Video biography connections – a personal story.

Video biographies are all about making and reaffirming connections – between the past, present and future and with the family, friends and sometimes complete strangers who help us on our journeys through preproduction, production and post production. Here’s a case in point:

Ever hear the story about the shoemaker’s kids? Their dad was always so busy mending shoes for customers that he neglected his own children, who went around with ever-growing holes in the soles of their own shoes, and maybe even barefoot.

Now, my business is custom legacy videos, not footwear. But the old cobbler and I share a common dilemma: How to shoehorn family projects into a schedule dominated by “paying” work. Well, not too long ago I went the shoemaker one better and finished a family project I started years ago: my mom’s video biography.

The three years since her interview just flew by – and I finally resolved not to let a fourth slip past. So I started devoting free hours to the project. My initial goal was to have the video finished in time for Christmas. Then my wife, Halina, and I invited Mom to visit us for Thanksgiving, giving me an incentive to finish earlier so we could premiere the video during her stay. Having that deadline did the trick. I felt a great sense of accomplishment (and relief!) as we screened the video in our Tucson living room, as well as the joy that came from sharing the video with family and friends as my Christmas gift that year.

So where do connections enter into the picture?

To start with, the video gave me an opportunity to reconnect with my mom’s cousin, who lives in Guatemala. I haven’t seen or spoken with her since I was a youngster, but since a portion of my mom’s remembrances touched on her husband (my grandfather’s brother) I thought she might enjoy a copy of the video. I asked Mom for her cousin’s address, packed up the DVD and shipped it off to South America, all the while keeping fingers crossed that it reached the intended destination. What a surprise I had when, a few weeks later, I opened my inbox to find an e-mail with the subject heading, “Hello from Guatemala!” My mom’s cousin was overjoyed by the video and had already shared it with many members of her family. She called the video “a travel through time” and invited me and Halina to visit when we could.

I made new connections and resurrected old ones throughout the process. From the antiques vendor who sent me photos of many of the makeup compacts and lipstick cases produced by a company my grandmother once worked for, to the friendly real estate agent in New Jersey who provided pictures of the retirement community where my mom’s parents lived for a time, to an old friend of my mom’s who e-mailed me some images from their days as Army wives in North Carolina – and to a former next-door neighbor I tracked down who fished out an old snapshot that showed what my boyhood home looked like just before my parents bought it in 1959.

In a larger sense, this personal project left me feeling more connected to my passion for video biography than ever before. It’s a passion I know will continue to drive me to help others to preserve, share and celebrate their life stories on video.

Dreaming up a career in personal history.

Dreams are funny things. Most disappear from my memory in an instant, like flash paper kissed by a burning match, as soon as I open my eyes to the light of day. Others, for no particular reasons I can fathom, remain inked indelibly onto my long-term memory. I like to re-examine these dreams occasionally to see if time and life experience bring additional insights into their meanings. Once in a while I get lucky:

This is one of those dreams where I’m both a participant and an observer. It’s spring or summer. I see myself playing in the backyard of my boyhood New Jersey home with one of my brothers. I’m about eight years old; Bob is around two. Suddenly, it’s time for me to leave. I stand, and in an instant I’m walking by myself, way in the distance. Bob immediately notices that he’s alone and he begins to cry. Even though I’m miles away, I hear his distress. I turn, and in a moment I’m back with my brother. I take his hand in mine. Then, in another instant, we’re walking together, far, far away.

This is the oldest of my “inked-in” dreams, staying with me since I was eight years old. It’s always resonated with me in a very strong and visceral way. I could never put my finger on just what gives this dream its staying power. But looking back on it nearly forty-five years later, I think its imagery sheds some light on why I became a personal historian and video biographer.

On a basic level, the narrative is about me leaving my brother behind, then realizing my mistake and taking him with me on my journey. But when I approach it a little more creatively, I see that the two figures can also represent generations of a family, one older and one younger. We often get separated – sometimes by distance, sometimes by time, many times by both. How can we bridge these gulfs and stay connected? In the dream my brother and I link hands. From my current perspective as a video biographer and personal historian I help generations create links by sharing stories.

