Capturing Family History on Video

by Philip Greenspun; updated August 2016

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Your parents aren't getting any younger. Maybe you're lucky enough to have living grandparents as well. How about capturing what they remember and uploading it to YouTube before they forget and/or are gone?

The Script

Come up with a list of questions to ask while filming. Go over the questions with your subjects before you start. If they have a good memory they might spontaneously go into some of these areas without you having to ask. Remember that every second you're talking "behind the camera" is a bad second. In a Hollywood film you almost never hear from an actor who is not visible on screen. Apply the same standard to your home videos!

Here's the script that I came up with after some preliminary conversations with my own parents, born in 1930 (dad) and 1934 (mom):

Tell us what you can remember about your maternal grandparents. (Where did they come from? Where did they live? Education level? What did they do for work?)

Tell us what you can remember about your paternal grandparents. (Where did they come from? Where did they live? Education level? What did they do for work?)

How did your parents meet? What were they doing for school or work at the time?

What do you remember about your childhood home?

What would a typical family evening look like for entertainment? Did you listen to the radio? When did your family get a television?

How often did you visit friends or family?

What would a typical family vacation look like?

Did you take any big trips as a family?

How did your parents divide up responsibilities?

What role did religion play in your household? With extended family?

What do you remember about school? Tell me about your favorite teachers and subjects. Favorite grades?

(For Dad) Tell us about your summer on the dairy farm.

How did you experience World War II?

How did you get to school?

Where did you apply to college?

What was college like compared to high school?

(For Dad) Tell us about your Army service.

How did you meet [your spouse]?

Tell us about your wedding?

The honeymoon?

Describe your first job.

What about your first trip to Europe?

Tell us about the birth of Suzanne. What hospital? Who was in the room? Drugs and procedures?

Looking back over the past eight decades, which people do you think have had the most positive influence on the world?

Comparing today's world of technology to what prevailed during your childhood, what are the modern inventions that you love the most?

In what ways were the good old days better than today?

You're coming up on your 60th wedding anniversary in 2016. What are some secrets for successful marriages that you can share?

The Gear: Relevant

Sound is more important than anything else in this kind of video. It doesn't matter how expensive your camera is and how good the on-camera microphone is. The microphone is in the wrong place. You need a lav ("lavalier" or "lapel") microphone clipped to your subject's shirt or jacket.

What would be great is if there were a Bluetooth lav mic intended to communicate with smartphones, but I haven't found one. The smartphone already has a Bluetooth receiver, so why not a couple of lav mics and some software to merge these into the audio track of a video recording? What you can buy is a Sony Bluetooth lav microphone that then feeds the microphone input jack of a digital SLR or professional video camera. Unfortunately these don't seem to have been designed for interviewing because there is no easy way to mic up the interviewer and put his or her voice on the other channel of a stereo soundtrack.

I ended up using two Rode condenser lav mics, one for me and one for the subject. Condenser microphones require "phantom power" that a camera may not supply. I plugged the mics into a Zoom H5 audio recorder and then used Adobe Premiere Pro to sync (automatically) the sound captured from the Zoom with the sound recorded by the on-camera microphone. I would clap my hands at the beginning of each recording, thus giving the software and easy way to align the files.


You'll also need a tripod to hold the camera steady.

It would be ideal to do the interviews in a studio with a good softbox and a neutral background, but I didn't have that available conveniently.

The Gear: Irrelevant

Almost any modern video camera is good enough for this application. A well-lit face is not challenging to capture. I decided that if I was going to the effort of getting the audio right that I might as well capture in 4K with a decent camera. The examples accompanying this article were captured with a Sony A7R II and Sony 55mm lens.

One problem with using a smartphone instead of a "real camera" is that smartphones have wide-angle lenses and the result is an unflattering perspective for most people. Thus you should use a camera with a "normal" lens (50mm on a full-frame camera) or longer. Because you're using lav mics the fact that the camera is farther from the subject won't affect the sound quality.

Due to some obscure import tariff regulations, a typical DSLR will shut off after 30 minutes of video capture. This turns out not to be a problem for Hollywood, which never wants to do a take that long. It also isn't much of a problem with the Sony a7r because the camera would overheat after about 20 minutes.

A good compromise camera is probably the Sony A6300, but as noted above nearly any videocamera will work.


Don't forget the PC. I used a Windows 10 machine with 32 GB of RAM and a 1 TB SSD drive. I have about three hours of footage plus audio and the result was 126 GB on disk. A Macintosh may be stylish but when editing 4K video there is no substitute for copious amounts of RAM and SSD. That multi-core CPU will also come in handy when it is time to compress the output.

My Results


It will take you a week of effort, including editing and pushing out 4K versions to upload as "unlisted" to YouTube so that extended family can view. But it is worth it! Think how happy you'd be right now if you could see great-grandparents talking about their lives. That's the gift you can leave to your children and grandchildren.
Text and photos Copyright 2015-2016 Philip Greenspun.