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

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Video Biography Viewers Should Not Feel a Pebble in Their Shoes

Editing video is not finished when you've put the audio and video together. "Rough cut" is a great term for it because there are usually some jagged edges that need smoothing after the first edit. Just like a pebble in your shoe, you might not notice it first, and, once you do realize it's there, it might not bother you that much. But walk a mile and that pebble will be the only thing you can think about.

Real editing is walking miles in your viewers' shoes. You watch the piece over and over until you find all the pebbles and get rid of them.

And then you do it again.

Something less obvious will pop up when you watch again with fresh eyes. You fix that. Repeat as necessary. Then you know you're giving someone a documentary video that they can watch over and over and never notice any flaws because they will not watch it as often, or as carefully, as you did before you let them see it.

This is a re-edit of the documentary video I did about my own parents, adding music and other production elements not featured in the original. The interviews were done in 2004 in standard definition, which is why they don't fill the screen. The photographs are much higher resolution than hi-def video so the majority of the video will adapt well to Blu-Ray, even with some old SD video included.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

How Historical Footage Adds to Personal Video Biographies

If you have visited this blog before, or our website, then you know that we integrate footage from historical events to put the subject's story into the context of his or her times.

Thanks to sites like the Internet Archive, more and more material is available online. Much of it is in the public domain and free for us to use in our productions.

Here is an example I recently ran across. It was a speech President Richard Nixon made from the Oval Office April 30, 1973 about "what has come to be known as the Watergate affair."

Anyone who was above childhood age at that time will probably have some memory about Watergate. It was certainly the signature event in the mid-1070s in the United States and may shed some light on the culture of that time in a video biography subject's life.

It's great for children and grandchildren to see how their relative's life coincided with events they might have seen only in history books or on television somewhere. Including it in a life story video demonstrates to those descendants the history through which the subject lived.

From a pure production standpoint, it adds another visual element that enlivens the story as it enriches the audience.

Of course, to use historical footage, you have to know history as well as where to look for clips that fit in with the subject's life story. Examples of our work should show that we know how to weave a historical perspective into a personal documentary that will help future viewers see the subject's time in history and, perhaps, his or her part in it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Family Documentary Chapter Video

This chapter of a video biography required editing around the fact that no photos of this couple together exist until after they've been married for more than a year. Ordinarily, we don't include mentions of prior boyfriends but, as you will see, this unique circumstance warranted an exception.

The interviews don't fill the screen because they were shot in 2004 on standard definition equipment. We are updating this story to high-def, which is widescreen rather than the 4:3 aspect ratio that most standard def used to be.

Photos are scanned at a resolution much higher than even high-definition video so we have no trouble filling the frame with them from that standpoint. Some portraits would include only the eyes and nose of the subject if we had them fill the frame horizontally. That's why you see black bars on the sides of some of the photos.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Family Documentary Video Chapter

Here is a chapter from a video biography with interviews, photographs, historical footage and narration used to fashion a family documentary story. This one features footage from a color motion picture camera owned by the subject's father in the 1940s.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Experiment in Family Documentary Editing

With time to devote to it, I am updating a family documentary I did about my own parents five years ago to high definition. Although the interviews are standard def, the photographs have more than enough resolution to show in high def.

I'm also adding historical context and music to places in the story where it fits. The original had no music and only one audio clip of Franklin Roosevelt's speech December 8, 1941 asking congress to declare war on Japan.

The reason this is experimental is because of how I used music in this chapter. Normally, I use music to help set a mood rather than help establish a time frame. That's partly because including popular music from a given time period involves having to pay license fees to use it.

I am hoping that I'll get a pass this time since I'm using records from my father's personal collection, no money is being made from the project and this is a trial to see how well popular music from a given time period fits the story.

The other reason this is experimental is that a famous song might not fit the mood of the piece. I'm still debating whether Buddy Morrow's brassy, sexy "Night Train" provides a fitting soundtrack to the opening sequence — with its mentions of Eisenhower's inauguration, the looming threat of nuclear Armegeddon, the Korean War and the race to find a vaccine for polio.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Video Biography YouTube Channel

Although people can watch examples of our family history videos and other personal documentaries on our web site, people find videos online through different means. That's why PRP now has created its own YouTube channel. It's another way to get people to see what we do and how well we do it.

Now that YouTube supports HD video, the quality has dramatically improved. I took the time to upload the HD mpeg files to get the most of this higher quality, including their original widescreen formatting. We use standard definition (4x3 aspect ratio) on the web site because it works with the site layout better.

Check out the example below.

