Tips for Recording Your Own Family Stories

Edited from an article by Linda Jerkins – For the Journal-Constitution – Saturday, February 7, 2004

Thanks to her nephew and his video camera, Sue Davis has a precious keepsake of her late father: a video interview of him talking about his past.  “It means so much to have it,” said Davis of Dunwoody. “We can hear his voice and see his facial expressions when he talks about growing up [he was the oldest of 10 children], his love for my mother and his career as a doctor.” Davis’ nephew, John Gray of Los Angeles, took care of all the details: coming up with a list of questions, plus interviewing and recording his grandfather in a quiet room as the family gathered for Christmas in New Orleans in 1998.

“If you are considering it, don’t put it off,” said Davis, whose father died nine months after the recording. “You may not have another opportunity.” With today’s technology, it’s easier for families to create a video biography of a family member. When making plans with relatives for a visit, let them know that this time we will be setting aside a special time to share and record our stories.

Small mementos add interest to the DVD and to your family history. Record the inside of a person’s wallet, a junk drawer and the refrigerator,” “They’re often full of stories.” Determine the focus of the video. Do you want to go chronologically through a person’s life, focus on a specific event or hit the milestones, such as career, marriage and children? No matter what the focus is, make sure the story has a beginning, middle and end.

Sort photos and other items in logical groupings, such as siblings. Organize and keep in a three-ringed, sleeved notebook. It will be easier to DVD the story chronologically if you have all the visual elements assembled and grouped ahead of time.

Make a list of questions and give the subject a chronological list of questions ahead of time to help the person prepare for the interview. This often jogs the subject’s memory about events or people the person has forgotten.

KEEP THE STORY MOVING

Identify and discuss with the person what stories are most interesting and worth preserving.

“Benchmarks [birth dates, marriage] in people’s lives tend to be things most often recorded,” said Brown, “but it’s often the special moments, not necessarily associated with those benchmark events, that are the stories worth preserving.” Those might include how you proposed to your wife or the unforgettable Halloween night with your kids, said Brown. Plan conversation and recording around the subject’s schedule and the time of day that is best for the person.

Pace the recording so that the relative has time to discuss his or her life at all stages. Let the relative review the recording if desired. As people begin to speak on camera, they become so comfortable they forget that their words are being recorded permanently.

FILMING

Visit the location before you begin the recording to check the lighting and setting.  Choose a well-lit room and position the person in a comfortable chair. Keep the background simple (avoid busy wallpaper), but include a few props to make the shot more interesting.  Put the subject at ease (before the recording begins) by reviewing some of the topics you want to cover. Assemble meaningful objects and photos to help get the conversation going.

Check lighting, sounds or distracting objects in the camera’s view. Don’t wait until the end to see that the subject’s face was in the shadows or the dog next door was barking incessantly. Limit the interview session to two hours or less. Record an introduction. Include the subject’s name, relation to you, your name, the date and the location.

Capture a person’s hobby or special talent. Film the subject playing the piano, fishing or cooking. Film a few seconds of the person playing, but not the entire song. Do not interrupt or share stories about yourself during the interview.

“An oral history interview is not a conversation,” said Sara Ghitis of Oral Histories and Life Stories in Atlanta. Ask open-ended questions that go beyond facts and yes-or-no answers. Take notes to keep track of follow-up questions. Zoom in on old photographs, newspaper clippings, heirlooms and objects that you have collected and organized.

If the person talks about her brother, focus on a photograph of that person.

EDITING, COPYING & STORING

Resist the temptation to go overboard with special effects when you edit the video. They often distract from the story.  Make extra copies of the DVD as gifts and for yourself, in case the DVD is damaged.

Label- Note the subject of DVD, date, location and the narrator on the outside of the DVD or case.

EQUIPMENT

Most new video cameras have sensitive multi- directional microphones that pick up room echoes and noises from refrigerators and dishwashers in other rooms.  It is a good idea to have a directional shotgun microphone for your camera. Or better yet,  use wired or wireless lapel mics.   Turn off things that add noise in the room.