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Making life-story Documentaries for Terminally ill. Need advise please

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Chris Lafosse
Making life-story Documentaries for Terminally ill. Need advise please
on Jan 14, 2019 at 11:40:51 pm

Hi all

So I am beginning a little documentary production venture (mini life-story docs for terminally ill) and was wondering if you could advise on the basic equipment needed with a limited start-up budget.
Or any other advice going into a venture like this.

A little while ago I started volunteering with Terminally ill people and have found it tremendously rewarding. I have noticed that with many of those undergoing the mid/later stages of dying, there often arises an opportunity for a deep and profound truth.
A few years ago, my mental health degraded to a point of deep despair which kick started a personal journey of spiritual exploration, which has since become a core part of my life.
To be around the truth associated with the process of death & dying, when all the roles fall away and I am no longer busy being ‘helper’ and they are no longer busy ‘dying’, there comes a quiet stillness where there is just a simple “well, here we are then… groovy”.
Its difficult to put into words. Maybe I don’t fully understand it. I am just very driven to do this.

I studied TV broadcasting a while ago, now a tad rusty, but hopefully a few voluntary productions for people in local community should help polish up quality.
I’m hoping to eventually achieve a standard TV-broadcast level of quality.

My current financial position is not great. Im working in an Autism care-home, minimum wage, some clients with very challenging behaviour. Too many hours stress me out.

Over the last year iv been scratching together bits of equipment, so far I got:

-Canon EOS 100D (DSLR)
-fluid head tripod – Magnus VT4000
-NTG 1 condenser mic
-tiny tripod/stand for condenser mic
-Zoon H4n
- (XLR cable / 3x SD cards / 3x camera batteries)
-Adobe premiere elements
-basic A4 scanner

-I have no lighting yet, was considering a battery powered LED panel. As I’ll most likely be setting up in people’s homes, I don’t want to be too overbearing with equipment.

-I am going to be collecting and digitizing clients home videos of their past to add to the doc, most probably old video tapes and photos.
The photo’s will be simple to scan; however, the old tapes might be a bit tricky.
Over the last 50 years I imagine there have been a fair few video cassette formats/sizes.
What might be the most likely formats I encounter?
Any suggestions for devices to transfer them onto a PC?
(BTW I am based in UK)

-I have also signed up to skillshare to learn more about documentary production & use of equipment. If anyone knows of some particularly useful videos on there would be nice to know.

Im curious on your opinions on this little venture? Any general advice?

There are lots of little bits I still need to research, safeguarding/legal, data backup, advertising etc. I figure the first step is getting equipment together and going out to do practice life stories, not necessary with terminally ill.

I would also be very grateful for any advice on kit. Is the above equipment going to be suitable for starting out? Are there any essential bits of kit I missed out? Is there any low-cost bit of kit that would be very useful?



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Mark Suszko
Re: Making life-story Documentaries for Terminally ill. Need advise please
on Jan 15, 2019 at 3:13:06 am
Last Edited By Mark Suszko on Jan 15, 2019 at 4:23:29 pm

I think oral history interviews are among the most meaningful work I've ever done in my career. These are the things that have lasting value and speak to people of the future.

I get to do it two ways; in a 3-camera studio situation, live-switched, with an expert interviewer on the set asking questions and teasing out the narrative, and occasionally, the same thing out on location, with only one camera, or occasionally 2; a wider 2-shot and a single on the guest.

We don't do it to be profitable. You seem to be talking about starting out doing these for free as "practice", then converting this to a for-profit thing. I won't say that's impossible. I'll say that it may be more difficult than you imagine.

Before we talk tech and shopping lists, though, the one biggest thing you need for this is, someone who really knows how to conduct the interview, if you're just shooting it. Some can shoot and interview at once, but that's a very tough thing to do well because you're attention's too divided. First thing off the top, you don't just plunk down the gear and shove a mic in the person's face and tell them: " Start now, tell me everything." It doesn't really work well that way. I work with real pros, historians, who do this for their living, and the first thing they do is put in a lot of time in a pre-interview, mapping-out the shape of this person's life, that of their parents and relations before them, etc. There is a lot of research into getting the dates and places right as possible, based on fading memories and decaying or incomplete records. Putting the events into a historical and cultural context. There are photos to dig out and parse thru for the ones that trigger a good and complete narrative, and that builds on those narratives to make an overall arc.

