I belong to a closed Facebook group called Dedicated Creatives, and I was invited to do a live tutorial presentation on a subject of my choosing. Given that I've already created this DIY series, it seemed logical to do a live video explaining how to interview your elders.
This is a Facebook Live video, meaning it was broadcasted in real time on Facebook. No editing, just raw video of me in my home office. I responded to real time comments I received while shooting the video, so that's why you hear me calling out people by name.
In this video I explain: the importance and urgency of doing a life story interview; how to ask for the interview; how to prepare; equipment; and how to conduct the interview. In other words, it condenses my entire DIY series (minus video editing and book creation) into a 30 minute video. Some people learn better by watching than reading, and I hope you get value from this video.
In this chapter I will teach you how to convert the video into a physical book. Imagine if your final video product were converted into a physical book, complete with photos, that mirror the video. The photo above demonstrates the book I created for my family. This section is totally optional and the work is hard. If you can power through transcribing a vido recording, the reward is totally worth it.
You may not have considered this when you started the project, I certainly didn't, but you can turn the interview into a book. Some people prefer technology and the video medium, while others prefer holding a physical book in their hands. Totally up to you. While I was editing my grandfather's video, I kept wondering how it would look on paper, photos and all. Part of me started this phase out of curiosity, and part of me did this for my mother, an avid book reader. (My grandfather is her stepfather.)
After the video was completed I donned a pair of headphones and opened the video file and a blank Word document, split the screen, and started transcribing. I won't sugarcoat this. Transcription is hard work. It's tedious and not conducive to any kind of multitasking. You must focus on transcription and nothing else. This means no TV or music in the background, no side conversation or web browsers open. Torture, isn't it? I strongly recommend donning earbuds or headphones during transcription. This cuts out external noise and distraction, and enables you to better hear what is being said. The work itself is not fun, and I recommend you spread it out over several sessions with multiple breaks. The final result is worthwhile, I promise.
Transcription is the act of typing an audio file word for word. You have to possess substantial typing skills such that you can more or less follow along with the audio. There will be starts and stops and rewinds. You may have trouble hearing or understanding precisely what was said. I took some pressure off myself during this process, and sometimes paraphrased what was said in the video. Unlike court reporting during a court hearing or deposition, where every utterance is transcribed verbatim by a certified shorthand reporter, you can relax here. We all include unnecessary words and improper grammar in our speech. We use "ummms" and "uhhhs" and other such non-words. We trail off and forget the question or the point we were trying to make. My objective in creating these videos and books is to preserve the person's life story. I want to honor them and cast them in a positive light. Accordingly, when you hit some rough patches in the speech, you can omit superflouous words, fix grammatical errors and cure mispronounced words.
Here is an example of the format I employ in my books:
Q: What was your first job after graduating from college?
A: I went to work for an insurance company.
Q: What company did you work for?
A: ABC Insurance.
I transcribe in Q&A format. I like to keep it simple and have the book generally mirror the video. Aside from smoothing over speech issues, both mediums generally match each other. I like to use a hard return between each Q&A because it makes the document easier to read.
You are free to type up the book in narrative format, and not use Q&A at all. That would be a much bigger project, requiring certain artistic liberties. Q&A is easier because it tracks the video and does not require you to interpret or rephrase the interview into a narrative.
The next part was the real test for me - inserting the photos. I use the same photos in the book that I use in the video, in the same location. When my grandfather spoke on video about the beach trip with his mother, I faded in with a photo of that beach trip. I inserted the same photo at the same place in the book. Here's how to do it. I use Word 2013. In this version you simply leave the cursor where you want to insert the photo. Go to the Insert tab at the top of the program, then select the Pictures icon. This brings up the browser window, and you need to find the location for the photo you want to use in your hard drive. If you are using a different program or different version of Word and cannot find the appropriate icon, go a Google search like, "how to insert photo in Word [version]".
I actually took some liberties in the book I did not take in the video. My grandfather's interview mentioned an old family home in Duxbury, Massachusetts that is a preserved historical home where tours are given. I did not know how to spell Duxbury (I'm from San Diego, okay?), so I looked it up. During this process I looked to see if I could find a photo of the historical home, and quickly found it on Wikipedia. I right-clicked on the image and saved it, then dropped it into the book. When my grandfather recalled witnessing an A-bomb test in New Mexico before taking off for a training flight during WWII, I found an image showing the general location of the bomb test, and used it in the book to supplement the story. Feel free to take liberties and find public images that complement the story. Have fun with it! You can use them in the video as well.
I also like to create chapter headings that mirror the video. You can see a chapter heading in the photo above. I won't insult your intelligence or waste your time by telling you basic text formatting instructions. You don't have to employ my formatting style, I just want you to make the book appear professional and visually appealing.
Once you've finished the transcription, and poured a celebratory cocktail, I suggest you create a Table of Contents to lay out the chapter headings and pages. This serves an analogous purpose as the menu screen on the DVD. It helps people navigate what they want to see. You can also create a cover page.
