So, You Want to be Your Family’s Video Biographer?
Part 1. How Most People Start.
This post describes my experience with making our family video biography. I started with a bunch of photos and home movies and ended up with something that looks and feels like a professionally done documentary about the history of an ordinary family.
These days more and more people, who would like to preserve their life and family history, turn to visual media instead of (or in addition to) the written word. There are many reasons why people want to document their life history. The desire to tell our story has been with us for as long as people wanted to tell stories, and that has been with us for as long as … you know, a very, very long time.
This particular post is about my journey to create my family video biography. I teach a short class about this subject now. Without failure, most people who attend this class focus on the visuals they and their family accumulated over the years. They worry about scanning photographs, converting the 16 mm film and VHS videos, and above all cataloging and protecting their family treasure. So did I, when I started years ago.
If one is lucky enough to have this family treasure and it is voluminous, the task of keeping it safe and catalogued through the years is truly onerous. As most people, I kept our photos in albums and envelopes. I thought I will get all of the visuals in order, divide my, my wife’s and our children’s lives into a set of reasonable chapters, and then labor-out 4-5 chronological movies.
I have to tell you right away: I love visuals of all kinds – I am fascinated by image and video composition and tempo, their colors and rhythm.
So, I purchased a reasonably good flat-bed scanner and diligently scanned our family photos from the early 1900’s to the present. I then placed them in a simple hierarchical file system, by the year and further, by the month in which they were taken. Going back to our grandparents and their parents’ photos – a lot of the dates were a guessing game.
The video was a little more complex. First of all the variety of formats is scary. We had my wife grandmother’s 16 mm movies that have already been converted to VHS format tapes, our early analog Standard Definition (SD) camcorder tapes, later digital SD tapes and even later digital High Definition (HD) tapes. At that point, I had to decide into what format to convert all this material. Luckily today, the leading editing software applications accept (ingest) a wide range of video formats. In my particular case, I eventually settled on Apple’s video editing software and converted all my video into their format suitable for editing. I always convert all my video clips into the least compressed video format. This way the editing software is able to manipulate the video, while retaining its visual quality. I then placed these video clips in a file structure similar to the photos.
I took me a while to master the software and all its components. There are much simpler, entry level editing software applications available, which, with proper care, will produce solid results. If one, however, would like to have the flexibility to produce a high quality, professionally looking movie, one should take the time to learn the so-called pro-summer/professional software.
I selected the most compelling photos and video clips, and chronologically placed them into the editing timeline. The action photos rather than portraits seems to fit better in the timeline flow. I used text titles to enhance description of events portrayed in different visuals. After many iterations, my rough cut was ready. I played it again and again but … something was not quite right. Actually, many things were not right. I was just going through the process of a person who did not read a single book or listen to a single lecture on film-making. Paraphrasing Mr. Caesar from a long time ago, “things we have never done always seem simple to us.”
I eventually figured out that, to make my movie flow smoothly, instead of most text annotations I needed narration also know as voice-over. So, I went back and recorded the voice over, leaving the text annotations only in a few places. As my timeline got cleaner I could also see that my cuts and transitions between different clips and photos were out of rhythm and sometimes just jarring. That took some effort to flesh out.
And even though I did not know why, my work did not feel like a good documentary one would see on the History Channel about a famous person – it felt like a home movie, not a video biography. Yes, there were interesting episodes from our family history, you could see how things evolved over the years, but I wanted the film to be compelling, something my family and my children would want to see and show to their children. What I had was not it.
It was time to get some professional advice.