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How to record your parents’ life story

When did you first decide it was time to record your parents’ life story? As my Mum and Dad have hit their 70s it’s become increasingly important to me to preserve their memories and knowledge of our family history.

Sure bits of this information are accessible through genealogy services like Ancestry, but a list of names on a screen isn’t quite the same as hearing the stories from the people who were actually a part of them!

Perhaps the most exciting part about recording your parents’ life story is getting the chance to capture their laugh, loves and legacy on film for future generations.

Now, obviously I’m pretty keen on helping people document their family history with Long Yarn Films, but today I want show you all the options available to record your parents’ life story, from a cheap DIY job to paying a professional. Then you can decide what works best for you.

After all, isn’t today a great day to start making it happen?!

Preparing to record your parents’ life story

Before you even think about what device you’ll use to film your interview it’s incredibly important to prepare!

I normally advise my clients to spend at least twice as much time preparing as they will actually filming their life story. It really is a rare individual that can magically recall their entire life without having to write down a few notes. So take some time to consider these 7 questions:

record your parents life story interview1. Who will be interviewed? – This seems pretty obviously, but you can’t really start recording your parents’ life story until this decision has been made. Is the interview going to just be with your Dad? Will you try and interview both of you parents together? Are you going to tempt fate and try to film your children interviewing their grandparents?

The option you choose will dramatically impact:

  • the equipment needed to film the interview
  • the skill required of you as an interviewer
  • the time you have to spend editing everything at the end

2. What stories will your parent tell? – There is a lot to cover in an entire lifetime! It’s important to take the time to work out what stories they want to cover in a 1-3 hour interview. As we discuss in out post on the Common Mistakes Made When Filming A Family Video Biography, sometimes it’s just as important to consider what topics your parents don’t want to record.

A great place to start is by asking your parent to write down some of the big stories from the different sections of their lives. This also doubles as a written record of your parents’ life story which is a great keepsake.

But at the very least, ask them to write out ONE story about each of the important people in their lives and the places they have lived. We get our clients to put this all together in a Memory Book.

3. What will your parent wear? – If you want a guaranteed recipe to stress everyone out on the interview day, leave it until the last minute to work out what frock Mum is going to wear!

A week before you record your parents’ life story interview, have a discussion with them about their preferred outfit. For more indecisive parents, it never hurts to pick two options that they can choose from on the day.

On top of this encourage your parent to dress nicely, but normally. The aim here is to capture their natural personality. So it’s going to look a little strange if they look like they’re off to meet the queen.

4. Where will you film the interview? – There’s a big logistical difference between filming your interview in a house or outdoors. If you choose outdoors you’ll have to compete with environmental noise, the light changing and weather, so we strongly recommend filming indoors. In this case, you’ll need to spend some time chatting with your parent about where they want to film the interview. Aim for an area in the house that has meaning, shows off their personality, but doesn’t have too much clutter in the background.

record your parents life story interview grandfather

Grandkids are great, but will they still be great after a 2 hour interview?

5. Who will be present during the interview? – Sometimes when we try to do something like this with our parents everyone comes out of the woodwork. Suddenly, your brother wants to be there on the day as they’re concerned about you upsetting Dad. Your sister wants her children in the interview because “it would mean so much to Mum”.

Make sure you’ve 100% agreed on who will be present well before the interview day so that you know what to expect.

6. How long will the interview take? – You might have a million questions, but that doesn’t mean your parent is up to answering them. One of the biggest lessons I ever learnt from filming a life story interview was watching my poor 90 year old Grandmother wane over a 4-hour interview session (with breaks of course!).

It’s important to take your Mum or Dad’s health into account when determining what they can realistically endure. This might mean either spreading the interview across a number of days, or limiting your questions to just a few key areas.

7. What time of day will you film the interview? – There are actually two factors to consider here. The first is lighting (which we’ll discuss in more detail below), and the second factor is your parents’ energy levels. At the end of the day some folks are morning people, others don’t crawl out of bed until 10am. Another consideration is sundowning. This refers to a tendency for some people with dementia to become a little more confused in the late afternoon and early evening.

