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Legacy Videos: From Shoebox to Showbiz

Updated on September 5, 2012
A legacy video is a place to locate all the family history
A legacy video is a place to locate all the family history

This is a "how-to" hub for legacy videos. I want to show you how to collect all your family mementos in one place; plus how to create a few more. And I want to motivate you to start today!

And I wanted to start it all with a nice collage of my husband's father (above). He had a fairly typical life for a man born in Europe in the early decades of the 20th century. Typical, in that it was a long series of terrible events!

But he made it through them all - survived a famine, survived getting killed in battle, endured being a POW of the Germans, endured being a displaced person, then enjoyed a long voyage on a ship to a sunny new world.

He is exactly the sort of person who should have had a full-blown legacy video put together with photos, interviews, historical film and archive images and all the rest.

But he didn't.

Er, I mean I didn't.

Or rather, my husband didn't. Didn't put a legacy video together that is - you can hardly expect the old folks to do it themselves! My husband did make some audio recordings though, and he spent the time to gather all the old photos he could. And he made a collage! So, points for that.

But what should he have done? What should you do?

Nearing the end: his first grandson
Nearing the end: his first grandson

Let's start at the end

OK - let's start at the end: Where are we going here? Well, we are going to gather stuff and make stuff then put everything together in a legacy video honoring the life you cherish - a couple maybe, or even a family. It's going to be a multimedia extravaganza. And it's going to be looked at. Why?

Because video is immediate, personal, and portable. And video is accessible, has energy, and the kids consume video with the same passion that previous generations had for comics.

So if you want to connect the kids with their family history, it is going to have to be video.

(The picture here of my father-in-law with my oldest son is not quite the end. He lived quite a bit longer than that and we got a lot of other nice shots of him with his grandchildren. But, he didn't live long enough for the kids to really get to know him. Which is a tragedy of course. And one of the reasons why we have to take the whole legacy video idea seriously!)

Photos and documents

Gather all you can. A lot of documents and photos will still be with your parents, or maybe with brothers and sisters or cousins. And not everyone will want to give them away.

But here's the great thing: they don't need to give them to you. With a digital camera taken along on your next visit, or using a scanner (if they let you borrow the images) you can make your own copies.

Photographing? Make sure you position the image near a window so that you have plenty of light (but not in the sun now). And move around so that you avoid reflections. If the photos or documents are in one of those plastic covered albums, try to peel the plastic back. Then take 3 - 5 shots, so you will have a choice later.

Here he is in 1947 (on the left) in a Displaced Persons camp near Stuttgart, Germany
Here he is in 1947 (on the left) in a Displaced Persons camp near Stuttgart, Germany

They really are a privileged window into the past - old photos - aren't they?

Scanning? Just make sure you scan at decently high resolutions. If you are going to all the trouble of scanning, may as well get nice, large copies. Digital storage is cheap. Scanner settings and scanner resolutions can be confusing to people, so I wrote this article of advice: Scanning Photos? The Best Scanner Settings.

A letter to his wife saying he is not a farmer
A letter to his wife saying he is not a farmer

And don't forget the documents.

In my legacy video projects, I include documents just like I include photographs.

Especially important are documents which have the person's handwriting, or government documents like immigration papers or service registrations, or college diplomas.

If you can, try to record (audio or film) the person reading some of their old letters, explaining why they wrote them, what was in their mind at the time, what happened after.

In this letter on the right, he was still struggling with English. He had been working on a farm but had decided to return to the city:

"I am still alive and so beautiful the world is. It seems to me I am not a farmer and never been before. I am in so high spirits that I am unable to explain all about it."

The video part

We're talking legacy video, so it's about time we got to the video part.

Video comes in here in two ways. First, we use a video camera to create new family records. You interview people and you film them in activities. Then, we also use video editing and DVD authoring (creating menus etc) to showcase the whole thing.

Read on to see what I mean.

Better days: at the lake for a 1950s picnic.  (My husband is baby on the left.)
Better days: at the lake for a 1950s picnic. (My husband is baby on the left.)

OK. Parents still alive? You must interview them on video. You must. Promise me you will?

Even if you aren't planning on doing anything with the interview you film right now, at least get it in the can.

Who doesn't have a video camera lying around the house somewhere. Heck, if you are desperate, interview them on Skype and record it!

I can't tell you how many time a week I hear a story about how someone was going to set it all up, but they delayed, then Mom got sick (or Alzheimer's kicked in, or some other terrible but really-not-that-remote a tragedy happened) and now what do I do?

Well, go back in time. To today! It may not be too late for you.

And you really don't need all that much to get interview material for your legacy video, although a simple tripod and a cheap microphone will sure help (and take some care in framing): Some Quick Video Interviewing Tips.

He loved to catch and eat carp from the lake
He loved to catch and eat carp from the lake

Video editing

Here's the thing: With video editing, you take all that you have and all you have found and all you have created - photos, audio, video interviews, documents, historical material, songs, poems, all of it, and combine it in the one place.

All mixed together, you have a documentary. And, except for cooking smells, I can't think of a single thing that can't be included in a legacy video.

Everything under one roof.

I am not going to bore you with the intricacies of video editing here, because I have done that elsewhere: Editing video on a PC. But if you have the energy, check out the article and see if you are up for it.

The photo on the right - my father-in-law cleaning up some European carp he caught in the local lake - reminds me of something I meant to say before: Keep taking photos!

Most of the time with the old folks, we take pictures of everyone in a group looking at the camera. And that's a fine photograph. But if your cherished older one is still around, take some action shots - with the still camera and the video camera. What are their hobbies? Follow them around and snap away.

Bowling, fishing, karaoke, quilting, volunteering, cards - perfect!

You will lose your chance later. Trust me on that.

Once you're done

And once you are done assembling your legacy video, you can print it to DVD.

Now, if you are a little bit creative, you can use the DVD to create a kind of digital scrapbook: With menus and music and linkages, you can build a whole multimedia treasure house right there on the DVD. True.

You don't need to run your legacy video in a single continuous documentary. You can break it up into DVD chapters that you can give access to individually. And chapters can have chapters!

And did you know you can include other kinds of files - like Word documents or PDFs on a DVD? You can - it's called a DVD-ROM. The DVD plays, like you would expect, but it also has a special file that you can put anything at all into (like a big family tree document maybe) and that can be accessed with any old computer.

What else? Well, some people print up a booklet of family history and include that inside the DVD box (DVD boxes have special clips to hold the booklet securely in).

And if the family is split up around the country, or the world even, post the video to YouTube and send the links around. As hard as it is to get some kids to take an interest in their family history, post the thing on-line and they'll watch it alright!

I started with a collage, so let me finish with one - trying to sum up a whole life.
I started with a collage, so let me finish with one - trying to sum up a whole life.

Shoebox to Showbiz

Legacy video is the best way of taking all that great stuff your family probably has in a shoebox somewhere and turning it into something that the family will really want to know about - that's the showbiz sizzle.

So, why do I care? Because I have/had parents (and I had in-laws) and I know firsthand the sadness of not taking better care of my family heritage. And I have become a proselytizer for the whole family history movement.

Yes, my name is Jane and I am zealot.

But if you really want to get what I mean, if you want to see some actual legacy videos, check out what I have helped others to do with these legacy video samples.

But remember: you don't need a pro like me. With a little energy and a bit of perseverance you can do all this yourself.


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