Magic Memories: A Guide to Shooting Reunions

Whether you tape them for fun or profit, reunions offer video opportunities second only to weddings.

What kinds of reunions? Well, high school and college, of course, and family reunions too. But just about any organization that existed 25 years ago or earlier is liable to dust off an old class list, unit roster, or family tree and invite everyone listed on it to come on back for a clambake.

Where you can be waiting for them with your camcorder loaded, charged, and ready.

Like wedding videos, reunion programs demand professional planning and shooting techniques; so we’ll cover these — especially the crucial work in preproduction. But before we begin, we need to figure out just what it is we’re shooting. What’s a reunion for, anyway? What’s it really about?

Sentimental Journeys
The answer depends on what kind of reunion it is, and there are two basic types. For simplicity, we’ll call them school reunions and family reunions.

School reunions are usually get-togethers of particular high school or college classes, but they’re also held for armed service outfits and similar groups. (And with the 50th anniversary of the end of World War Two this year, the number of service reunions must be greater than usual.)

Family-style reunions are held not only by genealogical tribes, but by churches, service and fraternal groups, businesses, and community athletic organizations. Family events like golden wedding anniversaries often turn into informal reunions too.

If so many different kinds of groups hold reunions, how can we say that these events come in just two basic styles? Because all reunions look at time in one of two opposite ways.

School-type reunions involve people who once spent a short time together at the same places, doing the same things, pursuing the same interests. The purpose of a school reunion is to recall and celebrate that brief time, now forever gone. Think of it this way: the school reunion is about nostalgia, curiosity, reconnection.

  • Attendees are nostalgic about all those happy times at good old Millard Fillmore High (alumni who were miserable at Fillmore tend not to show up).

  • They’re curious about how their peers turned out: did he keep his hair? Did she keep her figure? Who got rich? Who failed? What happened to all those folks I knew so well and then lost sight of? What has life given them — or done to them?

  • They want to reconnect with people. We all lose touch with some old friends, and reunions are chances to meet them and re-establish communication.

By contrast, family-type reunions look at time in exactly the opposite way: instead of focusing on a short, closed-end period, they celebrate a collective identity that may reach back many generations and is still going strong today. Family reunions are all about history, continuity, and relationships.

  • Reunion participants want to talk and hear about family history — both the humdrum (who married who and lived where and did what) and the romantic (who walked across Poland to reach a seaport, who escaped from a slave plantation).

  • They want to see and feel the continuity of clan life. (There’s 98-year old great-great Grampa, born in the same century as Lincoln, fought in France in the First World War, and he’s my great-great Grampa and he’s sitting right there!)

  • They want to experience the support of family relationships. (We’re scattered from Seattle to Miami and half these folks I’ve never seen before. But no matter what, we’re all Carluccis.)

This distinction between reunion types is not just airy philosophizing; it directly affects the way you produce videos about them. So as we cover the preproduction, production, and postproduction phases of reunion shooting, we’ll keep noticing the differences between the school and family prototypes.

At the same time, we’ll see that both types of reunion program feature the same three kinds of content: Archives, encounters, and interviews:

  • Archives are the school artifacts — the yearbook, the prom program, the school newspaper; they’re the family memorabilia — the old photos and home movies, the fragmentary histories, either written or recorded, that some families have cherished. Woven into your video, these pieces of history can be immensely powerful.

  • Encounters are the first meetings of people with emotional ties. They may be breezy and jolly ("Harry? Harry Zilchschmeer? I can’t believe it! You’re lookin’ great, Harry!") or simply moving (as when we photographed our month-old son in the lap of his frail 90 year-old great-grandmother who had taken her very first plane ride to see him). But whatever the mood, these human encounters provide plenty of drama to power your show.

  • Interviews with reunion participants are equally powerful, because they communicate people’s feelings about what they remember and how they feel now. If artifacts evoke times and places and encounters deliver drama, interviews provide the human context the makes sense of everything else.

Never forget that all the very best videos are about people.

Of course, artifacts must be located, dusted off, and interpreted. Encounters must be planned, if only to avoid duds ("Yeah, right, well, goodaseeya." I don’t remember that guy at all.) Interviews must be set up with the right questions for the right subjects. All of this takes planning.

