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?

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?

Looking for some free, archival footage? Here’s one option.

World War II bombing runs by B-17s, collecting maple syrup in Quebec, commercials for the Ford Edsel; all of these are examples of historical footage used in past Family Legacy Video® video biographies. There’s an amazing abundance of historical images, both still and moving, from an array of sources, that can help enhance and illuminate the life stories related by family storytellers. A hallmark of Family Legacy Video’s Deluxe Legacy Videos is the use of archival images that lend a “big budget” documentary feel to the productions.

Family Legacy Video provides custom personal video biography and legacy video production services.Archival images and footage do come with a cost, however. First, there’s the time it takes to research, locate and secure the material. This time alone adds to the cost of video biography. But the footage itself can be pricey. That’s why it’s nice to find a resource for free, public domain footage. One that’s been helpful to me over the years is the Internet Archive. The Internet Archive, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, is a digital online repository of both still and moving images. You’ll find lots of old government and promotional films there, many of them in the public domain. Clips are available for download in a variety of formats. Due to compression, the video is not necessarily pristine, but it is free, and if you’re a creative editor you can always find ways to dress it up in post.

I’ve found shots in some films at the archive that I couldn’t find anywhere else – and that perfectly fit the bill. So check out the Internet Archive; you may find it a valuable free source of images or just a place to go to watch some really neat old films.

Working with your video biographer: Collecting visuals.

One of my responsibilities as your video biographer is to usher you through the production process and make the experience as easy for you as possible. That includes taking the time to learn your stories, crafting custom questions for your on-camera interview, and making sure you look and sound your very best on screen. If we’re working together to create a Premium or Deluxe Family Legacy Video®, another critical part of the process involves collecting the photos and other images we’ll use to illustrate your stories and give your legacy video that big-budget documentary look.

So, what kinds of images are we talking about? This list will give you an idea:

• Still photos
• Newspaper/magazine clippings
• Diplomas
• Wedding announcements
• Plaques
• Trophies
• Medals
• Paintings
• Drawings
• Letters
• Keepsakes
• Souvenirs
• Childhood toys
• Family videos (or films transferred to video)

Pulling together all these visuals may appear daunting at first. And there’s no getting around the fact that you’ll need to help with some of the work. Here’s how we’ll collaborate to collect the visuals that’ll help make your video biography so special.

WHAT FAMILY LEGACY VIDEO WILL DO.

After we wrap up your preinterview, I’ll draft what I call an Initial Wish List. This is simply a list of photos and other images I think would be great to accompany the stories you’ve told me. I fully realize you may not have all, or sometimes even most, of the items on the list; it’s just something to help you start your search.

WHAT YOU’LL DO.

You’ll go through your albums, shoeboxes and other archives to see just what you have that’s on the Initial Wish List. You may also want to contact family members to see what visuals they may have. Sometimes you’ll discover photos you forgot about and that will stimulate other stories we can cover during your interview. While the visuals search can be a bit time-consuming, it’s far from being drudgery. Think of it as a process of exploration and discovery. I guarantee you’ll have fun! You’ll need to set aside the photos you find. If possible, make notes in pencil (or use sticky notes) on the back of each photo regarding dates, places, and people. If labeling the photos is too much of an effort for you, we can add some time to do this together after we record your interview.

WHAT FAMILY LEGACY VIDEO WILL DO.

After reviewing the visuals you’ve collected, I’ll either scan or shoot them at your location, at the Family Legacy Video office in Tucson, Arizona, or a combination of both. I fully understand that you may have photos or other family heirlooms that may be too fragile to ship or that you don’t feel you want to part with. That’s quite alright; I’ll certainly respect and accommodate your wishes. If the budget allows, I can arrange to have an extra crew member whose job is to scan your photos while we’re conducting your interview.

THE FINAL WISH LIST.

It’s not usual to get ideas for additional visuals after shooting your interview. If this is the case, I’ll send you a Final Wish List detailing the extra items I’d like. Again, you may or may not have some or even all the items on the list. But heck, it doesn’t hurt to ask. If you can provide extra material, we’ll arrange to ship it to the Family Legacy Video office. Or, if you have a family member or friend with a scanner, I’ll send you the dimensions I require and you can then either e-mail or snail-mail the digital files to me.

THAT’S ALL THERE IS.

Of course, there’ll come a time (usually after you receive the Final Wish List) when I need you tell me I’ve gotten all the visuals you can provide. Once I get that word, I’ll focus on using the images I have to their greatest effect.

So don’t let the prospect of having to comb through your family archives stop you from pursuing your video biography project. I guarantee I’ll make the process as easy on you as possible. Plus, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve given your family photos and other visuals new lives that will enlighten and delight generations of your family to come.

Another wonderful testimonial.

A recent client, Angela Hallier of Phoenix, Arizona, just sent me a wonderful testimonial. Thanks, Angela!

Here’s what she wrote:

I bought a Family Legacy Video® for my father for Christmas. We did not know what to expect but Steve and his crew were professional from beginning to end. From the preinterview to production, it was seamless and my father felt very comfortable – and he was impressed with the detail and attention given in advance to the areas he would cover in his interview and the actual production of the video. We gathered as a family to watch his video “premiere” – we felt like we were watching a ready-for-TV documentary. The tears and laughter we had as a family watching my father’s video were priceless – not to mention the importance to our family of preserving my father’s memories and stories for generations to come. We cannot thank Steve enough – this was the best investment I have ever made!

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.