There’s no way around it – your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles have lived through interesting parts of history that you’ve only read about in books, and we’ll bet much of your family’s history is completely unrecorded. Now is the time to tell their story, before it’s too late. Capturing family recollections on video is not only fun but eye-opening and educational too; a way to preserve and share family member’s unique remembrance of the world, and the impact that they’ve made upon it.
There are several ways you can approach videos of family histories. One way is a literal history of your family and the other is history, told by your family. Both of these are interesting and a good family history will have some of both. It will contain stories about events and periods of history, but also anecdotes of pets, weddings, homes, neighbors, and children.
Start by creating a timeline beginning with your subject’s birth and ending with today. Along the line, fill in important dates in history that you know of (the end of WWII, President Kennedy’s assassination, Alaska becoming a state, the moon landing, President Reagan being shot, etc). Looking at timelines on websites like historycentral.com can be helpful. Mix this in with events from popular culture, movies, music and TV shows that your subject may have seen and liked. (A short discussion before videotaping can be a big help.) Finally, add to the timeline a list of events important to the families: births, weddings, houses, jobs, new cars, pets, town relocations, etc. This timeline will be a starting point and guide in helping relatives tell their history.
Next, compile a list of people you can interview and their relationship with one another. If multiple people have stories about a single event, ask them all similar questions. Your mother, for example, might have a very different recollection of her wedding than the one your uncle has – you’ll want to hear both.
Software like Family Tree Maker from myheritage.com can help you keep track of who’s who in the family tree. Bring family photo albums to the shoot, too. Choose representative images and have your subject talk about the event or the people in them. You don’t need, (or want) to use all the photos, just a good representation, especially the ones that are clear and large enough to use.
Natural light can be a wonderful thing to use, especially diffused window light, but you can’t always depend on it, especially if you’ll be doing a number of interviews with a number of different people in unknown circumstances, which makes this a good opportunity to practice your three point lighting. You want lighting that you can replicate and that can be consistent throughout your interviews. Your light kit can be as simple as two lights, one umbrella, and a large reflector.
When you have your timeline, your lighting, and your subject planned, choose a location that tells something about your subject, like part of their house or a back yard or front stoop. If you are shooting outside, you can control the audio for ambient noise by using a directional microphone or lavalier on your subject. Some interviews would benefit from a moving camera – perhaps taking granddad on a walk through the old neighborhood. Shaky hand-held camera work is sometimes the path of least resistance but camera stabilizers for consumers are becoming affordable and can greatly improve the quality of your footage.
Don’t Ask for Answers: Ask for Stories
Your interview style is going to play a large part in the success of your project. Do you want an on-camera interviewer who hosts the show? (“Cole Interviews the Davis Family!”) Or a self-contained narrative where only the subjects are heard? If so, it’s important that when you ask a question your subject’s answer is self contained and can be used apart from your question – this will let you edit out your own voice and also will allow you to easily put group answers by different family members in the same segment of a video. Don’t ask your subjects questions, ask them to tell stories. Don’t ask, for example, “When did you meet mom?” Because “1947” is a plausible answer and doesn’t really get the interview anywhere – instead say “Tell me about the day you met mom.”
While your raw footage will be very valuable, (hang on to it!) you’ll also need to make an edited version – most people won’t want to hear grandma talk for four hours meandering through 65 years of tales. There are two ways you can approach editing – either linear (chronologically) or by subjects. Editing linearly – you start at the beginning and follow a timeline. You can put up titles with years “1950-1955” etc., and go on up to the present day. Dividing your video into subjects is useful if you’re planning to make multiple videos or editing together various family members talking about similar things (family, the first house, neighbors, pets, etc.)
Determining Your Audience
While all family videos are of general interest, you may want to make one with a particular audience in mind – perhaps honoring a set of beloved grandparents approaching a momentous anniversary, cousins who have moved away, or grandchildren who you want to share the family lore with. Adding titles with personal messages can make a family history video into a gift that will be treasured forever.
Sidebar: Props and B-Roll
There’s nothing more boring than an uninterrupted talking head. Also, without scripting it’s very difficult for anyone to stay concise and on topic during an extended interview. While champion interviewers like David Letterman or Oprah Winfrey can keep a back-and-forth conversation interesting with nearly anyone, most of us don’t have the skill under fire. For that reason, it’s likely that you’ll want to do some cutting. Removing minutes or seconds from an interview shot with a single camera will produce the jarring editing faux pas known as a jumpcut. A good collection of B-roll will allow you to cover edits and to also cut away when your subject talks about a particular thing. The best B-roll is family videos or home movies, but you can also use still photographs and shots of props such as wedding dresses, military uniforms, jewelry, maps, and many other things. Adding some motion to these shots, (the pans and zooms known now as the “Ken Burns Effect”, after his extremely successful use of it in his groundbreaking Civil War documentary), will keep your viewers interested. You may, for example, lay clothes out on a velvet backdrop and pan the camera over them, or place them creatively – a vintage photo of a couple the day they bought their first house can be set up in front of the actual house as it is today. Coordinate ahead of time with your subjects about items of interest they may be able to provide.
Contributing Editor Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who exhibits regularly and has written books on technology and photographic art.