Planning, Planning, Planning

As a matter of fact, reunion videos are second only to technical training programs in the amount of research and preparation required. Why not just show up and shoot? Because all you’ll get will be inane remarks and people grinning at the camera from banquet tables. Stuff like this gets very old, very fast. So let’s start with some planning tips for reunions, starting with the school type.

To hold viewer interest, you need to play up the basic concepts of nostalgia, curiosity, and reconnection — and your two prime research sources are the reunion organizers and the school yearbook.

The folks who care enough to work on the reunion are likely to be the people with the best memories of the era being celebrated and the strongest emotional connection with them. The yearbook is both a great source of nostalgic images and a wonderful tool for sparking the imaginations of the organizers as they help you plan your show.

If you can, enlist a member of the reunion committee to be your on-camera interviewer and reunion spokesperson. After all, they know more about the people and events than you do (unless you’re taping your own reunion) and can ask better questions of interviewees. Go through the yearbook with this expert. The process is sure to prompt all kinds of memories and ideas for shooting.

Then make a list of attendees to interview, and develop at least two or three personalized questions for each. That is, in addition to standard queries like, "How does it feel to back at Fillmore?" and "Who are you most interested in seeing again today?" ask the jock, "Are you still active in sports?" Ask the nerdy class genius what profession he now pursues. The answer could be as surprising as, "I own a flower shop," or "I’m a private detective."

Next, make a list of "first encounters" you want to record for posterity: the romantic couples who went separate ways, the best buddies who haven’t seen each other in years — the kinds of meetings that’re likely to make interesting video. (We’ll discuss how to stage these encounters a bit further on.)

Comb the class’s yearbook for characterizations of people who will be attending the reunion. During shooting, you can interview the Most Likely to Succeed, the Greatest Lover, the best Salesman to compare yearbook predictions with actual histories.

Of course, the yearbook’s most valuable images are the senior portraits. By copying these pictures and then juxtaposing them with live action video of their subjects, you can make visual then-and-now comparisons. At this preproduction phase, of course, you can’t know exactly which pictures to copy, so arrange to keep the yearbook until you finish postproduction on the program.

Class reunions are steeped in the era celebrated, and you should try to get this into your video. The class of 1970 watched certain tv shows and listened to certain music pieces that now are powerfully nostalgic.

The problem is that you can’t legally use them without permission that would be far too expensive to obtain. (A sound montage of a dozen hit songs of 1970 could easily cost into the thousands.) And don’t kid yourself that your little production’s too local to catch the attention of the copyright cops. Producers of similarly modest programs have been busted for failure to get permissions, to their pained and expensive surprise.

If you plan to sell your program to reunion attendees, you might find a way around this problem: choose just one song that’s powerfully emblematic of the year, and then buy the rights to use it (for tips on how to do this, see Copyright Counts by Doug Polk in the October, 1994 Videomaker). By making this the theme song of your show, you’ll deliver the sound of the era at a price you can live with.

And there’s no restriction on listing the titles of songs; so you might use a title roll of the names of top hits while playing just the one you licensed. You can also make lists of popular films and tv programs to remind viewers of the feelings of that time.

Family Planning

Research and planning for family reunion videos is similar in some respects, especially regarding first encounters and interviews. But in one crucial way, the process is quite different. Instead of focusing on just a few years, you may have generations to cover.

With this in mind, you may want to combine preproduction research with actual production, by creating footage for a clan history to be woven into coverage of the reunion itself.

Many families have informal historians — usually older folks who remember who people were and what happened to them, and who like to retail family gossip and lore. It can be helpful to interview these people on-camera, before the actual reunion.

This process is especially productive if you have extensive family photo albums (I keep my grandmother’s, with some pictures dating to the Civil War). To use them, place the historian and an interviewer side-by-side on a couch with an album across their knees and shoot an establishing shot of the interviewer asking questions about the pictures.

Then, move the camcorder behind the couch (pushing the couch out to make room, if necessary) and make a very high angle setup, shooting down on the photo album. Videotape the rest of the session from this setup as the interviewer asks questions about the time, place, and people in each photo and the family historian reminisces. (For better audio quality, use an off-camera microphone to record the participants from the front.)

