These parents must be... DOCUMENTED!
June 14, 2020 2:42 PM   Subscribe

My parents are now in their late sixties, and I'd like to record interviews with them that I could keep forever. I think it would be really neat to be able to show them to my own grandkids one day, for example. There's only one problem: I'm a complete ignoramus about recording and storing video. How should I record, lightly edit, and store digital video recordings of my parents?

In your answer, please keep in mind that I'm a total beginner at this. It's hard for me to think of a way that your advice could be too basic or obvious.

Do I need to get any equipment other than my phone to record these relatively short (I'm thinking thirty minutes at the absolute most) interviews?

What should I buy to store the videos?

Would it make sense for me to upload the footage to a private YouTube channel or some other streaming service?

What am I overlooking about this project?

posted by Chuck Barris to Technology (7 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
You're talking about archival video with a target of multiple decades plus.

It seems to me like your three biggest problems here (in no particular order) are 1) bit-rot, 2) compatibility and 3) recordings being discarded or destroyed through misadventure, human error and/or lack of interest.

Making multiple copies on different media helps with all three. I'm thinking SD card, USB stick and BluRay disc might be a good start. (You might also upload to your choice of cloud services like YouTube, but I would not bet on any of these being still around and having your video fifty years from now.)

File format is another big question mark. Use multiple formats on each storage option. Pick well-known, popular, non-proprietary containers and codecs. (I would try h.264 and MPEG4 in .avi and .mkv containers, as an opening bid.)

If you're recording for posterity, provide for archival efforts. Maybe a trust with a budget every ten years to check the recordings, convert to current best-practices formats and media, and store in secure locations, and provisions in estate planning to keep it going. (Or just make your kids pinky-swear to take care of the stuff and pass it down...)

Video will look ridiculously antiquated and awful in a surprisingly short time frame, and no one will care. 1080p60 is probably the easiest cheaply-attainable, widely-compatible choice. Chasing 4K or 8K, with HDR and silly-fast frame rates gets into stupid amounts of money very fast, and in twenty years it'll all be like watching a Charlie Chaplin movie anyway. But that's OK! You're going for content here rather than visual spectacle.

If you are going to spend money on the video part, your best bang for the buck is: practice, training, lighting, lenses, camera -- in that order. Filming in a place with enough light can be free, and will make your recording a lot better.

Audio is key. If you have terrible video with intelligible audio (and compelling content), you have a good recording. If you have great video and terrible audio, nobody is going to watch more than two minutes unless they have money riding on it. Recording with your phone is probably OK. If you are going to spend money on one thing, buy (or rent) a decent microphone.

Do at least one and hopefully several dry runs / tech tests (maybe without your actual parents on set) before The Day. Iterate and improve. Have spare batteries, spare cables, a "plan B". Watch your actual recording soon after you make it -- if something is hopelessly wrong, you want to have a shot at a second take.

Editing is to make the thing watchable today, and to keep people interested enough to keep it alive down the road. Non-linear video editing has, to put it mildly, a learning curve, but there are relatively easy free solutions. Whatever you do, keep the original raw footage in parallel with the edited version. Future archivists will have better editing (and encoding) options, and will thank you. If whatever you are using has some sort of "raw" format -- keep that! Your descendants will want it for the centenary director's cut.
posted by sourcequench at 4:05 PM on June 14, 2020 [5 favorites]

My parents used to do this kind of thing (as in, make videos interviewing people) So this is what I've picked up- the things you might not think about at first.

Firstly I'll address quality- a modern phone should be able to do a good enough job. However think about storage size on your phone: video is HUGE, especially longer videos. In terms of storage after the fact, do you have a computer? I would purchase a good external hard drive, SSD if you can afford it, of a decent size (500GB or bigger). Remember too that this will be a precious project, and so you want to have it in at least 2, better 3 different places. Just having it on a hard drive doesn't mean it's backed up.

Audio is what really matters, with a project like this. It's good you're thinking about lighting, but also think about audio. My parents probably would use a voice recorder or microphones, with a low budget production you're probably OK just setting up in a nice quiet space and checking that your parents are speaking clearly.

Video quality - I would make sure you shoot landscape (phone ---- instead of | ) for better viewing on a bigger screen (ie computer or TV). Also, you'll notice shaky filming in the finished product more, it might be worth investing in a simple tripod for your phone. I would personally recommend set, steady shots, rather than pans, etc.

Think about "framing the shot" (how the subject is posititioned on the screen) as well- you don't want to be too close up, but also not too far away either. Think about where the person will look- are they talking to the camera, or the interviewer? Or each other? Will you record them separately or together? Think about the back drop as well- you don't want stuff 'growing' from their heads! There are some good tutorials out there about this. Try "framing interview shot" as a starter.

Script- OK, so we've talked about the technical side of things a little, but what about the questions you're going to ask? Open ended. Ask details. "Tell me more about the time that..."

The finished product might be shorter, but you should be prepared to film a lot. Remember that sometimes people take a moment to get comfortable with the camera- just let it roll and have a conversation. (With phones, check that there isn't a clip limit- it's very frustrating to go back and realise that it's stopped filming on you!)

