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?

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?

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.

Teaming up to talk about preserving life stories.

Family Legacy Video provides custom personal video biography and legacy video production services.On January 8, 2015, Family Legacy Video’s president, Steve Pender, teamed with author and personal historian Kristin Delaplane for a presentation to the SaddleBrooke Genealogy Club in SaddleBrooke, Arizona, just a bit north of Tucson. Kristin is a recent transplant to Tucson and will release a book, Family History Secrets: The Complete Guide to Capturing Family Stories For Your Heirloom Book, in May of this year. SaddleBrooke Genealogy Club program chair Randy Gibbs found Kristin when searching for someone to address the group about creating print memoirs. Kristin felt the club members would also enjoy learning about options for preserving stories on video. Having discovered Family Legacy Video after moving to Tucson, she invited Steve Pender to share in the fun.

Club members received both speakers enthusiastically, even offering up a spirited round of applause after viewing the sample clips Steve played for them. Afterwards, many attendees remarked about how Steve’s talk opened their eyes to how they could use video to preserve the family stories of their loved ones.

Do you belong to a club, organization or a business in need of inspiring and informational speakers? If so, don’t hesitate to contact Steve Pender. He can craft 20-30 minute presentations for your breakfast, lunch or dinner meetings or even longer talks (and workshops) to fit your needs. And if you’d like a print component, Steve and Kristin are certainly willing to team up again!

Talking video biography.

“Imagine,” I suggested to the attentive group of seniors in front of me. “Imagine for a moment that video technology existed during your great-grandparents’ times and that one day they sat down and recorded the stories of their lives. Imagine also that you could sit down today and watch those video biographies. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” The eyes of most of my audience widened as they nodded in assent. “Well,” I continued. “Video technology obviously didn’t exist back then. But it’s here today. And that means you can do something your great-grandparents couldn’t, which is to create a living, breathing, keepsake that preserves and celebrates your life stories, both to enjoy now and to leave as a precious gift for generations of your families yet to come.”

Family Legacy Video provides custom personal video biography and legacy video production services.With those words, I was off and running on my latest presentation, as part of a Sunday afternoon program sponsored by the Sunrise Neighborhood Assistance Program of Tucson, Arizona. I explained just what a video biography was, described in a nutshell the process I use to create a legacy video and outlined the benefits of preserving personal stories in a video biography format. Most importantly, I showed several sample clips so attendees could see for themselves just how legacy videos look and sound – and see what the possibilities could be for them.

Helping to inform and inspire folks is part of my mission as president of Family Legacy Video, Inc. I realize that many folks don’t know what a video biography is and that they can pass along their life stories and values this way. I always enjoy introducing potential storytellers to the subject. It’s especially delightful when audience members approach me after a presentation to tell me some of their stories and discuss how they can start planning their legacy video. That tells me that they “get it” in terms of understanding the importance of sharing their experiences and wisdom with present and future members of their families.

I also find that when I detail the myriad benefits video legacy projects, I reinforce to myself the importance of the work I do as a personal historian – a valuable side benefit for me.

So if you have a group of folks who you think might like to learn about preserving, celebrating and sharing their life stories with their own personal video biographies, give me call or shoot me an e-mail. I’m only too happy to talk.

Bringing home the Gold!

I just found out that Family Legacy Video, Inc. has received a Gold Award from the 2014 AVA Digital Awards competition! The award came in the Video Tribute category, for a video highlighting the life and career of James D Toole, founder and CEO of Tucson’s Southwest Energy LLC. Mr. Toole was the 2013 Inductee into the American Mining Hall of Fame, sponsored by the Mining Foundation of the Southwest. The video was played at the Hall of Fame banquet in December 2013. If you’d like to view our handiwork, you’ll find the clip here.

The AVA Digital Awards is sponsored and judged by the Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals (AMCP). The awards recognize outstanding achievement by creative professionals involved in the concept, direction, design and production of media. There were about 2,100 entries from throughout the United States, Canada and several other countries in the 2014 competition. The international organization consists of several thousand production, marketing, communication, advertising, public relations, and free-lance professionals.

Swept off my feet in Santa Fe.

My wife and I had a remarkable experience during my recent vacation. Our route took us through Santa Fe, New Mexico. Two former video biography clients (a husband and wife – I created legacy videos for his mom and her dad) hosted a dinner for me and my wife at a wonderful restaurant – and invited a couple dozen of their friends (all of them entrepreneurs) to meet us. It was a night of delicious food and wine and sparkling conversation – plus an opportunity to spread the Family Legacy Video brand. I was profoundly moved by this expression of appreciation.