Studio Time: Bio-pics
Posted Jan 23, 2006

Hal Slifer doesn't think of himself as a videographer, but means no disrespect in saying so. For the past 25 years, he's certainly acted like a videographer, producing more than 1,200 wedding, bar/bat mitzvah, and other milestone event videos, as well as 2,500-plus "family histories" for clients throughout New England and across the country. He also attends industry conferences, actively participates in WEVA and the National Professional Videographer's Association of Massachusetts, and presented a seminar at the first-annual 4EVER Group Convention in January. He even reads the trades and, starting with this issue, writes for one. (His EventDV column, Making History, kicks off this month, complete with illustrative videos streamed from Hal's own site.)

Given these activities, it seems odd that a professional videographer would describe himself as anything but, but EventDV's newest columnist can explain. "Just shooting events isn't my style," he says. "What I'm doing is capturing the history of a person or a family via video technology. The videos we produce today become the histories of tomorrow's families." And for just a few hours on very special occasions, he revels in being a part of those families, delivering images and memories that he says "are already in the room in people's minds. We're dealing with what people know best: their memories."

The Way We Were
By "we," Slifer means the team of full-time, part-time, and freelance professionals who have made Newton, Massachusetts-based Hal Slifer Video Productions and its affiliate, the Video History, the videography studios of choice for thousands of families in the greater Boston area. "I started in the video business just when the evolution of event video was beginning," Slifer says of his early days behind the camera. "There were a few of us videotaping [special occasions] in the early 1980s and we all were just winging it, making a business out of video production in the process."

With a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in communications from Curry College and Boston University, respectively, Slifer was working in the Boston Public Schools system as a media director just as video equipment was becoming increasingly portable in 1980. "The school system at the time was sinking [financially], so I suggested that the schools teach students [the basics of] video, give them cameras, and charge a fee" to those in the community who wanted their productions or special events videotaped, he recalls. "I thought it was a win-win solution for the students and for the school system, but school officials were too conservative in their thinking and rejected the idea. It was then that I realized there was a business model in videotaping events, so I started producing video events on the weekends. Eventually, I left the school system and cashed in my retirement money to buy my own equipment.

"Videotaping weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other special events was brand new at the time; no one had seen it before," Slifer continues. "At the very first wedding I did, I decided to show photographs of family members on a large television during the cocktail hour. I could see the guests' enjoyment on their faces and I listened to them holler when they saw a favorite family photo appear on the screen. I was hooked."

Before long, Slifer had a business model that made him the go-to guy for commemorative videos of special occasions. "Most of our events include the showing of a video," he says of the niche market his companies serve. (The eponymous Hal Slifer Video Productions functions as a special event videography studio, while the Video History specializes in transferring family photographs and home movies to DVD.)

"Originally I thought I would do event videos of weddings and bar mitzvahs on the side while I tried to get more involved in industrial video," he says of his initial professional intentions. "I did my share of industrial videos, but I found doing weddings every weekend to be more profitable than trying for one big industrial [project] that would take six months to produce." He also found he enjoyed the family camaraderie his work inspired, the memories of time and place and emotions it conjured for his clients and their guests. "What other business is there where a customer will look at the finished product, cry, and then hug you and give you a check, and say, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you'?" he asks. "It's exhilarating."

Tell Me a Story

Today, Slifer and his team devote the majority of their time and energy to weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and family milestone occasions. "Clients can hire us [in the form of Hal Slifer Video Productions] to videotape their events or they can hire us [in the form of the Video History] to produce a video of their family history, but the companies are different in name only" since both use the same tools and processes, he says. In addition to producing video biographies for special occasions, Slifer's companies assemble photo and video montages, including the "Wedding at the Wedding" and bar/bat mitzvah candle-lighting ceremony videos for which he is best known. (Prices vary depending on the services chosen. Clients can order photo montages of up to 100 photographs—a.k.a., "family histories"—for $395 to $595. More sophisticated video biographies "like those shown on A&E" cost anywhere from $2,500 to $10,000.)

Slifer says family histories and video biographies are what people have told him they most remember from attending other people's events. The feelings those videos inspire often lead them to come back to him as clients seeking something similar for their own meaningful occasions. "My business is very much a word-of-mouth operation," he says.

As a self-described "video historian," Slifer makes accurate and moving storytelling his highest priority. "Most of the scripting is done via the story the honoree and his or her family tell us," he says. "We give them five or six chapters in which to tell their story." For an anniversary, for example, Slifer and his team would ask the client to supply "photographs, home movies, and their personal stories regarding the honoree's early childhood, teenage years, courting, and dating leading to a wedding, starting a family, friends and family experiences, and looking back," he says. Anything "that represents those chapters in their lives" would be important. "When clients come to the studio, we have them put the pictures in chronological order, with the best pictures in ‘Group A' and the next-best in ‘Group B.'

"We like to have five or six family members tell their perspective on the same chapter," Slifer continues. "We can weave the same story from different angles. A husband has his memories of 50 years of marriage, the wife has hers, and the children have their own view. Putting them all together creates a loving story told by many different people."

Slifer says his team also strives to be discreet in terms of what a family history video reveals. "We are always very concerned about family politics and we always use ‘selective memory' to tell a story," he says. "Divorces, deaths, illnesses, and other family tragedies are discussed in the scripting meeting, and we let the client decide how much or how little they want to touch on those issues. We also make sure to use the same number of pictures of each child when doing a family history so no one feels slighted or left out."

Another Slifer staple is the Wedding at the Wedding, a 10- to 12-minute video that combines previously edited biographies of the bride, groom, and their families with footage shot on the day of the wedding. Not every client requests the "Wedding at the Wedding" option, which adds anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000 to the overall cost of having a videographer shoot the event (already a $3,995 expenditure), but Slifer says 80 to 85 percent of his wedding clients do. "It depends on the family dynamics and what they want for the day. It all comes down to the history of that family. Whether it's a $2 million wedding or a wedding in the basement of someone's house, the memories elicit the same emotions."

Search for Tomorrow

Already a 25-year veteran of the videography business, Slifer foresees more of the same for himself and his companies in the future. "My long-term goal is to continue producing events and to specialize in producing family histories and biographies," he says. "This is the same goal I had 25 years ago, and the business model still works."

Even so, Slifer has observed a palpable shift in his clients and what they expect from the videography profession. "When I first started out in the video business, our clients didn't even have VCRs to view their video projects," he says. "They were excited just to see us videotape their events, and no one was concerned about style and technique. Today's clients are more educated and choose videographers based on their ability and talent. This challenges videographers to continue to [reinvent] themselves with cutting-edge techniques and to balance that with maintaining the integrity of the storytelling.

"The skill of telling someone's story is a craft that [always-evolving technologies] cannot replace, however," he adds. "Once we, as videographers, learn [and perfect] that skill, we will be in business for many years."