Video biographies: the ugly truth

video biographies

The ugly truth about video biographies – recording a biography

How things go wrong with video biography interviews

There is an ugly truth about video biographies that few people tell you—they rarely actually get done.

People start off with good intentions to interview Mum or Dad and record the interview for posterity, but a number of factors often seem to get in the way.

Firstly, the technology fails:

  • The smartphone you are using to record them fills up quickly and leaves you no room to capture more than, say, 10-20 minutes of the interview, just as they are saying something important;
  • The audio recording quality is bad, leaving it hard to discern just what Mum or Dad are saying when they mumble;
  • The light streaming in from the window behind them turns Mum or Dad into a silhouette and you can’t see their face;
  • The chair they’re sitting on squeaks and groans;
  • The camera you are using keeps losing its focus, which leaves your Mum or Dad waving in and out of focus while the camera hunts for them; and
  • The tripod you are using for the camera isn’t level, making Mum or Dad look like they were leaning in the final video.

Secondly, Mum or Dad haven’t prepared themselves for the interview, perhaps not taking it as seriously as you would like, and the interview is interrupted by constant calls on their phone. Or their lack of preparation shows in their inability to know what they want to say, and a desire to ‘get it over and done with’. This can be often fixed by Mum or Dad having a financial investment in the interview—it’s amazing what having a few dollars invested in a project can do for ‘focus’.

Thirdly, the feeling that Mum or Dad will always be around and therefore an interview can be done ‘at a better time’. Sadly, often the family realises its mistake too late—Mum or Dad is in a hospital or a nursing home and their memory, as well as their speech, have seen better, more lucid, days.

The time is very often ‘now’ when parents should be interviewed for their life stories and values. They should ideally be interviewed while they are still young and fit, and able to focus for the hour or two that recording a video biography can take when professionally done.

Here’s a video of Barbara, a delightful great-grandmother, captured while she’s still lucid and energetic.

10 steps: How to put the odds in your favour that a video biography interview will turn out well

It’s not hard to record a video biography interview that goes well, just make sure you pay attention to the following:

  1. Don’t use a smartphone unless you really have no choice. If a smartphone is all you have, plan to record in small stages and download your videos after each recording;
  2. Use dedicated microphones to ensure that the sound quality is the best you can have. If you are using your smartphone, try buying one of these smartphone microphones; if you’re using your DSLR to record your interview, look at purchasing one of these DSLR microphones;
  3. Don’t have a window or lamp directly behind Mum or Dad. If you’re using window light, and that’s the best kind of light you can have, position Mum or Dad off to the side so that the light hits them from the side. Balance the light by bouncing some light back into their faces from the other side to the window. Use a white sheet or a purpose-built reflector that photographers use (you can prop it up by placing it on a chair; see this article on how to use a reflector);
  4. Make sure that the furniture you use doesn’t squeak, groan, rock or swivel side to side;
  5. Turn your camera off auto-focus, then manually focus your camera on Mum or Dad. As long as they don’t move and you don’t move the focus ring, they will stay in focus.
  6. Prepare Mum or Dad for the interview—let them know and confirm that they see the value in what you are trying to achieve (a recording for future generations to cherish);
  7. Make sure they turn their phones off;
  8. Prepare them for the interview by having a pre-recording session asking them what they would like future generations to know, and what lessons they would like to pass on;
  9. Recognise that ‘now’ is the best time to record Mum or Dad, while they still have the energy to focus. It could be too late if they are in a hospital, or in a nursing home. If they are in a nursing home, be prepared to record them in stages, so that they don’t become exhausted;
  10. Be relaxed. In our experience interviews don’t go well if the interviewer is all flustered and nervous. Make sure you are prepared with some questions to ask, and that you have rehearsed the technical aspects of recording (the lighting, camera and sound) so that nothing trips you up.

Recording your parents doesn’t have to be a nightmare, and getting the whole thing done and looking good can be easy if you take your time and prepare yourself and your parents adequately.

Or you could take most of the stress away and ask a professional videographer to handle the job. If you are in South Australia, why not call us on (08) 8120 0300 and ask about our services. We have a range of services you can consider.

Our final videos are from Tracy and Jenny, who both talk about the importance of recording our parents while we can.

Go on, make a great video biography of your parents.

Useful reading: for genealogists and family historians

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