Preserving, sharing and celebrating personal and family stories is the greatest way of fostering and maintaining connections between generations that I know. When you commit your story to video in a video biography or audio or print, you’re reaching out to your family’s younger generations and generations yet to come. You’re saying, “Hi. We’re family and we’re connected. I’d like to introduce myself and pass my experiences, observations and insights along to you. This is my gift to you and I hope you enjoy and profit by what I have to say. And please, pass my life story and yours along to the next generations of our family.”

Speaking from my own experience, hearing stories about my grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles made me appreciate them and feel connected to them as flesh-and-blood people, instead of flat and faded images in a photo album. And thanks to today’s video technology, I can help folks capture their stories as never before, creating legacy videos that will allow future generations to see and hear ancestors speaking directly to them.

Generations “holding hands” and staying connected through the power of story – that’s what this dream now means to me. And if dreams are signposts, I’d say this one had me pointed towards a career as a personal historian long ago.

A pilgrimage to a very special eatery.

Pizza, spaghetti with marinara sauce, lasagna, eggplant parmigiana – all standard items you’d expect to find on most Italian restaurant menus. But at Spirito’s, a neighborhood eatery in Elizabeth, New Jersey, these dishes are part of an on-going, inter-generational feast.

Spirito’s opened in 1932. Seventy-seven years later, the business is still run by the Spirito family, and descendants of the original customers continue to patronize the place. The restaurant occupies a nondescript stone building on the corner of 3rd Avenue and High Street, a neighborhood of busy, narrow streets and not nearly enough parking. The bar’s in front; dining room is in back. It’s a no-frills kind of place, clean enough and featuring wood paneling and green-painted booths. Hanging on the walls, framed photos and newspaper reviews and articles celebrate the histories of the Spirito family and the restaurant.

My maternal grandparents introduced me to Spirito’s when I was a youngster. We always started with a cold antipasto, featuring celery, peppers, olives, cheeses and meats. Next came the “pizza pie” (as Grandpa always called it), a cheese pie with lots of tomato sauce and a very thin, crispy crust (what Garden Staters call a “bar pie”). The main courses followed. I can still remember the ravioli – large plump pasta pillows with a feather-light and creamy cheese filling. And the eggplant – wow, my mouth is watering as I write this.

The restaurant does have it quirks. Plenty of bread, but no butter. Soda is served by the pitcher, but you can only buy beer by the bottle. No coffee. And if you want desert you can stroll on down to the Italian ice stand at the other end of the street. But hey, these are the things that give Spirito’s its charm – like the wait staff.

The waitresses were, and still are, fantastic. I’ve heard them described as gruff – but to me they’re pure “Jersey” – friendly, no-nonsense ladies who also happen to have great memories. They never write down an order and they never make a mistake. In fact, years after my grandfather and grandmother moved from Elizabeth and my grandfather had died, I remember going to Spirito’s with my grandmother and finding a waitress who remembered them both.

Memories, I think, even more than the food, are what make this place so special. On a recent trip to New Jersey, I returned to Spirito’s for the first time in two decades and enjoyed a meal with my mom, two of my brothers, my sister-in-law, two nieces and a nephew. Nothing about the place had changed – and that was a good thing. I was happy to see a new generation of our family enjoying the same dishes I savored as a kid. And as I worked my way through the antipasto, the “pizza pie” and my eggplant, the tastes brought with them memories of happy times with my mom, grandparents and brothers around these very same tables. We were all part of a wonderful continuity – a very tasty legacy, if you will.

As we got up to leave, I told my mom that, while we had three generations gathered around our table, I’d felt as if my Grandma and Grandpa had joined us as well. Mom nodded and smiled. She’d felt their presence, too.

A legacy of tulips.

