Confessions of a Video Biographer Chapter 4: Romancing the Curve

It seems like the learning curve never ends – it just changes shape. When I’m tackling something new and the curve is at its steepest, I feel like I’m trying to ski up a hill. After getting a little experience under my belt, the curve flattens and requires a little less effort on my part, kind of like skiing cross-country. Then, when I’ve really mastered something, I’m on the downhill slope, zipping along and enjoying the ride, keeping watch for the occasional mogul. Having booked my first commissioned video biography, I found myself staring up at an uphill slope, getting ready to climb once again.

To be sure, the curve wasn’t as steep as it could have been. In 2003 I already had 24 years of experience as a writer, producer/director, and video editor. But could the skills I’d honed working on a wide variety of corporate, business, and not-for-profit video projects be brought successfully and profitably to bear on a personal history project? What would work and what wouldn’t? What price could I set that wouldn’t scare away Dick and Mary-Lou, my prospective clients, but that would be realistic, allowing me to produce a legacy video of value to my client while fairly compensating me for my time and expenses?

It looked like I was going to find out.

I opened up my production spreadsheet and spent some time estimating hours and expenses. I came up with what I thought was a fair budget. It was, perhaps, a little on the low side, but I was looking at this as a learning experience, as well an opportunity to create a template for future video biographies and to start building a portfolio. I figured I could adjust future budget estimates based on the experience I gleaned from this project. Luckily, Dick and Mary-Lou agreed to my price, and we were off and running.

As far as process was concerned, I decided not to try and reinvent the wheel, but to follow the steps that served me well when I created videos for corporate clients. First order of business (after signing a contract, of course): the preinterview. I sat down with Mary-Lou and Dick at their home for a couple of conversations, during which I learned the stories they wanted to tell. I used my notes from these sessions to draft the questions I’d ask on-camera, and to give my new clients some guidance about the kinds of photos and other visuals they could provide that would help enhance their recollections. We then scheduled their video shoot and I booked my crew.

Bright and early on a sunny September morning, I excitedly rang the bell at Dick and Mary-Lou’s ranch-style home in the Winterhaven section of Tucson. The door opened, and Dick ushered me and my cameraman inside. My first professional video biography interviews were about to begin. How did things go? I’ll tell you in another post.

Oh, and by the way: What’s your story?

Electrifying storyteller honors the contributions of Chinese railway workers.

They endured back-breaking physical labor. They toiled in wind, rain and snow. They were paid less than their white counterparts. 1,200 of them died on the job. And, to top it off, they weren’t even invited to celebrate the completion of their work.

Charlie Chin-Chinese Railway WorkersThey were the 10,000 to 15,000 Chinese migrant workers who built the western segment of America’s First Transcontinental Railroad during the 1860s.

Most Americans are probably unaware of the role the Chinese played in connecting the west coast of the United States with the east. But, on the evening of October 22, at the 20th anniversary conference of the Association of Personal Historians in Sacramento, California, the experiences of these unsung laborers was brought vividly to life by Charlie Chin.

Mr. Chin, a renowned historian, master storyteller, and accomplished musician, took to the stage in the persona of Chin Lin Sou, a highly intelligent and resourceful Chinese immigrant who learned English and eventually became the foreman and contractor of Chinese railroad workers. In fact, Chin Lin Sou recruited many of his countrymen and helped arrange their passage to the U.S. After the “golden spike” was driven home at Promontory Point, Utah Territory (an event to which the Chinese workers were not invited), Chin Lin Sou settled in Denver, Colorado, where he became a highly respected businessman.

Mr. Chin’s performance, divided into three parts, was entertaining, educational, and electrifying. In part one, as Chin Lin Sou, he recounted the trials and tribulations of the Chinese railway workers as they worked furiously laying heavy rails, while at the same time battling the elements, dangerous working conditions, disease, and, of course, prejudice. In the second act of his performance, Mr. Chin, still in the guise of Chin Lin Sou, answered questions from the audience. Mr. Chin then stepped out of character to address subjects about which Chin Lin Sou would have had no knowledge.

Delivered to an audience composed of personal historians and members of the Sacramento community, the event also served to promote the efforts of the Chinese Railroad Workers Memorial Project, a group dedicated to building a proper monument, which seeks, as the project’s website describes, “…to recognize the important historic contribution and pay a solemn tribute to the Chinese immigrants who lost their lives laboring on the Transcontinental Railroad, which shaped the physical and social landscape of the American West.”