The prominent on-screen graphic with our web site on it is there so that people know its source if someone embeds the video in another site or blog. I hope it's not too distracting. Watch more of our work and see how you can preserve your family's life story on high-definition video at

Videos appear with the permission of their subjects. We don't show anyone your project unless you tell us it's OK.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Life Story Video is Like a Will

I've mentioned that my biggest challenge running a video biography business is convincing people the worth of something whose greatest value will be decades after they buy it.

A cousin of mine who's a lawyer heard me say that and replied, "it's like a will." It is! A will is not for you, it's for the people who survive you. And, like writing a will, you may not think you need to preserve your story right now and, chances are, you don't.

The problem is that you don't need a will until after you die but, by then, it's too late to make one. Same with sharing your life story. A personal documentary is not for you, it's for those who come after you. It's how you tell your stories with them when you can't be there to do it in person.

Granted, leaving this Earth without leaving a video of your life story behind doesn't create the havoc that dying without a will can. But, like a will, it is something whose benefits are greatest long after it is made.

Monday, March 15, 2010

PRP Makes News

We got a mention in the March 2010 issue of the Osprey Observer, a monthly newspaper in Hillsborough County, Fla. The article about PRP is on page 12 of the first section.

I never spoke to the reporter. She e-mailed some questions and also took — with permission — copy from our website as well as from the news release I had sent. (Previously published here on the blog.)

If you click on the image, the photo might show up large enough that you can read the copy. I have not noticed a surge in traffic to our web site since the article came out last week but being featured in a news publication, no matter how small, without paying for it lends an air of legitimacy to our cause.

I haven't seen an online version but if one appears, I'll link to it.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Family History Stories Go Mainstream

First came PBS' "Faces of America." Now aimed at an even wider audience comes NBC's "Who Do You Think You Are?" Videos below are from NBC's web site.

These are not exactly the kinds of stories we tell. Our stories usually don't go back hundreds of years. What our productions do is give someone tens and even hundreds of years from now something to look at to see from where — and whom — they came.

Imagine getting to hear your grandparents or great-grandparents tell their life stories. Just seeing and hearing them would amaze you, which I can assure you from personal experience. A few years ago I stumbled across some old family home movies shot in the 1940s and 50s. Some featured my mother as a young girl. They didn't have sound, just the moving images alone blew me away.

I would love to have interviews of her parents from that time. I have photographs, I have manually-typed poems my maternal grandfather wrote to his wife and to my mother. And, as mentioned, I have some home movies. But I don't have his voice recorded anywhere except in my increasingly dimming childhood memory of him.

This will not be a regret that my nephews and any children I have someday will ever face. The first full-length family documentary story I told was about my own parents. It's fresh in mind now because I'm restoring the original version shot in standard definition to re-edit it in high-def.

I hope you will not regret giving your children and grandchildren a priceless piece of themselves that will let them see and hear you again whenever they want for as long as they live.

Visit our website to watch examples of our work and to learn more about commissioning us to preserve your story, in your words and in your voice, in a video biography.

Who knows? Maybe a famous descendant will appear on some future version of "Who Do You Think You Are?" And, thanks to you, they'll already know.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Faces of America

PBS is running a series called "Faces of America," which trace the family histories of Americans from a variety of backgrounds. Below is an excerpt of one featuring Olympic figure skating gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi. These are essentially personal documentaries of public people.

Read more about her and see more clips here. One thing that struck me as I watched was how much learning her family's history meant to her. She got emotional as she heard details of her maternal grandfather's service as a Japanese-American for the U.S. in World War II.

These kinds of video biographies are the same ones we produce. We find the evocative moments of people's life stories. And the effect of watching the story of your parents, grandparents or even your children will be the same that Ms. Yamaguchi had.

Maybe you don't have the star power to bring PBS crews to your house but if you're American, you could be a face of America, too. You don't have to be famous to have an interesting story to share about your life, that of your loved ones or your ancestors. Explore more at our website

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Video Biography News Release

A local publication called the Osprey Observer arrived in my mailbox the other day. Most of its news stories read like news releases submitted by local businesses. So I wrote a news release and submitted it, hoping the editors would find it useful.

If people will spend thousands of dollars on a casket, John McQuiston wondered, would they invest a similar amount in something that will keep a part of them alive?

“A video biography is not something you do for yourself,” McQuiston says. “It’s something you do for your children and grandchildren. When you’re not around to tell your story in person, this will be how you do it.”

That thinking inspired McQuiston to form the Philip Randolph Parker Company. The Riverview-based company produces documentary videos that tell people’s life stories. These stories incorporate interviews, family photographs, home movies and stock footage of historical events and culture as well as professional shooting, scripting, narration and editing to form polished video documentaries like those seen on PBS, A&E and the History Channel.

