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The Gift of Making a Video Biography

Videos of loved ones help preserve memories in a personal way


Seymour and Angel Newman light up as they talk about their daughters, Shoshana and Raphaela. “The best thing that ever happened to my life was those two girls,” Seymour said. Angel added, “They both have such good hearts. They’re such good children.”

This snippet is one of many touching moments in a 90-minute video biography, a visually captivating film featuring highlights from an interview with the couple, edited and woven together with family photos, memorabilia and music.

Knowing that her father was ill (he was battling cancer), the couple’s daughter, Raphaela Stern of Skokie, Ill., hired Susan Saunders, owner of Family Line Video in Chicago,  to capture her parents’ story.

“My father was at a great point physically, so I wanted to capture whatever we could,” said Stern. Seymour passed away about two months after the interview, and the film was completed this past spring.

Bringing History to Life

Saunders began planning for her video biography business back in 2006, inspired by a graduate school experience interviewing older adults.

“I just fell in love with it, listening to their stories coming out,” said Saunders. “They clearly enjoyed being asked those questions and the families loved getting the audio transcripts. But I wanted them to have a visual experience too, and wanted it to be personal by including family photos that tell the stories to bring some of this history to life.”

After two years of learning how to film and edit, Saunders hung her shingle out in 2008, when the market crashed.

“It was a little slow start, but back then it was hard to find someone who did something similar,” she said. “My goal is for the family to feel like this person is talking directly to them, with their expressions and personalities. I describe it as a family documentary video.”  Saunders offers four packages, ranging from $950 to $3800.

Tripping Down Memory Lane

Saunders’ interviews are typically three hours, starting with questions about childhood memories and about parents/grandparents/great-grandparents.

“A lot of clients say, ‘You won’t get anything out of him’ but that’s not the case; a flood of memories just comes out,” she said. “I enjoy watching people come into the room a little nervous and watching them leave tripping down memory lane. And I love the creative aspect — the editing and incorporating historical photos and items like birth and marriage certificates.”

For Stern, her parents’ video is a true gift. “It’s hard to put into words because it captures a lifetime,” she said. “Susan interviewed my father and my mother separately and one other time together. It’s so nice to have; watching it is very comforting to me. And after my mother — who was adamant about not wanting to do it — saw it, she was so happy we did it.”

In Her Own Voice

Another client of Saunders, Barbara Rosin of Highland Park, Ill., decided to create a video biography for her family when she turned 70.

“My kids were giving me these books where you fill in the blanks and I thought they were so corny,” Rosin said. “My kids really wanted to hear about the early years, my childhood and all those things they ask in those crazy books.”

Rosin worked with Saunders to create a video full of selected photos, with her voice in narration and also in song, since she is a singer. “I tried to bring up a lot that my kids didn’t know, including vivid memories of the lifestyle in my childhood,” said Rosin. “And I talked about the joy of their father and I having children.”

Rosin’s children hosted a 70th birthday celebration for her, and she asked them to come to her home for brunch the day after. “I invited them into the den to watch the video on the TV; they were mesmerized and as it ended, they all clapped,” she said. “I gave them each a copy. I think when they’ll enjoy it the most is when I’m not here. That will be a nice thing to remember me by.”

A Gift for Future Generations

Allen Bronstein, owner of Your Life Matters Video in San Francisco, has created more than 60 video biographies for hospice clients. A commercial videographer by trade, he was contacted to create a memorial video for a superior court judge who was also a musician and fisherman.

“Putting that together for the judge’s widow was a wonderful experience for me, and the business started from there in 2015,” he said.

Bronstein’s videos typically range from eight to 20 minutes in length, and costs range from $1500 to $2500, depending on whether or not travel is required. The time spent interviewing subjects and editing the final project can also be significant.

“The approach I take is to look for the meaningful events in their lives — the things they had to overcome to be where they are now,” said Bronstein. “What drives me is empathy. I feel things deeply. My interest is in telling someone’s story in the most truthful manner possible. Whether the person is a poet, housewife or entrepreneur, I’ve endeavored to show how heroic they are, and what they’ve overcome.”

Bronstein also sees the importance of video biographies being passed down from one generation to the next.

“These are really ‘video heirlooms’ that allow future generations to see who you are, what you sounded like and the important things in your life,” he said. “And it’s fascinating to see a childhood photo compared to the image of a grandchild. Often you can see the repeat of the genetics in appearance and also in talents and skills. It’s a way of communicating these things and capturing them so they can be shared.”

A Life That Mattered

One memorable client of Bronstein’s shared the story of her oldest son who was brain damaged. “In the video, she talks about how she helped her son learn how to swallow, walk and become educated; she’s an amazing woman,” he said.

Another of Bronstein’s clients shared a memory of watching the Golden Gate Bridge being built in the 1930s. “I found photos of the bridge being constructed and a newspaper article and put that all together into a story that she narrated.”

Recalling significant life moments can be an especially meaningful experience. “With a lot of hospice patients, this is life affirming,” Bronstein said. “They’re at the end of their existence, possibly questioning if their life really mattered. I try not to discuss their medical conditions. I’m not there to offer sympathy. I’m there to try and capture who they are and to show them that yes, your life did matter, and here it is.”

There are many video biographers across the country; online research and word-of-mouth referrals are good ways to find someone to create a video biography for your family.

By Debbie Musser
Debbie Musser is a freelance writer and editor, a self-proclaimed word geek who loves to share a good story. She most recently was editor of Woodbury Magazine in Woodbury, Minnesota, where she resides, following a 25-year career in public relations and corporate communications in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

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