Family legacy videos should be easy to make, right? You simply film yourself interviewing 2 or 3 family members, and boom, you have your video. But this isn’t always the case when planning a family legacy documentary. Do you know those memories that get passed down? They might not always be clear, and they can be forgotten over time. This can lead to confusion on how to best piece together your video. In this article, I will give you the essential steps to help you make an awesome family legacy documentary.
Step by Step Guide to Making a Family Legacy Video
It helps to have an overview of the process you’ll need to follow to make a successful family legacy video. Which might be the life story or video biography of an important family member.
You don’t have to get over-serious about this: having fun is part of the overall experience. Both for you as the family filmmaker and those who participate and eventually watch the result!
Here are the main steps you’ll need to do:
1. Decide Your Main Objectives
There are many levels at which you can make a family history video, which will determine what type of documentary you want to shoot.
- You might be happy with a 10 or 15-minute compilation of great short quotes from various family members.
- Or you might aim for editing a 30-minute or even longer film together that might include family photos and even some scenes of a trip or holiday, for example.
- Alternatively, you might have in mind to make a regularly-updated series of short films that you can show at key family get-togethers, and that adds up over time to a progressive family record.
These decisions impact your overall approach, the amount of time you might need to invest, and the kind of gear and editing setup you might need. If unsure about where to start, I’d advise aiming to make a short 10-minute film to start with to see whether you enjoy the process and get the kind of results you’d like.
It will be easy after this to film and produce more and incorporate your earlier work into later productions!
2. Determine Immediate Priorities
Sometimes you can be faced with a situation where capturing a family member’s or friend’s memories becomes an urgent priority due to health or other reasons for a loved one.
You may not have a lot of time to act. Therefore, my advice would be to quickly get your camera, tripod, and audio gear together (see below for specific tips) and at least get an interview or important story on camera done as a top priority.
Although there might be some nervousness on both sides, people faced with tough outcomes often appreciate the chance to leave an audiovisual legacy behind for future generations. Therefore, if you approach the filming in a calm and easy-mannered way, and ensure that the camera and audio are actually recording the interview, then everything will be OK. See below for additional interview tips.
The other scenario can arise for a family event, which might be rare or even one-off. For example, a student graduation or a wedding. Generally speaking, these events are once-in-a-lifetime events; therefore, you should always try to record the event from as many angles as possible to create an audio and visual legacy that will never be forgotten.
3. Keep a Simple Shooting Diary
If you know that a certain event or day will fit well into your legacy film project, mark it in your diary. That way, in the future, you’ll be more likely to remember to film it when the time comes and make the necessary arrangements with the person you are filming.
Also, you will have your equipment – especially batteries and memory cards – ready in advance so that you won’t have to worry about them once you begin filming.
4. Choose the ‘Take Everywhere’ Gear You Will Use
The cost of getting excellent video results does not have to be high. In fact, for under $100 you can get two or three pieces of gear that will dramatically improve the quality of your filming. We’ll discuss those first before we get into more sophisticated gear.
A good photographer says that “the best camera you own is the one you have with you.” In practice, these days, that means equipping yourself with a smartphone with a good digital camera built-in.
These devices have multiple advantages over traditional film cameras: they’re small and lightweight. Depending on the model, they can be easy (and cheap) to top up with new memory cards.
Look for a simple lightweight tripod on which you can mount your smartphone. Ideally, one that you can either collapse and place on a tabletop or raise to the height of someone’s head when they are standing up.
The more expensive models will have what pros call a ‘fluid head’ – meaning that you can pan and tilt your camera to follow the action (for example, someone walking). If you plan to use different cameras, allow for the different weights of the cameras and anything you might mount onto them.
Simple External Microphone
The third essential piece of gear is a way to record good audio and voice while filming. Suppose you know that your legacy video will comprise only a video memoir of selfies of yourself, or others, on the reverse camera. You might not need extra microphones because the smartphone will probably be close enough to capture good and clear audio.
However, if it is filmed at some distance or you are filming people’s voices, you’ll need a microphone to capture the sound. A small microphone mounted on the smartphone, like the Rode Videomic, can do wonders. As can a clip-on lavalier microphone – for which you can get an extension lead – like the Rode SmartLav Plus.
There are also reasonably-priced digital audio recorders like the Zoom H1N that you can use for filming and recording audio-only. Remember that if not connected to the camera, you’ll need to sync the audio to your video later in editing (use a hand clap as you start recording to get a ‘sync point’).
Related: How to Set Up For Video Editing
5. Pro-Amateur or Pro Video Gear
You won’t be surprised to hear that you can spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on various bits of filming and editing gear and software.
Unless you set up a legacy video business or plan to go into professional video production as a service, it’s unlikely that you’d need to upgrade that far. If you are a keen photographer, you might look at the new Micro Four Thirds cameras as a photography and video option – the new 25.2MP Panasonic GH6 is a serious still photography and video camera aimed at rivaling established cameras like the Sony A7 IV or the Nikon Z6 II.
However, if planning to shoot in a more documentary-style where you follow real-time action, you might be better served with a zoom lens camcorder. For example, the Canon XC10 has a 10x optical zoom lens. There are many options on the market, and quite a lot of secondhand quality gear is available also.
You’d probably also look to upgrade your tripod, have a good-quality XLR gun microphone, and start to consider lighting. Plus, invest in professional-grade editing software like Final Cut Pro X or Adobe Premiere.
6. Test and Practice With Your Gear
Assuming you have the essentials, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the gear you plan to use. There’s no point in turning up to record that critical interview with grandma, where you probably will be concerned enough about which questions to ask without trying to figure out all the buttons and settings on your camera at the same time!