The event was sponsored by longtime APH member Lynne Choy Uyeda, and her company, Linking Lives & Legacies.

To hear a brief excerpt from Mr. Chin’s performance, click on the audio button below.

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A wine-making family presses on – for five generations.

“You might want to visit the Nichelini Family Winery in St. Helena,” the lady in the Napa Valley Welcome Center told us. “It’s a really neat, family-owned operation that’s been around since 1890. In fact, it’s the oldest family-owned winery in the valley.”

Family Legacy Video provides custom personal video biography and legacy video production services.My wife, Halina, and I had been tooling around Napa Valley, California for a week in September, celebrating our 25th anniversary. We’d started in Calistoga, a cute little town in the northern part of the grapevine-laden valley, and had just pulled into the larger city of Napa, in the south. Instead of just cruising the main drag, dropping in on wine-tasting room after wine-tasting room like hummingbirds moving from one flower to another, we wanted to take an unhurried drive, enjoy the scenery, and drop in on perhaps one or two wineries.

Being a personal historian who helps multi-generational businesses preserve and celebrate their histories on video, I thought a visit to such a long-established family operation would be fun. I was especially intrigued by the family’s motto: Generation to Generation. The fact that Nichelini was up in the hills, away from the beaten path, was even better.

So the next day, a Tuesday, we packed a picnic lunch and headed north on the Silverado Trail and then CA-128. Halina and I knew we were taking a chance; the winery was only open for tastings on weekends, and we weren’t sure anyone would be around or that we’d be able to get onto the grounds. But in the spirit of adventure we decided to try our luck.

After a leisurely drive that took us past a lake, vineyards and thick stands of trees, we squeezed our car into a space on the side of the two-lane road, across from a two-story wood-frame home flanked by a barn-like building featuring a beautifully carved sign announcing “Nichelini Family Winery.”

We strolled across the road and onto a path between the two buildings. The land dropped away pretty quickly, with stone steps leading to a shady grove packed with weathered wooden picnic tables (a perfect place for lunch!) as well as a bocce court. Just then, I heard what sounded like something metallic being moved in the barn-like building. Wanting to ask permission to enjoy lunch in the picnic grounds, I poked my head through the open doorway and yelled a hello.

A very friendly gentleman sporting short-cropped white hair and beard appeared from the other side of the building, which was filled with shining, stainless-steel fermentation vats and other wine-making equipment. Introducing himself as Uncle Lou, he not only invited us to enjoy lunch on the property, but promptly took us on an impromptu tour of the winery. He showed us all the equipment and explained the roles each played in transforming grapes into wine. Standing outside, and in stark contrast to the modern gear we’d just seen, was the winery’s original Roman wine press. This vintage wooden device has been in the family’s hands for over 120 years and was in active use until the 1950s. Uncle Lou then opened the door to the stone storage area under the family house, where rows of oak barrels holding the results of previous harvests rested in the cool darkness. And he pointed out the original Nichelini family homestead, a small shack near the bottom of hill, in case we wanted to take a peak at it later. He also suggested we knock on the door to the house. He wasn’t sure there’d be wine to taste, but at least we could have a look around.

A young fellow named Eddie answered our knock. Our luck held, as he did have a bottle of white wine, a 2014 Old Vine Muscadelle, open. So we got our taste, plus a Nichelini corkscrew as an anniversary gift. We also purchased a bottle of their 2012 Roman Press Red to try later.

I think Anton and Caterina Nichelini would be proud to know that, over 120 years later, the winery they began is still family-run, and led by their great-great-granddaughter, Aimée Sunseri. Firmly rooted in the past but with its eyes laser-focused on the future, the family business has thrived by passing along its traditions, expertise and pride to each succeeding generation. The winery and grounds are infused with vitality and spirit, which, I’m sure, will serve them well for generations to come.

I can only imagine what great stories family members could tell – and what a wonderful video biography these stories would make!

By the way, the wine was delicious. We’ll be ordering more.