Did you ever play Wiffle Ball? Growing up, it was the summer pastime of choice in my suburban New Jersey neighborhood. Every day, kids would congregate on the side street by my house, choose sides and have at it. Games were noisy affairs, punctuated by lots of arguments over close calls, and could last for hours. It wasn’t unusual for us to suspend a game for dinner and then reconvene afterwards. In fact, I remember finishing one game under the glare of a neighbor’s headlights. It was a pretty safe game, too, thanks to the hollow plastic Wiffle Ball. It would glance harmlessly off just about anything it hit.

The exception was Mr. Daly’s tulips.

Mr. and Mrs. Daly lived on the other side of the street. They were a very pleasant, elderly couple and they tolerated us kids pretty well. Unfortunately, Mr. Daly insisted on planting tulips outside the chain link fence bordering his backyard. He was quite proud of those tulips and the bright red and yellow blooms they provided each spring – and he became quite upset whenever a sharply hit foul ball lopped the top off one of them. Or two. Or three. Not that we wanted to damage the flowers; they were just innocent bystanders that occasionally got caught in our Wiffle Ball crossfire.

The 1960s, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Daly, are long gone. But a recent experience brought all those memories back to me. In early July, my wife Halina and I traveled back to New Jersey to visit family. One day, we drove through my old neighborhood. I couldn’t resist stopping to look at my old house, now vastly enlarged from the little bungalow in which I grew up. I walked around the house and took a few pictures – and it wasn’t long before I caught the attention of one of the neighbors, who probably figured I was casing the place for a robbery. He strolled over, a glass of beer in hand, and asked if I needed some help. I introduced myself and told him I grew up in the neighborhood. We started chatting, and soon I found myself in the middle of a small crowd of neighbors, answering questions about what things were like in the old days, and who used to live where. During the course of our chat, I mentioned our Wiffle Ball games and the many tulips we beheaded.

Finally, the time came to say goodbye. As I was about to leave, the neighbor currently living in the Daly’s old house said, “You know, I’m glad you mentioned about the tulips. They keep sprouting up and I had no idea where they came from.”

As Halina and I drove away, the thought of those tulips – Mr. Daly’s legacy to the neighborhood – filled me with a warm glow. The experience reminded me that legacies can take many forms, be they video biographies or tulips – and that they enrich and inform the lives of the generations that follow.

Nice job, Mr. Daly.

A new website for Family Legacy Video!

Family Legacy Video’s website still has the same address, but as of August 18, 2011 it has a whole new look! The Family Legacy Video website team worked intensely over the past month to create a site that’s warm and inviting, informational, professional and user-friendly. The major goal was to create the most effective and informative video biography site possible. I think you’ll find that our new platform successfully shows off our custom legacy video services – as well as our range of do-it-yourself products and services, like guides, music and webinars. Have we succeeded? Please let us know!

Add "breathing room" to interviews to hold viewer interest.

I’ll never forget my high school biology teacher. Mr. Rutledge was terrific in the classroom. He was lively, funny and entertaining – in short, he made learning fun. Then came the the day he gave my class a taste of what many of our future college lectures would be like. Announcing that it was “college lecture day,” he sat at his desk, opened a text book, bowed his head and read, in a monotone, for the entire class period. His voice never varied in pace or intonation. It was all I could do to keep from being lulled to sleep. In short, it was one of the longest lectures in my life – an object lesson in how not to teach.

So what does this have to do with video biographies? Well, a common mistake I see made in video biographies, be they professional or amateur, concerns pacing. Many producers never vary the tempo of their programs or give viewers a little bit of time to digest the information they’re given. These shows are, in fact, the video equivalent of a monotone. And they send their audiences (at least me) to dreamland.

