How to record your parents life story

Record your parent's life story before it is too late

Whenever we lose a loved one, one of the first things we say is that I wish I had captured my parent’s or grandparent’s stories before they died.  Their legacy, those incredible stories and family history to pass onto our children and grandchildren.

We know death is inevitable, but it still comes as a surprise and catches us off-guard.  If only we had recorded our loved ones while we had the chance.  

I would have loved to have their presence at my daughter’s wedding, my son’s bar mitzvah, my grand baby’s birthday celebration.  I miss…

  • their voice
  • their laugh
  • their jokes
  • their expressions
  • their reactions.

Capturing your family genealogy through services like Ancestry is important too.  But a list of names on a screen isn’t quite the same as hearing the stories from the people who were actually a part of them live on video.

We thought we had captured the memories until I saw a friend’s life video of her father. I wish I had done that!

Not only is video the most compelling medium, a life story video is much faster to produce than writing a life story.  I create Life Films for my clients within a few weeks.  See sample 2 minute video trailer below.

DIY life story video tips

The fastest way to complete your life story is to pay a professional. And there are very affordable options.  But if you prefer to do a cheap DIY job, then this blog outlines the key steps and tips on how to record your parents’ life story yourself.

Your subject needs someone they’re comfortable with to talk to on the video and that person is you. Let the professionals do the work while you reminisce, fill in the gaps in stories and discover parts of your parent you didn’t know about. Having someone else be behind the camera, allows you to focus on the special time that storytelling is.

You can decide what works best for you.

Alternatively, you can record the interviews and send me your footage and family photos.  Then I can craft for you a professional entertaining cinematic style video, which you and your family will cherish for generations to come.

But this is one of those tasks you don’t want to put off for too long.  Isn’t today a great day to start making it happen? 

Steps to film your parents' life story

If you engage a professional video editing company, they will guide you through the steps in the process and work with you to create your life story video.  But if you decide to do it yourself, these are the things you need to consider: 

Step 1:  Choose your gear – video camera, sound and lighting

Step 2:  Start gathering photos, memorabilia and old home & holiday movies

Step 3:  Plan your life video set , shoots and questions

Step 4:  Interview selected family members

Step 5:  Upload and organise footage, photos and interviews to your computer

Step 6:  Create and edit your life film

Step 7:  Show and share the final film to family.

NOTE: All prices are in Australian dollars ($).

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Cindy-Siano-Family-Video-Producer

Cindy Siano, Family Video Producer

Introducing...

Hi, I’m Cindy – Life and Times video producer.

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My blog will cover legacy stories about life, family history, or things that fascinate or amuse us.  It will also include tips to help people write, research and capture life stories, family history and any other related topics.

Yarn of the year

Here’s something special…

Anyone is welcome to submit their stories on my blog for consideration.  And I will select the best ones and award a “Memoir of the Month” and get readers to choose the “Stories of the Season”. 

So just keep it:

1. Max 500 words

2. Entertaining (fun, poignant or interesting)

3. Relevant (a story about you or someone in your family)

4. Memorable.

Submit your stories below via the on-line form, or email me at cindy@lifeandtimesvideo.com.au if you wish to include any photos or video content.     

So here’s where you start (lucky you’re here!)

Step 1 - Choose your gear – video camera, sound and lighting
Video camera

VIDEO CAMERA
If you don’t have a video camera and don’t have a lot of money to spend, these days any smart phone shoots beautiful footage.

It’s really important to keep shots steady and the picture framed consistently, so make sure that you use a tripod.

If you don’t have a tripod, you can buy a small one to suit a smart phone.  Table-top mobile phone tripods can start at $20.  So this is a good investment as a tripod will come in handy for any future videos or photo’s you take – particularly those on a self-timer. 

AUDIO
AUDIO is actually the most important thing you need to record your parents or grandparents life story – to make sure the quality of the sound is the best possible.  After all, you are capturing the stories and voices of your family. People underestimate how difficult it is to get good sound and bad sound is frustrating for the viewer/listener. Don’t skimp too much on the microphone and practice with it. Get to understand sound levels. More on this later..

After you complete the interviews, if there is a problem with the audio it’s hard to improve on.  But with the vision, you can improve this with family photos, home videos, memorabilia and historic images. This added material really makes your story compelling.