If your interview subject has important writings, like an essay, poetry, drawings, or recipes, you can include them in the book as an appendix. You don't have to limit the book to a transcription. I offer this option to my clients.
The next step is to get the book printed and bound. You may not notice them if you do not use them, but print shops are located all over the place. We have used the same printer for many years for my wife's wedding invitation business, so we sent him the book files for printing, and he printed them on quality glossy paper. The pages looked amazing and I instantly knew I created something special. Find a local printer, give them a call, and send the files via email.
I had the printer bind the pages into a paperback book, and this didn't work out over time. The book looked great at first, but as I shared this project, showing the book to prospective clients and sharing it at events I sponsored, the binding quickly wore down and pages started falling out. It was embarrassing. The whole point of this project is to preserve someone's story, so you need to preserve it in a durable medium. I ditched the paperback and had the book redone in a hardcover book. That is the only way I offer the book to my clients today. I ordered the book through my printer. We even designed a custom book jacket and had it printed at Kinko's. (That takes a specialized printer that can be hard to find.)
The end result is a durable hardcover transcribed book, complete with photos, that mirror the life story video.
Now that you're done recording the interview, the next step is to edit and produce the video. I'll do my best to make this chapter less daunting and intimidating, but the reality is is you need to educate yourself on video editing if you are going to do this yourself.
There are so many video editing programs available that I won't make an attempt to summarize or weigh the options. Instead, I'll speak in general terms about the editing process based on the program I use, and I'll share what I have learned.
B. Photo Curation
When I first sat down to edit my grandfather's video (photo above), I realized I had a CD slideshow with dozens of photos from him. My wife had created this slideshow for use at his 90th birthday. I had a ton of photos of his life, and was curious how it would look if I dropped in some photos that complemented his story. For example, he said one of his few memories of his mother was a trip to the beach. I happened to have a photo of that very day on disc. I experimented with fading in with this photo as he spoke, and it immediately improved the quality of the video.
This is completely optional, but if you can supplement the interview with photos of the subject's life, it will immediately improve the depth and emotional resonance. In the alternative, you can include a photo slideshow at the end of your video.
The way I do this on my computer is to create a master folder for each person I'm interviewing, with a subfolder for photos. I drop all the photos there for later use. There are many options to receive and digitize the photos, including: scanning (least optimal for you), email, flash drive, CD-ROM, downloading from Facebook and cloud. I interviewed my dad at his sister's house, where she had a treasure trove of old photo albums. Scanning wasn't feasible, and I wasn't about to peel those old photos out of the albums, so I used my cell phone to snap photos of them. It wasn't perfect, but they's totally useable after some cropping. You're going to have to use some ingenuity and creativity to acquire the photos, but I promise it's worthwhile.
Once I'm inside my video editing software, there is a "bucket" where I drop all files I intend to use with the video. This includes the raw unedited video itself and any photos I care to include. Everything goes in there for later use.
C. Video Editing
1. Software Selection
When I first set out on this journey, long before I even conceived of this concept as a business, I knew nothing about video editing and was very intimidated by the process. My video camera came with some stock software that enabled me to view thumbnails by date, but was completely useless for editing.
There are too many video editing options available for me to make any meaningful effort at instructing you on which program to use or how to compare the software. All I knew was I could not use the raw video I recorded.
Video editing is mandatory. Suppose the phone or doorbell rang, or you have material you want to delete. You need to edit. Suppose you want to create chapters for ease of navigation. You need to edit. Suppose you want to blend in photos or make an opening montage or add music. You need to edit.
I found a couple websites that compared and contrasted dozens of video editing software. I found sites that used grids with columns containing different features and check marks. Don't just pick the first option that arises on your web search. The first options you see are either paying for that space, or they have great SEO. That doesn't mean the software is right for you.
I recommend doing some research, weighing the options and reading actual user reviews. You want something simple and user-friendly. Something with a short learning curve with an intuitive user interface. I was about to settle on one particular program, then the reviews indicated that the software took draconian liberties with your computer and was impossible to uninstall. I was close to installing that software, but the reviews thankfully kept me away. Be a discerning consumer and do some research to find the best fit.
For any software, if you see options for paid v. free, I always recommend the paid software. Nothing is ever truly "free." Even if you don't pay upfront, you'll pay on the back end. Some freeware might lock certain program elements behind a paywall. It might contain adware or malware, and if you downloaded the sortware for free, the developer has zero incentive to help you. You don't have to get too fancy here. I paid about $50 for my program.
Once you select your software, you'll have to spend some time playing around with it and educating yourself on its functions. Expect to fail early and often, be patient and manage your expectations. Unless you have prior editing experience, have no expectations of creating something useable for a little while. The Help feature in my software is terrible, so I discovered that YouTube has plenty of third-party videos of people explaining how my particular program works. In fact, almost every time I have a question about how to do something in the editing process, I find the answer on YouTube.
2. Editing Basics
I can't speak to the nuances of all editing software on the market. I can't create a one-size-fits-all tutorial, and that is beyond the scope of this chapter. I'll discuss the editing and production process in general terms from the framework of the program I use.