How can you avoid creating a “monotone” video biography? There are lots of techniques, but in this article I’d like to offer you one particular bit of advice: Let your interview “breathe.” Y’see, many video biographers seem to think they need to present interviews exactly as they were recorded, with minimal cutting and shaping. They let the interviews set the pace, or tempo, for the video, instead of shaping the interviews and varying the pacing through editing.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’ve got half a dozen photos of Granma Annie during her childhood years on the family farm. During the interview, however, Annie only mentions the farm briefly. There’s not enough time to insert all the photos you have in the few seconds she gives you – so what do you do? Some producers cram in a few photos in the time available, resulting in shots that are on the screen for too short a time, which makes them distracting and also doesn’t give the viewers enough time to enjoy them. Not good. The better option is this: After Granma mentions the farm, stop the interview, mix in some music, display the photos (perhaps dissolving between them as they pan left and right or zoom in and out) and then dissolve back to Granma as she continues her answer. This gap, or “breath” gives your viewers the time they need to process the information they’ve just heard in the interview and enjoy the visuals.

Family Legacy Video® – it’s a trademark.

I’m getting to know how the folks at Xerox must have felt when people used their company name to describe any old photocopier. I’ve recently found several Web sites using the term “Family Legacy Video” to describe their video biography offerings. The truth of the matter is that Family Legacy Video® is a trademark of Family Legacy Video, Inc. – something these other companies now know – and I’m devoted to protecting that trademark. That’s because a Family Legacy Video® is a unique brand, standing for professional, highly-crafted video biographies that are unmatched in the industry. And the only place you can get a Family Legacy Video® is through Family Legacy Video, Inc.

Working with your video biographer: Travel.

In many ways, technology has certainly shrunk our world. All you have to do these days to get in touch with someone on the other side of the globe is dial a phone or log on to the Web; within seconds you can be chatting, either by voice or text. It’s easy as pie. But let’s say, after doing some research, you find that the video biographer you want to hire is located in another part of the country, like Tucson, Arizona? How easy will it be to work with someone who may be hundreds or thousands of miles away?

The short answer is that a long distance relationship with a video biographer can work quite well. In fact, I’ve worked with clients from coast to coast and points in-between. But there are some things to consider when looking for a professional outside your local area.

Might as well deal with this issue first. Not a week goes by that I don’t get a call from a prospective client asking me if I can travel to their location outside Arizona. When I say yes, the next question is usually, “Does travel add to the cost?” Quite honestly, it does. A video biographer living and working in your area doesn’t have to bear the expenses that come with airfare, hotel rooms and rental cars. Your local pro also won’t need to spend an extra day’s worth of time traveling to your location and back home. In all fairness, it’s only right to reimburse the video biographer you hire for travel expenses. Personally, I don’t “mark up” travel – I just pass along the actual costs to the client. I can either add the costs to the agreed-upon budget or subtract them from the budget. Let’s say I have a budget of $20,000 and travel expenses of $1,000. To be able to devote all of the $20,000 to the video, I would add the $1,000. The client would then pay a total of $21,000. If the client can’t go as high as $21,000, I can subtract travel expenses, leaving $19,000 to devote to the actual video production.

Staying in contact during the course of production is crucial. You’re likely to have lots of questions about the process and your video biographer will also need information from you. Some people prefer chatting face-to-face or just feel more secure dealing with someone local. However, a professional video biographer, working long distance, can consult with you and conduct preinterviews over the phone just as effectively as in person. One word of caution: You and your video biographer SHOULD NOT rely entirely upon e-mail. E-mails can sometimes be cryptic and incomplete; they also don’t convey emotion well. When I want to send a reminder or ask for a small bit of information, e-mail is fine. For anything more than that, I prefer to pick up the phone and call.

If you do choose to work long distance, you’ll need to decide how to best get your family photos and other mementos into your video biographer’s hands for scanning and shooting. If you’re comfortable shipping your items make sure you wrap them well and cushion them to guard against damage. Clients have been shipping me photos, singly and in albums, for years. Nothing has ever been lost. The only damage in all these years resulted when a client sent a glass-covered photo that wasn’t properly protected, resulting in some breakage. While shipping long distance has worked fine, I understand that some families may be uncomfortable with the thought of packing up their old photos and trusting them to FedEx. That’s why I always ask my long distance clients if they have any photos or other items that they aren’t comfortable shipping – or that wouldn’t be practical to send to me. Knowing that, I can build in some extra time before or after the interview taping to scan or shoot the keepsakes on location.