If you're going to edit this together, (and if you want people to watch in the future, cutting it down to the best bits is probably what you want) you'll want to have some non talking shots as well just to give you some flexibility.
posted by freethefeet at 4:16 PM on June 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

My suggestion would be to forget the video and just get audio. It's so much easier and non-intrusive. It's hard for people to relax and really talk while you're fussing with lights and camera angles and they're thinking about how they look and they have to get dressed up. Just put a digital recorder or your phone on the table and forget about it. Editing audio is a cinch so just get some good photos to go with the MP3. Save them in the cloud, on cd, hard drives, thumb drives. If you've got some dough, you can have them transcribed and keep a print copy. Put them in the safe deposit box.
posted by charlesminus at 10:51 PM on June 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

I recommend looking into (IDK why my phone isn’t letting me embed the link) to share their stories
posted by Neekee at 7:35 AM on June 15, 2020

Adding to charlesmingus' idea: get audio, then create a slideshow with photos you have of them. Place the audio over the photo slideshow to create a video.
posted by hydra77 at 8:48 AM on June 15, 2020

What am I overlooking about this project?

Keep in mind while you are interviewing that there may be things that they don't want to talk about and you won't know why, and you may inadvertently get on uncomfortable topics that they might not physically reveal as being uncomfortable. I know this from experience when my brothers and I did this late in my mom's life; There was a formative event that should have been a joy for her to relate but she got dodgy. Later as we went through life's records we found out why.

Tread lightly and follow threads of Joy and Happiness; the difficult parts will eventually come out if they want.
posted by achrise at 12:07 PM on June 15, 2020

I've been musing on this for a bit, and looking for solid resources or references beyond those mentioned in this post.

I'll agree that you should focus on the audio, and if you do choose to go audio-only, the format options are much more flexible, but that may be simply based on my limited knowledge being more on audio formatting than video. At least as of 2013, this article on PC World from Lincoln Spector supports my notion: there's not as much standardization around video formats as there is for still image and audio.

So if you do choose to be quality-focused and using still images and audio, I'd suggest taking photos in the highest resolution and least amount of compression possible. This means the files will be larger, and you'll lose less data from the start.

- File formats -
On the audio side, that 2013 article mentions MP3 and WAV, but I'd suggest FLAC (Wikipedia). There are other lossless formats, but this one has been going strong for 18 years, and there is plenty of support for the format. The benefits: no loss of information, and smaller files that can be played back on the computer and some stand-alone audio devices. But a 320 kbps MP3 (Wikipedia) is also pretty future-proof, and is the least amount of compression in this lossy format. [If you don't already know this lingo -- lossy means that a file is made smaller by removing increasing amounts of information, depicted here visually.]

If you have the ability to record as an uncompressed audio format, typically WAV, go with that, then compress to FLAC, or 320 KBPS MP3, or both for redundancy and increased playback options. Similarly, most digital cameras have more formatting options, and may allow you to save RAW files, meaning there's no compression at all. BIG files, but no data loss.

I'll take a moment to recognize that this may be more technical than you'd like to get, so I'll jump to a straight-forward to ...

- Setup -
As freethefeet noted, shoot landscape, and I'll echo their suggestion for a tripod. I agree that a microphone would definitely improve sound quality, but if you have the person facing the phone, and fairly close to the camera, the audio should be clear enough. For lighting, you can probably work with what you have. Natural light in the morning and afternoon is nice, or have enough lights to see your parent's face clearly. If all that file formatting talk was technobabble, you could ignore it all and just record with your phone, doing test runs before you start long sessions, playing it back on a different device to see how it looks and sounds.

- Questions -
Again echoing freethefeet, have questions on hand ahead of time, and maybe even given them to your questions, or talk about them in advance, to see if they'd be comfortable talking about those things. Or work with your parents to discuss in advance what you're interested to hear, and what they want (and are comfortable) to share.

- Longevity and Accessibility -
I like sourcequench's suggestion of multiple physical devices, but I'd suggest a DVD instead of BluRay, considering that BluRay drives are still a bit costly, where DVDroms are cheaper and more prevalent, even as disc drives are less common on computers.

Don't rely on any free hosting service for extended service, and even with paid services, don't expect that they'll last forever. Back to the topic of quality, consider that YouTube and other video hosts will re-encode your videos, which means you'll have some video quality loss between what you upload and what others will see and hear. With that, I'm not saying you shouldn't upload the videos to YouTube, but don't let that be your primary location.

Also for YouTube or other video hosting, a private video sounds nice, but that's another gate to accessing the videos in the future. In other words, you'll have to save the link to individual videos and/or your account name and password, or the videos are inaccessible tomorrow if you lose both of those things.

A good practice would be to duplicate the files ever 2-5 years, to address primarily the bit-rot (media degrading), and depending on how you've recorded the files, changing file formats and media accessibility. Also, keep copies in different locations, either family houses, or at safe deposit box, if you have one.

Bonus: consider writing a transcript, which your parents can then also review and annotate and/or edit. Or, if you know or have heard the stories, you can also annotate the transcripts. This could be saved as a printed hardcopy (bound or unbound, up to you), and a few different file formats for good measure. That's an easy one to change, saving as a MS Word file, PDF, and plain text, for example.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:29 PM on June 21, 2020

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