In less than 10 years, one in five Americans will be over 65. As our parents and grandparents get older, we one day come closer to the possibility of losing the opportunity to learn their story. The good news is that with the different recording options available, you don’t have to be an award-winning filmmaker or videographer to preserve the story of your loved one.
Throughout our childhood in the Midwest, my siblings and I wanted to learn more about our loved ones who perished in the atrocities of WWII. We were eager to find out details about our father’s life during the war, but at the same time, neither of us wanted to upset him with painful memories. In addition, my mother insisted that we did not bring up the subject.
Shortly after his 91st birthday, I asked my father if he would let me film his stories about his experiences during the Holocaust. The segments I recorded with my GoPro were clear, but the background hissed like a rattlesnake lair. On subsequent recordings, I relied on my iPhone to capture additional memories. Since then, I have discovered several strategies and resources for filming others.
First of all, don’t assume that your subject will agree to be interviewed. Last year I asked my mom to let me record her life story. His answer? “No. I have nothing to say. It turns out his 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 Chronicles, a non-profit organization that records the life stories of the elderly and critically ill patients. She suggests saying to a loved one, “It would mean so much to me and to future generations of our family.” Speaking of family, it relieves the person being asked to share their memories.
Decide: video, audio, or both
A visual recording is more attractive and allows you to 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 like “What did you like to do as a child?” I filmed it. When he shared his thoughts on aging and his feelings about death, I used my voice app. It was too intrusive to point my phone at him as he described his dreams of finally seeing his family decades after their deaths. Whichever method you choose, the goal is the same: to preserve the thoughts and stories of a loved one.
Choose the right equipment for you
When I switched to my iPhone, I didn’t expect to be impressed with the quality. Considering that some production companies and documentary makers use smartphones to film their projects, I thought to myself why not do the same? The main advantages of 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 multiple visits into impromptu recording sessions. I could have used a action camera again, this time with a lavalier mic, 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 it.
Keep your phone or video camera steady using a tripod and take photos horizontally (in landscape orientation) to avoid leaving a gap on either side of the frame. Until I asked Randy Martin, director and showrunner at AMS Pictures in Dallas, for advice, I hadn’t considered using headphones 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.