My first step is to create a New Project and drop all the files (video and photos) into the "bucket." I then drag the main video file(s) (you will have multiple video files if you started and stopped the recording) into the editing strip. From here you can cut, delete and move portions of the video. When there are significant pauses in the recording, you can cut out the wasted seconds to make the video crisper and easier to watch. Suppose the interviewee disliked a certain answer or a question was poorly received. You can cut it out. I have yet to do a life story interview were I haven't tossed out certain Q&As because they didn't flow well, they interviewee struggled answering, or the question was terrible (it happens to me too). The beauty of the editing process is you can throw out the bathwater but keep the baby.
There should be a panel where you can drag other files to use in the video, such as other video clips, audios or photos. I have the option of using a photo to cover the entire screen or I can modify it to be any size on screen. There is a helpful concept here called "transitions." This is where you transition between scenes or other files, such as a photo or other video clips. My software has dozens of transition elements I can use, such as fading and particle effects. I like to keep it simple and fade in and out with photos. You can even set how long the fade lasts.
You can create chapters. While every interview is different and wanders into different subject matter, with overlap, I generally create chapters such as Family Background, Childhood, Education, Career, Marriage, Family, Inspirations, etc. This is beneficial when you're going to create a DVD. You can then skip between the chapters to find the material you want to watch.
In summary, shop around for the best software at the best price. Look at aggregating websites that have already done the legwork and read user reviews. Then educate yourself on how the software works and watch YouTube instructional videos when you get stumped.
D. Video Production
Once you're happy with the video you created, the next step "producing" the video. This is where you get the video formatted into the desired media. My software gives me several options, including posting on YouTube, burning DVDs or converting the file to mp4 (my favorite).
Burning DVDs is a common method, but I will attempt to dissuade you from DVD. First, you have to create menu screens. It's a total hassle and not fun. You have the video ready to go, and now you have to create menu screens. Burning the DVD itself is also very time consuming. I have a pretty high-end computer, and paid extra for it to have an optical drive that can read CD/DVD. If your computer doesn't have an optical drive that can burn discs, then DVD is not viable for you. DVDs take a long time to burn. It can take up to 30 minutes for one disc, and the files are so large that I have to split up a video into two discs. That means I have video file 1 and video file 2, which need to be separately burned. I've got an upcoming client who requested 10 DVD copies. Assuming the file needs to be split into two discs, I'm going to be burning all day. Another downside is you have to buy a spindle of DVDs, and they cost around $50. Some of the discs can be duds, so you need to test each disc to ensure it works. You also need to create a label (unless you want to write on it with a sharpie) and get a jewel box for storage. That's a lot of work.
I recently sponsored an event and was talking with another vendor about my project. She said she doesn't own a DVD player and would be unable to watch my video. A light bulb lit up, and I realized I could deliver my files on a flash drive. Everyone owns a device with a USB port. Modern TVs even have them now. Just plug and play.
I found multiple vendors online who sell custom branded flash drives, and decided the model below perfectly fits my project. You generally have to order these in bulk (my vendor had a minimum order of 50). I don't know if it's feasible for you to get custom flash drives, but you can go to any office supply store and buy as many generic drives as you need. I recommend using 16 gig size. 8 gig might be too small, but check your video size first.
Here is my pitch for using flash drives, followed up by how to use them. They are compact and portable. They won't scratch like a DVD, so they are more durable. People can use them on all kinds of devices. You can also upload the file from the flash to a computer, so it's backed up and easily accessible. You can't do that with a DVD, assuming your computer even has a DVD drive. Most computers don't even come with optical drives, whereas every computer has multiple USB ports.
A problem I encountered early on is, unless I burned to DVD, my edited videos could only be watched on a device that has my editing software installed. I tried sending my files electronically, but the recipient can't open it because it's an unknown file type on their end. I discovered that by converting my files to mp4 format, then can be opened universally. The conversion process, on my software, takes about 45 seconds. I upload the mp4 file to flash drives, and the user's default video player can run it. I can upload mp4 files anywhere, like YouTube, my website, or Facebook. I can also email them to people using Google Drive (look it up - this enables you to send files too large for email).
Here is what it's all about folks. All that preparation and fussing over equipment builds up for the interview itself. Even if you spent hours preparing with research and outline drafting, the quality of the interview ultimatly boils down to your ability to focus and think on your feet. While I can't really teach you that, I can walk through my interview process and some of the techniques I employ. My experience is based on many years of taking depositions. Custom documentaries are much easier because they don't involve opposing counsel objecting or hostile witnesses.
Everything I discuss here is my personal style developed over time. Everyone will conduct an interview using their own style. However, I'll teach you some tips and techniques that can make you a more effective interviewer. The one thing I'm holding back from this discussion is the actual questions I ask. That's my secretsauce right there, and restaurants don't give out their secret sauce recipe, do they?
My interviews proceed more or less linear/chronologically. The reason is simple. I want the interview subject calm and relaxed. I don't want them feeling off balance or blindsided. I want them to have a sense of what is coming next. This is the exact opposite of how I take a deposition, where I fluster witnesses by coming at them from unexpected angles.