“This goes far beyond family photographs, journals, diaries and even home movies,” says McQuiston. “This is something people will want to watch time again and will only become a more treasured keepsake as time passes.”

Prices range from below $1,000 for small (5-10 minutes long) projects to more than $7,000 for full-length life story documentaries, which generally run 40-50 minutes long.

Shorter projects can tell the story of a couple’s courtship or a child’s early years, highlight the career achievements of a corporate executive, or show off a high school athlete’s skills to college recruiters.

McQuiston worked as a news, sports and feature reporter for television stations for nearly 20 years and still does freelance work for stations in the Tampa area. His broadcasting experience helps separate the Philip Randolph Parker Company's product from other companies offering personal history, family documentary or video biography services.

“I know how to put people at ease so they forget about the camera and focus on talking to me,” McQuiston says. “People don’t have to deliver monologues. We have a conversation and worry about fashioning it into a story later. It’s really easy for the subjects.”

The company’s website ( features numerous examples of the company’s work, lists prices and includes a link to a company blog McQuiston writes as well as a contact page where you can request any information about the personal documentary process or the company and its services.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cost of Casket vs. That of Life Story Video

I mentioned this in passing in a previous post but it deserves more consideration. As we try to explain the value of preserving your life story (or that of your parents or even your children) in a video biography, some people struggle to see past the immediate cost to the long term return on their investment.

Here's the thing. A funeral casket can cost anywhere from $2,000-10,000 — or more. Even discounter Wal-Mart, which now sells caskets on its web site, has nothing cheaper than $995 and one goes for $3,199!

That's just for the box. Those prices don't include any of the other funeral costs. And people don't blink at paying them. Maybe they figure this is part of how they'll be remembered, part of their legacy.

My challenge is to explain to people who will spend thousands of dollars on a box that their family and friends will see one time before it is buried underground forever that something that those same family and friends can see time and again whenever they want — something that keeps part of them alive — is worth a similar investment.

I am biased, I admit, but I certainly believe it is. When you see your story, or the one you have told about your parents, I am sure you will agree that you could have done nothing better to preserve someone's legacy than having their life story preserved in a personal documentary.

Our website has examples of our work so you can judge for yourself.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Contacting Us

We may be having some trouble with the contact form on our web site. I get an error message when trying to use the form from my phone. I'll try again when I can get to a computer.

Meantime, if you have similar trouble, you can email me directly at john at personal-documentary dot com. (I avoid using regular email syntax hoping to escape notice of spam bots.) You can also call or text me at 813-531-5604.

To keep in touch with us you can follow us on Twitter @LifeStoryTeller. In a pinch you can send us a direct message there or leave a comment here on the blog.

We don't mean for it to be an ordeal to contact us. If you have tried without success to reach us, I apologize.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Who Hires Video Biography Makers?

Interesting mention of the term "video biography" in the Wall Street Journal recently.

The article is titled Three Best Ways to Win a New Client and includes this:
First, you must identify your ideal customer. "Do you know your target?" says Tom Patty, a volunteer small-business counselor for the Orange County, Calif., chapter of SCORE. "What do they do? What do they value?" Mr. Patty, a retired advertising executive, says he worked with a video biography company that attracted more business by simply shifting its focus to younger customers—baby boomers rather than seniors.

This is something I have noticed in the people who inquire about our services. They, so far, have never been the people who will be the subjects of the piece. They are their children or grandchildren.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Your Life Story Video Is Not For You

The biggest challenge in marketing our video biography service may be convincing people to have something produced that won't have its greatest value until after its subjects have passed away.

Your life story video is not for you. It is for the people who come after you, some of whom you have not met and maybe never will. In fact, most people who contact us are interested in producing a personal documentary about their parents or grandparents.

Even then some people struggle to grasp the importance of preserving their loved ones’ life stories. That is understandable. In this instant gratification world it is hard to think about something that will mean the most to you 20, 30 or 50 years later.

Yet if people will spend thousands of dollars on a casket that gets buried with them and is never seen again, there is a compelling argument for making a similar investment in something that people will treasure because it can bring their loved one's faces, voices and stories back to them whenever they want to see them — forever.

A life story video also serves as a key part of a family history. With a video biography, stories of one generation are passed down to descendants in its own words.

Daily lives are hectic and it can be hard to see past the end of the week let alone look years into the future. If you have the forward thinking to do so, you'll see that one of the greatest gifts you can leave future generations of your family is the story of your life, told with your voice.

We can help. Professional interviewing, script writing and editing will make it easy for you. Visit our site to watch examples of our work and then contact us to learn more about the process.