Routes to Roots: Easy Video Family Histories

They stare at me glumly from under the brims of their straw skimmers, as if to say, "We trusted Cousin Willie’s Kodak to keep our memory green, but you don’t even know our names;" and as I page through Grandma’s withered photo book, I must admit my ancestors are right.

Which is frustrating because I blew my only chance to find out who they were. Some years ago I sat with my mother as she turned through this ancient album while delivering funny and libelous comments (like the one about "Auntie Sparkle," who won her nickname because she killed a jug a day of hundred-proof "nerve tonic" from a teetotal teaspoon instead of a shot glass).

I’d struggled to write notes as Mom put names to those monochrome faces, but I can’t find them anymore, and now she too stands silently with Auntie Sparkle and Cousin Willie in that great snapshot album up above.

If I had known, I would’ve grabbed a camcorder and preserved my mother’s priceless guided tour. To help you avoid my mistake, here’s a lightning-fast survey of video family histories, plus a closer look at just one of the many possible projects of this type.

People, Places and Things

For most of us, our strongest links to the past are people linked through family genealogy. And that’s where the camcorder and the home computer make a perfect couple. A genealogy program/database is the first truly practical way to cope with family generations that branch like maple trees. Many newer computers will output NTSC video directly through a simple S- or composite video jack. If your model lacks this feature, you can buy a VGA/NTSC signal converter for as little as $100.

Though family history is still often synonymous with people, past places can be equally resounding. The old home or farm, the family’s shop, public school 92, the cabin on Lake Wannabee–these live in our memories and we want to know if they are still there and if they have changed.

As a visual medium, video is ideal for capturing places in our past, and doing so is easy if you still live nearby. For example, go knock on the door of your childhood home and explain that you’d like to capture it on video. To improve your chances of success at this:

  • Bring old photos of yourself at that home to verify that you’re a nostalgia tripper rather than a burglar casing the joint.
  • Suggest an appointment for a later time at the current occupants’ convenience.
  • If the residents are reluctant to let you in, ask if you can videotape just the outside. People seldom object to that.

Once you’ve obtained permission to shoot, use those old photos to set your camera shots for near-identical angles. Later, you can tape the photos and edit them together with the live shots, for comparison.

What if you don’t live locally? Consider an expedition. During this coming year my wife and I will make a pilgrimage to Connorsville, IN, Webster Groves, MO, Pittsburgh, PA, and Potsdam, NY among other places, to revisit and record the geography of our two lives.

In addition to people and places, let’s look at things as well, artifacts that connect us to our pasts. They may be truly old, like my wife’s yellow newspaper that announces the death of George Washington or they may be as recent as that collection of pop albums from the seventies that you’ve never had the heart to purge from your garage.

With things or places, don’t overlook the audio possibilities as well. You can build a powerful sound track from those Oldies and the sounds associated with locations can be richly remindful. Historic noises may be as sweet as the lark in the morning above the old farmhouse, or as jangling as the low-flying jet above the old tract house under the airport flight path. Both sounds summon memories, and that’s what you’re after.

But even if you can’t set forth in search of your roots, you can hunt them down at home, usually in those photo albums or shoe boxes.

That Old Family Album

Ingredients for a successful album video include a knowledgeable family member to identify and comment on the people in the pictures, a second family member to interview the first one, and a taping strategy that will let you combine live interview footage seamlessly with close-ups of the pictures under discussion.

Begin with a good location for taping:

  • Place a couch in soft light and quiet surroundings with
  • Position your tour guide and interviewer side by side with the album between them, preferably on a low coffee table in front.
  • If possible, use a microphone that can be plugged into the camcorder. This can be a stand mike placed on the coffee table or a lapel type pinned to the tour guide’s shirt. Simple external mikes (mikes that are not attached to the camera) can be purchased from sources like Radio Shack for just a few dollars.
  • To minimize camera shyness, place your camcorder as far away from the couch as possible for the opening and closing shots. "Opening and closing?" Yes, because you will use front angles only to establish the situation, to wrap up at the end of the show, and to provide cutaway material (close-ups of the tour guide looking at the album).

Except during these moments, place the camcorder on its tripod behind the couch and between the two participants, framing a bird’s eye (very high) close-up of the pages of the album. If necessary, move the couch and table away from walls or other obstructions to open space for your camera. On screen, the move will be undetectable.

Now here’s the critical concept: though you may use some of the shots from this angle, the picture is mainly to identify pictures and the people in them as the tour guide talks about them. Your real interest is the sound (that’s why the camcorder’s built-in mike is not up to the task here: it’s behind the subject).

Coach your interviewer beforehand to ask for the essential facts, especially where and when the picture was taken, who was each person in it, and what is their family relationship. Encourage open-ended questions to bring out more information. Interrupt the process if you need to, to request amplification or a repeat to replace a verbal stumble. Remember that you’ll edit the resulting audio.


Tabletop and Post Production

With the live interview finished you’re ready to provide the photo close-ups that’ll really sell your program. But first you have to edit:

  • Start the interview with a two-shot taken from the front, to establish the situation.
  • Edit the over-the-shoulder album close-up to clean up the audio track, cutting the goofs, repetitions, and dull stuff, not to mention your audible directions from behind the camera.
  • Come back to the two-shot occasionally, or to a front close-up of the tour guide looking at the album. This will prevent boredom imposed by a succession of still photo close-ups.
  • Wrap up the interview with more angles shot from the front. Once the basic program is assembled, you’re ready to shoot the album photos, as follows:
  • Use the edited tape to make a list of every photo discussed.
  • In soft, even light (say, outdoors in open shade) shoot a good fifteen seconds of every photo, in the order discussed, Most camcorders can fill the screen with a postcard-size image, but you don’t care if the corner of another picture is visible, because you’ve established that this is an album during the "live" part of the footage.
  • Using the video insert function (if you have it) replace the original visual devoted to each photo with the screen-filling close-up of it. If you don’t have the video insert function on your camera (which can replace picture without disturbing the already recorded audio), proceed with Plan B instead:
  • Frame your over-the-shoulder album close-ups carefully enough to use in the finished program.
  • Edit each shot to finished length, covering cuts with front angle close-ups and two shots. And that’s really all there is to it.

As you can see there’re many different approaches to family history videos, and whichever one you choose, you’ll benefit from following two suggestions. First, remember to include historic places and things as well as people. Second, video is most effective when supported by audio, so focus on historic sounds as well as sights–sounds that range from Grandma’s narration to the hiss of the steam press in the family dry cleaning business or the creak of the wind-driven water pump filling the barnyard trough.

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