Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Wedding Chapter in a Family Documentary

This is usually a highlight of a family documentary story -- when the couple recounts how they became engaged and got married. Most remember the proposal in precise detail, even if it was decades ago, and we edit the story so viewers can see how the subjects' memories match.

Note that we show video clips only with the permission of their subjects. We honor your privacy and we don't show your project to anyone unless you tell us it's OK.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

For Whom Is A Video Biography Is Made?

I recently delivered the DVDs of a family documentary story to a very happy and grateful recipient in time for Christmas. I had screened the final version of a story about his parents for him a couple of weeks ago. Then I burned the disks and their labels, designed and printed the DVD case inserts (after sending him a proof for him to approve).

When I handed him the DVDs, he gave me a holiday card, in which he had written:

"We can't begin to thank you enough for what you have given our family. It is a beautiful story of our parents that will now be told for generations to come. Your work is remarkable!"

The "your work is remarkable" is certainly flattering, especially coming from someone who works in television, as he does. For him to say that is truly a compliment. But the part that really sticks out is "will now be told for generations to come."

Although the story is about his parents and he was eager to show them the film, that's not for whom the story was made. It was made for him and his brother and sister and their children. It was made for the day — in the distant future, I hope — that his parents aren't around to tell their story themselves.

When that day comes, they will still have this.

Note that we show video clips only with the permission of their subjects. We honor your privacy and we don't show your project to anyone unless you tell us it's OK.

Friday, December 18, 2009

D.I.Y. Personal Documentary

Since the main purpose of this blog is to explain our video biography service, I will talk a lot about the production process in terms of how it works if you hire us. I understand that a lot of people who stumble across our website ( or this blog want guidance on how to create a family documentary themselves.

As much as I think that hiring professionals will be worth it to you in the long run because the investment you make now will pay you back for decades to come, this is not brain surgery. You're not going to harm anyone if you try to do it yourself.

We will share ideas on this blog that can help you and I will sometimes include information aimed specifically at the do-it-yourself-er. Everyone should make some video record of their parents' lives and stories. Ideally they will hire us. But if they can't, something is better than nothing. And maybe later down the road those home movie interviews can be used as part of a higher quality production.

The first thing you want to do is read the previous post about the pre-production (read: homework) you should do before you do interviews.

Then make sure you have the right equipment.
  1. External microphone
  2. Tripod
  3. Lights

Well, yeah, you'll need a camera, too, but you'll likely be getting by with a home video camera so I won't try to specify what kind.

EXCEPT: It must — must must — have a jack for an external microphone. Viewers can forgive less than perfect video but they will not tolerate not being able to hear. The built-in mic even on the best cameras will not record good enough audio.

Then you want to get a clip-on mic (technical term: lavaliere mic). You'll want an extension cable for it too. The one I got with my first camera years ago cost about $40 (including cable) at Radio Shack. I used that mic for two short documentary projects that screened at a local film society.

An el cheapo tripod (sorry for the jargon) will suffice for interviews with consumer cameras. But you have to have one. You cannot have an interview that looks like it happened during an earthquake.

You need to adequately light your interview subject. The simplest way to get decent lighting is to use indirect light from an open window to face your subject. Avoid bright backgrounds and keep space between the background and the subject.

Here are a couple of links to articles that explain more about framing an interview:

Monday, December 7, 2009

Personal Documentary Production Process - Part 1

Most of our productions are broken into chapters. Whether they're numbered or otherwise obvious to a viewer, there are natural breaks in a story that we incorporate into the finished documentary video. Chapters also break larger projects into smaller chunks so that they seem less daunting when we take them on.

It's fitting, then, that I break down the description of the production process down into chapters.

The first chapter begins before cameras ever roll. The fancy term for it is "pre-production" but it's really just homework. And we rely on you to do a lot of it. That's right. You hire us to tell your or your loved ones' life story and the first thing we do is assign you homework.

Actually, it's the second thing we do. First we meet -- either in person or by phone -- to establish the story's timeline. Most of our subjects won't be famous enough to warrant their own wikipedia pages so we can't just go online to research their stories. Besides, this is your story, or that of a loved one, the way you want it told. These early discussions tell us what you want covered in the story so we know what to ask when we get to doing the on-camera interviews.

(In fact, we have some of these conversations before you hire us just so we know what your expectations are. This can eliminate unwelcome surprises later in the process.)

Things we need to know include dates of birth, parents' names and occupations, schools attended, sports played, date of wedding, dates of children's births, time and location of any military service, and other significant milestones of the subject's life.

It's important to note that even a full-length documentary running 40-50 minutes won't detail every moment in the subject's life. You don't have to account for everything you ever did. You're looking for the highlights -- the stories you really want to share.

Then you get the homework, which is finding family photographs and any home videos that show us all of these watershed events. We have access to historical and stock footage that can supplement the material from your family archives and we can use footage from historical events that put your story into the perspective of its times.

As much as I'd be happy to flip through your photo albums, only you know which pictures document significant moments in your or your loved one's life. I also don't know who is who in your family yet. By the end of the production I'll be able to look at a photo, know who's in it and even have a good guess when it was taken but at the beginning, we need your help. You need to organize your photos so that when it's time for us to scan them, we have all the ones we need to tell the story.

For a lot of people, the tough part won't be finding enough pictures. It will be finding too many and having to decide which ones to use. You might have 100 cute baby pictures but there's only so long we can talk about someone's infancy before the story starts dragging. The other limit we have in how many pictures to use is the time it takes to scan them all. Two hundred photos takes about 5 hours to scan. It can take more time than doing the on-camera interviews. As film cameras become more obsolete, more photos will already be in digital form so that helps but for most of our subjects, we'll be digitizing printed photos.

The great thing about going through the old photos is the memories it brings back. If you are not the subject of the story, have them work with you to select the photos. The memory refresher will help put them at ease going into the interview. In fact, we will do part of the interview just going through the stack of photos.

But we'll talk about the interview later. Watch examples of family history stories and other video biographies at

Sunday, December 6, 2009

"When a Parent Dies, It's the End"

Those are the words of Robert De Niro in an interview with Esquire magazine. Here's more:
When a parent dies, it's the end. I always wanted to chronicle the family history with my mother. She was always interested in that. I wanted some researchers I'd worked with to talk to my mother, but my mother was a little antsy about it. I know she would've gotten into it. It would have been okay with my father, too. But I wasn't forceful, and I didn't make it happen. That's one regret I have. I didn't get as much of the family history as I could have for the kids.

My own father was reluctant to sit for an interview when I wanted to do a video biography about my parents several years ago. "This is not for you," I told him. "This is for your grandchildren. When they're old enough to appreciate who they came from, this is how you will be there to tell them."

I should note that in the five years since I did that interview, we have added a high-definition camera and better lighting equipment. The important thing is that I won't ever share Robert De Niro's regret about failing to record his parents' life story on video.

Nothing keeps someone's memory alive like being able to see and hear them tell their stories in their own words. Watch more examples of family history stories and other video biographies at

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Not Business Related

Though this doesn't relate directly to video biography, I am always interested to see people use video and sound to tell stories in novel ways. The effort below certainly qualifies.

See more at

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The First Chapter

We thought it would be fitting that we begin our new blog with the first chapter of a family documentary story that we're in the final stages of editing.

This is the first of 16 chapters in a life story video that runs 45 minutes. In our family documentary stories we look for places to integrate historical video that puts the subjects' story into the perspective of its times.

This chapter also features original photography as well as pictures from the family's archives. See more examples of our work on our website

Note that we show video clips only with the permission of their subjects. We honor your privacy and we don't show your project to anyone unless you tell us it's OK.