-a-kind photos. Have copies made for mailing or, if possible, go to where the photos are and videotape them there.

After the interview is over, you’re likely to find there are additional visuals you’d like. Remember to be as creative as possible and not to let a lack of family photos get you down. If you don’t have a picture of the farm, ask the tourist board for the state where your grandma’s farm was located to send you a picture of the countryside. Or find a vintage map showing the farm location, or a modern map that you can shoot and turn black and white or sepia using your editing software. Then, as the music plays, you can pan across the photo or map to set up the story about life on the farm. The possibilities are endless – and fun.

SEE what I mean?

Telling Family Stories Benefits Children

Telling and preserving family stories is fun and fulfilling. But you may be surprised to learn that sharing family stories and family history can promote and enhance the self-esteem and academic skills of your children and grandchildren.

At least that’s what some new research indicates. The research is detailed in a recent Wall Street Journal Online article.

Family Legacy Videos Bring Families Together

Ever thought a video biography could bring a family closer together? Happily, the renewal of family relationships can be a fringe benefit of video biography project.

Yesterday I received a letter from a recent client telling me about the wonderful effect his mother’s video biography has had within his family. Here’s the first paragraph from the letter:

“To date we have distributed over thirty-five copies of my mother’s video to family members. We started with our close family, Mother’s younger sister and sister-in-law. After the word got out to the cousins, we were inundated with requests for videos from other family members. Mother’s only surviving sister, who is seventeen years younger, was not aware of the Washington adventures and many other items that the three older children had experienced. Mother and her sister are now much closer because of the video. Many nieces and nephews with whom she’d had little contact are now in touch with her again. Thank you for providing us with a Family Legacy Video that will be passed down and enjoyed by our family throughout the coming generations.”

Holiday Videotaping Tips

When I was a kid, I had an uncle who owned a film camera. The only way he could get decent exposures indoors was to use lights. There were several of them, set in a bar that was mounted on his camera. When those lights were on, you could see nothing else. I can remember smiling sheepishly, waving, trying to be natural, all the while staring into what seemed light a million kilowatt glow.

While family members on the “business end” of today’s consumer video cameras may not have to deal with blinding lights, we all know how uncomfortable many people are when they know they’re being recorded; they feel self-conscious and so come across as stiff, nervous and unnatural on screen. What can you do to set your subjects at ease and ensure a more satisfying result? Here are some tips:

1. Start wide. A standard video technique is to start every scene out with a “master” shot. Simply put, this means first recording the entire scene as a wide shot. If you’re taping a party or a dinner, for example, set up your camera so you have a view of the entire room and everyone in it. Then start recording. If the camera is in a secure enough place you can even walk away from it for a couple of minutes so you don’t call attention to the fact that you’re taping. Set the camera on a bookcase, or on top of a TV, anything that gives you a panoramic view of the room or area. Even a tripod in the corner of the room can work; while people may notice it at first, they’ll get used to it and ignore it after a while.

2. Let people be themselves. Walking up to people, sticking a camera in their faces and telling them to act naturally is a sure-fire way to suck the spontaneity out of any shot. If you know your subjects are a bit skittish around cameras, hang back a little bit and use your camera’s zoom control to get that closer view instead of thrusting the camera into the middle of things. On the other hand, if your subjects are comfortable around you and your camera, don’t be afraid to move in close. You can even engage them in conversation if it suits you.

3. Don’t be afraid to direct. While you want to intrude as little as possible on a family scene, there may be times when a little direction is called for. Maybe you have an idea for an opening for your video – let’s say you want to show a long line of relatives, arms filled with presents, filing in through the front door. Don’t be afraid to tell everyone what you want them to do and enlist their cooperation. Set up your camera, place everyone where you want them to be, tell them what they need to do and where they should go after they do it. Then cross your fingers, press the record button and yell “action!” Remember to have fun and also accept the fact that you’re not working with professional actors. Be happy with what you get on one or, at the most, two tries.

4. Look for special moments. In every family gathering there are countless small, precious moments that help tell the story of your family. Maybe it’s a grandmother reading to her first grandchild, or a group chatting and cooking in the kitchen, or your cousins hanging holiday lights on the porch. Keep your camera close by. When you see moments like these, don’t hesitate to capture them on tape. An added plus is that when people are having fun and are truly engrossed in what they’re doing, they’re less likely to notice you and your camera (and if they do notice they’ll be less likely to care that you’re taping). Case in point: Years ago I was hired to shoot a profile of an insurance salesman. He was a wonderful, elderly gentleman. We spent a day with him and his family and, as my crew was packing up, I saw the salesman’s granddaughter sit down at the family piano and begin to practice. I quickly asked the salesman to join his granddaughter at the keyboard and hustled my cameraman over to the scene. The result was a lovely moment with grandpa and granddaughter enjoying some private time – totally oblivious to the camera.

5. Vary your shots. Shoot your subjects and action from below, above, straight on, from behind and in profile. Change your focal lengths from shot to shot, moving from close to wide. The more variety you have in the way you frame your shots, the more visually interesting your finished video will be. You can use the flip out monitor on your camera as a view finder to help you get those ultra high or ultra low shots you wouldn’t be able to get if you just relied on your camera’s eyepiece.

6. Have fun. Enjoy yourself. Relax. Laugh. If your family sees you, the cameraperson/director, having a good time, the more likely they are to relax and join in the video fun with you.

An Orlando Legacy Experience

Many estate planners are now looking to help their clients pass along legacies of stories as well as money. I met some of these forward-thinking professionals during a recent trip to Orlando, Florida.

The event was the annual symposium held by the SunBridge Network, a unique association of estate planners devoted to helping their clients meet their life and financial goals and create legacies to pass along to their families. Interestingly, they see life stories as being a valuable element of these legacies.

A good friend of mine from my high school days is an attorney specializing in estate planning – and a member of SunBridge. I hadn’t spoken to Jeff since high school, but one day last May he ran across the Family Legacy Video Web site, saw my photo and gave me a call. Long story short, on November 11 I found myself in Orlando presenting two breakout sessions to SunBridge associates interested in the subject of video documentaries.

I had a great time sharing my passion for family legacy videos and passing along what I hope was some useful information. It was also gratifying to see how the awareness of the value of using video to preserve family stories is growing.