How well do you know your parents?
How well do your kids know your parents?
In either case, it's probably not as well as you think. Maybe you've quizzed your parents on their life a bit, but probably not as much as you'd like to admit. Your kids may be apathetic about their family history now, but one day – once they've made their own history – they may be interested in learning more about your family history.
But that may be many days too late.
This holiday season will be filled with family get-togethers, the perfect time to capture your parents' video biography.
This is not an idle tech suggestion. Some 20 years ago I did just what I'm suggesting here. Over the course of a Passover weekend, I sat my folks down and had them talk about their parents and their grandparents, their individual lives through the Great Depression and WW2, their courtship and marriage.
Both my parents are now in their late 80s and I'm happier than words can express to have these reminiscences to look back on and perhaps bequeath our family's heritage to succeeding generations.
There are, of course, technical and human considerations to get the best parental interview results.
Talk talk talk
You may think video interviewing your parents is a simple affair – plop 'em down in front of a camcorder, hit "Record" and have a conversation.
That'd be effective if you want results that will prove disappointing technically and emotionally – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
Believe it or not, the camcorder you use is of secondary importance. Since the purpose of this video is to record mostly aural history, good sound is your priority.
Resist the temptation to use a cheap Flip-style camcorder, digital camera or smartphone. None of these include a good enough microphone.
In fact, no camcorder mic will be good enough. Test it for yourself. Set up a camcorder around six-eight feet away and, using your normal conversational voice, record a monolog of some sort, then play it back.
Your voice will sound hollow, echo-y and far away. And even if you speak slowly and carefully enunciate – and older folks aren't quite known for their elocution, even more so if they still have an accent from the old country – you might have trouble understanding what they say.
Which means you need an external microphone and a camcorder with a separate 3.5mm microphone input jack.
Let's address the camcorder bit first.
Since you'll likely be shooting indoors under more-or-less controlled lighting conditions, nearly any standard HD (1920 x 1080 pixels) camcorder will suffice.
It's the camcorder's sound recording capabilities you should be concerned with.
Unfortunately, few camcorders include a microphone input jack. It's stupidly assumed by camcorder makers that only pro and semi-pro users will need a microphone input. The least expensive camcorder with a microphone jack I've been able to find is the Canon Vixia HF R300 ($300), available for $250 on Amazon. Most Canon camcorders priced above $300 include a mic input. You'll pay more for Sony, Panasonic or JVC camcorders with mic inputs.
Some camcorders advertise the inclusion of a "zoom" mic. A zoom mic, though, is only effective when you zoom in, which you likely won't be doing when interviewing your parents.
If you buy or borrow a camcorder with a microphone input (and I'll bet you know someone who has one), you have two mic options: a handheld microphone or "lavalier" mics – the small microphones TV talk show people and news anchors clip to their ties or sports coats.
Naturally, each type of microphone has advantages and disadvantages.
Lavalier vs. handheld mics
Lavalier mics are probably the best for voice recording since they are designed expressly for that purpose. But you'll be interviewing at least two people at a time, and a camcorder has only a single microphone input jack.
Azden also makes excellent yet inexpensive (sub-$100) lavalier mics.
Ignore wireless lavalier mics; these are more appropriate if your video subjects will be moving around and at a distance. Your parents will be in easy lavalier mic cable distance, and you'll easily be able to hide the cables under camera range.
Far simpler than lavaliers would be a single hand-held mic – a mono, omni-directional dynamic mic (which don't require a battery) such as the Shure PG48 ($39) or the Samson R31S ($50, but available for less than $25).
These mics, and many other "pro"-style microphones with an XLR connector may require an adapter to connect to the 3.5mm jack on a camcorder, such as the Pearstone LMT100 ($25). You also will need a microphone desktop stand.
No mic input?
If your camcorder has no microphone input and you are forced to use your camcorder's built-in microphone, you'll need to be more aware of your interview surroundings.
To cut down on the hollow sound and echo effect, conduct your interview in a small, quiet room, with carpeting and draperies and/or wall hangings, and seat your folks as close to the camcorder as possible.
But I strongly recommend procuring a new camcorder with a mic input and the appropriate microphone(s). You will want to hear what's being said as clearly as possible for years to come.