Be Present, be interested, be engaged.
It's very important to maintain eye contact. The interview subject needs to know they are heard and comprehended. If the interviewer seems bored, distracted, or disinterested, the subject will pick up on that and rush through the answers. Be present, be interested, be engaged. Turn the ringer off your phone and leave it in another room. If you feel yourself getting antsy, if your attention span is waning, if you need to visit the restroom, then take a break. Stop the recording, stand up, stretch out, get a drink, ask the subject how he/she is doing, and go back on the record feeling fresh. Depending on the interview length, I typically take about three breaks in a recording session.
B. Subject Matter
I open with basic biographical information, like full name, date of birth, place of birth. It's a logical way to start and it helps the subject ease into the process because he/she is likely nervous. Lob out some softballs at first.
While I preached predictability above, I'm going to be a bit inconsistent here. Next I like to mix it up a little and ask about an interesting quirk about the subject. Everyone has a unique habit or mannerism they are known for. Find something that captures the subject's essence and ask them about it. Make it lighthearted because it will help the subject relax and enjoy the process.
Next I'll go back in time and inquire about the subject's parents: their names, origins, careers, how the parents met, courtship, etc. I'll ask about the subject's relationships with their parents and their personalities. I continue moving back in generations with similar questions until I exhaust the subject's knowledge about their heritage.
Then I come back to the subject as a baby and move forward through his/her life. I inquire into childhood, education, family, friends, early ambitions, jobs/career, relationships and accomplishments. Those are the basic areas I cover, but certain subjects, like family and career, can go 30+ minutes in length.
Those are the basic components of the life story interview, but you can go much deeper than that. Once I've covered the biographical information, which can take a couple hours if I'm thorough, I like to go deeper and get to know the subject on an emotional and spiritual level. I inquire into successes and failures, how they learned and grew from dark times and setbacks, regrets, fears, worldview, inspirations, happiness, meaning, etc. I strive to capture a glimpse of the subject's true self. I inquire into religion/spirituality, but avoid politics.
Different people will let you in to varying depths. This depends on their trust level with you and their willingness to share intimate details. Some people are private and disinclined to discuss their feelings. Most men, especially the baby boomer generation, are uncomfortable getting into emotional stuff. I'm not telling you not to try, but manage your expectations. Some people have experienced trauma and keep certain painful moments bottled up. I recommend treading lightly here and employing tact. Don't push if the subject shuts down or changes the subject. This is their story, and they should be allowed to direct the content that is shared. You may proceed with deeper questions if they show they are open.
Better yet, I recommend discussing boundaries either before you start or during break. I like to ask people at the outset, off the record, if there is any subject matter they want me to avoid or gloss over. Let the person know what kind of subject matter is coming up and read whether they are amenable. There is no point dredging up things the subject doesn't want to discuss. This isn't psychotherapy, where you're trying to "fix" someone. Just let it flow. Take what they give you.
I am conscious of continuity in my interviews because I divide the project in to chapters, both for the video and the book. During the interview I think forward to how the subject matter will flow into chapters later when I'm editing. I therefore like to keep subject matter, such as education and career, separated when feasible.
Of course, we're dealing with someone's life story, where everything overlaps, so my job is to find a balance between letting the interview flow naturally while keeping it on track. The video will be hard to watch if the subject meanders arbitrarily, so you have to maintain some degree of control. Don't be afraid to respectfully redirect with, "Yes, we'll definitely cover that in a little bit." That way the person can relax and be patient, knowing their story will come out.
I walk into the interview with an outline that is substantially chronological. A trick I use is to leave a few lines of blank space on my legal pad between subject matter. Here I scribble notes during the interview that help me keep my place as the subject matter often shifts unexpectedly. For example, if you have Education and Marriage separated in your notes, and the subject met her spouse during college, you are going to have some overlap. You have to make a judgment call between running with the courtship angle, or delaying that until you exhaust Education. Overlaps can occur countless other ways, such as Career and Education, or Career and Marriage. You need to be agile and not overly stuck to your outline. As discussed in the last chapter, the outline is a living document that will evolve during the interview. That is why you need space on the left column and between subject matter. When I change the order of my outline, moving subject matter around, I like to use brackets and arrows, while making notes in the left margin.
How you ask the questions is just as important as the questions you ask. You need to adopt a bedside manner (a medical term) that befits your interview subject. On the one hand, you need to show empathy, let the person know you're on the journey with them and you understand how they feel. On the other hand, you need to retain some degree of objectivity and emotional separation. Channel your inner journalist. Make a connection with the subject and get the facts.
Everyone has endured trauma in some form. Some more than others. If the interviewee decides to share a traumatic or sad event with you, you can demonstrate empathy with your facial muscles, body language and tone. Communicate with or without words that you understand they are sharing something difficult or important. These moments require your undivided attention and focus. This is fertile ground for going off script with follow up questions. However, you need to be disciplined about not getting overly emotional. If the interviewee starts crying, you cannot cry! Give her a moment to compose herself, ask if she can continue, then continue. If you become emotionally compromised it will interfere with your mental faculties and you could miss something important. You also don't want to hear youself crying off camera on the video.
