Our elders have rich stories to share. There’s no better time than now to sit down and hit Record
IN LESS THAN 10 years, one in five Americans will be over 65 years old. As our parents and grandparents age, we grow one day closer to losing the opportunity to learn their life stories. The good news is that with the various recording options available, you don’t have to be an award-winning filmmaker or videographer to preserve your loved one’s history.
Throughout our Midwest childhood, my siblings and I wanted to learn more about our relatives who perished in the atrocities of World War II. We were eager to discover details about our dad’s life during the war, but at the same time, none of us wanted to upset him by conjuring painful memories. Also, my mom was adamant that we not bring up the subject.
Soon after his 91st birthday, I asked my dad if he would let me film his stories about what he experienced during the Holocaust. Segments I taped with my GoPro were clear, but the background audio hissed like a den of rattlesnakes. During subsequent tapings, I relied on my iPhone to capture additional memories. I’ve since discovered several strategies and resources to film others.
First, don’t assume that your subject will agree to be interviewed. Last year I asked my mom to let me record her life story. Her response? “No. I don’t have anything to say.” It turns out that her attitude is common.
“There are times when you find someone who says, ‘No one wants to hear my story,’” says Kate Carter, founder and CEO of LifeChronicles, a nonprofit that records life stories of seniors and seriously ill patients. She suggests telling a loved one, “This would mean so much to me and to future generations of our family.” By making it about the family, it takes the pressure off the person being asked to share their memories.
Decide: Video, Audio, or Both
A visual recording is more engaging and lets you see the subject’s expressions, but not everyone is comfortable in front of the camera. Consider a combination of audio and video recordings. When I asked my dad questions such as “What did you like to do as a child?” I filmed him. When he shared thoughts about growing older and his feelings about death, I used my voice app. It felt too intrusive to point my phone at him while he described dreams he was having of finally seeing his family decades after they died. Whichever method you choose, the goal is the same: to preserve a loved one’s thoughts and stories.
Choose Equipment That Works for You
When I switched to my iPhone, I didn’t expect to be impressed with the quality. Considering that some production companies and documentarians use smartphones to film their projects, I figured why not do the same? The key advantages to using your smartphone are cost, simplicity, and convenience. I never knew when my dad was going to share a story I hadn’t heard. The more time I spent with him, the more questions I asked, turning several visits into impromptu taping sessions. I could have used an action camera again, this time with a lavalier microphone, or rented a professional camera, but I stuck with my iPhone. After all, the best camera is the one you have with you and know how to use.
Keep your phone or video camera steady by using a tripod, and shoot horizontally—in landscape orientation—to avoid leaving a space on each side of the frame. Until I sought out advice from Randy Martin, director and showrunner at AMS Pictures in Dallas, I hadn’t considered using earbuds with a smartphone. Martin also suggests touching the screen while focusing on your subject’s face so the phone knows it’s your focal point. “Once you see that, it exposes their face, and they don’t look like they’re in the witness protection program,” he says.
An app, like StoryCatcher Pro for iOS, will let you record in real time and insert previously recorded clips and photos. There are options to create a title, add captions, and select a theme. After recording, you can save the finished product to your camera roll, the cloud, or Dropbox.
Set the Scene
Choose a quiet room and shoot in front of a background that’s more interesting than a plain wall—a bookcase works well. Take advantage of natural lighting during the day by having your subject face a window. A ring light is a good way to light someone when filming with a smartphone.
There are a few ways to ensure a more natural recording and put your subject at ease.
Let the person choose where they want to be filmed (that includes a favorite room or chair).
Ask them to wear comfortable clothing. You want them to focus on their precious memories, not a scratchy collar.
Suggest they look at you, not the camera, while filming.
Start with a list of questions, but actively listen and ask follow-up questions rather than move on to the next one.
Even if your parent or grandparent lives out of town, you can film them through Zoom for free. At the end of your session, either save the recording to your computer or to Zoom’s website where you can share it with others.
Know What to Ask
I considered winging it with my dad and asking him whatever occurred to me, but I wanted to ensure I didn’t miss certain details about his past. Instead, I searched online for prompts and found resources with a diverse list of questions.
StoryWorth offers a digital and print method of collecting stories. Each week, they email a question to be answered and returned before the next week’s question. At the end of the year, the company prints the answers along with photos in a high-quality hardbound book. In addition to having a printed record of your parent or grandparent’s life, you could record their responses using the email questions as prompts.
Some of StoryWorth’s sample questions include:
1. What fascinated you as a child?
2. What is one of the stupidest things you’ve ever done?
3. How has your life turned out differently than you imagined it would?
4. What is one of the greatest physical challenges you have ever had to go through? What gave you strength?
StoryCorps (more about the organization later, but we’ve covered them before) offers a range of questions including:
1. How did you and grandma/grandpa meet?
2. Do you remember any songs that you used to sing to your children? Can you sing them now?
3. What were your parents like?
4. How would you like to be remembered?
I could have simply handed my dad a book filled with questions to answer, but I would have missed out on the opportunity to highlight his good looks, his nearly wrinkle-free face—he looked 10 years younger than his true age—and his slight Polish accent. Shannon Alder’s book, 300 Questions to Ask Your Parents Before It’s Too Late, helped me compile questions to ask.
Hire a Videographer
If you don’t want to be responsible for filming, hire a freelance videographer or a production company. If you’re not sure where to start, consider looking for affordable options on fiverr.com, Thumbtack, and even your local high school’s audio/visual department or club. The more direction you can provide, the better, including whether you want close-ups of your main subject or a wide shot that includes both of you.
Engage Specialty Video Organizations
If I hadn’t filmed my dad on my own, I could have contacted the USC Shoah Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving the stories of survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides. My dad’s video isn’t part of their collection, but it’s included in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Many similar nonprofits, veterans organizations, and other groups would be happy to assist if the experiences or expertise of your loved one is relevant to their archives.
Another option to consider for special circumstances is LifeChronicles. This nonprofit not only records stories from aging parents and elderly grandparents, but also patients with cancer and other terminal diseases. The organization handles all filming and editing and provides a custom DVD. As with the USC Shoah Foundation, they will send someone to your parent or grandparent’s home for an in-person interview.
A Simple Audio Option
During the week before my dad died, I used my Voice Notes app. Podcasters can take advantage of their professional sound equipment, but another easy way to record a conversation is through StoryCorps. This national nonprofit organization records, preserves, and shares the stories of people around the world. Adapting to the pandemic, they created an app to capture stories remotely. At the end of the taping, you have the option of letting StoryCorps add the recording to its archive at the Library of Congress or keep it private.
Edit and Enhance Your Video
My stepson, a production wizard, took my raw footage and edited it into a one-hour film. If I had more time or patience, I would have used intuitive apps like iMovie and Adobe Premiere Rush to create a customized video.
My dad’s story was fascinating, but when my stepson sent me the completed film, something was missing: photos. The images I later sent him, along with the timestamps of where to place the photos, gave my dad’s stories more dimension. Knowing I was going to add home movies to future projects, I sent them to Legacybox, the same company I used to digitize old photos. Other sites, like Scan My Photos, ScanCafe, and Costco offer similar services.
Recently, I watched my dad’s video again. Tears streamed down my face during the second section as he described what he witnessed during the war. Still, I was grateful he had unblocked the dam holding his memories and allowed me to film him. By opening up, he left my siblings and me a gift to pass along to our children. As for my mom, I may have found the key to convince her to share stories from her past: enlist her grandchildren. She can’t say no to them.