The Craft of Family History Videos: Making Classics Out of Clutter

We treasure our memories, but we can be easily overwhelmed. Fearlessly dive into your archives and uncap your camera lens for the holidays to create a video that will stand the test of time.

It’s a cozy winter night. Your loved ones gather around for the screening of an end-of-the-year home video you made long ago. It amazes you that they’d rather watch it than the season’s latest blockbuster. The phone rings. It’s a client, begging you to tape another holiday reunion for the family video collection. You can sum up the secret to your success in two words: listening and planning.

A Family Classic – One Question at a Time

Making a personal history, family tree or year-end video requires that you put on a documentary producer’s hat. While the most enthusiastic video producers groan at the thought of scanning through hundreds of hours of new and old historical images, what they forget is that every great documentary producer is a great listener. The key to sorting through that haystack of images lies in asking the right questions of the right people.

First, know whom to ask, and that means know your audience. Is it for your relations or a client, or is it your own personal trip down memory lane? Find the benchmark moments that the viewers want to see. Ask: where did that happen? Who was present? Who may have pictures? Make a list of what you learn, and decide if you’ll structure by timeline (chronology) or by subject (person). Now you have the foundations to begin outlining.

Minutes on the Yardstick of Screen Time

If you’ve identified your subject groupings and you are asking: where do I begin?, change your question to: how long is the show? And since you have already decided on your audience, the screen time is partly determined.

A personal history video can entertain families for up to an hour. Warm, zany or obscure images that capture just the right feeling will never bore them. Outside friends who are watching an anniversary video or a farewell memorial may not be as understanding. A good tip to know is that audiences other than your relatives may lose interest at about 15 minutes. Use this yardstick to help you sort groupings by screen time.

Whether you’re working on a short production or the longest, a tip from broadcasters might help: remember TV divides those hours into 13- to 15-minute segments. Keeping this in mind can help you edit internal structure. Make mini-intermission breaks within your movie. You can use nostalgic reflection, humor or themes such as pets, winters or special meals like Thanksgiving. Simple graphics and great music will unify and provide huge amounts of entertainment.

Consider that audiences have been watching movies in some form for most of their lives. They delight in following a lead to see where it goes. Give them various forms of internal framework, and you’re well on your way to making a great show that’s 20 to 30 minutes long.

Fearless Editing

Compilation videos can be among the longest to research, but early chatting with family members or clients brings new insights. Old photos and videos may appear at your doorstep. This enthusiasm from others is great fuel for your incentive during the long hours ahead.

While you’ve already saved frustration by making a list of topics and images to include, how can you save even more time and still not miss creative opportunities? Develop a master photo editor’s eye. Keep in mind the obvious fact that a movie is about what’s on the screen. Though it’s difficult to cull through sentimental resources with an objective eye, take only the best images. You will find your project will strengthen in creative power.

Sound to Bring It Home

Everyone knows the influence of a voice, a laugh, a cheer. It can trigger the memory of a special time almost as much as a beautiful image of that perfect football pass.

Listen closely to the natural sound in the old videos you have dug up. It’s a fact that folks will sit through poor images if the audio is good. Those gurgles of the baby or the pony whinnying in the pasture can swell hearts to brimming. Effects as simple as birds in the woods as the family shares a picnic at Gettysburg can bring the past alive.

If you shoot new material, monitor your incoming audio track with headphones. Undistorted barks of the dog and revs of the motorcycle have particular meaning – don’t let them become unuseable. Never forget the importance of choosing the best soundtrack. Pick the music recital that brings chills to the ears, not the one with the bothersome audience noise.

The motto, picture without sound is merely surveillance, has great truth in it.

Amazing Threads Will Appear

Now place your selected photos in folders, and an amazing phenomenon starts to happen. As your topics fill out, invariably you’ll come upon stunning images that don’t fit with the rest. Put these aside for later use – they are the threads that you will use to overarch the show.

You’ll find that your unusual photos will come in handy, simply because they are so different. Your viewers will love the break from the expected. These can also be turned into title backgrounds or used in mini-breaks between sections.

Fly-on-the-wall Coverage

Narration can be tricky and should be included only when information is vital for understanding what’s not evident on the screen. A well-placed title can explain a great deal and is usually less invasive. Always avoid recording your own voice while filming live action.

Interviews should be well lit, kept to the point and supported by cutaways of things important to the interview setting, so you can edit rambling sentences. Shoot grandma’s hands, her wedding ring on her finger, a photo sitting on the table nearby.

You may consider putting your camera to use in a special way: to grab the comments of camera-shy folks by being the proverbial “fly on the wall.” Nestle the camera under your arm as a relative explains her beloved passion, and stay wide. Remember it’s best to move only when your subject does, in order to avoid distracting the viewer with zooms.

Your gathered photographs and home movies can also inspire an interview. Bring your timid subjects to your studio, turn down the audio if it’s a video memory and have the camera mounted close to them. Let them know you’re rolling tape, but explain it’s just for video notes, and keep your voice out of the soundtrack.

Recording grandpa’s funny tales, told in his own words, is well worth the effort, if you want your project to be in a league of its own.

Ground Wires Between Now and Then

With your historical images located and your special interviews recorded, breathe a sigh of relief; a lot of the work is behind you! Everything you’ve done will dictate your next step, should you choose to take it: shooting new footage.

The impact of adding new footage can’t be underestimated. Your movie will have more longevity, you will have more editorial choices and there will be visual “ground wires” between the present and the past. Years from now, the “new stuff” will be as precious as the old.

Start by capturing locations that are subject to change, such as house exteriors, streets, even the car. Cut between the family’s contemporary lifestyle and the old times. Grab that shot of the calendar at this year’s holiday meal and make it part of the video time capsule for future generations to discover.

Appreciation Comes Full Circle

Compilation films, whether arranged in chronological order or by single subject, rely on pre-production research, with a heavy emphasis on good editorial skills. More importantly, they require a strong desire to share your appreciation and respect for your subjects, and you need to establish a great deal of trust to get the story.

These productions are the most rewarding of them all. So find those images that are guaranteed to grow more endearing with age, music that won’t overpower the message and great audio that transports viewers in time. Don’t shy away from preserving the proud moments. Layer heaps of humor in there too. Your return will be the priceless appreciation of your viewers. When they pull out that video once again years from now, they’ll remember and appreciate all the hard work you went through to make it.

Jeanne Rawlings is an Emmy Award-winning sound recordist and documentary producer. Her former clients include the National Geographic Society, ABC and Discover Pictures.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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