Home movies 101: Producing your family’s memories

You're the director, they're the stars: How to make terrific home videos of the kids, without stress

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Your grandchildren: They’re delicious. You just can’t get enough. You could watch them for hours, if only they’d stay in one place. And you’re already wistful about what they were like just a day, a month, a year ago. You want to preserve those moments forever. So what should you do? Make home movies.

Once you start a video archive of your family, you can be transported to your special times together again and again. Today’s technology makes it easy — very easy — to create a digital memory-bank that spans generations. And filming your home movies can be a fun project for you and your grandchildren to do together. If you’re already using a digital camera for your photos, and are loading images on your computer or sharing them online, then you already have most of the skills you need to record and distribute digital video. Really, you do.

A new breed of cameras

Personal video cameras used to be cumbersome and difficult to use, even a few years ago. They also had poor picture- and sound-quality, leaving many families with a library of bulky, rarely-viewed VHS tapes gathering dust. Today’s consumer cameras, on the other hand, are small and light, they record broadcast-quality video, their sound quality is excellent, and they’re priced in the same neighborhood as digital-photo cameras. Almost anything you film, then, will look as good as most of what you see on TV.

“Don’t be intimidated by the technology,” says Howie Samuelsohn, 62, a grandfather of two in Santa Barbara, Calif., who has spent 40 years directing and producing professionally for TV. “You’ve watched enough television so that you can reverse the process. Think of your end goal as a PBS-style documentary of your family. And then start acting like a producer, and go gather some material.”

Haven’t you always wanted to direct?

The first step is to sharpen your directorial eye by recording some test footage. If you already have a digital camera, it probably has a video option built in. While you can’t depend on this secondary function of your camera to produce high-quality video of busy, fast-moving kids, it’s a great way to start learning the process with a tool that’s already in your home. Try recording yourself reading a story to your grandchildren, or tape the kids reciting their ABCs. Then import the video into your computer — with most cameras, it should be the same process you use to upload still photographs — and e-mail it to your grandchildren.

You can even try using some simple video-editing programs to cut your clips down to their essentials. “Entry-level editing software is so easy to use because everything is laid out for you,” says Larry McCain, a director and producer at The Syndicate, a video production company in Weehawken, N.J. “You don’t have to read a book. You can just open it up and get started.” You’ll quickly find that filming, editing, and sending video is easier than you thought.

Start shooting today

But if you’re more comfortable as a videographer than an editor, just pick up a good consumer-level video camera and start shooting. You can still craft an entertaining end-product if you’re careful about what you record. For example, Kathy Butts, 55, a grandmother in Perry Hall, Md., uses some simple strategies to manage her home-video library. “We have one tape for our granddaughter, Madison, so that she is essentially the star of her own movie,” Butts says. “We film big things like Christmas and Easter — and little things too, like her first day in the pool.” And because they keep adding new footage of Madison to the same tape, everything stays in chronological order and is easily viewable in short chapters. Since Butts and her family keep all their footage, without editing or cutting anything out on the computer, they’re careful to limit new segments to fewer than four minutes. “Madison’s always asking to watch her movie,” Butts says. “It’s so much fun to see it with her. We all get to share the memories together.”

There is no one in your family more qualified than you to produce and maintain your family’s video archive. You don’t need to do it all by yourself, of course — especially if there are some eager young potential production assistants close at hand. You just need to instigate it, keep track of it, and keep it going. With the right tools and a little teamwork, any moment you wish to record can be frozen in time forever.