You won’t use much of the video from this shot, but it will give you a record of exactly what the historian was talking about. Later, you can put the album on a copy stand and shoot high-quality closeups of the photos, for insertion into the edited (condensed) audio narrative. The result can be a priceless record that you can use as a prelude to your reunion coverage.

Here’s another visual tip if you have access to a computer-based genealogy program for your clan. Some of these specialized databases have zoom features that let you select different levels of family detail. By videotaping as you zoom around the family tree, you can show visual relationships among the many individual family units.

Since I can convert my computer VGA output to NTSC video, I could send the genealogy screens directly to my recording VCR. You can also get respectable quality by shooting the computer screen, especially if you turn off other lights and fill the video frame with the monitor display.

It helps make sense of all the names if you or someone else provides an audio commentary at the same time. For a nice, informal feeling, try doing it ad lib, as you work with mouse and keyboard.

We could multiply examples of preproduction research and planning, but you get the idea: in prepping a class or family video, you discover whom to tape and what to ask them — and you may actually produce some pre-canned sequences for your program.

Which is all to the good, because once the reunion starts, you’re going to be one busy videomaker.

The Big Production
You and your partner both, because you still need that reunion committee member or family reunion organizer to sort out all the players.

Remember: when you shoot a wedding, it takes very little work to identify all the principals. But at reunions there are no fixed roles like bride or groom; so you need a knowledgeable person to point you at the right subjects.

Hint: since the organizers want time to participate in reunion events themselves, try to organize two or three expert assistants to work with you in shifts. But whatever you do, don’t just wander around by yourself, taping whatever turns up.

You don’t need much coaching to shoot the major reunion events, whether picnics or banquets, speeches or dancing. Just use the good video and audio techniques we talk about so often here in Videomaker and trust your own good sense and talent.

But don’t forget that two major components of your program will be encounters and interviews. To do justice to these, you need to practice some tricks of the trade.

Take encounters, for instance. In actuality, you can’t expect everyone to remain strictly isolated until you show up to tape them meeting people. That means that before you can record their encounter, George and Bill will have met already and discovered that George has grown fat and Bill has grown bald, or whatever.

Should you ask them to fake a surprise meeting? It probably couldn’t hurt. If their act is convincing, then use it. If not, have your on-camera reporter say, "we’re talking to George and Bill, who…," get a double interview instead, and discard the phony first meeting.

In a few cases, though, it might be worth the effort to actually capture the first encounters of certain people. The honest emotion produced will add tremendous human warmth to your program. Here are some tips for staging a successful first encounters between, say, Joyce and Sheila:

  • If possible, don’t tell Joyce that Sheila’s coming, and vice versa.

  • Invite each one to a certain place at a certain time, well before they might meet by chance at the actual reunion. That will ensure that you are there to record their first meeting.

  • Follow up the actual meeting with a double interview, because not every viewer will know who Joyce and Sheila are and why they’re so affected by their surprise encounter.

And if someone made a mistake and it turns out that the two despise each other now (or just don’t care) the beauty of video is that you can edit anything out.

When interviewing Joyce and Sheila — and all the other attendees who’ll show up in your program, be sure to use good interview techniques:

  • Ask open-ended questions. "What’s the most fun about this reunion so far?" is much better than, "Are you having fun?"

  • Ask follow-up questions to amplify answers. If the subject’s most fun was seeing Aunt Hildegarde after all these years, ask what Hildegarde means to the interviewee.

  • Get lots and lots of cutaways, especially of the interviewer listening, in order to condense answers without making jump cuts.

Speaking of the interviewer, before talking to reunion attendees, you should probably coach your on-camera expert in these techniques. The easiest method is to have her or him interview you, while you gently point out good questioning techniques.

And here’s a final production tip, while we’re at it: for every single face that you shoot, get some kind of voice slate that includes the person’s name. Often a simple, "Hi, what’s your name?" will take care of it. Remember: you don’t yet know how you’ll utilize each shot in post production, so you may need to match a person to their yearbook photo or do something else that requires a name. At the very least, you may want to superimpose name titles over the people whose faces you show.

