How to Create a Personal Documentary

We’ve discussed how to write a memoir and document family history through photos and memorabilia, but what about a personal documentary? You’ve surely watched documentaries on television that educate you about different places, people, and things going on in the world.

What is a personal documentary?

A personal documentary tells a life story about ourselves, family members, or close friends on film or video. It is similar to a memoir, including meaningful photos, letters, and memorabilia, but goes further to add the excitement of sound and movement. You can see people engaged in their favorite activities – playing games, singing, or dancing – and hear their voices in conversation and laughter. Add music, interviews, home movie clips, and more.

The goal is to capture a moment in history, show people as they live and work, or preserve a significant family journey. Documents like immigration records, work permits, and birth certificates can share the history of the times. Combined with a video tour when taking them to their place of birth or hometown, you can follow the story both visually and audibly.

How to get started

Set a goal to start today and finish in a year. For your first steps, you’ll want to choose a purpose as well as an audience for your documentary. You might be telling your own story, or someone else’s to:

  • Share family traditions
  • Tell a life story
  • Celebrate a milestone event

In that case, your audience is likely to be other family members, friends, and business colleagues. Think of some broad topics – a wedding or company anniversary – expand on the stories and how they impacted the people around them. Let your audience see behind-the-scenes details of events, the unknown thoughts that led to life and career decisions, when a family business went public or eventually sold.

Organizing the Elements of Your Story

How much you include in your documentary will depend on how long you want it to be and the theme or scope of the project. It is important to create a storyboard that will divide a person’s life or business career into chapters, in chronological order, and sort individual stories according to themes as an outline. Then ask yourself:

Do you have print or digital photos to add?

  • Allow yourself time to locate the most relevant photos and organize them according to the storyline. We will then use camera scanning to digitize and convert your images. This process ensures you have a high-quality copy to include in your documentary. You may also want to reach out to others to locate images and interview them for parts of your story.

Are there relevant pieces of memorabilia related to the story?

  • Certain visuals can capture an era or milestone in different ways, such as letters, certificates, travel documents, driver’s licenses, military IDs, articles of clothing, or artwork. All of these treasures can add so much to your story, and we can scan all of these items to be included.

Will you be adding other sources of video like home movies?

  • You’ll want to convert home movies to a digital format. Also, learn how to add smartphone or video camera footage (link in current blog?)

Creating New Video Content

Doing it yourself can be simple with equipment you may already have around the house, such as a video or digital camera, computer, scanner, or smartphone, and some simple editing software like Apple’s iMovie or Microsoft’s Movie Maker.

  • Learn how to use video to record and tell a story using proper camera angles and lighting.
  • Find out more about audio recordings to narrate your content. This may include old footage that will need to be converted to digital media.
  • Transcribe interviews with family or business colleagues using inexpensive talent services like, Upwork, Fiverr, and Rev.com.
  • Use a mobile app on your phone or tablet like Voice Memo and Otter.ai to record, transcribe, and edit audio as needed.

Audio Tips

When recording new audio, you’ll need a quiet space in a small, carpeted, and furnished room. Sound bounces off of bare walls and floors. And turn off or remove devices that tick, ring, or buzz.

  • Be conscious of “P”s and “S”s when speaking. Point the microphone at your chin instead of your mouth.
  • Have a glass of water handy.
  • Read off a script several times to get comfortable with your tone, volume, and emphasis.

Hiring a professional

Resources for personal documentaries are only a Google search away. You may be able to get a referral from someone you know who hired an expert. We recommend Cardona Creative and  Legacy Connections Films to take movies and interviews and chronicle personal life journeys. They can tell your family history, a business or organization’s narrative, or an individual’s life story. Experts know how to portray personalities, choose the best images, and add sound including conversation and music for a treasured legacy. 

Contact us at Picture This Organized for help sorting through your traditional and digital photos, home movies, smartphone videos, and memorabilia to choose the most relevant collection of material for your personal documentary!

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