Monday, March 23, 2015

The Story of Your Life Is Your Legacy

Dear Mr. Dad: My father died when he was 48. He was a great dad, affectionate, playful, and a fine role model. And he had life insurance so the family was provided for. But when my brother and sister and I were going through his stuff after the funeral, we realized that we barely knew him. He was always interested in our lives, but almost never told us anything about his own—the things he did as a kid, what he liked, or anything. I’m 47 now — just a year younger than my dad’s age when he died—and I’m very involved in my children’s life. But I don’t want to make the same mistake my father did. How can I be sure my kids will know me after I’m gone?

That was the question to the syndicated columnist "Mr. Dad." I’ll let you read how he answered on his website. The question itself illustrates the most to me. After a father’s funeral, his kids realize “that we barely knew him.”

Think about that. And consider how true it is in so many families. It was in mine. We know our parents as “Mom and Dad.” We know their roles in our lives; we know their jobs; we know that they go to dinner parties on Saturdays.

But how well do we know them as people? What do we know of their childhoods? Their high school years? College days? Do you know how your parents met and fell in love?

I knew none of this stuff about my parents. I did not learn about who they were as people until I interviewed them for the documentary I made about their lives.

I learned, for instance, why I had never seen my parents’ wedding photos. They had dated for a year-and-a-half, but the decision to marry came suddenly. One Saturday morning, my mother told her parents that she and my dad were getting married.

And that the wedding would happen later that day.

Whoa! The ceremony that marked the beginning of a marriage that has lasted more than 50 years was not photographed. When does an occasion arise for a parent to tell his or her children about something like that? It never had for me. How many of those stories – stories that tell us about not only who are parents are, but who we are – disappear forever when our parents pass on?

More than anything, your legacy is your story. Your story – not your stuff – is what your kids will want to keep with them long after you’re gone. That’s why I started my business that helps people tell and preserve their life stories. But it’s also why, whether you hire me or not, you need to sit down in front of a camera and have someone interview you about your life, and why, if your parents still live, you need to interview them.

If you can afford to have a highly polished film made, or whether you go with the basic "interview only" package, it will one day be the most valuable thing you and your family own.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Last Gift

Michelle Wallace had advanced terminal cancer, diagnosed the day she gave birth to her fourth child. Wallace knew she would not live to see her newborn son, Toby, grew up. "Her biggest fear was that he was not going to remember her," Kallie Greenly, Wallace's adult daughter told the Wall Street Journal.

But before she died in 2011 at age 43, the Journal reports, Wallace recorded a 17-minute video for her son, telling him about her life.

That video (the Journal called it a "legacy video") will not replace the mother that young Toby lost far too young. But it will give him something. It will give him a sense of who his mother was (including her favorite curse word!), in her own words, when he is old enough to really appreciate it.

It is the last gift Toby's mother gave him, and someday it will be one of the most valuable things he owns.

Stories like this are why we do what we do. It is why we believe that everyone needs to have their story saved, to tell future generations who they were, what they were about, what mattered to them, how they grew up, how they raised their kids, their good times, the bad, and the ones in between.

These videos (we call them "personal documentaries" or "video biographies" but legacy videos works, too) don't just tell children and grandchildren about their forebears, they tell them a lot about themselves.

Obviously, we'd love it if people hired us to make a 75-minute PBS-like documentary about their lives. But we also can do simple interviews that are much more affordable. Even if you try to do it yourself, it really is important that you save your story, or that of your parents or grandparents.**

It will be the greatest last gift you can give.

**We have tips for do-it-yourselfers. Click here to read some.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Seat To History

Last Friday, U.S. flags flew at half staff in honor of the man who commanded the mission that planted the first U.S. flag on the moon. You, or your parents, might not be the pioneers that Neil Armstrong was. But your, or their, memories of momentous events help shape our history nonetheless.

The Philip Randolph Parker Company's founder, John McQuiston, also works as a reporter and anchor at the ABC affiliate in Sarasota, Florida. Friday, he produced, wrote and reported a story about two local men who played small parts in the big story of Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong's historic steps on the moon July 20, 1969.

