The preinterview – a key step in preparing for a video biography interview.

One of the keys to a successful video biography interview lies in preparation – doing your homework, if you will. And one of the best ways to ready yourself, and your storyteller, for that all-important on-camera interview is to start your prep work with a preinterview. What’s a preinterview? As the name implies, it’s the interview before the interview. In other words, an interview you conduct with your storyteller before the actual shoot-day.

A preinterview takes the form of a casual conversation between you and the storyteller. It’s a opportunity for the two of you to meet and to build a rapport that will help your storyteller feel comfortable on camera. Very importantly, the preinterview gives you the chance to hear your storyteller’s life stories and to use the information you learn to construct questions that will elicit those stories on camera.

A preinterview is also a great time to explore – if an interesting memory surfaces during your conversation, feel free to ask about it and see where it takes your storyteller. You could dig up some very interesting remembrances that will surprise and delight your storytellers and their families.

In addition to helping you prepare questions, you’ll walk into the videotaping session knowing your storyteller’s background. If the storyteller gives you an incomplete answer while the camera is rolling, you’ll know it – and you’ll be able to ask a follow-up question to help fill in the rest of the picture.

The process is simple. Just schedule a time that’s convenient for your and your storyteller (you may or may not need multiple sessions). Come prepared with a pen and lots of paper for note-taking. If you don’t want to rely entirely on written notes, a small audio recorder is a great backup that will help you review the session at a later date. Then, start asking questions – and don’t forget to take notes!

In addition to helping you collect the background information you need to conduct a successful interview, a preinterview often helps “jump start” a storyteller’s thought processes. He or she will often remember additional stories in the time between the preinterview and the taping.

So do your homework and conduct a preinterview as you prepare for your next video biography interview. You’ll be glad you did.

Creative editing gives new life to old VHS interviews of 1930s race car owners & drivers.

They were loud, fast and dangerous. They were the sprint and midget cars of the 1930s and a recent Family Legacy Video project brought the memories of those seat-of-your-pants racing days to life.

It all started when a client sent me a VHS recording (probably a copy of a copy of a copy) from the mid 1980s. The recording featured a casual, living room interview conducted by a racing photographer/racing historian named Bruce Craig. On the tape, Bruce speaks with some of the early owners and drivers of the 1930s East Coast circuit: Sam Alperti, Bill Scarince, Bill Morrissey and Myke Collins. My client wanted to share this interview with other racing history aficionados and hoped I could take his old, grainy VHS tape and create a show with a professional look.

Happy to take on the challenge, I asked my client about visuals he could provide. Through his connections, we turned up vintage photos of all the interview subjects from their racing days, including shots of one horrific accident that one of the racers was lucky to have survived.

The photos were a great start, but I wanted more. I managed to track down a video that featured archival film of 1930s racing action, shot at the very tracks where our racers competed. Things were definitely looking up. But – I needed sound. The racing film was silent – I wanted to hear the roar of the engines!

An Internet search led me to a racing museum in the Midwest and a referral to a site featuring just the sound effects I was looking for. Then it was time to pick some upbeat, 1930s-style tracks from my music library and start editing.

The old VHS interview footage was far from pristine, but I was able to improve the image using color correction. The host employed a handheld microphone which he sometimes forgot to aim at his subjects, so I had lots of audio adjusting to do. The opening, featuring vintage racing shots, great music, screaming engines and animated text really evoked the early racing days and set up the interviews beautifully. Skillfully using the photos, I was able to illustrate the racers’ stories and also cut out some unneeded dead air. Delivered on a custom-printed DVD in a DVD case with a custom-printed insert, the final product exceeded my client’s hopes.

The moral of the story is this: You may be presented with an occasional lemon (like old VHS footage). But if you apply some initiative and creativity, you can produce some very tasty video biography “lemonade.”

Get your holiday gift certificate today!

Now that the holiday season is here, there’s not enough time to start and finish a video biography project in time Christmas or Hanukkah. But don’t despair! If you’d like to give a legacy video as a gift this year, you can do so with a Family Legacy Video gift certificate. If you book a project before the holidays, we’ll create a certificate announcing your gift and containing a personal message from you. We can either print the certificate and snail mail it to you or e-mail you a high resolution PDF that you can print. So don’t wait – contact Family Legacy Video and arrange for your gift certificate now!

The pros & cons of two different interview techniques.

If you’ve watched your fair share of documentaries, you’ve seen interview subjects presented in a variety of ways. Sometimes the storytellers speak directly to the camera. Other times they look left or right towards an unseen interviewer. Is one technique better than the other? And how do you choose?

