One of the greatest gifts you can give for someone's birthday, retirement, honorarium, wedding, anniversary, mitzvah, or any other special occasion, is to create a video that tells their life story, that gets played at their event or party.
This is something I do professionally and I've developed some tips to help guide you to create an actual short documentary style movie that captures an individual's essence and personality, in a way that's highly entertaining.
In my opinion, it's basically the most personal thing you can do to show someone how much you care. And if you do it right, it'll be so warm, touching, and funny, it'll blow everyone away.
So if you're with me so far and ready to try something great, here goes.
GET THE PHOTOS AND STORIES
First, ask the individual's friends and family for photos. If they're digitized, that's easier, but since many people still have old photo albums, put the best photos under a good light, and digitize them with your own camera.
Next, ask for anecdotes and get the individual's life story. Where were they born? Where did they grow up? What were they like as a kid? What were their interests? Who were their friends? I try to get everything about their lives as if I'm doing a research paper.
If the video is going to be a surprise, make sure to do this in secret. If the individual is in on it ahead of time, then use them as a primary resource without hesitation.
After the initial interviews, go home and input the photos into your computer. Make sure you have backups of both your photos and video footage on a separate hard drive as you put together your project.
SCRIPT THEIR LIFESTORY AND WRITE NARRATION.
Write a narrative script about the individual's life in chronogical order and record your voice-overs. It could start with something like, “He was born in Brooklyn and grew up in a rough neighborhood, so he had to be tough to survive.” Then describe how his upbringing affected his personality.
After you put in the narration, mix, match, and shorten the appropriate photos for each narrative to help tell the story. Sometimes I also add photos from the web, such as a map of their hometown to bring in an extra element.
WRITE QUESTIONS FOR THE VIDEO INTERVIEWS
Once you've scripted their life, and have a rough draft, prepare for the live interviews with their friends and family. It's best to try to gather everyone at the same place and schedule them every 20 or 30 minutes, individually or in small groups.
Think of questions before-hand that will elicit interesting anecdotes as well as possible humor. I usually go in with about a page or two of notes based on their previous information, to get the highlights of the honoree's life. I also coach my interviewees to bring out some humor.
When I interviewed the workers of one honoree who owned a window washing business for example, I had them describe how their boss, “would not do second floor windows because he was afraid of heights.” This was so obviously untrue, that it bought down the house with laughter.
DO THE BEST YOU CAN WITH VIDEO AND SOUND QUALITY
There are whole books devoted to video, sound, and lights, so I will not get into too much detail, but the better you're able to frame your shots, control the audio, and have adequate lighting, the better the finished product will look and sound. I personally use a 3 chip high def camera, professional lighting and a shotgun microphone. There are people far more expert about this subject then myself, but since this video will not only be for the party, but also for posterity, try to do the best you can.
DURING THE INTERVIEWS – GO WITH THE FLOW
Use the questions as a guide, but if someone goes off into an unexpected direction, be prepared to ask follow ups. You never know what people are going to bring up, but the more you get on film, the more you have to work with when you're editing. On the other hand, if someone goes off on a tangent that seems less promising, try to swing back to your other questions.
Once you've got your footage, input everything into your computer and start editing. Again, make sure you have backups on a separate hard drive. Begin by separating the material that has a chance of being used from the stuff that's not as interesting. This is probably the most tedious part of the whole job, but when you're done, you should have the best footage ready to play with.
Next, go back to your script and add your voice over narration to the photos. Figure out what should go where based on the chronological timeline and match them up to accentuate the story.
ADD TITLES FOR YOUR CATEGORIES
I usually use categories like Early Childhood, Family Life, Career, Hobbies, Eccentricities, and Prepare Your Hanks for starters. Add as many or as few as you want depending on your subject's life and interests.
This is also a good place to add a little humor. For example, I'll show a series of actual photos of the individual and their friends and family, and then mix in a picture of Brad Pitt or even a Kardashian. The juxtaposition of these completely unrelated and unexpected celebrity shots usually get a good laugh.
I also added a joke for one family that lived on an estate when their daughters were young, by showing a picture of the estate, and stating, “So Erin and Lauren grew up thinking they were rich.”
As you're editing, feel free to experiment by creating extra files so you're previous version is always safe. This way, you can always go back if you do not like your newest changes.
ALTERNATE THE NARRATION PHOTO FOOTAGE WITH THE INTERVIEWS
Once you've got several blocks of narration with the appropriate photos, it's time to add the interviews into their logical categories to create a blend.
TITLES, MUSIC AND SPECIAL EFFECTS
When I'm done putting together the whole thing, I go back and add titles and music. You definitely want opening and closing titles, but I find titles are also a great way to add information throughout the video, as well as an easy way to score some more jokes. I also use Garage-band to add music underneath the opening and closing titles, as well as anywhere else that I think it might be of help.
If you have extra time and want to add some more pizzaz, play around with special effects. Often when someone talks for a long time, I'll fast forward their speech to show how long they were talking and then slow it down again for added humor. Of course, I always make sure that that person can take a joke.
Another time, I shot video for a bat mitzvah girl who was a karate expert and used special effects showing her breaking boards and chopping watermelons to make a humorous infomercial which I called, “The Julia Chopper.”
CUT THE FAT
After it's all done, I go back and cut out the fat. I show it to my wife and some friends and usually edit it down to 10-15 minutes. There's no rule that says it has to be that length, but unless you're a master, you're more likely to leave in stuff that is not needed and slow things down. Keep the best.
KEEP EVERYTHING TASTEFUL
Remember, these events are usually for business or family functions, so unless you're making a video for a bachelor party, try to keep everything in PG.
PLAYING THE VIDEO AT THE EVENT
I'm going to assume that either you or someone else will be able to secure a movie screen, sound equipment, and video projector. Hopefully, this is all done professionally and all you have to do is bringing a dvd (plus backups), laptop, or Ipad, and you do not have to worry. Either way, talk to whoever is in charge ahead of time and get there early enough to make sure everything works. Technical difficulties with video happen frequently, so be prepared to take a few minutes extra to figure it all out.
BEST TIME FOR THE VIDEO TO BE PLAYED
The best time to play your tribute video is right after the toasts, because everyone is usually focused and attentive and your movie becomes the icing on the cake.
I personally like to introduce the video's I've made, to set it up so that everyone knows it's going to be a little different and to ensure it has their full attention.
With that in mind, I also ask everyone to turn off their cellphones and make sure the waitstaff holds off on serving food or collecting dishes. I can tell you from personal experience that there is nothing worse then watching your audience get distracted by clanking glasses and crashing dishes, so talk to the party planner or matre'di to make sure they're all on the same page.
If all goes well, you can create a video that's not only charming but even electric. If you get the right balance of warmth, humor, and detail, it can be an homage to the guest of honor that will not only be loved when it's played at the party, but will be an amazing keepsake for them and their family for the rest of their lives.
Yes, it takes a lot of work and care. But when you see the reactions on everyone's faces, you'll know it was well worth the time.
And that's a gift worth giving.