Remember, the key to recording your parents’ life story is their comfort, so work with their schedule not yours.

Options for recording your parents’ life story

Now that you’re all prepared, it’s time to think about how you want record your parents’ life story. We’re going to look at the three tiers available to you for filming your interview which vary based on cost and quality.

OPTION 1 – Grab a smartphone

The easiest option of the lot. Just about all of us have a smartphone phone these days, so we’ve all got a camera at our disposal, which with a big of work can provide a reasonable result.

To get the most out of the smartphone options there are four things to consider:

1. Storage – do you know your smartphone’s recording capacity? If not then you could be setting yourself up to run out of memory halfway through your interview. Before you even think about filming on a smartphone make sure you know exactly how many minutes you’ll get and decide whether you need to by some expandable memory.

record your parents life story mobile

Smartphones – now for more than just filming pets!

2. Lighting – despite the advertising, smartphones generally don’t have sensors that perform well in low light. This means that if you record your parents’ life story interview indoors (which again, we strongly recommend), you’re going to need a lot of light. So filming after sunset or without artificial lights probably isn’t going to work well for this option.

3. Mini-Tripod – perhaps the biggest and most affordable boost your can give to your production value when filming with a smartphone is to buy a tripod. This will allow you to accurately frame your parent, keep things level, and not have the camera shake throughout the interview.

Cheap smartphone mini-tripods can found for around $10 on eBay/Amazon and are easily placed on table next to you so that you can monitor how everything looks.

4. Microphone – while you can buy external microphones for smartphones, we’ll stick to discussing the built-in microphone here, as this is our budget option.

When using the smartphone’s internal microphone it’s really important to do a test the recording volume before filming.

Remember that the only variables you’ll be able to change here is the proximity of the microphone to your parent and the volume at which your parent speaks. As you can’t really ask you parent to speak in a booming voice for an hour straight, you’ll need to experiment with phone placement to make sure that you’re getting an appropriate recording volume.

Summary – Easy and accessible, the smartphone is clearly a good option if you’re on a budget but still want to record your parents’ life story. With just a cheap $10 tripod you can significantly increase your production value.

However, there are some big downsides. The fact that you need to move the smartphone to control microphone volume may mean that you end up with a less flattering final image as the camera might be too close. There’s also the limitation on lighting and storage that will need to be considered before you start your interview.

OPTION 2 – Digital SLR (dSLR) and microphone

A little bit more complicated than a smartphone, but definitely achievable with a little bit of work and guaranteed to result in a better final product no matter what the latest iPhone ads tell you.

To get the most out of the dSLR option when recording your parents’ life story you’ll need to consider these three factors:

1. Camera model – by no means do you need a professional-grade dSLR to get a quality result. Even some of the most entry level dSLR and mirrorless offerings that can costs as little as $500 with a lens have fantastic video these days. The most important factors here are:

  • Knowing your sensor size, as this affects your focal length (more on that below).
  • Making sure your camera can film at least a 1080p resolution. Although the world has gone 4K be sure you have a computer that can handle editing this before you jump above 1080p.
  • Can you change the lens to create the look you want?
  • Does your camera have a jack to connect a microphone?

Another issue to considwe is the file type that the camera records (also called the codec).If you’re not particularly tech-savy and what to record your paren’t life story in one hit without any editing required, make sure the codec is MP4. Other proprietary file types such as Canon’s All-I mode will probably need to be converted before they work with your TV/computer.

2. Focal length – aim to use a flattering focal length of something between 50-85mm for your interview. Wider than this (say 24mm) and your subject will start to look a little bulbous. Longer than this (say 200mm) and you’ll have to film into your living room from your backyard!

record your parents life story focal length

Notice the perspective difference across the 3 focal lengths? Which looks best to your eye?

Remember as well that if you have APS-C or mirrorless camera this affects the focal length of your lens due to what’s known as the crop factor. You can use this calculator to make sure you’ve got the correct focal length.

3. Microphones – let’s focus on the two most accessible options here so we don’t have to get into conversations about topics like hypercardiod field patterns!

