How do you record family interviews?

By Guest, 4 December 2019 - 12:08pm

This Christmas, you can preserve your family history for future generations by interviewing the people who lived it

Record family interview
People of all ages can get involved in recording their family history (Credit: Fox Photos/ Getty Images)

Christmas is coming, and hopefully you’ll see some of your older relatives over the festive period.

This offers a unique opportunity: the chance to probe their memories for stories about your family history.

But how much will you remember later?

And what happens when your grandparents and parents are no longer around to tell those stories?

Get the complete guide to interviewing your family in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine December 2019, on sale now

“People always think that there’s more time, but that’s the one thing they don’t necessarily have,” says Gwyn Cole, film-maker and owner of Family History Films.

“It’s crucial to start talking and getting this stuff down, since there’s no time like the present.”

Oral history has always played a key role in storytelling, and the digital revolution has made it easier than ever to capture those memories to pass on to future generations.

The simplest method is through a recorded interview, and your first choice is which medium to use: audio or video?

A radio-style audio-only interview is the simpler option and, as Andrew Parsonage of Extraudionary (see case study) points out, the absence of a camera makes it a more comfortable experience for older family members.

Or perhaps you watch Who Do You Think You Are? and would like to do so something similar with your family’s stories, mixing on-camera interviews with old videos and photos for context.

It doesn’t have to be complicated, all you really need to do is “set up an iPhone or a DLSR and start talking,” says Cole. “Anyone can do it in their own home.”

Eternity Videos
With professional help you can give your family a touch of the Who Do You Think You Are? treatment

Professional help

If you’re not familiar with the technology or pressed for time, then professional services like those offered by Cole and Parsonage, as well as Barry Wale of Eternity Videos, may be more appealing.

The benefits are clear: all three bring decades of film and radio experience to cover the technical aspects of producing and then editing the interview.

This will save you hours, if not days, of time and ensure your project comes to fruition.

You’ll still need to do some background research, but you’ll get high-quality results, thanks to their expertise and professional-grade recording equipment.

They’ll conduct the interview, using what Parsonage terms his “dispassionate radio sensibility” to put subjects at ease and draw out answers and reflections people might feel uncomfortable expressing to a family member.

There is, of course, a price to pay for these services.

Eternity Videos’ charges range from £350 for a one-hour unedited interview through to £1,250 for a 45-minute TV documentary-style edit.

Extraudionary’s radio programme-style package costs £275 for a two-and-a-half-hour interview, which will be edited down to about an hour.

However, if those prices are beyond your budget and you’re happy to put in the time and effort, it’s possible to achieve good results on your own.

Another benefit of going down the DIY route is that you’ll equip yourself with skills you can use to interview other family members in the future.

Your first port of call before embarking on recording should be the Oral History Society’s website, in particular the ‘Getting Started’ guide in the Advice section.

This covers all of the bases, including preparing for the interview, deciding which questions to ask and choosing recording equipment.

The OHS also runs a series of day-long courses, including a guide to video interviewing.

These cost about £125–135 each for non-members, but you can save up to £40 per course by signing up for a year’s society membership (£32).

If you do decide to take on the project yourself, you’ll need the appropriate equipment.

For a one-off interview your smartphone may prove adequate.

“Phones have come a long way,” says Parsonage. “These days the audio quality is good enough that I’ve seen pros use them for capturing short interviews or soundbites.”

“But,” he adds, “if you have ambitions to do a lot of recording, whether it’s family histories or other projects such as podcasts, then I recommend investing in a decent digital recorder.”

These come with built-in microphones, and Parsonage recommends the Zoom brand.


Case study: Andy Nash

Andy Nash

Andy Nash recorded his grandparents' memories with Extraudionary.

Why record your family memories?

I wanted something that my daughters could listen to when they’re older. My grandparents have so many amazing stories, and I wanted my children to appreciate what life was like for them growing up during the war. We all have photos of family members who are no longer with us, but this seemed much more personal. It tells you so much more about a person.

Which family members were involved?

Extraudionary interviewed my grandparents, both in their nineties, for the benefit of the rest of the family. I can’t wait until my daughters are old enough to listen to and appreciate this recording.

How much did it cost?

£200. It’s such good value for the number of years the future generations get to listen to this. It’s certainly something that I’ll be doing for other family members.

How did you find the experience?

I wasn’t there during the recording, but my grandparents loved the process of choosing then talking about all the milestones of their lives, along with which songs to have on the recording that were relevant to different periods.

Get the complete guide to interviewing your family in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine December 2019, on sale now

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