Having said that, laugh along if the interviewee shares a humorous story. Isn't it a weird feeling when you share something funny and the other person stares deadpan at you? Don't do that to your interview subject, even if you've heard that paticular story 100 times.
You have to be a curious person
If you are going to be capable of interviewing someone in any context, you have to be a curious person. This attribute cannot be taught. If you are intellectually closed, think you have all the answers, and can't or don't want to learn from others, then you won't be a skilled interviewer. As the subject shares her story, your job is to follow up with questions like: When? How? Where? Who? What happened next? What does that mean? Identify factual gaps in the story being told, and help the subject paint a robust picture about their life.
Some final words about bedside manner. Act like you want to be there. Act like you aren't in a hurry. Show them you care. Make them feel comfortable, interesting, safe and valued, and they will open up to you.
E. It's Not About You!
It is important to remember that the life story interview is not about the interviewer. It is about the person being interviewed. Every word you utter will be recorded on the video (unless you edit yourself out), so you want to be low key. This can be difficult if you're a chatty person or close to the interview subject.
As a general rule you want to let the interviewee do most of the talking. Minimize your compulsion to interject with your own anecdotes or memories. Fight the urge to interrupt like you might do in ordinary conversation. Wait for natural breaks before you speak. This is a vehicle for the other person to share their life, and any experiences you share during the interview should be germane to the story being told.
When you are interviewing a person you know intimately, someone you've known for all or much of your life, the interview may assume a casual and conversational tone. You can help refresh their recollections of events and add your own touches to the stories. Keep in mind that the more you say, the more you become part of the story. I'm not saying that's right or wrong, as it depends on the circustances. Just be aware of the words coming out of your mouth because they become part of the interview.
F. Closing the Interview
When I'm taking my final break, preparing to commence the last portion, I always ask, off the record, if he/she wants to share anything I left out. You will often get a "Yes" here. He/she will summarize what they want to share, and you just need to jot down some notes about what they want covered. Then you go back on the record and finish. When my notes have been exhausted, when we're both tired and I can't think of anything else to ask, I like to close with something like, "Is there anything else you want to share before I stop recording?" If you get a "No," you're free to stop the recording and wrap it up.
Once the interview is over, take a moment to examine how you feel. You are likely exhausted, both physically and mentally. You should also feel pretty good. You just dedicated a couple hours of your life in total service to making another person feel important and validated. You learned things about that person you never knew, and their life lessons will have an effect on you. You just became wiser.
Think of how the interviewee feels. He or she just got their life story off their chest. People receive a sense of certainty and relief from knowing their story will live on. The interview subject also feels significant because another person gave their undivided attention and cared enough to ask questions and listen.
Think of how the loved ones who receive the video will feel. They will be happy to have the video, and will grateful to you for taking the initiative. Everybody wins here. Next we move on to the technical portion - video editing.
Now that you know how to prepare for the interview and create an outline, the next step is equipment and room setup.
There is no other way to put this. You really need a video camera. You might be able to get away with a cell phone camera (I was forced to do this once, as described below), but I really don't recommend it.
I have an old Sony handheld. We bought it just before our daughter was born, and we used it often when our kids were little. Over the years, as cell phones improved, we used the video camera less and less. My camera therefore had little wear and tear and is in great condition today. It's an HD camera with 12 megapixels. It gets the job done when the room is well lit. This is the next piece I'll upgrade as the project grows, but it's sufficient for now.
If you have the means, I highly recommend using an actual video camera. It has better picture, audio and zooming capabilities. If you don't own a video camera, you could borrow one, or better yet, you can rent a nice one from a camera store.
I won't get involved in advising on the best kind of camera because I simply don't know.My advice is you get what you pay for. I once ordered a $100 camera from Amazon, believing it would work well because of the high megapixel count. I compared the new $100 camera to my old one, and the $100 camera produced badly pixellated video. I compared the quality side by side, and it wasn't even close. You're almost better off using a cell phone than a cheap plastic $100 video camera. I returned that piece of junk and got a refund.
When I went to my grandfather's house to interview him, it didn't occur to me to charge the one backup battery I had in the bag. I wasn't looking at this project as a business yet, and was so focused on the substance of the interview that I didn't think about battery life.
My battery died, and the camera shut down, about an hour through the interview. I swapped it out with the uncharged backup battery from my bag, but it was also dead. I didn't think to charge a backup. I did have the foresight to bring the charging dock, so I plugged in a battery and we took a lunch break. When we returned I was horrified to see the battery had not charged at all. I tried plugging the power cord directly from the wall to the camera, but that didn't work either. The electrical outlet may have been faulty.
I stifled the panic reflex that was setting in. I drove an hour and a half to be there and couldn't just reschedule. Thinking on my feet, I pulled out my cell phone, leaned forward and propped it up on the Ottoman in front of me, and hit record. The screen resolution changed and the video was shaky because I held it in my hand, so the video quality was terrible. I kept telling myself the important thing was recording my grandfather's story, and that's what I did.