When using a dSLR, the easiest options to achieve good audio will either be lavalier (lav) or mounted video microphone. DO NOT use the dSLRs internal microphone unless you have absolutely no other choice as the audio quality will be horrible and tinny!

Lavalier Microphone

A lavalier microphone is one of those little ones you’ve seen attached to a newsreaders tie. They range in price from just a few dollars on eBay up to $800 for the professional models.

record your parents life story lav

Lavalier microphone – Image by fixedandfrailing under Creative Commons 2.0

The benefit of these is that you can get the microphone really close to your parent so the audio quality will be superior.

The downsides are that firstly, you’ve got to run the lavalier microphone underneath their clothing and then connect it to the dSLR, which means during breaks the whole thing will have to be removed. There are wireless versions, but that’s opening up a whole new can of worms (and cost!).

Secondly, lavalier microphones are notorious for picking up movement. So if your parent likes to move around a lot when they talk you’re going to get lots of rustling sounds in your audio.

For these reasons we don’t actually use lavalier microphones at Long Yarn Films, as older people tend to need regular breaks.

Mounted Video Microphones

record your parents life story mobile

dSLR camera with a Rode VideoMic Pro attached

Mounted video microphones such as the Rode VideoMic Pro and the Sennheiser MKE 400 can be attached to the mount on top of your dSLR and are available for around $300.

These are both classified as “shotgun microphones” which mean they pickup whatever they are pointed towards. The issue here is that if your parent moves around a lot they will move out of this microphone’s very narrow range resulting in bits of the interview being inaudible.

However, the big plus is that because these microphones are not attached to the body, your parent can easily take a break whenever needed. Long Yarn Films almost always uses off-camera shotgun microphones for this very reason. But a mounted option is still great for recording your parents’ life story film.

Summary – There’s a bit more work involved here, but if you already have a dSLR (or are willing to spend around $600-800 including a microphone) you can really step up your production quality. The only real restricting factor is your own technical knowledge of cinematography/microphone placement and the limitations of the equipment you have at your disposal.  

OPTION 3 – Professional film production company

Arguably the easiest option as you’re paying someone else to do the heavy lifting, but if you want to record your parents’ life story and quality is you main priority, then this is the best option.

Of course there are a few factors to consider:

1. Cost – let’s get this out of the way first; a professional video production costs. A lot of production companies are used to doing corporate jobs as well, which means they charge rates tailored to this type of client (i.e. expensive!).

Of course, there are bespoke companies such as our very own Long Yarn Films that specialise in video productions that record your parents’ life story and family history. We like to think we charge a fair rate for our packages, but you need to decide for yourself how much you’re willing to pay to have a professional interview and record your parents’ life story. Prices can range from $1500 to as much as $15,000 depending on the company, so do your research!

record your parents life story interview

A professional production comes with a lot more gear

2. Finding specialists – as mentioned above, large film production companies can charge a lot for their services. There are a number of smaller companies that can record your parents’ life story film, but Google isn’t exactly kind at helping you locate them as it’s quite a specialist service as opposed to something like a wedding videographer. Our recommendation is to search for the terms “video biography”, “life story video”, or “family history video” and the name of your city.

3. Professional services – let’s look at what your average production company should be able to offer you so that you don’t have to do it yourself:

  • Professional grade audio and visual equipment – this means turning up with more than a dSLR.
  • Comprehensive skills in cinematography, interviewing and lighting (more on this below in case you want to try yourself).
  • Editing your interview into a coherent narrative. For example, an average Classic Long Yarn package takes around 20 hours to edit.
  • Exporting everything into a final format such as a DVD, Blu Ray or USB (again, this can take over 10 hours depending on the content).

As you can see between the interview, editing and rendering you can easily be talking about 40 hours of work. If you’re not getting these things (or simply don’t value them) then it’s hard to justify the added cost when recording your parents’ life story.

record your parents life story editing

How keen are you to spend 20 hours editing?

4. Interview skills – In my opinion, this what really counts! There are plenty of people out there that know how to light a room and set up a camera, but when it comes to interviewing older people you really want to make sure you have someone who knows what they’re doing.

