Life Story Video

Saving lives through video

Personal Documentaries Explained & Simplified

Lights, Camera, Personal Documentary!

What is a Personal Documentary?
Personal documentaries are life stories told on film or video. They typically present a life from beginning to end, and often cover ancestors as well as progeny. Personal documentaries combine interview footage with photographs, historical images, documents, music, archive footage, voice-over, objects and artifacts, captions and titles, personal or home movies, maps and animations, and other media as available. Normally, they are divided into chapters and most usually they are output, or delivered, to DVD.

There are 5 rules for the would-be DIY personal documentarian.

The beauty of a personal documentary is that it can be created with simple, and close-at-hand equipment such as a home video camera, a home computer, a scanner or a digital camera, and some simple editing software like Apple’s iMovie or Microsoft’s Movie Maker. Personal documentaries, as opposed to public or commercial documentaries, feature subjects who may not be well known enough to attract the attention of the general public; but they showcase lives which are important none the less.


Personal Documentaries are increasingly popular

So, you have a life you wish to celebrate and you plan to create a personal documentary. What’s next?

Rule 1: Start Today
Doesn’t sound like much of a rule, does it? But it’s the most important rule of all for personal documentaries. Here’s why: Every project about a life is big. Because lives are long. And lots of stuff happens in a life. And lives matter. And everything is connected to everything else.

This thing is going to go on for a while. Just starting a life story project requires a certain insanity. So, you need to jump right in before someone talks you out of it.

Action Points for starting the personal documentary today:

  • Visit or write to the person and tell them what you plan to do.
  • Make a phone call to an uncle, aunt or a cousin and make some notes about the life.
  • Create a file on your computer and label it “Personal Documentary Project”. Create subfiles for “notes”, “images”, “footage”, “contacts”.
  • Inventory your equipment – make sure you have a video camera, a tripod, a lapel mic., a scanner, a computer, and some editing software.

Rule 2: Finish the Documentary within one year
Documenting a life could take as long as the life took to live – longer maybe. Trust me, whatever time you plan to allocate will not be enough – so you must choose a date by which you will want to finish. You must impose limits upon yourself. Resolve to finish within the year.

Is a birthday or anniversary or family reunion coming up? Aim to have the project finished before then.

Suggested Action Points for finishing the personal documentary within a year:

  • Tell you family about your project and tell them when you plan to finish it.
  • Commit to a date and an occasion that you intend to play your personal documentary – make it impossible to turn back!
  • Draw up a plan for the project and allocate around 2 months for each of: Research; Visiting Friends and Relations; Scanning & Preparing Images and Documents; Filming Interviews; and Writing the Voice-Over and Editing.

Rule 3: Show as Much as Possible, Tell as Little as Possible
When most people think about personal documentaries, they think about interview material, talking heads and narration. And that’s right and proper. Lots of the information in your documentary will come that way.

But remember that film and video are visual media – so you must strive to show as much of the life as possible. Photographs will be your first recourse in your personal documentary – not just personal photographs but research historical photographs and images that illustrate the period, or the place, or the occupation, or the films and entertainment of the times. You can also use documents to tell the story – immigration records, passenger lists, draft registration cards, and so on. You can also use find and use archive footage that illustrates the life.

Depending on the age and mobility of your subject, you can also capture footage of them revisiting some meaningful or historic place, or meeting up with family members, or pursuing an activity that was or has become important to them.

Action Points for Showing, not Telling, in Personal Documentaries

  • Fire up your computer and do some image research.
  • Look at the archive of Life Magazine Images, millions of which have been made available and are free to use for non-commercial projects.
  • Make a list of the historic events that your life has passed through – go to Wikipedia and see if there are any public domain images that are available to use.
  • Check out the National Archives and see if you can locate any historic footage that might be useful.

Rule 4: Watch Barbara Walters
Seriously, go to YouTube and find a video of Barbara Walters. She is one of the great interviewers of all time. Why? She is always prepared. She is empathetic. She waits for the answer and almost never interrupts.

Interviewing is not how most of us spend our days, so it helps to do some preparation. It helps to have questions prepared (try NPR’s Storycorps for some suggestions) and to strive to let the subject finish when it comes time for taping. Also, subjects in personal documentaries tend to stick to the “what” of their life stories – try to ask “why” questions as appropriate moments.

Action Points for Improving Interview Skills

  • Watch the pros – Larry King is another genius when it comes to interviews. Its not an accident he lasted so long, but his secrets are on the screen and are yours to learn.
  • Scratch out a list of broad topics (parents, school, work etc) then start to fill out each topic with specific questions or stories that your already know.
  • Look at professional Personal Documentary producers’ work and make notes for later use.

Rule 5: Honor Your Personal Documentary Audience
Huh? Well, many of us, when we know a lot about something, have a tendency to over explain or to repeat ourselves (any parent reading this will know exactly what I mean). That can be frustrating and even demeaning for an audience. So try to leave a little room in your personal documentary for your audience to draw their own conclusions.

Let’s say your subject tries to explain a decision, but does so unconvincingly. You could press them for a better answer, or suggest one yourself in voice over, you could let the footage go in as it is. Your audience will see the same thing you did – the subject had another reason and wanted to avoid the answer.

Action Points for Honoring Your Audience in a Personal Documentary

  • When it comes time for the edit, don’t allow talking to drown out all thinking time – make sure you leave time in the documentary where there is no talking whatsoever.
  • Linger over important photographs with just music.
  • Ask question in your narration or voice over – but don’t answer them all.
  • Don’t be afraid of leaving loose ends.

Creating a personal documentary is easy, provided you follow some of these simple rules. This article has set down five of the most important considerations in planning and executing your personal documentary project and given action points that turn ideas into action.

So now it’s time to start your personal documentary. Rule 1: Start Today. To get you started, here is a real life personal documentary:

Good Luck!


Filed under: Biographies, DIY Tips & Advice, Personal Documentaries, ,

One Response

  1. […] Story Video. (2011). Personal Documentaries Explained & Simplified. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 Mar. […]

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