Please learn from my failure. Ensure you have a fully charged battery, backups and a means of charging on the spot. Even better, plug the camera directly into the wall if you have the means. I have since invested in multiple backup batteries because I could not have the debacle at my grandfather's house occur with a paying client. I interviewed a client last weekend, and had four charged batteries ready to go. In order to avoid the hassle of a battery swap when someone is in mid-sentence, or at an emotional climax, I recommend you habitually check the battery life gauge on your camera's display. If you're down to a couple minutes of battery life, take a break and swap it out.
At my last interview I avoided the battery drama altogether and plugged my camera directly into the wall. Zero battery stress that way.
2. Cell Phone
If you absolutely must use a cell phone, it's better than not doing the interview at all. Make sure your battery is fully charged, but it's ideal if you could have the phone plugged in during the recording. Video recording will quickly drain your battery and heat the phone. It will also consume significant memory, so make sure you delete unnecessary files to make room.
Use a tripod or selfie stick to stabilize the camera. I don't recommend you trust your unsteady hand like I had to.
Have the screen face you, so the interviewee only sees the back of your phone and the lens. It's better if the interviewee is not looking at themselves in the screen and becoming self conscious. Having the screen facing you enables you to keep the interview subject in frame at all times.
I want to emphasize this again - use a cell phone only as a last resort. It is not ideal.
A tripod is such a necessity that I again advise you not to proceed without one. Ready for another failure story?
At my grandfather's house, before I considered this a business, I had to get creative because I did not yet own a tripod. In fact, I recall walking into his home and thinking, "damn, I don't even own a tripod." I moved the Ottoman to the center of the room, but it was only knee high. I built a stack of books about a foot high, then carefully balanced the camera on top. It worked, but any touching of the stack caused it to wobble. This wasn't even close to being high enough. I also couldn't angle the camera up, so it was about even with his waist, and he had to lean forward and look down at the camera. At times if felt like the camera was looking up into his nostrils. I recall thinking, "a year from now I'm going to cringe at my amateurism." I'm cringing as I write this, but I give you better value by being transparent. Learn from my failure so you can do it right.
Soon before I launched this website I went to Fry's Electronics and picked up a tripod. They had about 10 to choose from, ranging in price from about $20 to well over $100. The expensive models are designed for heavy cameras and/or outdoor use, and are more hardcore than I need. I'm going to be interviewing people in their living rooms with a small camera. I went for a mid-level $40 tripod.
It does everything I need. The height goes up to my chin, it is easily adjustable, has a leveler, carrying case and is lightweight. I set it up and played with the many adjustments and got comfortable with it.
Over time I came to the painful realization that my canera's built-in audio was awful. The mic faces up, away from where the camera is pointing, and it picks up the internal sounds of the camera itself. When you watch videos recorded with the built-in mic, you can hear a dull hum in the background. The camera is recording its own noise. I have to crank up my computer's volume to hear the audio on my earlier recordings.
I found a specialty camera store off Miramar Road in San Diego, and entered with my camera in hand. I explained my project to the owner, Jeff, and my need to improve the audio. He directed me to this Sennheiser shotgun mic. I used to think these mics would catch every ambient sound in the room, but they do the opposite. Jeff explained that it picks up sound in a conical direction wherever the mic is pointed. I was interested.
The input jack was compatible with my camera (glad I brought it with me), so it looked like we were in business. We hit trouble when I asked how to mount the mic on top of my camera. We moved a top panel and revealed a "cold shoe" mounting bracket, but it was not close to compatible with this mic. I asked if he had any kind of adapter, but they had nothing in stock. I was feeling mildly desperate because I had an interview booked the next day. I half-jokingly asked if I had to use duct tape to secure it, and Jeff got a twinkle in his eye. Jeff returned a moment later holding a roll of gaffer's tape. It's the functional equivalent of duct tape, but it's black, easier to rip and leaves no residue. The tape blended in nicely with my camera, and it held the mic in place. It looks jerry rigged up close, but it works.
Jeff said I could return the mic if it didn't work out, so I bought the device and tested it out at home. My wife helped me record a before and after video. We shot a video of me talking with the mic unplugged, then plugged it in. I nervously uploaded the file to my computer and turned up the speakers. The difference in sound quality was not even close and it sounded a thousand times better with the mic.
If you are only going to interview one person, you probably will not invest in a mic. I totally get it. My first couple interviews I did not have one either. If an after-market mic is not feasible for you, I recommend filming in a quiet location where you can keep ambient noise to a minimum. If you can hear ambient noise while recording, chances are your stock mic can hear it too. When I interviewed my dad at his home, before I bought the mic, I my camera picked up footsteps upstairs. I once recorded a client testimonial for a friend's business. We set up in the back yard because the scenery was great, but the built-in mic picked up a barking dog next door. In summary, if you can hear something, your built-in mic will too. It will likely hear other things you cannot hear, such as the camera itself.