The answer to the first question is “no.” Each technique is valid. Your decision on how to have your storyteller relate (or not relate) to the camera will be based on both stylistic and practical considerations.

The “facing the off-camera” interviewer look is a classic. It puts the viewer in the role of a third-party observer, kind of like watching someone through the one-way mirrors used in focus groups and police interrogation rooms. It’s comfortable – the storyteller is responding and relating to an unseen interviewer and you get to enjoy the conversation as well. By contrast, the “direct address” technique, where the storyteller faces the camera, breaks that one-way mirror. This style gives the impression that the storyteller is speaking directly to you, the viewer. This is a more forceful, “baring of the soul” style of interview.

Aside from these differences in style, there are some practical points to consider. The “off-camera” technique is generally easier to stage and shoot (more on that later). It’s also a technique that allows you as the interviewer to directly relate to, and engage, your storyteller. This one-to-one rapport is a vital component of a successful interview. By contrast, if you choose the “direct address” technique, your storyteller will need to speak to the camera. This is something that many folks, probably most of the people you’ll interview for video biographies, are not comfortable doing. It can also be confusing for the storytellers – where do they focus their attention? They’ll need to listen to you as you ask the question, and then remember to deliver their answer to the cold, glass eye of the camera.

There are devices designed to make this form of “direct address” interview easier on the storyteller. One takes the form of a modified teleprompter. A monitor mounted in front of the camera lens shows an image of the interviewer, but doesn’t block the image of the storyteller from being recorded. Google “interrotron” for information on one such device. As mentioned earlier, however, this adds a level of complexity (and expense) to your shoot that makes it a little more difficult than the “off-camera” technique – because you’ll need to buy or rent and set up extra gear.

Which style should you adopt? For most of your video biographies, the “off-camera” technique will probably work best. If you’re creating an ethical will, where the client wants to deliver personal messages “one-on-one” to relatives and friends, and is comfortable speaking to the camera, the “direct address” technique may be the ticket.

Use childhood memories to paint a picture of times gone by.

Horse-drawn wagons clip-clopping down city streets, frosty deliveries from the ice man, candy store bins filled with penny candy, the challenges of cooking on a coal-fired kitchen stove, getting from place to place by trolley – these sights, sounds and activities, once so common to daily life, have long faded away. But they live on in the memories of many of the storytellers recording legacy videos today – and you can use these memories, enhanced with archival photos and films, sound effects and music, to paint a vivid picture of life in days past.

Case in point: I recently finished the video biography of a wonderful lady who was born in Queens, New York, in 1916. Knowing that her grandchildren and great-grandchildren would love to learn what her world was like when she was a youngster, I made sure to ask her lots of questions about her neighborhood and her way of life in the early 1900s. She recalled a time when three sticks of gum cost a penny, sanitation men called ash-haulers came to take away the ash generated by coal and wood-fired stoves and hand-cranking was the only way to start the few automobiles around. Some research turned up archival photos to help illustrate her descriptions. Combined with period music, these elements combined to create a vivid picture of the world that existed during her childhood.

As the opening chapter of her legacy video, the segment provides her family with a very fun and fascinating glimpse into the past. But it also helps put the storyteller’s life in context. None of us live on a blank canvas. We are all products of certain when’s and where’s that influence and inform our lives. Painting in those “background elements” helps flesh out a life story, giving viewers greater insight into the storyteller’s motivations and life choices.

So don’t forget to pay attention to context. It’ll help you craft a much more complete picture of that important storyteller in your family.

Summer memories: The ice cream man.

While doing research for a video biography I unearthed a couple of photos of Good Humor trucks from years past. They really brought back happy memories for me. So with summer here I thought I’d share some of my sweet remembrances.

Pavlov could’ve been an ice cream man. That’s because the stimulus response he pioneered with bells and dogs worked its magic years later on me and the other kids in my neighborhood. Only we weren’t salivating over savory canine treats, but frosty ones in cones and cups and on sticks.

I remember a number of mobile vendors servicing my New Jersey neighborhood during the 1960s. We had a fix-it guy who’d drive around with a workshop on wheels. He’d repair household tools and sharpen knives – or anything with a blade. There was also a farmer who sold fresh produce out of his truck. It was a real roving farmer’s market; I can remember him stopping right by our corner so my mom could buy some corn-on-the-cob.

