Personal History - Recording with a Camcorder

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Some things have to be seen to be believed

Why use a camcorder in the interview[edit | edit source]

If you think it would be exciting to record grandpa telling his life history, consider how much more exciting it would be to see him telling it.

The technique for recording a personal history with a camcorder is the much the same as a regular oral history. The major difference is that you are recording with a camera rather than just than some kind of audio recording machine. Now you have to be concerned with where the camera is set up, lighting, background, what the subject is wearing, etc.

For instruction on how to conduct an oral interview and possible questions to ask to use with your audio personal history, click here.

Camcorders are fairly inexpensive nowadays. You should have one, anyway, for recording your own families activities. Getting a video recording of grandpa would make the investment in a camcorder worth the investment in any case.

In addition, I would encourage you to look into getting a digital camcorder even if you have a camcorder now.

With a digital camcorder, you can dump the recording into your computer and do some editing of the material. For example, you can put in pictures of grandpa’s sister, Aunt Pearl if he talked about her.

The ability to edit digital material are built into all of today’s operating systems on PC and the Max. They're are fairly easy to use, but there is a small learning curve, but well worth it. You can insert other voices, pictures, old family movies, put a music background and included narration as well. You too can be a movie producer.

If you don’t know anything about such things, there are many books and information on the internet to help you get started using and editing video recordings.

Here are a few suggestions when using a camcorder in personal interviews:

Placement of the Camera[edit | edit source]

  • Place camera as far away from the subject as possible. Having a camera in your face can be as intimidating as a microphone in your face.

  • Use the zoom lens, if needed, to keep only the upper part of the torso in the picture. Keep the top of the head at the top of the screen. Next time you are watching the news, notice where the image of the person being interviewed is in the picture.

  • Try to keep the subject still, otherwise you will have to keep a close eye on the viewfinder to make sure that grandpa has not move out of the center of the picture.

  • If lights are required, set up three lights if possible in the following configuration. With all lights six feet away from the subject, set the first one at 45 degrees to the individual's left side and 45 degree to the person’s right. The third light is directly behind their back. It looks like a triangle when looking down from above with the person in the middle.

  • Then if possible defuse the lights with a sheet over them. Be careful to not get the cloth too close to the lights or better yet look into some kind of light defusing material.

  • Have the lights mounted about six inches above the head so you can see a little shadow of the chin. Place the camcorder between the two lights in front of the subject.

  • Do not mix sunlight with your artificial light. The subject will look like they have some sort of terminal illness.

  • Again use a microphone that clips on to the lapel to record the voice. You might have to use a long cord to hook up the microphone to the camcorder.

  • If there is going to be a lot of time recording one person, you might want move the camcorder from time to time. Give people a chance to see grandpa from different angles. You may have to move the lights as well.

Camcorder, old movies and stills[edit | edit source]

If you have ever watched a special on PBS about a historical figure or event, you know how adsorbing they can be. Well, consider making your own PBS like special but making yourself or an ancestor as the subject.

It does take some extra equipment, but the investment can be minimal and it is a lot of fun to create your own family historical documentary.

First thing to consider is transferring your old movie films on to DVD’s. Many photo-finishing companies provide this service.

If you have any still photographs, consider putting them also on DVD’s as well. You can either have it done by your local photo finisher or do it yourself with a scanner and your computer.

If you have slides, there is a gadget that will attach to your scanner that will allow you to do them as well.

When including them in your video, be sure to keep each picture of the screen long enough of people to comprehend what the picture is. At least five seconds.

Another method to keep one’s attention on a photograph is to pan across the picture or start with a close-up and then pan outward to finally included the entire picture. This technique was used extensively in the award winning series on the “Civil War” by Ken Burns. In fact the technique is referred to as the “Ken Burns Effect.” Many of the video editing programs have this feature as a part of their software. In this manner you can keep attention on a picture longer as the viewer’s attention is focused until the whole picture comes into view.

Personal Video History[edit | edit source]

Consider composing a complete personal or family history on DVD. If you have seen the PBS special "The Civil War," or "Baseball," you know how adsorbing a video history can be even when there are no moving pictures, but stills. You can do the same with your personal histories, believe it or not.

Computer can help you do it yourself[edit | edit source]

It does take some knowledge of video editing software and a computer with lots of storage capacities. If you don’t have the necessary equipment, but feel like acquiring it, you should be able to compose an adsorbing family history documentary.

Study how others have done it[edit | edit source]

If you want to learn what techniques were used in composing the “Civil War,” put on a episode and take notes. That’s the best way to learn how they were put together.

List of what can be put on a personal history video[edit | edit source]

Here is a partial list of what I noticed as I watched the series:

  • Music of the period. If you grew up in the fifties, you may want to have some Little Richard or the Beach Boys playing in the background.

  • Tell about other events going on in world at the same time as the event you are describing. Such as what was happening in the world when you were born.

  • Show photos of these events as they are being talked about.

  • Quotes by people describing events that effected your life.

  • Pictures of other people at the same time doing similar things that you did. If you grew up on a farm then maybe pictures of people farming if there are none of you farming.

  • Old photographs of towns and country side where events in your life took place.

  • Pictures of area discussed in the history taken in the present day and photographed at the same time of year the event happened.

Title pages.[edit | edit source]

  • Use voices of men or women to read quotes from men or women of the time or to speak for dead relatives.

  • Say the name of the person you are quoting after you have read their words so we know who was speaking.

  • Put in background sounds of such things as wagons, cars, machinery, guns, etc if they appear in your video.

  • Quote historians describing why people were doing what they were doing.

  • Read letters from relatives or friends while showing their picture on the screen if you did not have a video recording of them actually saying it.

  • Use maps to show where events took place or routes use to move from one place to another.

All this will involve doing some of the following[edit | edit source]

  • This is the most important step as all other items come from it.

  • Scheduling taping interviews with various relatives. Show a picture when they were young as they begin speaking and then switch to the recording to show them as they appear at the present.

  • Scanning in photos.

  • Include narration. You may have to find someone with a good speaking voice.

  • Getting others to be the voices of dead people who are being quoted.

  • Rounding up photos of the areas and time period you are talking about that you may not have.

  • You may want to go to these areas and take pictures on how they appear now.

  • Finding out what music was popular at the time being described to include as background.

  • In addition to music, recording sound effects such as machinery, guns, cars, trains, etc. When these sounds are heard in the background it has the effect of making the still picture seem like it is a moving picture.

  • As mentioned above you may want to use the “Ken Burns Effect” when working with photographs to included in your video.

  • You’ll have to do some historical research in the area and of the time you’re talking about to be included in the narration. This helps your viewers understand, for example, a reason why your grandfather may had to leave the family to find work in another part of the country.

  • There is much more, of course. Again watch an episode of the Civil War and note down what was included.

  • Now may be you can see that Family History is a very intellectually stimulating activity. I guarantee that you will met new people and make new friends. In addition, you’ll probably meet some relatives you never knew existed. This all will be fun.

See also[edit | edit source]

What to do with the genealogy and family history I collected