Lighting is another critical piece of the puzzle. We've done product shoots outside during the day, and inside near an open window, and lighting was not a problem. Natural light looks great on our product still shots. When I interviewed my grandfather lighting was the only element that was not a problem. When I interviewed my dad he sat next to an open window and natural light was plentiful.
One night I shot a campy video, called The Catumentary, right after the sun went down. I owned no lighting and no mic. We turned on every light in the room where we shot, but the lighting is awful in the video. Video looks pixellated in bad lighting.
Over Thanksgiving I picked the brain of my brother-in-law, a cameraman in the film industry, about lighting. He taught me some fundamentals, helping me realize lighting is an essential part of the process. He directed me to a specialty camera store in Kearny Mesa. I visited the store the next day and learned more about lighting from an employee. He showed me their "interview kit," a three-stand set that was way over the top and beyond my means. I asked for something a little simpler, and he directed me to the two stand kit shown below. Cost $150. Sold. I broke in the equipment at home, and shot a before/after video similar to the mic experiment above. Again, the quality of the video does not even compare with regular room lighting. If you can get your hands on a professional lighting kit, I highly recommend it.
E. Room Setup
One element you may be unable control is the room setup. If you are visiting the interview subject in their own home, you could find yourself in difficult or tight spaces. I can't speak to hypothetical room scenarios, but you may need to employ some creativity and ingenuity.
Here is how I like to set up a room. I want the subject sitting comfortably in their favorite spot. I sit directly in front of them, a few feet away. I set up the camera tripod 2-3 feet to my right, so the camera is looking at the subject from a slight angle. The subject looks at me during the interview, not the camera. I set up the tripod to about shoulder height.
My lighting kit has two umbrella lights on tripods. I put one light to the side about 45 degrees from the subject, slightly to the right of my camera. I put the other light behind me, slightly to the left. The backlight helps fill in the subject's face.
Below is a setup I recently employed at a client's home.
You have committed to interviewing a loved one, so now you must prepare. I do not recommend walking into an interview with a blank notepad. You are recording another person's life story, and you must show them respect by coming prepared.
Having said that, the written outline is only half the interview. The other half is following up on the answers, engaging in unscripted give and take. There isn't much you can do to prepare for the unscripted portion, it just happens in the moment.
First, I recommend you engage in some pre-outline preparation. Do some research on your interview subject. If they have a website or social media page, this could be a goldmine of information. You can learn about their passions, projects, friends, sense of humor, interests, hobbies and photos. Photos are a great preparation tool. Perhaps your interview subject has authored writings such as poetry, books, essays, or blogs. You need not read their entire archive, but this provides tremendous insight into their personality.
Of course, you should always Google your interview subject. You never know what you might find. You could stumble across a rich internet commenting history, news articles, photos, blogs, etc.
The purpose of this exercise is to obtain some background information on your subject. I recommend you do this even if your subject is a parent or spouse. Even if you "know" everything about them, I promise everything is not in your consciousness when you prepare your outline.
B. The Outline
I purposefully wrote "Outline," not "Notes" or "Questions." Your focus should be on your interview subject, not reading word-for-word questions from your notes. If your questions are overly-scripted, your cadence and speech will sound unnatural. You will have to break eye contact to read the question, and that will interrupt the flow of the interview and your connection with your subject.
My preference is to write a few words, sufficient to trigger your mind about the subject matter you intend to ask. Don't write each question word-for-word because you will be tempted in the moment to read the question verbatim. Your questions will sound more natural if you use natural speech. Don't worry if you flub a word or fail to use perfect grammar; that isn't the point. You want the interview to be more conversational than interrogational. A conversational style will make the process feel less formal for each of you, and you want the interviewee relaxed.
Back in my early days of litigation, when I was somewhat new to deposing witnesses, a former employer gave me a tip I still use to this day, both in depositions and in Eternal Roots interviews. Draw a straight line one-third into your page, all the way down. Everything to the right is your outline, the subject matter you're going to cover. Everything to the left is where you make notes during the interview, where you write your follow up questions. This way your follow up notes are easier to find and read. I've been doing this for 10 years, trust me, it works. I'll cover this in greater detail in the Interview chapter. Below is a mock page of an outline. (Hope you can read my writing.)
C. The Tree
The outline is a tool to ensure you cover necessary subject matter. Think of the outline as a tree. The outline is the main trunk and main branches of the tree. Trees have numerous smaller branches, leaves and fruit. These details are not on your outline because you might not have known about them. The tree fills out during the interview, and your outline is just a rough sketch. The leaves and fruit are much more beautiful than the branches and trunk.
I use the outline to keep me on track and ensure I cover certain subject matter. The interviwee will reveal information meriting follow up, and here your outline is useless. Follow up requires you to pay attention, maintain eye contact, and be in the moment. If your mind wanders, if you're thinking about dinner, you will miss out on fertile grounds for follow up, which could be ten minutes of unscripted questions. That is where I get my best material, both in depositions and Eternal Roots interviews. Once you feel you've exhausted an area of inquiry, return to your outline and move up the trunk of the tree. I'll cover this in greater detail in the Interview chapter.