The Zoom H1 Handy Recorder is one low cost audio recording option, which can be used as an external microphone closer to the speaker.  These cost around $100.  But if you do record your audio separate from the video, you’ll need to sync them up later during editing.  

To reduce the risk of any problems with sound, I recommend that you film indoors.  If you choose outdoors you’ll have to compete with environmental noise, the light changing and weather, so I strongly recommend filming indoors.  I have first-hand experience here having worked in the advertising industry for many years. Some film shoots could take days until conditions were right!

LIGHTING
Whether you are filming outdoors or indoors, lighting can be a challenge and filming indoors without the right equipment makes it harder to get the lighting right.

Fortunately, natural light can create a beautiful look and is definitely the most cost effective.  But you’ll have to set up your film set in a certain way.

 See diagram – Indoor film set layout using natural lighting

And it will mean limiting when and how long you film for.

Depending on where you live, the time of year and location you choose, film while the sun is high. If it starts getting dark, do not switch on overhead room lights.  The chances are that the light will not be right and it will be inconsistent with your other filming. Outside light is cool (blue hues) and inside is warm (yellow hues).

If you use a smartphone, they generally don’t have sensors that perform well in low light, so you’re going to need a lot of light. You can purchase professional artificial lights to give you more control when you record your parents’ life story.  But prices start from around $300 minimum for a decent amount of power.

Click here for a full range of documentary gear

Step 2 - Start gathering photos, memorabilia and old home movies
Family video editing service

Some people gather photos, memorabilia and home movies after they interview family members.  But I prefer to do this beforehand for these reasons:

  1. It helps you to research your stories, plan who to interview and identify relevant topics to ask questions about
  2. It gets the whole family excited and involved early in the project
  3. Items you collect can be filmed on the day and shown to family members, capturing their reactions and emotions.  For example, photo’s, heirloom jewelry, a stack of love letters, a wedding dress, artifacts from wars etc.
  4. This footage can be overlaid on top of what they’re describing during editing with impact.  
  5. It will save you time during editing.

After the interviews, you can always still look for and add any other items that were discussed.

Step 3 - Plan your life film shoots and questions
Legacy video planning and costs

It’s always good to plan your filming before you start to ensure everything goes smoothly.  Before you start, decide on these things:

  1. What gear you’re going to use on the day (refer to step 1)
  2. Who you will interview?
  3. Where will you film? (location, room and position in the room (refer to step 1 – Lighting)
  4. What questions will you ask? (see guide below)
  5. What can you do to make the people interviewed look good and feel relaxed behind the camera
  6. How long will you film for?

How you interview is really important.  Think about TV journalists when they are interviewing celebrities. The best ones tease out incredible stories through the right questions and questioning techniques.

They use open questions, which encourage the interviewee to offer all sorts of stories, rather than just saying “yes” or “no”.  For example, if you asked your parents “Do you remember the first house you lived in together, then they are probably going to give me a one word response. But if you say “Tell me about the first house you lived in together”, they are more likely to open up and reminisce about their memories.

By opting for more open-ended questions you’re guaranteed to get more details about your parents’ past which is really the entire point of recording their life story.  So use questions that start with “what”, “how”, and “why”, rather than “when” and “where”. When in doubt, ask your parents to “tell me more” about whatever topic you’re discussing.

You are invited to use my interview question template as a guide.  But make changes to suit the characters, relationships, lives and interests of those involved in your story.  After all, all stories are unique.

See interview questions template

Step 4 - Interview selected family members
Ways to preserve your stories

Select the family members you would like to interview, then check with them to see if they are keen to do it.  If they don’t feel comfortable in front of a camera, see if they are happy to record their voice or contribute photos and stories to you separately.

Because our elders are here and gone before you know it, or lose their memories, don’t procrastinate.  To make sure you don’t miss out on this wonderful opportunity, record their stories as soon as you can – even if you’re not quite ready to edit the documentary. 

If both of your parents are still alive, will you interview them individually, or together? Will you interview them or one of your siblings? Get siblings or children talking about them. It’s important to plan this beforehand to ensure filming goes smoothly.