Confessions of a Video Biographer Chapter 3: Closing the Circle

Networking. It’s one of those things you need to do in order to promote your business. Especially if, like me, you’re a new kid in town. And so, thirty-second elevator speech memorized and pockets bulging with business cards, I made the rounds of practically every business networking group in the “Old Pueblo” (what the locals call Tucson), again, and again, and again. Now, a lot of other small business folks were doing the same thing. So it wasn’t long before I started seeing a goodly number of familiar faces at one mixer or another, and then developing, if not friendships, at least “acquaintanceships” with the people behind those faces.

As luck would have it, in 2003 one of those business networking acquaintances invited me to a gathering at her home where she outlined an idea to form a group modeled around the concepts in a booked called, “The One Minute Millionaire: The Enlightened Way to Wealth” by Mark Victor Hansen and Robert G. Allen. In essence, the idea was for a small group of entrepreneurs to get together, form a company or companies, and then cooperate in doing whatever it took to make the businesses a success. I wasn’t exactly being deluged with work at the time, so I decided to hitch myself to this shiny new wagon.

At our first official meeting, my five new partners and I decided to pursue two ideas. Idea one: A company producing reusable fabric gift bags. Idea two: A company offering a family history video-related product or service. I was the one who brought that idea to the table, of course. But seeing as I still wasn’t sure I’d be able to find clients willing to pay for “soup to nuts” video biography production, I hoped the group could help me brainstorm some other ideas. In the end, we thought it best to go the “do-it-yourself” route and produce a guide for customers who wanted to produce a family history video about their families, but didn’t have the video experience to do so. The idea was to create a guide on a CD-ROM, designed to play through a web browser. I wrote all the content, and another member of our group created the graphics and navigation. After seemingly endless hours of writing and programming and revising of the same, the “Family Legacy Video® Producer’s Guide” was almost ready for market.

But before we could print and sell copies, we had to make sure the guide would work as advertised, and that its content was worthwhile. That meant finding some people outside of our small circle to test the CD. Luckily, I was able to recruit some volunteers from my Rotary club. One of those volunteers was a retired engineer in his early eighties. AFter spending some time reviewing the guide, he handed it back to me and offered a couple of helpful suggestions for changes. Then, he said, “My wife and would love to do a project like this. But there’s no way we can do it ourselves. Could we hire you to do it for us?”

Needless to say, my answer was, “Yes!”

So I’d come full circle, from wondering if folks would actually hire me to produce a legacy video for them, to instead creating a DIY product that became directly responsible for me being hired for my first job a professional video biographer. And so, while also launching an effort to sell the DIY guide, I started preproduction on my first commissioned video biography. More on that to come.

Oh, and by the way: What’s your story?

Confessions of a Video Biographer Chapter 2: The Journey Begins

Some people believe you only truly die after you’re no longer remembered. If that’s true, I can truly say my grandmother will live on for generations, thanks to her video biography.

Gram died in 1998. And now, seventeen years later, family members still tell me how much they appreciate the video. I’ve heard reports of the younger grandkids incorporating clips from her video biography into history projects for school. One of my aunt’s once told me, “Whenever I miss my mother, I just play the video and she’s alive again.” That same aunt has since screened Gram’s legacy video for members of her senior citizen’s center, hoping to inspire other elders to record their stories. So, if anything, Gram’s audience has grown.

But back in 1998, and for many years afterward, I was left wondering if there was a way I might be able to offer a personal history service to folks who didn’t have the video savvy I did – and make a profit doing so. Technology and economics weren’t exactly smiling on me at that point. Non-linear editing (NLE), which today is available to just about anyone with a computer, was still in its infancy then. Not being an early adopter, I didn’t feel comfortable investing in the computer gear and software necessary to get me started editing in the comfort of my own office, especially since the stuff I bought could easily become obsolete in the blink of an eye. And the million-dollar tape-to-tape corporate and commercial facilities in which I worked were out; I certainly couldn’t build anything comparable and with hourly rates for video editing in the hundreds of dollars, my postproduction costs would have been monumental.

So I left the idea simmering on my mental back-burner and went on with my life.

Then, in 2000, my wife, Halina, and I decided to “get outta Dodge,” Dodge for us in this case being Clifton, New Jersey. Our main reason for moving was to insert as many miles as possible between us and the typically frigid, snowy and icy New Jersey winters we’d grown to loathe. Not to mention wanting to find a house and property taxes we could afford. We’d taken a liking to Tucson, Arizona, over several vacations, and decided to stake our claim there. We bought a house in August, then came back to the Garden State, hawked as many of our possessions as we could during a couple of yard sales, packed a yellow Penske moving truck with what we had left, waved farewell to our families, and followed our compass west.