The outline is a rough sketch of the subject matter to cover. It will help your confidence, organization, efficiency and thoroughness. The interviewee will be impressed with your preparation, and your preparation shows respect. Having said all that, don't be too married to your outline. Use it to frame the questions, but not for precise wording. Be prepared to go off script and ad-lib. That's where the interview is the most enjoyable for both sides.
Over the next few weeks I'm going to publish a Do It Yourself (DIY) series educating people about recording life stories. This post will share how the DIY concept arose and the content I plan to share. Feel free to reach out in the comments or email with any questions, or to advise of any subject matter I should cover.
I was recently introduced to an industrious podcaster and publisher named Kellie. We first talked about doing a podcast interview about my project, but Kellie said the Eternal Roots concept was too deep and includes too many subjects to meaningfully cover in one interview. Kellie suggested that I write a series in her new publication Pathe Magazine.
I was immediately receptive because I love to write. The first idea that came to mind was a Do It Yourself series, and Kellie said that sounds great. I immediately felt a sense of regret, thinking ridiculous thoughts like "I'm giving it away for free!" I quickly escaped that thought process and realized this is a wonderful opportunity to spread the message of recording life stories. This is a platform to engage and educate people and build my brand, but most importantly, to give value. If you have any interest in preserving your life story or that of a loved one, then this series is dedicated to you. I therefore decided to roll out the DIY series on this blog, and to file the entries under a new Category (See Categories on the right margin). I've got a deadline for the end of January with Pathe Magazine, so expect me to be rather active writing the series.
I am contemplating the following chapters:
(1) Asking for the Interview
(2) Preparing for the Interview
(4) Conducting a Life Story Interview
(5) Curating Photos and Misc. Writings/Videos
(6) Video Editing
(7) Video Production
(8) Book Creation
If you have any specific questions, or if you have subject matter in mind that might not be covered here, I'd love to hear from you. If this inspires you to record someone's story, that's great! If you manage to record someone's story but want to pass off the video or book production to me, I'm sure we can work together.
Back in August I wrote an entry titled, "How Do I Ask My Parents for an Interview?" I was tempted to re-title it for the DIY series, but I think I'll give it a fresh take here.
Please keep an eye out for the DIY series as it develops here, and I will absolutely let you know when it goes live in Pathe Magazine.
When I first approached my grandfather about doing an interview (before I even conceived of the Eternal Roots concept), I did it with zero tact and little planning. When our lunch tab arrived, I just hit him between the eyes:
Me: Grandpa, I'd like to interview you.
Me: And I'd like to videotape it.
Me: And I'd like to make DVDs to distribute to the family.
Ten minutes later we were in my office with the video camera running. It was surreal. Turning this project into a business occurred to me weeks later. If you want to preserve your family's story, I don't recommend you approach it as clumsily as I did. It could work, but this project is important and you want to employ some tact. You might get some resistance at first, and I suggest a better approach. First, I'll share a couple failures.
I had a networking lunch with a colleague a few months ago. I explained the process involved in creating the documentary, and she asked to see the final product. I proudly produced the transcribed booklet I made for my grandfather (below). After flipping through a few pages she said, "That's it, I'm just going to hire you myself."
Her family was throwing a birthday party for her father in Palm Springs, and she wanted me to travel for the interview. The venue was at my favorite golf course, so I was game! When I followed up she said her father was "pretty anti" about doing the interview. Maybe he wouldn't have been interested regardless, but I could have better equipped her to pitch the concept.
At a recent networking lunch with another colleague, he was sold on interviewing his dad without seeing the book. This time I was marginally more helpful: "Great, show him the website, then let's book a session." It never happened. Dad wasn't interested. This happened a few more times.
The sad thing here isn't lost business for me. The sad thing is these families were denied an opportunity to preserve the life stories of their patriarchs. Just because you understand the value of the custom documentary doesn't mean Mom or Dad will immediately get it. Your parent might think his or her story isn't interesting, that no one wants to hear an old person prattle on about the past, or they might feel self-conscious and uncomfortable about a video recording.
If you approach it the following way, you will get a good feel for whether your parent or grandparent is a good candidate for Eternal Roots. Simply engage Mom or Dad in a conversation about a distant time in their life: "Mom, what was it like growing up during the Depression?" or "Dad, what is the craziest thing you did in college?" Ask them to share a time of their life you don't know about; ask them to re-tell one of their favorite stories. Get them engaged in casual storytelling, then compliment them on their storytelling ability. Express sincere admiration for their accomplishments and resiliency. Say you could never hand down these stories as well as they do. Tell them their grandchildren would have a greater connection with their heritage if they had a recording of your life story. Then mention Eternal Roots.
Be your authentic self, but the point is to get them reflecting on their life, and express how important it is for you to preserve their life story so you can share it with your own children one day.
The picture at the top of this post is me having a casual chat with my Dad over a glass of wine. While this photo was taken long before Eternal Roots began, this is an example of the perfect context to bring it up.
About the Blog
Here I write about the evolution of this project, the act of preserving life stories and personal development. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it.