History of Me – Family History Videos

Bards in medieval times engaged their tribes with verbal narratives, passing down the story of their clan’s history from generation to generation. Scribes copied words of the ancient Greek philosophers. Cave paintings. Runes. Hieroglyphics. Etchings. Engravings. Woodcuts. All of these story-telling processes follow one ideal: How to best engage an audience.

Your History Told

Passing down information from generation to generation helps define who we are and there’s a new movement in capturing family histories. Everywhere people are jumping on the personal genealogical search bandwagon, creating a personal archeological dig into their own past through websites like Ancestry.com. But telling a story in written form is one thing, how do you make it into a video? This is quite a daunting task – where do you find the subjects and how do you make visuals of events that have no visuals to illustrate?

Family history videos are personal documentaries that can preserve the story of a family in its own words and are a way to connect the leaves of a family tree for future generations. Many people have the desire to share their family’s history, but they don’t have the skills to do it in a video.

How Long Will This Take?

As any documentary filmmaker can tell you, documentary making is a notoriously time-consuming business! The best way to make the most of your time and investments is to employ pre-production planning. Videomaker moderator and contributing editor, Earl Chessher, makes commemorative videos for a living through his business, Video StoryTellers.

In an email interview he says, “I spend, on average, 20 hours putting my most popular storytelling package together. The client organizes, researches and compiles the materials and I ingest, digitize, shoot, edit and produce the final production. My average production is one-half hour, usually less than one hour, and is often delivered within a week to 10 days of receipt of all materials.”

Show Me the Money

Documentaries can suck up your time like no other production can, and making documentaries for profit has plenty of challenges. Besides doing quality work, you need to finish the job in a profitable manner. This means keeping an eye on your dollars-to-hours ratio. Assuming you are getting paid a flat rate for the job, you need to work efficiently in order to reduce the number of hours you need to devote to the project. Same pay in less time equals more money per hour.

Planning is Key

The best way to begin your project is to create an outline and put the documentary idea in order. Your outline might include different assets and it’s important to break it down into segments and subtopics so you can maintain focus and work efficiently.

Breaking your program into subtopics has many advantages: it’s easier to work piece by piece so you aren’t overwhelmed with the process and shorter segments are faster to watch and give you DVD menu options. An outline can also work as a template for family histories to follow, making the steps a little tighter and a little easier every time. One way to streamline several documentaries is to write standard interview questions for each segment. You can also pre-build your segment graphics, and pre-select your music, etc., to expedite the process.

Set up a pre-interview to get all the information you think you might need to run the interview smoothly. You might also conduct a pre-interview with other family members to get insights into important events in the person’s life.

Chessher says, “On average, my clients seek what I call a ‘mini-documentary,’ essentially involving them speaking from personal notes and letters and/or extemporaneously on the life and times of the family member being commemorated. They do the research, provide the materials and ask my guidance as to what works and what might not be necessary. During an initial one-hour (on average) planning session we develop an outline of what they have, what they want and the points they want to emphasize.”

What to Illustrate?

You can have either a narrator or first person account for the audio, but getting the video to cover up a talking head might be tricky. First gather ideas for what your clients might be able to illustrate. Do they have the historical facts already laid out? Let’s assume your subjects have been doing research on Ancestry.com and know dates, places and names of the people they wish to highlight – they have the facts, they want you to bring life to them. How in the world do you do that?

Make Them Move – Photos and Props

Instead of the usual flat pan-n-scan method, add movement to inanimate objects like military badges and old letters, by standing them on a table and doing a fly-over shot. Instead of a flat table, make it more interesting by loosely laying a flag or grandma’s old lace shawl under the objects. You can add depth by setting boxes of various sizes under the flag or shawl, then shooting them from various angles, heights and perspectives. Lighting your tableau a bit from the side will give depth and shadows to your setup.

Seeking out old newspapers for props is fairly simple – nearly every town has a newspaper office with some archives. Even if it’s on microfiche, events that happened around the time the story takes place add depth to the timeline.

There are other ways to illustrate a story; i.e., photos of old cars, fashions, dishes and sheet music from the era, and most can be found in public libraries and especially on government websites.