Check to see that your potential production company has skills beyond just reading questions off a sheet. Dealing with issues such as dementia and grief means you need an interviewer that is properly trained to help record you parents’ life story professionally.

Summary – Although this option is likely to give you the best quality, the price may be prohibitive for some. It’s important to consider the value of your time, as sitting down to record your parents’ life story could easily take over 40 hours from start to finish (and that’s if everything runs smoothly). Be willing as well to ask any video production company you’re interested in to prove that they have the interview skills required to help you parent discuss all the difficult aspects of their life.

Lighting your interview

If you do choose to record your parents’ life story via the DIY route, you’re going to have to deal with lighting. This can be as simple or complex as you want it to be; but it definitely has to be considered, as it what separates an average looking life story film from a great one!

1. Natural light

The cheapest option is to use the beautiful natural light of the sun. If you sit your parent about a metre away from a large window before recording the life story interview you’ll get a nice soft light. Add a bounce card like a big piece of white cardboard or styrofoam on the other side of their face and you’ll have a fantastic look with no heavy shadows.

record your parent's life story natural lighting diagram

Natural lighting setup

But here’s the problem. The sun moves! What this means is that if you film for any longer than about 30 minutes, the shadows in the room are going to start to move and this will make things look bizarre when you edit. Similarly, if there are clouds moving in the sky the room will keep changing from light to dark. Again, not a great look.

Perhaps most importantly though, if you’re going to use natural light, do not turn on your ceiling lights! We normally think that this would be a great way to brighten up the room, but the problem is that your ceiling lights are most probably a different colour to the light of the sun which results in some very strange effects due to the way video cameras see the world. Have a look at the picture below to see what I mean.

record your parents life story temp

See how mixing the sunlight and ceiling light results in everything looking orange indoors?

2. Artificial light

If you want complete control over your environment when you record your parents’ life story then this is the solution. But of course this means you have to go buy some lights. You can go from a cheap DIY CFL bulb array all the way up to professional LED light panels that cost as much as a car. The two most important things is that the flights don’t flicker in any way and that all the lights you buy are the same colour temperature.

A simple one light setup can still take you a long way. As with the natural light, we can treat the artificial light source like a fake sun. For those more adventurous you could try to take on a three light setup. In both of these instances I’d recommend blocking out your windows in the room (garbage bags will do) to avoid the shadows moving, because it’s unlikely any cheap light you buy will overpower the sun when you record your parents’ life story.

record your parent's life story artificial lighting diagram

Single artificial lighting setup

Companies such as Aputure and CAME-TV are now offering quite impressive LED panels for incredibly affordable prices compared to what they were just five years ago. But remember, you’re still going to need a panel that is at least 600 LED bulbs minimum to really have an effect.


Natural light can create a beautiful look and is definitely the most cost effective, but it will mean limiting how long you film for. Artificial lights will add a lot more control when you record your parents’ life story, but will probably set you back around $300 minimum for a decent amount of power.

Interview Techniques

Okay, so you’ve made it this far and decided you still want to take the DIY route. You’ve prepared, decided how you’re going to record your parents’ life story interview, and have lit your room beautifully. So let’s finally talk about interviewing techniques!

I’m not going to get too much into specific questions to ask when recording your parents’ life story as there are plenty of lists detailing these online. Instead I’ll what to focus on what makes a great video biography; actual interview skills. Because here’s the thing, people don’t always answer questions the way we expect. So let me put on my psychologist hat for a moment and share with you my best interviewing tips:

record your parents life story hands

The best interviews focus on engagement

Open-ended questions

Ever been at a party and had a conversation that just doesn’t seem to be able to take off? The number one reason this happens is people failing to ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions involves phrasing things in a way that encourages more than just saying “yes” or “no”. For example if I asked “Did you grow up by the beach?”, then my interviewee is probably going to give me a one word response. However, if I say “Tell me about the place that you grew up”, then the sky is the limit. The interviewee can offer all sorts of stories!