Note: John produced that story in a single day. We spend much longer polishing the documentaries we produce for you.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Brush that Paints Your Self-Portrait

Marc Pachter doesn't make documentary films about people's lives. But in conducting live interviews with some of the most intriguing people in recent American history as part of a series created for the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, he shared our aim of trying for his interviewees to "be the brush that paints their self-portrait."

His interviews happened before live audiences rather than with nothing more than a video camera eavesdropping on the conversation. But he still had the challenge of, as he put it, "trying to get them to say what they probably wanted to say."

He reveals the secret to a great interview and shares extraordinary stories of talking with Steve Martin, Clare Booth Luce and others. "The key point was empathy," he says, "because everybody in their lives is really waiting for people to ask them questions so that they can be truthful about who they are and how they became what they are."


Saturday, February 11, 2012

Your life story video leaves your wisdom behind

A Cornell University professor says that even though your parents might need help operating the remote controls to their televisions, they have expertise to share with you.

"They know how to live through hard times," Karl Pillemer told PBS's Newshour. He gleaned this insight from interviews with elderly Americans for his new book "30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans."

Pillemer's interview on PBS includes excerpts of conversations he recorded with some of his subjects.

This is just another example of the gospel we try to preach: EVERYONE has experiences, memories and wisdom worth recording for their children and grandchildren. We can do productions ranging from simple interviews to full-scale documentary productions.

Please watch examples of our work, and contact us about how we can create a video biography that will preserve their life story for generations to come.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Your History is American History

You may not have ancestors who fought in the Civil War like this Florida man, but our country's history is little more than the collective history of its individuals.

Your story -- and that of your parents -- is worth documenting and saving so that your future generations will have first-hand accounts of their history.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Robert De Niro's Regret

Even someone who tells people's stories for a living sometimes needs the importance of life stories pointed out to them.

Esquire magazine writer Cal Fussman, interviewing Robert De Niro, asked the actor if he had any regrets. De Niro said that he wished he had made a film about his family. But it was too late.

"When a parent dies," De Niro said, "it's the end."

Fussman wrote:

He told me he'd always wanted to chronicle his family history through his mother. He sensed a part of her wanted to do it, too, and he offered to send over some people to record it. But she was a little antsy, so he backed off. Not long afterward, she died. And what he wanted to preserve for his children was gone.

When I walked away from that lunch I knew exactly what I had to do. My own parents were about to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary, and my brother and I were throwing a party for them. We'd booked a banquet room in a hotel and invited family and friends. We figured we'd have good food, dancing, and some speeches. But now there was something else.

I got a tripod, mounted an ordinary video camera on it, and set it before my parents. I asked them about their marriage, their lives, and what they'd learned along the way.

I went out and filmed family talking about them. I filmed their friends. Then I got a college student to weave the best footage together and insert old photos. My brother jumped in to help edit.

We made a movie.

We broke this forty-five minute film into seven segments and showed it on a big screen at the party. It brought forth laughs. It brought forth tears. My parents called it the best night of their lives. I don't know if their great-grandchildren will ever meet them. But they will have that film.

At the end of the credits there was a thank you to Robert De Niro. It never would have happened without him.

It can be easy to overlook the stories that are right in front of you, or to think that no one would find them interesting, or to intend to do it "someday" only to see, as Robert De Niro did, that someday may be too late.

I've learned this too. I wanted to tell the story of my aunt and uncle. Thanks to my maternal grandfather's need to keep up with the Joneses, he owned a color motion picture camera and there are color films of both my mother and her older brother dating back to the mid 1940s.

My aunt was born in Germany as World War II began. Though she was young, she remembered the German surrender. The occupying Americans "were like saviors," she said. No wonder she later married an American.

Their story had great potential and the project sat on my "to do" list. Then I got an e-mail from a cousin. My uncle had died. I knew his health was poor but I thought I had more time. He was only 68. There's always tomorrow. Until there isn't.

Whether you do it yourself with a home video camera, as Cal Fussman did, or you hire us to do it, don't wait to tell your family's story. I can't promise that your parents will call the day they see their life story on video the best one of their lives. But I can guarantee that if their great-grandchildren never meet them in person, they will know them. They will have that film.

This clip from my own parents' life story video includes some of that old home film footage I mentioned above. Watch more examples of our work at