Post Production Time
We needn’t linger long over the post production phase, since you handle it much as you would the editing of a wedding shoot.

The most creative part will be designing the mixture of current and archival material. With a family reunion, you can often open the program with the exploration of the scrapbooks or the family tree. But with a school reunion video, you may want to interweave yearbook stills and other memorabilia with reunion events, encounters, and interviews.

In editing a family reunion, you may have more freedom to use copyrighted music — if, of course, you don’t intend to sell copies for profit or hold public screenings. You can also include other period visuals such as newspaper headlines and vintage photos, drawings, and advertising. But be aware that if you do include copyrighted audio or video materials, you can’t change your mind later about selling or publicly showing your program.

So there you have some tips for creating professional-caliber reunion videos — programs that will hold viewers’ attention and engage their emotions.

And as the years go by, your reunion programs may be replayed more often, by more people, with more pleasure, than any other type of show you could produce.

Forever Is a Long, Long Time: What You Can Do to Preserve Your Program

Many reunion videos will contain footage that is literally priceless — sounds and images of people who may never meet again; footage of old folks who may not be around to be taped another time. Naturally, you want this irreplaceable material to last as long as possible.

What’s a reasonable expectation? It all depends on the medium. Some black and white photos are 150 years old and going strong. Lab tests of Kodachrome color transparency film indicate a life of at least a century, and some color slides and home movies made in the ’30s are indeed still quite good.

But video — especially small format consumer video? To be brutal about it, the prognosis is pretty bleak.

To find out more about preserving video programs, I talked with Hope Schenk, V.P. for Sales and Marketing at California Communications, Inc. a respected Hollywood post production company that’s usually called "CCI."

I knew that tape is not a permanent medium, but could a videomaker hope for maybe 20 years of life for a program?

"Hah!" Hope Schenk said, politely, "try ten years or less."

The sad fact is that the precious sounds and images you capture are temporary indeed. They probably will hang on in some form for more than just ten years (Ms. Schenk is applying the rigorous quality standards used by CCI) but the video quality especially will get worse and worse, until the tapes are unwatchable.

The answer, of course, is digital video. Like all magnetic media, digital tapes do lose quality over time; but as long as the signal can be decoded, the results will look and sound as good as they did on the day they were laid down. And when the digital master approaches the end of its useful life, a duplicate master can be made without the slightest loss of quality.

Industry soothsayers prophesy consumer digital video in perhaps five years. Until then, digital is strictly for the professional high rollers.

Isn’t it?

Not so, says Ms. Schenk. You can take your edited master to CCI — or any one of scores of video post production houses all over the country — and get an archival digital copy at a price that’s feasible for ordinary mortals.

She recommends that you bring in a Hi-8 or S-VHS master, because 8mm and VHS tapes already show too much quality loss. Of the several digital formats available, the D2 standard is still popular (though it’s now giving way to Digital Beta). Ms. Schenk recommends the newer format, pointing out that the tape stock and transfer costs are the same for both D2 and Beta.

And what are those costs? Currently at CCI, a 76-minute pre-blacked tape costs $229. (Blacking the tape lays down time code and otherwise prepares it for optimal recording.) Transfer time is $150 per hour, billed in 15-minute blocks. That means you could get a digital master of a 30-50 minute program for around four hundred dollars.

For an extra $25 per hour, you can supervise the transfer as it’s made, and ask for minor corrections in tape luminance and chroma. Ms. Schenk cautions, however, that even the most elaborate corrections can effect only moderate improvements.

Knowing that CCI deals mainly with sophisticated professional production companies, I asked Ms. Schenk to tell me candidly how they would react to a prosumer or entry level professional videomaker who just walked in with a tape under his or her arm.

"We’d welcome them," she said. "After all, the video world is widening so quickly that quality video’s coming from all sorts of places."

Okay, so you’re welcome to come in and get a digital master of your reunion video. What can you do with it when you get it?

Nothing, immediately. After all, it’s an archived copy. But at any time in the next ten years — or 20 or 30 or more — you can return to it for a copy of your show as clear and bright as it was on the day you made it.

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

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