So how do you cultivate these types of answers when you record your parents’ life story? The trick is in the way you start the sentence.

  • Use more: Questions that start with “what”, “how”, and “why”. “When” and “where” are sometimes helpful, but you can probably see how they might result in one word answers. When in doubt, ask your parent to “tell me more” about whatever topic you’re discussing.
  • Avoid: Questions starting with “do”, “did”, “is”, “have” or “were”. Remember that if you do accidentally slip into one of these it’s okay to say to your parent “you know what, let me rephrase that”.

By opting for more open-ended questions you’re guaranteed to get more details about your parents’ past which is really the entire point of recording their life story.

Managing Emotions

Let me ask a very simple question; are you prepared to make your Mum or Dad cry? Because if your record your parents’ life story, you probably will. When discussing an entire lifetime, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll come across topics that elicit feelings of grief, loss, anger, and pain. If you really don’t feel that you can sit with this, then it might be worth considering hiring a professional interviewer. But if you’re resolved to push through let’s look at how you do it well:

record your parents life story emotions

Interviewing a life story means listening to the good and bad

Empathy – I’ve sat in a lot of rooms with a lot of tears (again, that’s with my psychologist hat on) and the key to managing big emotions always is empathy. Don’t feel the need to push your parent through the emotion as quickly as you can. It will feel invalidating and they won’t feel comfortable being as open with you. Instead you’ve got to learn to sit with them in the emotion and just be able to say “wow…”

Pacing – If you want a guaranteed recipe to distance someone, ask as many questions as you can as quickly as you can without stopping to see how they’re reacting. When recording your parents’ life story you need to match your pace to their affect. Don’t keep hammering them with questions when they’re on the verge of tears. If they need to stop filming, then take a break, let them recompose and then discuss whether they want to continue that topic.

Dealing with dementia

If your parent has any form of dementia, or even if they’re just getting a little more forgetful with age, it’s important approach recording their life story a little differently. Dementia generally impacts on a person’s ability to recall newer things. So be prepared for them to not be able to recall recent grandchildren for example. Instead try to focus on earlier parts of their life which they will recall more easily.

record your parents life story emotions

Working with dementia takes patience and skill

The other major difficulty with dementia is that it inhibits the ability to generate information. For example, a parent may very well remember their child, but the question “tell me a story about your child” may be met with a blank face. This aspect of dementia will also make it difficult to answer questions involving lists and categories e.g. “what are the three best qualities about you”.

Hopefully you can see why I’m encouraging you to put so much effort into preparation and writing down important stories ahead of the interview.

Finally, be realistic about time. A person with dementia will find a barrage of questions exhausting. In these instances I’d recommend limiting the questions to a 45 minute session.

By following these tips you’ll still be able to obtain a wealth of information when you record your parents’ life story, but ensure that they feel comfortable in the process.

In Summary

Well done on getting all the way through the guide! Hopefully you’re not now terrified by the prospect of recording your parents’ life story either by yourself or with the assistance of a professional.

My aim here was to show you everything that is involved in recording a fantastic life story video so that you and your parents can feel happy with the result no matter what path you take. Remember that the big factors to consider are:

  • How you’ll prepare for what your will ask, where you will ask it, and who will be involved
  • Determining your budget and being sure to experiment with your equipment before your start filming your interview (let’s be honest, your parents are only going to let you grill them once!)
  • Deciding how you want to light your interview
  • Practicing your open-ended questioning with anyone that will listen

Best of luck with recording your parents’ life story video. I truly believe they are a treasure that will be passed across generations and I’m sure you’ll feel the same way once you watch your own.

Of course, if you’ve decided that you would like someone to help you record your parents’ life story rather than taking the DIY route and live in the Sydney area then I’d love to have a chat with you about making it a reality.


Do you have any other tips for recording your parents’ life story? If so let us know in the comments below.

Clinton Moore

Clinton is the Director of Long Yarn Films and loves to spend his time jumping between his two lives as a life story videographer and clincial psychologist. Some might call it a split personality, he calls it the perfect recipe for creating life story videos!

Clinton MooreHow to record your parents’ life story

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