Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Conversations with my Grandfather: A personal digital media lab story

This August will mark my grandfather's 90th birthday and I am fortunate to say that he is still in good health and sharp as a tack.  Now that I have a digital media lab at my fingertips, I decided it would be a good time to experiment with scanning his personal photographs and telling his story. Many friends this year have experienced personal loss and the one thing they all say is I wish I had more recordings of them: how they laughed or things they said (even with pets!). This has really stuck with me.  Not to mention,  I discovered that my mother lost my entire photograph album of growing up when I asked her for some "Throwback Thursday" Facebook photos. I should have scanned them long ago! How fragile a thing a photo album is! In the age before digital, especially the age of Polaroids that I grew up with, there aren't any back ups or iCloud servers.

I started going through every album my grandfather had trying to pick out key people and moments that I thought would be important. They were placed in a box with dividers: Pa's early life, Meme (my grandmother's) early life, their wedding, the 70s and 80s (lots of Polaroids), Me, My Dad, and later. I also had a stash of "People I don't know, should I?" which elicited a hilarious taped conversation between my dad, grandfather and myself for my blooper reel.

I spent 2 hours scanning all the photos with my divider system.  Everything was given a name followed by a numeric order based on chronology.  So my first set of photos were labeled paearlylife_001, 002, then memesearlylife_001,002, etc. I found using the home profile for the DFL scanner worked well with color restoration on especially with grayscale (black and white) photos because it really brought out the blacks that were faded with time.  Everything else I figured I could edit with in Adobe Photoshop if need be. There was one particular photo I loved of my grandfather in his 20s on his way home from work but it was full of creases. With a few swipes of the spot healing brush (the band-aid tool) in Photoshop, I fixed it in minutes. Technology is really awesome sometimes.

My next step was securing a video camera which I borrowed from a friend. Then I traveled down to my grandfather's house to put him on camera.  I thought he would be a bit put off by being on film so I told him I was just using it for his voice (I lied).  I took the order that I scanned the photos in and began presenting them to him one by one. At the end of every divider I would hold up the photo to the camera so I'd know the breaks when I started editing. This is the same trick behind director's movie slates during film takes. With a little prompting from my father and myself, he just started talking. Some memories were more detailed than others of course and between my father and I we were able to steer the conversation.  I wish I had written the questions down beforehand because I forgot a few key ones, so a return trip is in the future. What I ended up with was 55 minutes of film footage and 150 still images.

I had limited Adobe Premiere experience for movie editing but I figured this would be a good chance to learn. I began taking Lynda tutorials online at the library. Premiere Essentials Training was a great step by step introduction. The good(and bad) thing about Premiere is the endless possibilities! After watching a few hours of training,  I decided that iMovie might be a better choice for me. I have edited many movies in it before and I was very comfortable with the format. iMovie has some built in features like the Ken Burns effect for still photos that would have taken me hours to do in Premiere (although I could customize each photo individually in Premiere).  It is also a nice feature to be able to choose from varying text fonts and movement so they can fly anywhere on screen but iMovie has a lot of these styles built in. I just can't play with the fonts as much with busy backgrounds so my transitions were all standard black backgrounds.  I figured I wasn't winning any academy awards with this piece anyway so no need for all the bells and whistles.


I ended up separating my raw film footage's audio in iMovie from the actual video and putting it over the still images, changing the amount of time each picture stayed onscreen based on what he was talking about. Sometimes the same picture stayed up for 30 seconds, sometimes a whole minute.  When the raw footage showed him particularly animated, I left both the film and audio together so everyone would know what he looked like now and enjoy his mannerisms and character. I still have a few photo albums at home and I'm debating about going back to add some more photos to the stories or images he told more about (so not to bore the viewer with the one image of NH I scanned for instance).  I'm still working on my part of the full movie, which is 38 minutes long so far. I made the mistakes of skipping all of my childhood images with him so now I have to talk about my memories. For Facebook purposes (and this blog) I put up 4 short segments of what I finished to highlight my favorite parts. It also helped separate things into themes: work, the navy, the wedding to my grandmother, and traveling.

I'm so glad that I had the chance to do this and it has prompted me to start thinking about interviewing other family members. It has created a lasting and easily sharable memory with my family and friends. My father was able to see my post on Facebook and share it in real time at a family party. I'd say grand total was 10 hours on the project start to finish but it's meaning will last a lifetime.






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