It wasn’t too long before I joined the Catalina Rotary Club and Hal and I started sinking roots in our new community. But Tucson proved a tough place for a freelance corporate video producer/scriptwriter/editor like myself to make a living, mainly due to the lack of corporations and corporate headquarters.

Then came September 11, 2001.

In light of that horrific attack, I thought about all the lives, and life stories, lost forever. Was the time right, I wondered, to reinvent myself as a video biographer? To follow my true passion?

As fate would have it, my involvement with a group of budding entrepreneurs would help me to answer that question. More on that in my next post.

Oh, and by the way: What’s your story?

Family Legacy Video gets some cyber ink.

Family Legacy Video is featured in this article about legacy planning in Investment News. I’m sure glad I picked up the phone when the reporter called!

You can read the article here.

Confessions of a Video Biographer – Chapter 1: The Awakening

I have a major jones for family stories. There, I’ve said it for the world to see. And you know what? I’m glad.

Looking back, I remember being drawn to personal history at an early age. My dad’s side of the family was pretty humongous, and throughout the years we’d attend picnics or holiday get-togethers at the homes of various aunts and uncles. I loved the food, and hanging out with my cousins. But my favorite time was always after we’d polished off the baked ziti and inhaled the pies, cakes and fruit salad. That was the time when the adults would settle down with brimming cups of coffee and reminisce about their lives and times and those of family members separated from us by mileage or the grim reaper.

The easy banter, the laughter, the rise and ebb of volume and energy as many voices gave way to one and then joined in again to relate other stories triggered by something just said; listening to my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles during these late afternoon and early evening gab fests was just so – comforting. And there was also something about the relish with which my elders told their stories that made hearing their tales just plain fun. Yeah, I was hooked on family stories as a young ‘un.

Flashing forward, my undergraduate communications degree, plus a recommendation from a former college buddy, landed me a job in a New York City public relations firm specializing in the budding realm of video. I spent the next eight years and change learning to tell clients’ stories on video, first as a production assistant on shoots, and then as a video editor, writer, and producer/director. And when I got tired of sitting for hours on end in my company’s dark and cool edit suite, I launched a freelance career. I still spent lots of hours in editing suites, but at least there was variety, I got paid more, and I did get out into the sun more often.

But even though I enjoyed what I was doing, I felt, in my heart, that there should be something more that I could be doing with my skills. I even asked a psychic once if I would ever discover a higher purpose to which I could apply my video abilities. She said I would – although she wouldn’t or couldn’t tell me what form that higher purpose would take.

Enter my paternal grandmother, Alice Rita Morrissey Pender. Actually, Gram was part of my story all along. But in 1995 she would play a central role in helping me chart a new course for my life and career.

Gram was born on Staten Island, New York in 1911. She was blessed with a great memory and a gift for gab, and as I was growing up she shared oodles of stories about her life and our family. I learned how her grandparents emigrated from Ireland but didn’t meet until they were both living in New York City; about how her dad earned a ton of money in the storage battery business, only to lose it during the Great Depression and how he still managed to keep a roof over the family’s heads; there were stories about her grandfather, a police lieutenant stationed at New York City Hall, taking her into the city to witness ticker tape parades; the stories went on and on. And in addition to my enjoyment at hearing her tell them, I realize now that those life stories also grounded me. They gave me an insight into my family’s character (and characters), showed me where my family came from, where they fit into the world and how I fit into my family. Knowing those stories has given me an invaluable sense of identity that’s stayed with me throughout my life. Oh, by the way, I was her first grandchild, so I think we had a special bond because of that.

In 1995, I realized that Gram wouldn’t be around forever. I decided to try and capture her, and some of her stories, on video. Now, these were still the tape-to-tape days, when video editing was done in very expensive editing bays, so there was no way I could shoot and edit the project without a little help. Luckily, one of my corporate clients lent me the use of their video gear and editing suite and one of my colleagues kindly ran camera for me. And so it was that in 1995, I sat down with Gram in my Clifton, NJ, apartment and captured her on-camera, telling me those same wonderful stories I’d heard from her over the years.

