04 June 2009

Family Story

Maybe you know this already, but I love audio. Love LOVE stories on the radio. Part of the reason I also love my film archive job so very much are the many hours it allows me to spend with my iPod each week - and there's not one single song on that iPod (there would be if I had more than 4g memory) because it is crammed with radio podcasts.

The best part of audio is how easy it is to make yourself - but conversely, how hard it is to do well. I was reminded of this when we were slaving over our latest project - a tribute movie for Sergio's Grandma who turns 90 this month. The backbone of this movie was a 2 hour interview that his family recorded. This is a fantastic idea. Go out right now and record your family. Seriously. Sit down and ask some questions. Those family stories that you're always kicking around or wondering about or the names you can't remember - get them down! I really wish I had done this with my Dad, to hear his voice again or hear him call me Chowder Chunk...this would be something I would save in a fire.

But can I make a few suggestions? About how to do it? If say, someone decides to make a movie from said audio interview one day and you don't want to make them ABSOLUTELY INSANE? Okay then.

1. The first thing is the hardest: put aside your agenda. Definitely go in with some prompts and some questions but let - the - person - tell - the - story. Let them talk about what they want and go off on tangents. Remember things along the way, meander down memory lane. Pause. I can't count the number of times that Grandma Caroline was just getting started on an interesting topic and someone interrupted with a question that nobody in the world but them would care about - we were going to make a gag reel just featuring the question and comments of Sergio's brother. He is a financial analyst, assessing risk and debt for giant bank-type dealios and all his questions related to statistics and numbers and monetary values. Every single one.

2. Something I tell every interviewee I've ever had - "Listen, I can't make this like a conversation, where you say something and then I respond "Mm hmm" or "yeah" because those turn up on the audio track and are really hard to edit out and ruin great things you have to say. So instead, I'll waggle my eyes and nod a lot and look crazy, but I promise, it's worth it." Sergio's sister said "um-hmm, oh yeah" about one hundred bajillion times during the interview and while you'd be surprised how hard it is to NOT say it - it's so hard to edit it out, so try, really try.

3. Find a quiet spot. Do not bring your children or pets if you can help it. Turn off your cell phone. Make your Mother-in-Law go in the other room when watching TV. The story of Caroline's husbands death is a story that is rarely told in the family and in the middle of all the emotion and sadness, it was impossible to edit out my nephew whispering over and over "But I have something I need to tell you!" Sigh.

4. Equipment-wise, I used a mini-disc for many years, pre-HD digital recorders. Now, I just use my laptop. If you have a Mac, Garage Band is perfectly serviceable and comes free. I use Audition and it is great, but I know there are some good open source options out there. We have a really good condenser mic that is XLR and the problem with recording straight into the laptop with a condenser mic is it needs a preamp/phantom power source. We got this Lightsnake tool from the Guitar Center that does it and has a USB plug, so it's straight into the computer. It works really well and has made the whole thing so much easier, as long as you're sitting down. For field recording, the size is problematic.

5. After recording and before editing, type up a transcription of the interview. This will take forever. FOREVER. But it is so worth it - one, you have an easy to refer to and printed out version of what your relative said. And two, if you're planning to edit, it's easy to go through and highlight the parts you want. See that picture up the top? That's my editing system. I highlight from the transcript. Cut out the highlighted parts. Sort them into themes. Past them on a giant sheet of paper.(If it's a movie, I'll add a Post-It note above the audio portion with ideas for the images.) And then go through and methodically cut and past these together. But it all starts with the transcript. The new version of Premiere uses ASR to create a (kinda messed up) transcript of your footage which fills me with (reserved) glee.

6. If you want sound effects, you have to check out this most excellent site: freesound.org People from all over the world add their field recordings to this Creative Common database of sound and you are free to download and use them, then add your own. Want the jungles of Brazil at 5 am? It's there! Need the sound of Nikon SLR shutter clicking? A rotary phone ringing? It's there! Even little loops of music, free to use. You can tell from the sample .wav file how loud it is, how long...there are even Geotagged samples, where you click on a map and voila - you see what was uploaded from that part of the world. It's fantastic.

7. What you're really making is an oral history. UNC-CH, where I go to school, is the home of the Southern Oral History Program and they have a collaboration with Documenting the American South. You can check out some pretty fantastic oral histories they have digitzed HERE for inspiration.

8.The granddaddy of Oral History projects here in the States is Storycorps. If you've listened to NPR, you've probably heard Storycorps - and right now, like everyone else, they need money. So check them out. And donate if you can. There aren't many slogans I believe in in this world but theirs - "listening is an act of love" - is one of them.

Now go! Record!


Maven said...

THANK YOU--this post is awesome. I've never done anything like this, but it's such an excellent idea and right up my alley. Plus, I live with a sound dork who has equipment we should use for just such a project.

librarianista said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence--it means a lot to me coming from you, juggler of child, jobs, school, and creative projects. I aspire to be the kind of parent you are, but will be satisfied if I hit a little lower (like, not breaking the baby during its first month of life).