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Making History: When Bad Things Happen to Good Historians
Posted Jul 28, 2006 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Who is the video historian in your family? Every family has one. This is the person who enjoys videotaping the family holidays and emailing pictures to family and friends. It's also the person who most likely will be calling you to produce a photo montage for their next family wedding or anniversary.
     My father was the historian in my family. As a kid I marveled at how he would barge into a room to capture the family history. One could tell he was approaching because the six large klieg lights mounted on his 8 mm Keystone film camera would fill any room with 300 watts of hot, blinding light. My mother would constantly yell out, "Herman, turn those lights off and stop filming with that camera!" Ironically, no one complained about watching our home movies a few weeks later when he brought home the developed film.
     There were six of us in our family, and we would all wait patiently while my dad set up the movie screen in the basement. He would carefully thread the Bell and Howell 8 mm film projector and we would watch rolls of 50-foot film over and over.
     The film had no soundtrack, and the frames would constantly get jammed in the sprockets of the projector. Many times the bulb would burn the individual frames of the film. While this happened we would sit and wait for the next showing while my father proceeded to rethread the projector, no matter how long it took.

Decades later, as we fast-forward to August 2006, our expectation of watching a Legacy Biography has surely changed. If I showed a video to 300 guests at the Boston Harbor Hotel and there was no sound, and I made them wait patiently while I painstakingly reboot my same-day edit computer, I would get an earful from the hotel manager and stares from the paying client.

There is no greater sense of accomplishment when you are showing a Legacy Biography and the guests in the room are sitting there amazed at how great a production they are viewing. There is also no greater sense of disappointment when the same production is hindered by a problem with the sound or projection equipment.

My company produces about 80 videos a year that are shown in front of large audiences. These videos range from simple photo montages to complex Legacy Videos with same-day edits. Have we ever had equipment problems? Yes! Has the client ever noticed? Luckily, no!

My most tragic equipment failure involved the presentation of a 70th-birthday Legacy Biography we produced for the family of a woman who had suffered a stroke at an early age. Because she could not talk we had her grown children tell her story. It was a wonderful story, and at the end we edited in the woman as she tried to thank her children.

As we approached showtime, the daughter of the honoree introduced the video, the lights were turned down, and the crowd was ready to enjoy a fabulous Legacy Biography. Once the video started I realized I was in trouble.

The S-Video cable to the projector from my DVCAM deck was malfunctioning and my colorful video was being shown in black and white. In my head, I ran quickly through my options. Should I make an announcement and tell the audience we needed to start again? Should I quietly leave through the back door and start a new career as a cab driver? The most obvious solution was to give back my lucrative check and apologize to the client.

While I realized that it would be foolish to stop the video to change the cable, I started to look at the audience to see what their reaction was. My client was crying, people were wiping tears from their eyes, and the audience laughed at the right moments. No one had any idea that the video was not supposed to be in black and white.

When it was over, the client hugged me and kissed me and thanked me in front of all her guests for capturing the legacy of her mother. I told her I decided to show the video in black and white to add a nostalgic look for the many guests who were in their seventies and eighties. But I hastened to add that I also had copies, for her, in a color version. She told me the black and white was a great idea, as I sighed in relief.

Now I bring backup projectors, two sound systems, and extra S-Video cables to all my productions, just in case something goes wrong. Yet the most important thing I bring to each job are the words I learned from my father when he would show our family films. I asked him why people would sit for an hour while he fixed the projector to watch a three-minute film. He told me the answer was that people enjoy seeing themselves. There are things the camera can show us about our lives that we'd never see otherwise, and bring us visual reminders of things we've long forgotten.

As video historians, our job is that much easier because our clients enjoy our work. When they see it, they also know that their legacy will live on for many generations. As my dad taught me, they also enjoy seeing themselves—as they are and as they were.

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