Working with your video biographer: Visuals.

The foundation of a successful video biography is a well-researched, conducted and recorded interview. But just as important as what the storyteller says during his or her interview is what viewers see. Many times it’s just fine to have the storyteller on screen. Other times, the interview can be wonderfully enhanced by visuals that illustrate the incidents, people and places being described.

What do I mean by visuals? Photos, certainly. But visuals can also include family movies, newspaper and magazine clippings, yearbooks, wedding invitations, journal entries and memorabilia like medals, awards and trophies, etc. Knowing what kinds of visuals can best enhance a storyteller’s legacy video is one of the strengths a professional video biographer brings to the table.

When I first sign a client, we talk in a general way about the kinds of visuals that may be available within the family. Then, after I learn more about the storyteller during the preinterview process, I’ll send the client a specific “wish list” of all the visuals I think will help contribute to the video. After the on-camera interview, I often follow up with a final list, based on other stories that surfaced during the videotaping. These lists guide my clients during their searches for the perfect images to include in their legacy videos – and will often give them ideas for items they might never have considered. After all, as a professional visual storyteller I’m used to thinking visually – and I use this experience to help direct and inspire my clients as they search through their family archives.

Knowing how to use these visuals effectively is another strength a professional video biographer brings to a legacy video project. But that’s another story. Before you can use those visuals, however, you have to find them. And before you can find them, you have to know what to look for. A professional video biographer is just the one to guide you on “the hunt.”

Helping a town celebrate its stories – and storytellers.

Ajo, Arizona is a small town about a 2 1/2 hour drive west of Tucson. The town is chock-full of stories, thanks to its years as a copper-mining boom town and the mix of cultures (Native Americans, Hispanics and Anglos) who worked the mine. Preserving those stories, as told by the folks who lived them, became a passion for a group of history-minded Ajo residents. In 2008, they formally organized as the Ajo Story Gatherers. Their mission, to videotape interviews with the town elders, and incorporate their remembrances into a video for all to enjoy.

The group faced some initial challenges. One was funding, which was overcome when the Story Gatherers secured a grant from PRO Neighborhoods. A second, and perhaps more daunting challenge, was gaining the skills they needed to create the video. None of the group members had ever embarked on a video project like this before. So group leader Cheryl Langer set out to find someone who could provide the guidance the Story Tellers needed.

After searching the Web, Cheryl found Family Legacy Video’s workshop page. A short time later, she placed a call to Steve Pender. Her question: Could Family Legacy Video hold a video biography workshop in Ajo? Steve and workshop partners Dan Crapsi and Ginny Temple were happy to help – and in October 2008 they travelled to Ajo. The Family Legacy Video team shared their expertise during two days of hands-on sessions (see the November 2008 e-Newsletter) and then wished the Story Gatherers good luck.

Then, this January, an invitation to attend the gala premiere of “Ajo Stories” appeared in Family Legacy Video’s mailbox. Eager to see what the Story Gatherers accomplished, Steve and his wife Halina decided to attend. On the evening of January 30, they strolled into Ajo’s historic Oasis Theatre – and were treated as honored guests. They were seated in the first row, alongside many of the town elders interviewed for the video. During her opening remarks, Cheryl Langer introduced the Penders to the packed house and said that the Story Tellers “couldn’t have succeeded without the workshop conducted by Family Legacy Video.” Then, the lights dimmed, the projectionist pressed “play,” and Ajo’s storytellers filled the big screen with their remembrances, some poignant, some hilarious, of Ajo’s past.

Afterwards, the excited and appreciative audience mingled over coffee and sweets – with the younger folks plying the elders for even more stories. “It was a great evening,” said Steve Pender. “I applaud the Ajo Story Gatherers for preserving the remembrances of their town’s elders. This was a huge undertaking for the group, and I’m honored that Family Legacy Video could be a part of their successful effort.”