Hopefully after reading yesterday's post – and despite the seemingly endless dissertation on lavalier microphones – you were inspired to attempt to video interview your parents for posterity.
Acquiring the necessary technical gear for recording your family history, which we covered yesterday, is Part 1 of a five-part process.
Part 2 is the least technical of video recording your parents and preserving an oral record of your family history: preparing for the interview.
Instead of imparting wisdom from my technical expertise, I will instead impart some journalistic wisdom.
As any journalist would for any interview, prepare for your parents by first doing some research.
Talk to your parents' family – especially any siblings they may have – and their old friends, either on camera or off. Whether you include these other reminiscences in your final production is totally a personal decision.
Next, collect – or have your parents collect – as many old photos as they can. Have them write down the names of everyone in each photo, and how each person is related.
But don't write directly on the back of these old photos – the etching of your writing or the ink itself could bleed through and ruin the photo. Write the info on a Post-it Note or on a piece of paper you tape onto the back of the photo.
Don't necessarily ask for the stories behind these photos – yet. Just get the photo IDs straight so you can ask your parents about them later. The spontaneity of their responses will sound better than rehearsed stories.
There may also be some home video or movies floating around. Review as much of this as possible – and have it converted into video, if you can.
Once you've done the pre-interviews and gotten an idea of what photos are available, create a list of questions you're going to ask. Keep your questions and any relevant documents handy on a tablet such as an iPad. Avoid paper if you can – the last thing you want to hear in the background of the video is you rustling papers.
Place the photos in chronological order in front of them.
Your parents likely have never been on camera before so may initially be intimidated. Sit next to the camera and have them talk to you, not to the camera.
If you intend on including your questions in the video, make sure you're miked as well. Either way, make sure you don't talk over your parents in conversation – pause a moment after they answer a question before you ask the next one – so you can more easily edit yourself out later.
And only one person should conduct the interview – questions shouldn't be thrown at them from the peanut gallery. Your final video will have much more power if your parents can concentrate on talking to one person, not constantly looking around the room answering other people. Plus, onlookers won't be miked, so no one will hear their questions except as faint distracting echoes in the background.
Finally, strap a piece of tape across the recording light – it'll look like a red lighthouse beacon to your parents.
Together or separate?
Your parents weren't always your parents, of course. Before they met, they had lives completely separate from each other and before you were even a glimmer in their imagination.
Which leaves you with a decision: do you interview them together, or do you interview each separately first, until you reach the point when they entered each other's lives?
I opted for the latter. Each had their particular stories about their families and childhood, and I wanted each to present the sense of their own identity as individuals.
In most marriages, there is a dominant character who often overwhelms the other. By giving each parent their own segment, each gets equal airtime. I also felt having one of them just sit there watching the other talk detracted from the overall presentation. No one wants to feel or look like an appendage.
But a case can be made for the two of them to sit together throughout the process, not just for moral support but perhaps to add questions or details to stories the other forgot. Each couple's dynamic is different; just be aware you have a choice.
Don't leave this together-or-separate decision to them. The dominant parent may opt to conduct dual interviews just to re-assert their dominance, consciously or not, or the weak one may be afraid to ask for their own sit-down. You'll know their dynamic. You're the director. You dictate.
Where do we sit?
Your final technical consideration is place and time. Since you won't have access to professional lighting, use the most sun-lit room in the house – and place the camera with the window behind you.
Conducting the interview when the sun is brightest in the room will likely coincide with and contribute to your parents' energy levels.
Personally, I like the kitchen as a set – it'll feel comfortable and natural to your parents to have a conversation sitting around the kitchen table.
Also, try to light the room with incandescent lights. Fluorescent gives off a bright, harsh, unflattering light for video.
Move some lights around and shoot some test footage before you shoot for real.
Start the recording – but don't tell them. Just start conversing about the weather or whatever, then ease into questions.
Try to ask your questions in chronological order. Start with what they know about their grandparents and parents or as far back as they know. When they or their forbearers came to the U.S. will be an especially ripe area of discussion, as will varying places they lived and why they ended up in different places at different times.
Ask specific detail-oriented follow-up questions: what kind of houses they lived in, what their neighbors were like, about commuting the school, what classes were like, where they shopped, their relationship with their parents and siblings, who they dated and what they did on dates, what was the first car they owned – anything to add color, because this detail will be the most interesting bits. And if you sound interested, they will, too.
Especially ask about brushes with celebrity and especially history – where were they the market crashed in 1929? What famous movies did they go see? Did they see famous athletes play? Who was the first presidential candidate they voted for? How did they or their family get along during The Depression? Where were they when they heard about Pearl Harbor? What was their war-time experience? The JFK, RFK and King assassinations?
And make sure you get as much detail about how they met and their courtship, and their thoughts about having children before you actually entered their lives.
Punctuate questions by asking for details about the photos you had earlier reviewed – but only if you intend on inserting these photos into your final production. If you're unsure about what you're going to include, have them silently hold photos up to the camera. You can edit these clumsy show-and-tells out later if you decide to actually insert photos over their stories in the final production.
Try to avoid having food around during the interview – it's distracting and you'll end up with someone talking while munching. Tell your parents not to talk with food in their mouths. A beverage is fine – off camera – but allow them to drink between, not during, answers.
If you sense their energy lagging, give them a break. They will initially be thrilled at your interest and may go for an hour or more at first, but eventually their energy will flag. As a result, it may take a couple of days to get everything you want. I managed to get nearly four hours of interviews over a couple of days, and could have used a couple more.
Most of all, try to have fun. After all, their your parents. Discovering hitherto unknown aspects of their lives ought to get you excited, too.