If you're not willing to put in a lot of this gumshoe work first, and it can take days, before you roll a single frame, then this may not be the gig for you.

Interviewing is a skill, framing the right kinds of questions is a skill, and making the choices on the fly of what threads to follow up on as they come up... is all a skill. You will need patience to build this skill, but sitting down and writing out a lot of leading questions will help. You're a kind of therapist when you do this right, leading people back thru their lives and helping them look at themselves and describe what they see in hindsight.

Then, there's the actual sessions. We often debrief a guest for multiple, 2-3 hour sessions, over several days. And when it gets good, we're sorry we can't spend even more time. But if you're looking at a for-profit model for these kinds of things, only rich people or funding mechanisms like Not-for-profits or educational institutions can afford to work like this.

Could you come up with a "streamlined" approach to this? I suppose, if you want to just explore one -tiny- slice of a person's life, one subject, you could go over a single anecdote in a short time, and maybe make it affordable to a wide enough customer base. Maybe another way to go about it would be to get a contract or be "on retainer" with a nursing home, where you just show up every day and record a ton of stuff, get a base rate every week for as many interviews as you can reasonably do. I understand some cruise ship videographers might work this way but I don't have in-depth insight into that.

That brings up the time suck that editing these can be. That's why I recommend you don't edit, not really. The mistakes often tell the best part of the story. It depends on how accurate a historical document you're setting out to make. If you do 2-camera live-switched, or shoot a single 4K or better camera that lets you punch in and out in real time, when the interview is over, the video's also basically done, and that's often the only way to stay ahead of the backlog in editing, to deliver something timely for the guest, if volume production is the goal.

Okay, having run thru the disclaimers, we can talk technique and technology.

Number one is really, really good audio:, everything else comes second. The Rodent is okay, I guess. You might also want to get a lav, just to have the option. Two of them, really, because you will want to have the interviewer's audio, even if you don't see them.

Next is the lighting. Old people have eye troubles. I would recommend softboxes for key and fill, and make them dimmable. The softboxes also help smooth wrinkles and make people look better. You may need to throw some light on the wall behind yourself, to reduce the eyestrain on the guest. You can also try using only available light and a bounce card or reflector.

As to cameras, I'm not a fan of DSLR for many of the applications where they are trendy now. And I think oral history recordings, where you need a lot of recording capacity, are better done with a dedicated video camera form factor. That's my personal view.

The DSLR and a copy stand lets you grab the photos in the same camera as the interview. Though scanning's maybe better, sometimes you can't borrow the materials and have to capture them on site.

As to grabbing their old movies, 8mm and super-8 mm film projectors can be picked up on ebay and such. The video formats you're likely to come across are 8mm video, several flavors of 25 mbs DV, VHS, S-VHS, VHS-C (compact VHS, you can play these in a regular VHS deck using a mechanical adapter) (compact), Sony beta, and maybe some stuff on record-able DVD's. Your first effort should be to see if the guest still has the camcorder or decks they shot and viewed this material with originally. Most of it's probably gone now or broken/worn out. Second strategy is to acquire a couple of different decks and a Pinnacle or similar converter box, again ebay is your friend here. Use the converter box to turn the analog or 25mbs DV into mpeg files you can edit with. In your search for DV playback gear, I'd suggest perhaps a used Panasonic DVCPro deck, which is capable of playing back consumer grade mini-Dv tapes at high quality.

You can see some of the stuff we've done here:

I'll try to answer any other questions you want to ask. Because I wish more people did this kind of thing. It's personally rewarding as well as useful work, with a purpose beyond selling soap.

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Chris Lafosse
Re: Making life-story Documentaries for Terminally ill. Need advise please
on Jan 21, 2019 at 4:20:33 pm

Hi Mark, sorry late Reply, Nasty Flu this past week, bed ridden.

Thankyou so much for such a long and thoughtful post, I really appreciate it.

I must admit I found it a bit daunting reading through. But I appreciate you not sugar coating it and fleshing out the gravity of the work involved.
Its good to know the importance of background research and planning.

Thanks again Mark. I may have the odd question in the near future, Will also try post updates.


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jim brodie
Re: Making life-story Documentaries for Terminally ill. Need advise please
on Jan 24, 2019 at 11:15:37 pm

I commend your work. Take the plunge and just do it. I'd agree with Mark's emphasis on good audio, bad rustle or hollow room ambience ruins the intimacy of an interview.