Locations – Virtual and Actual

Through information your client has gathered, you might have addresses of the subjects’ home and hometown. In this digital era, you can get access to old maps and town photos through most cities’ historical society websites, and if you explain what you’re doing and ask nicely, they usually will grant you access to use their information system at no cost.

Depending on your budget and extent of what the client wants to illustrate, if grandma’s old house is still standing in Kennebunk, Maine, but you live in Kansas City, Mo., it’s not hard to find a local Kennebunk photographer/videographer on the Web to shoot a couple stills of the house – the charge might be as little as five dollars and as much as $50 per image.


Finally – if you’ve got the funds, time and a client with deep pockets, reenactments can bring historic events to a personal level. If your timeline is around historical events like the American Revolution or the Civil War, there are reenactments going on often throughout the U.S. You can also buy reenactment stock footage from sites like footagefirm.com and www.reenactmentstockfootage.com. Your local historical society might know of a historian who dresses up in period clothing that you can hire to sit on the steps of the old courthouse, or walk down the street in style. Also check for rentals from your local costume companies and theater clubs.


Life’s stories move forward along a linear line… yet they don’t have to be told that way. It’s fun to break up the chronological order and mix up the critical events in a story. This can sometimes lead your viewers to an aha! moment somewhere along the road. Your storytelling might draw them in more than if you follow a dry historical line stating: “John was born in 1925, three years later his family was pulled into the Great Depression, when they lost everything due to the Crash of 1929. In 1942 he joined the Navy and found a different conflict…” Ugh, reads like a dry old history book. Telling history in a manner that catches the eyes and ears of the audience isn’t too difficult if you learn to manipulate time. Expanding and collapsing time is a trick story tellers have been using forever. Manipulating time builds suspense in the story and aims to engage your audience. Stretching out the time it takes to tell part of the story gives that event more impact, and later in the documentary, your audience will remember it more clearly and understand how it all wraps together.

“John lied about his age in 1942 to join the Navy. As a child, he read a tale of a man lost at sea – alone with the elements, learning the struggles of survival that stayed with him while his family suffered during the Depression. He was deeply moved by the tale, which influenced his decision to run away to sea at 17 years old,” adds interest and drama to otherwise distant historical dates.

Walking-talking interviews give the person something to do, and is an easy way to get them to forget the camera is there. Go to their old house when they were born, or the school grounds they used to play on. Having a 65-year-old grandma walk up to, and sit down on a schoolyard swing to continue her story puts her in a familiar place, and she can get into that moment in time when, “we weren’t allowed to wear trousers to school in those days, so playing on the playground was difficult. I wore short pants under my dresses so I could run races with the boys…” You show a spirited child who, years later, was surely able to hoist an engine into an airplane’s frame as a military mechanic during the war. You can then segue to photos of her as a child or WWII propaganda photos of Rosie the Riveter.

Turning a Profit

How much time you put into your project and interviews should always factor in how you will profit. The money for these videos is there, it all depends on how you sell the service, and how you gather the assets. Sometimes you just have to think like an investigative journalist and be well prepared before you hit the record button. Watch documentaries and check out how History.com and Biography.com put together their pieces. Many of these are one hour long, so they are well-contained and tell stories in a succinct, informative and interesting manner.

Sidebar: The Presentation

Each biography is a bit different. Here’s one way to present your story.

Segment 1 – Opening photo and music montage with a title graphic.

Segment 2 – Narrated introduction with a collection of photos.

Segment 3 – The beginning: birth and early childhood.

Segment 4 – Childhood highlights: homes, schools, friends, interests, feelings about things and events.

Segment 5 – Late childhood and teen years. (Can be combined with above as one segment.)

Segment 6 – Early adulthood – Leaving home for higher education, military service, marriage, etc.

Segment 7 – Adult life first job, married life, children, etc.

Segment 8 – Conflicts/special events/dramatic moments. (Can supersede or follow any of the events above.)

Segment 9 – Advice and wisdom – what to pass on to the world, their kids, their grandkids, or advice about lessons learned in life.

Segment 10 – Closing narration and recap.

Jennifer O’Rourke is Videomaker‘s Managing Editor, an Emmy award-winning producer and has done many family history videos.

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

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