Long story short: Due to procrastination and work demands, I didn’t tackle the editing until 1998. But that summer, I made a concerted push and finished what will always be one of my proudest achievements: a documentary featuring my grandmother telling the story of her life. Unfortunately, she died without seeing the video. I will always regret not hustling over to her the moment I wrapped work on her video to “premiere” it for her. But I also know that I’d never have been able to forgive myself if I hadn’t captured her, and her stories, for posterity.

So the first time the majority of my family saw Gram’s video biography was at the repast following her funeral. As you can imagine, my emotions took a roller coaster ride that day. But the video truly transformed a day of mourning into a celebration of life. After seeing the impact Gram’s legacy video had on my family that day and during the days that followed, the higher purpose I spoke of earlier began to reveal itself. More on that in another post. Thanks for reading.

Oh, and by the way: What’s your story?

Me@20: Don’t touch that dial!

Me@20When I hit 20, I was a couple of months into my junior year at college, where radio was my life. When I wasn’t in class, or working part-time to earn enough money to pay tuition and buy lunch at the Campus Sub Shop, you’d find me at the Seton Hall University radio station, WSOU-FM. I loved being in front of a microphone, and did everything from reading news, to anchoring our election-night coverage, to spinning records on both an early-morning pop music “wake up” show called Bacon ‘n’ Eggs and our late-night “progressive rock” offering called Nightrock.

What I really loved, however, was writing and producing; being able to write a script, direct actors, and edit a finished piece of audio that came out of the speakers sounding like it originally did when I “heard it” in my head was a gas. In fact, my first professional award came when I was 20, for a series of promotional announcements I wrote, directed and produced for Nightrock. I’ve included one of those spots, first aired in 1976, here. Just click on the audio button below to play it.

Steve  Pender Me@20I also co-wrote and produced a comedy show called Harrold. It was a sketch comedy show, inspired mainly by the National Lampoon Radio Hour. (Not old enough to remember the National Lampoon Radio Hour? Google it.) We packed our half-hour with all sorts of bits, from fake commercials to irreverent skits of all kinds to song parodies. It was lots of fun – but, as I came to find out, also a ton of work.

In the mid-1970s, there was no such thing as digital audio recording and editing. When I wanted to make an edit in a recording, I physically sliced into the tape with a razor blade, removed what needed to go, cut the tape again, and then stuck the two ends of the tape together with splicing tape. And since multi-track recorders hadn’t yet made their appearance at WSOU, adding music and sound effects was also a challenge. All in all, it was a time-consuming process. Even though I got to be very fast with a blade, I spent many hours hunched over tape decks in the station’s tiny production studio, doing my best to finish each week’s show before airtime.

Once I nearly didn’t make it.

WSOUPgmCover1976-150x229Thanks to a number of factors (school work, regular work, procrastination), Harrold’s Christmas 1976 installment was only half done by the time the show was due to air. I was in a panic. I handed the reel containing the first fifteen minutes to the engineer and told him that, if I wasn’t out with the second half by the time the first half ended, he should just keep playing public service announcements to fill the time.

I hustled back to the production studio, grabbed my blade and editing block and bent feverishly to the task at hand. I remember how surreal it felt, listening to the show playing on-air while I was still editing it. My fingers flew faster then ever before, and by the time I rushed into the control room with the second reel, I think only four or five PSAs had played. Luckily, all the splicing tape held and the rest of the show ran without a hitch. I breathed a sigh of relief and swore that I’d never, ever, come that close to missing a deadline again.

Would you like to read some other Me@20 memories? Check out these blog posts:

Linda Schmidt http://blog.memoryechoes.com/2015/05/oh-to-be-20-again-me20/
Mary Beth Lagerborg http://www.retelling.net/blog/2015/5/19/me20

What were YOU like at 20? Create your own Me@20 blog post today, or share the Me@20 questionnaire in your social networks.

Include your answers to the Me@20 Questionnaire in your post:

Where I lived @20
What I did @20
What I dreamt @20
My favorite song @20
What I wore @20
Who I loved @20
What made headlines when I was @20

About Me@20 Day:
Me@20 Day celebrates personal history and the 20th anniversary of the Association of Personal Historians on May 20th 2015. APH supports its members in recording, preserving and sharing life stories of people, families, communities and organizations around the world.