Then on the day, do whatever you can to make them feel comfortable so that their true personalities come out.  Don’t film each person for more than an hour at a time.

So choose a location and time where they will be most relaxed. Have on hand old memorabilia and photos to help trigger their memories. Or ask them to describe what they are seeing and remembering. 

Then before you start filming, set up an interview location and test the light and audio. Also, keep the camera rolling during breaks as often family members will remember classic stories or open up more if they think that they are no longer being filmed.

Step 5 - Upload and organise footage, photos and interviews to your computer
How to organise photos

Watch the shoots as soon as possible.  I like to check the quality of the interviews – the sound and vision – just in case you need to film anything again. 

Once you are confident that filming went well, upload and the organise footage, photos and interviews to your computer.

Video files, audio files and images are very large. So depending on how much footage you have, your existing computer may not be able to handle all that data. And you need to have all that information in one folder to edit the clips together.

To avoid this problem, use a portable hard drive, which start from $70.  Once again, this purchase will come in handy for your home videos, photos and other personal documents.

I also like to rename all files so that they are easy to find and include the year / date the photos were taken so that the information can easily be found for the right stories. 

Then when you have time, play the videos through from start to finish – while the stories are fresh in your mind.  Tag the highlights online so they are easy to find during editing.  Also, take notes against the timeline for the best parts.  

This way you can easily find the cuts you want during editing.  Plus, it will save you money if you decide go to a professional editing company as they will be able to complete your life story video faster.

STEP 6 - Create and edit your life film​
Video editing

Before you start editing, consider these factors:

  1. When you want the video completed (for a gift, anniversary, funeral service)
  2. How much time you have to do it yourself 
  3. Do you have the right computer and video editing software to ensure the end product is professional. 

Click here for video editing software options

If you decide the job is too big for you, or you want a professional end product, then simply pass your files onto a professional video editor.

Life film structure

But if you want to do the editing yourself, here are some proven structures commonly used for life story videos.  There is no right or wrong way to edit your documentary. Pick the one that works best for you.

  1. Play one interview right after the next, overlaying images to match what each person is saying.
  2. Organise the story by time or chapters.  For example, early childhood, school years, first jobs, starting a family etc.
  3. Categorize the interviews into subject matters and weave together the interviews based on stories or periods of time. 

There is a whole art to the storytelling process, so look at existing life story films to get ideas and then make it your own. Be creative.

Weave the interviews, images and home video clips into your life film and include background music.  If you intend to show your video in public, you’ll need to purchase licensed music.  This can be really expensive, so as an alternative you can access free music clips through sites such as www.bensounds.com  if you follow their conditions.

Click here for video editing tips 

Click here for tips on where to find free music clips.

Step 7 - Show and share the final film to family
Family watching a video

Share extracts of the legacy video with family members – their own personal interviews.  This will enable them to provide feedback on any factual errors, gaps in the story, or images or material that they do not want included.

Every family has its issues, so do the best you can to ensure everyone is comfortable with the final product.

Then after you make any adjustments, show the legacy video at your next family reunion or holiday gathering. Imagine the laughter and tears when family members watch their personal history play out before their eyes. 

You can either upload the video to YouTube or Vimeo, transfer to USB, or hook up your computer to a projection screen.

Capture any feedback from family members on this initial showing, then make final adjustments and send everyone a link or copy of the video file on a USB.

Nowadays, you can watch your favourite videos quickly anytime and anywhere from a variety of devices – including your TV, iPhone, iPad and more.

Best of luck recording your parents' life story

Life story videos are a great treasure to enjoy now and for future generations.  I always get a lot of joy and feel privileged to share my client’s stories.  I’m sure you and your family will feel the same way when they watch your own.

Watch a trailer of my latest life video

To view a two-minute trailer of my latest life film, go to my homepage

Click here for a 10-minute version, or contact me to view one of my full length life videos.

Client testimonial

“Cindy was able to provide and capture on video a moment in time for our family.  And that was just priceless.  It was a significant time for us while all the family were still living together – a time we are never going to get back.  And now, we have this family video that we will look back on forever.  That’s a very beautiful gift.”  Geniene

Background Music: Acoustic Breeze from Bensound.com

But don't just take it from me. Here's more for you to read...

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