So, take half a day to play around with your gear. Run some tests. Watch and listen to your results – use headphones to ensure you don’t have any unexpected feedback or digital noise creeping in. Figure out how to set focus, zoom in and out, and adjust focus. Practice placing the microphone close to the subject or attaching it with the clip.
Make sure you know which indicator on the camera or its screen tells you that the camera is recording when you plan it to – it’s amazing how often even pros get this wrong on occasion!
7. Pick a Family Story You Want to Film
Good filmmaking is all about making good choices about what to film and how to film it to serve the overall story that the film tells.
You might think that because you are only recording real-time life experiences in the family you don’t need to think about storytelling. Not true! It’s worth reflecting on how a particular scene or event fits into the family narrative you want your legacy videos to document and preserve.
For example, your family may have traditions passed on from generation to generation, which might be a central theme in your films about your family. Or you may have a child gifted in a particular sport or activity, whose progress you follow as he or she grows up and becomes ever more skilled. Or there might be an important part of family history that you want to capture from grandparents.
The point is that by knowing the story you want to capture and tell in your film, you will be better prepared to think about the elements you need to tell that story. Whether it be bits of testimony in interviews, particular events, family scenes, younger generations, or photos and memorabilia that are relevant.
A better focus on the story will also stop you from ‘hoovering’ dozens or even hundreds of hours of needless material that will only serve to get in the way of editing and showing what matters.
Related: What Makes a Story Worth Telling
8. Research Your Family & History in Advance
A rule of good documentary filmmaking is to pre-interview people to discover the right questions before talking to them on camera.
Although interviewing family members is not the same as interviewing other people for a professional documentary film, you can use a little of this technique to improve your overall results. The best way would be to tease out a little of the memories or ground that you hope to film in advance of actually filming it so that when the camera is running you can pick up on the treads of the conversation you had earlier.
Be careful not to ‘talk out’ the whole memory off-camera, though! Otherwise, you’ll find that the story told a second time all the way through will sound flat.
Ask other family members about a special occasion. It will be a lot of fun to cross-cut different perspectives on the same event in your final film.
When someone tells you a story on camera, remember sometimes to ask why something was significant – if that feels appropriate. This is when you might unlock the wisdom or deeper understanding of a particular event or episode for your family’s legacy.
Ask open questions in your video interview that invite a story. Not closed questions that just generate a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Always allow enough space and time for someone to answer fully. Especially older folk, such as a grandparent, may need the time to reflect and remember.
How to Film an Effective Scene
The golden rule in documentary filmmaking is ‘coverage.’
As you film an event, for example, get different angles and positions to paint a full picture when these shots are put together in editing. The best way to get good shots that will work well in editing is to film particular shots for 5 to 10 seconds each – don’t wave the camera around or jump needlessly to another thing before you’ve got a nice, solid shot of something.
So, for example, focus and frame the camera on a close-up shot of Mom mixing the dough – her hands and the mixer – for 5 seconds. Then step back, change the angle a bit, and film her face looking down at the mixer. Again, record the shot for a solid 5 seconds. Then, change the angle again and film the family dog looking greedily at the bowl – again, hold the shot for a good 5 seconds or so. And so forth.
The point is that you capture a series of shots that can be put together in whatever order works best in editing, that tells the story of that scene. You could even have a piece of Mom’s interview underneath the shots, describing something important or relevant. Or you could chat with her on camera as she mixes the dough. Lots of choices, but if you think of ‘filming for the edit’ and as shots being a kaleidoscope of images that put together make a scene in the film, you won’t go far wrong.
Or you might have a family member describe an important photo. Make sure you film some close-ups of your hand indicating the important parts of the photo, and then change the angle onto their face as they look at the photo and describe it. That way, you can have choices in editing on how to play the scene!
The basic mistake many beginners make is to run the camera continuously, move it around all the time, and then discover later in editing that the material is very hard to cut from one shot to another.
Coverage also includes gathering old photos to help tell a story of the past.
How to Use Music in Your Legacy Video
The thing to remember about music is that it is a mood intensifier.
Choose music that suits the mood and scene. Don’t overdo it unless the scene calls for music to be front and center of the experience.
It’s usually not a good idea to play music while someone is speaking. Therefore, in editing, drop the level of the music right down, or cut it entirely at the points you want to feature the words of someone. That will usually work better and help create a more engaging film.
Editing Tips for Family Legacy Videos
Films are made in the edit. So it makes sense to spend a bit of time getting the editing of your family legacy video done right.
If you’ve followed the advice above, you will have filmed the various interviews, shots, and scenes for your film in a way that does not leave you with a mountain of rushes – raw video content – through which you have to wade, select and make editing choices. Instead, you’ll have more focused shots and scenes that will be easier to edit together.
The first step is to make a basic log of everything you’ve filmed and gathered that you want to include in your video. With editing software like iMovie or Final Cut Pro X, you can assign file names, metadata, and tags to help find the relevant bits you need in editing. In other editing apps, you place the various bits in dedicated folders so that you can find the relevant bit to edit into your video.
Put photographs and maps in their folder so you can choose them easily to help ‘paint’ the interview selects in editing.
Make a rough editing script before you start. Decide which shots you want to start your film.
- Who speaks first?
- What do they say?
- Who responds or bounces off that?
- What visual scene or event does this trigger?
- How does the story build through the 10 minutes you are constructing?
- Where do you want your story (film) to end?
- What is the important last thought?
- How do you convey that with imagery or someone’s statement on camera?
- How do you combine things for the most powerful effect?
Like all aspects of filmmaking, there is a huge amount to the craft. However, follow the above advice, and you will be underway in your filmmaking and family legacy video journey. Whether it preserves life lessons, a favorite memory, is a tribute video, a record of the family business, or serves as a personal documentary of grandchildren for them to treasure when they grow up, you’ll find it was worth the effort!