The interviewing part is the most rewarding so I don't think there is any harm in locking off the shot and sitting in the chair as close
to the camera lens as possible to begin the conversation. A good interview is always predicated on good rapport and trust between the interviewer and subject. Take the time to get to know your subject in person and invite them into the creative process, tell them what you hope to accomplish with their story and why this means so much to you.

Think about some questions in advance and have them on your lap but its OK to discard them. Concentrate on the person in front of you...
Its better to stay in the moment and listen carefully on how you could expand on or dig deeper into answer than to be out of the moment trying to think of the next question you want to ask. Don't be afraid of awkward pauses, they are often the birthplace of magnificent moments. Sometimes you should almost stick a sock in your mouth to stop yourself from trampling on what they are about to say because
the silence makes you uncomfortable. The greatest gift you can give to another human being is to listen.

Be cautious about the energy levels of people who have an illness. There may be times of the day that are better than others and stick to those, you may also only get the opportunity to interview for only 15 or 20 mins at a time and you may be restricted by card space. I also prefer video cameras over DSLRs for that reason.

No one really cares if you're cutting to away to whole bunch of different angles if the content is engaging.... witness the stylistic fiacaso of David Letterman's interview show Netflix. I guess Dave had to justify his lofty fees with extra cameras.

I think this is a marvelous project and I wish you well. I may soon be embarking on a similar project on a terminally ill daughter who has beaten all the odds of living ten years beyond doctors' expectations. Her mother's love and absolute devotion has preserved her life.

I'll follow your thread

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Todd Terry
Re: Making life-story Documentaries for Terminally ill. Need advise please
on Jan 24, 2019 at 11:26:41 pm

[jim brodie] "witness the stylistic fiacaso of David Letterman's interview show Netflix."

Wow... I have to take issue with that. I think Letterman's Netflix show is one of the most beautifully staged and plotted shows I've ever seen in the two-guys-sittin'-in-chairs genre. It just blows me away, actually.

That being said...

I don't have any advice other than to echo "just do it."

Last year we did a several-minutes-long promotional video with a local hospice organization, they were opening a new facility. We did a video tour of the (very nice) place, interviews with a few doctors and nurses, but none of the "patients" were real... they were all actors.

Flash forward to a couple of months ago... this same organization asked if we would make a short video with one of their patients who had been discharged, he was in the last stages of his illness and had basically been sent home to die. I begrudgingly did it, not thrilled about it because we agreed to do it pro bono... and our crew schlepped about 20 miles away to shoot with this guy and his family. He was very ill (frankly they weren't even sure he would last the rest of the day... although he hung on for about three more), and it was heartbreaking... but it was also one of the most wonderful things we have ever done. I sure wouldn't want to do it every day (besides being free, it was emotionally exhausting), but we were so welcomed by the family and told so much what a difference this made during this hardest time of their lives... that it made me feel bad about being cranky about the whole affair to begin with. It was pretty great.


Todd Terry
Creative Director
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.

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Mike Cohen
Re: Making life-story Documentaries for Terminally ill. Need advise please
on Jan 25, 2019 at 2:52:22 pm

A little different from what you are doing, but I was lucky to have interviewed two of my grandparents while they were still healthy, and edit a few videos about their life experiences. Video is a powerful way to document someone's life experiences. Doing this for people who know they are going to die must have even more significance and emotion. As others have said, be careful of how much time you expect someone to talk to you in one go. Depending upon their medical conditions you may need to spread things out over hours or days.

Try to have someone who knows the person do the interview and go in with a list of questions and follow up questions. Getting a succinct description of anything can be a challenge.

As for video formats, as time goes forward the availability of analog video playback will become limited. there are companies that still do conversion services - Walmart and Costco come to mind.

Good luck

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grinner hester
Re: Making life-story Documentaries for Terminally ill. Need advise please
on Feb 1, 2019 at 11:31:24 pm

Just add creative cloud or any cheap NLE and you are ready to get started. A light kit would help but you can always make do in the field. That;s what I usually do because I usually, well, always shoot these in their house or surroundings. Natural is good as the friends and family who watch it expect this lighting.
Think content first with these. Just let em tell their story and accent that with still and video they provide.
Music is very important. I'd get an account with audio jungle or dewolfe music... or both. Both will let you pay an annual blanket fee so you don't have to pay per needle drop.

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