Of course, the real stars on wheels as far as the neighborhood kids were concerned were the ice cream and Italian ice guys and gals who materialized every summer. Good Humor, Mr. Softee, Carvel, Little Jimmy Italian Ices and Mama Rosa’s Italian Ices all competed for our nickels, dimes and quarters. You could hear them coming from blocks away, their approach announced by either ringing bells or canned music. In my mind I can still hear the rhythmic tinkling of the Good Humor bells and the tinkly, music box-like tune Mr. Softee played. The trucks were all different, too. You had the white Good Humor truck with the open cab and the freezer on the back. Mr. Softee offered soft ice cream in cones made on the spot and sold out of white vans. Carvel trucks were big and silvery, almost like an entire ice cream store on wheels. You could get a variety of soft ice cream, in addition to ice cream cakes, from them.

I was also a big Italian ice fan. I loved all the flavors, from basic lemon to bubble gum. One of my greatest treats, when I had a quarter to spend, was a freshly-scooped rainbow ice from Little Jimmy, featuring not one, not two, but three flavors of my choice. Truly icy heaven in a cup. Wow, I’m salivating just writing this.

Summer just wouldn’t have been the same without the sights, sounds and tastes offered up by the ice cream and Italian ice guys. I’ll never forget them. How about you?

Locate U.S. Navy history ship photos at NavSource Naval History site.

I recently interviewed a WWII veteran who is a fellow member of my Rotary club. He was a Navy man during the war, serving as Executive Officer aboard a Landing Ship Medium (LSM), an amphibious craft he and his crew sailed all the way from the mainland United States to Okinawa. He didn’t have any photos of his ship, so I took it upon myself to try and locate an image or two. I fired up my computer, went online and searched the name of his LSM. In next to no time at all, I found a page dedicated to his ship at a site called NavSource Naval History. The page featured three photos of the LSM, which I forwarded to the vet (to his great delight).

NavSource Naval History is a volunteer-run site devoted to preserving naval history, in large part through a comprehensive collection of photos. Some of the shots were taken by U.S. government employees; others come from private collections. The site is a labor of love and offers a wealth of information. If you’re a naval history buff or would like to find images of a particular U.S. Navy ship, check out NavSource Naval History. Chances are, they’ll have what you’re looking for.

UPDATE – 7/2/17: Over the last few days, readers have been asking why the NavSource site is offline. I have no connection with NavSource and can’t answer that question. Let’s hope the problem is temporary. Steve Pender

Keep your storyteller on track.

One of my favorite Mark Twain stories is called, “His Grandfather’s Old Ram.” (I have a recording of Hal Holbrook performing this – it’s a hoot.) The tale features an elderly gentleman who starts to tell a yarn about a fellow’s encounter with a rather cantankerous ram. Unfortunately, the storyteller keeps digressing from this account to another and then another and then another – all hilarious, until he falls asleep without ever finishing his original story. Now, this makes for great reading and engrossing theatre – but you can’t afford to let your video biography interviews spin out of control like this. You can waste time and tape (or memory) and wind up not getting the material you were after in the first place.

So, if you have a storyteller who you know is prone to meandering off onto tangents, what can you do to keep him focused and on track?

Do some homework. Before the interview, chat with your storyteller and discuss the subjects you’d like to cover during your session. If you need to, ask him for some background information related to the stories you want to capture. Also, ask him whether there’s anything he feels is important to relate.

Create your questions. Use the information from the step above to draft a list of questions. Show them to your storyteller so that he can see exactly what you plan to ask. This will help him to mentally prepare for the interview. He may also have a helpful change or addition to the list.

Control the interview. The interview is a bit of a dance between you and the storyteller. You have an agenda, but you need to be flexible enough to allow your storyteller to be spontaneous and follow the occasional tangent. The challenge is to keep your storyteller from wandering too far afield. Here’s what I recommend: Keep a list of your questions on a clipboard on your lap – and make sure you have enough room on the list to make some notes. Listen carefully! When your storyteller takes a detour, make a mental note (and then a physical one on the question list) of where he left the previous story. Now, focus on what he’s currently relating and give him a chance to return to the question at hand. If it’s clear that he’s not coming back and that you need to rein him in, simply note on your question sheet what it is he’s talking about. Politely interrupt him, tell him that you’ll gladly return to what he’s saying later in the interview – but that you’d like to finish up with the subject you were addressing before he took that left turn. Then, ask him a follow-up question that’ll get him back on track. For example: “Before you started talking about B you were telling me about A. Please tell me what happened after…”

Of course, keep your word later and ask about the subject he was addressing before you needed to interrupt.

With someone who tends to go off on tangents, you may need to do a lot of “reining in” during the course of the interview. But, if you are patient and gentle about it, you’ll not only get all your main questions answered – you’ll capture some interesting and unexpected tidbits as well.

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.