Why personal video biographies are so important – and how to create one
Want to record your life story for posterity? Find out how you can create a personal video biography.
Christine Preisig, videographer and video editor tells us what inspired her to start creating personal video biographies. She explains what the process entails and why video is such a good medium to bring to life and preserve special, personal memories that would otherwise, over time be lost.
The best film scripts are written by life
Memoirs are written memories about someone’s life. A personal biography video is its equivalent on film. It captures someone’s life story, a family history, a couple’s love story, or a significant life event in the form of a short video.
Paul and Anne, both in their late 70s, sit in their sunlit living room on their cosy couch surrounded by plants, an antique rocking horse, and shelves with hand-painted porcelain. Stacked in front of them is a pile of photo albums that witness the life they shared for the past 55 years.
The pair are the protagonists of a film of their own life. In it, they talk about their upbringing, how they became a couple and their journey as a family of four. They talk about life’s ups and downs and the events that shaped them to become the people they are now.
Who usually commissions personal biographies – and why?
The people commissioning a personal biography video are mainly from the sandwich generation – between 45 and 59 – who realise that their parents have become frailer and want to know more about their past or to keep memories alive for their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
That’s also why Paul and Anne agreed to participate in a biography documentary. They would have loved to have a similar time document from their ancestors, and they want their descendants to know who they were.
What happens in a personal biography video?
My family portraits are filmed interviews where the protagonists talk about their experiences. The narration is woven together with old photos, documents, maps, and historical and new footage. A biography video goes beyond names and places but tries to capture the daily fabric of life for the people.
They’re like a ‘moving photo album’ where the pictures are brought to life by a narrator who knows the story behind them.
Besides telling their stories, I want to show people the way they are when they feel unobserved going about their daily routines and preserve memories of someone’s humour, gestures, and laughs along with their biography.
This makes a video so different from a written memoir.
Why did you start making personal biography videos?
What motivated me to start making personal biography videos was when my mother became ill, and I realised that my time with her was limited. There was still so much that I wanted to know about her – details about her ancestors but also about how it was growing up in post-war Switzerland and experiencing significant societal changes in the 1960s and 70s, but also how it felt being married to my dad and bringing up four children.
It became clear that all these stories and memories of her smile or how she moves and talks would be lost at some point. This bothered me immensely, and also the fact that my children and her other younger grandchildren might not have many memories of my mum.
This realisation inspired me to make more extended biographical portraits of individuals and families. I wanted to provide a way to preserve precious memories that would otherwise be forgotten.
I’m also a member of the Oral History Society, which records people’s stories for archiving purposes. While it has become common for younger generations to record their opinions, experiences and emotions on video and share it with the world, voices from the elderly are much rarer to find. It is a concern of mine to record memories of older people not just to balance out their underrepresentation but to preserve their living memories and experiences.
When did you start a business in making personal biography videos?
I started my videography business two years ago. Before, I worked as a journalist and researcher and made films as a hobby. For a magazine, I wrote portraits of artisans and craftspeople. By doing that, I realised how most people love being listened to.
Often a simple, open question like “How was your time at school?” can be an entry point into a deeper conversation. This fascinates me, and of course, also the fact that everybody has remarkable stories to tell.
There is not enough time to tell a whole life story in 20 minutes (that’s how long a personal biography video usually is). Therefore, the first thing I work out with a client is the content of the video – the chapters in their life they want to focus on. Is it mainly about their upbringing and ancestors, about family life with their own children, do they like to share their travel adventures, or should its focus be on work or a mix?
It’s also important to know who the film’s audience will be. Is it for the immediate family only, or is it to be shown at a party for a larger audience, including friends?
Then we discuss how the story will be structured and who the narrator is. Because each film is tailored to a different family, the format for every video varies. Often the protagonists tell their own stories. But sometimes it’s relatives or friends that are interviewed, telling anecdotes about the person portrayed in the film.
Why are personal biography videos so important?
A personal biography video is one of the simplest ways to preserve, celebrate and share memories. What I particularly like about this format is that it lets the person be in charge of telling their own story.
It was clear to Anne and Paul that they didn’t want to just talk about achievements but also about the disappointments they’d experienced.
The result is a chronicle that captures the couple’s story and brings to light Anne’s and Paul’s characters, values and beliefs; hopes and aspirations; pearls of wisdom and life lessons.
Paul delivers his anecdotes deliciously deadpan – just as he does when he’s not in front of the camera. The coupes’ two sons and five grandchildren crack up watching the film at its “premiere” in Paul and Anne’s living room.
This film makes clear that biography portraits are a celebration of life. They are cheerful, lively, and often funny but also intriguing and moving. Is this a surprise? Not really! We all know that the best stories are taken from life.