For Families

“All those moments in time will be lost — like tears in rain.”

Every time I read those words from the movie “Blade Runner,” I think of my Dad.

Hello, I’m Bill Erwin, the founder and producer of Celebration Videos. And my Dad, Douglas Erwin, was one big reason why I started my company.

Almost 40 years ago, Dad and Mom arrived in Durham, NC to celebrate. My wife, Heidrun, and I had just welcomed our first child, Erik, into the world.  What a great opportunity, I decided, to find out more about the history of our family — now newly enlarged.

Bill mug shot - July 2016

So one evening, I pulled out our Sony cassette recorder, sat down with Dad on the sofa, and turned it on. For the next 45 minutes, he told stories of a teenaged couple squeaking by during the Depression. Stories of selling pianos door to door in rural Arkansas. Stories of delivering big blocks of ice from the back of a wagon for the “icebox” refrigerators of the day.

Then I turned off the recorder — and I never interviewed my Dad again. He died in a nursing home at the age of 91, and most of his other stories were lost “like tears in rain.”

In all those intervening years, I never asked him about his service with Patton’s Army in Sicily and Italy. Or how he began his career in the car-selling businesses. Or his thoughts on fatherhood. Or his happiest memories of life with my Mom.

I started Celebration Videos so your family can avoid my mistake. I want to help you save your family stories for future generations — professionally videotaped and enhanced with your family photos.

Watch an excerpt (above)  from the 70th anniversary video I did for Mary and Tom McEntire of Pisgah Forest, NC. Tom is also shown in the photo at the top of the page. You saw Mary on the home page when you first visited this website. 

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All too many of us have never sat with a loved one for two hours straight, and just listened — really listened — to their stories. Without looking at a watch. Without letting our minds wander.

That’s what makes a Celebration Videos storytelling session so special. What I love to do — and do well — is ask questions that will draw out stories and then listen with full attention while my camera documents it all for the ages. Your loved one (or you yourself) will have a relaxed space to recall the past without worrying that they (or you) are boring listeners.

“Hey, Bill. Congrats, c’est magnifique! I cried several times….You did an excellent job nurturing (Dad’s) private reflections, some of which were new & revelatory. Now we have it preserved forever!” — Trish Montgomery-Fernald, Ellicott City, MD

I’ve done a lot of listening in my life — as a personal historian, and as a reporter for both the Charlotte Observer and the Durham Morning Herald. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people, and I’ve produced more than 150 short videos documenting stories that I’ll never forget.

“You are a marvelous, sensitive, professional editor. I feel in good hands. I respect your work ethic, and I admire your character, unfailing courtesies, and skills.” — Hale Montgomery, Arlington, VA

I’m grateful to live within a mile of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, where I learned the video and audio documentary crafts. I earned the center’s certification — a multi-year process —  and I continue to draw inspiration from the excellent teachers there.

If you’re considering how to save your family’s stories, here’s how a typical project works with Celebration Videos:

1) We first have a free consultation about what you’d like to accomplish with your personal history project.

2) Once I understand what you have in mind, I’ll suggest some options for you to consider.

3) If you decide to proceed, we’ll write up a letter of agreement specifying what we’re doing together and when.

Another plus in interviewing older people: I’m 70 years old myself, so I have many experiences in common with the narrators of the videos I produce. That kind of rapport comes naturally. It’s an unspoken bond we share — the narrators and I.

4) Next, I spend some relaxed time getting acquainted with the “narrator” of your video — which could be your loved one or you yourself. We want to nourish a level of trust that will allow for a great rapport once we start interviewing. We’ll talk about family history and general story lines to be pursued later.

5) Your family members gather at your convenience to look over family photos, and select those to be included in your video. This, by the way, is a valuable bonding time for everyone taking part.

6) I then return with more than $20,000 worth of equipment — camera, lights, microphones and all the accessories that go into high-quality videomaking. After we get started, you won’t notice any of this.

7) We’ll do our interview sessions — generally two in the morning, lasting about 45 minutes each with a break in between. Then we take a pause for lunch together.

8) In the afternoon, we scan your family photos together.

9) Editing comes next — which can take from a couple of weeks to as long as a month. I consult with you and the “narrator” throughout the editing.

10) I present you with a first cut of your video for your review and suggested changes.

11) After making the changes, we consider what kind of musical background you would like and I present you with some musical possibilities to choose from.

12) I add the music you’ve chosen and present the final cut to you on a thumb drive, to preserve the high-definition quality of your video. If you like, I can also produce your video on a DVD. I prefer the thumb drive option, since DVDs are standard definition rather than high definition. (I don’t produce Blu-ray discs, which are high definition.)

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As soon as I turn off the camera, you will have the peace of mind that comes with knowing that your loved one’s stories are saved for generations to come.

“The video was a smash! Alec cried! And the 70 mentors, friends and family in the room! Thank you, Bill!” — Carol Schadelbauer, Arlington, VA

You can rest assured that your project will be finished on time and on budget. (Finishing in a timely way — or finishing at all — seems to be a recurring problem when people ask a nephew or niece, who just finished film school, to do a family history video for free.)

One benefit from having Celebration Videos interview you or your loved one: Stories will flow that no one else in the family has heard before. This may seem hard to believe, but it happens with every personal history project I’ve done. The comfort zone created just naturally encourages narrators to open up — freely and often with a sense of joy.

Here are some concerns people may have when they consider a personal history project:

“I couldn’t possibly afford this.”

This assumes that there is one fixed price for a personal history video. In fact, there are many ways to have a satisfying project and many prices.

We can do a massive project, covering five generations — as Celebration Videos did with Hale Montgomery of Arlington, VA, a former reporter with UPI and public relations executive with Comsat. Or we can do a project covering one key story in your family’s lore, such as how your parents met and fell in love.

We can do a video of you reading your ethical will (using a teleprompter, which allows you to address your descendants directly). We can do a streamlined project featuring a selection of your family’s photos, digitally enhanced by Celebration Videos, with or without an audio voiceover. The least complex projects start at between $900 and $1000.

“Let’s say we do a video together. How do I know my great-grandchildren will be able to watch it? The video formats we use today won’t be around 50 years from now.”

Correct. But software will exist 50 years from now that will allow your descendants to convert today’s formats to later ones. Such software exists already. One application I use allows conversion from any of 19 video formats into any of the other formats. Future software will no doubt be even more sophisticated.

“I hate the way I look in photos. It will be even worse on video.”

Some people hate the way they look in photos or videos because no one has ever taken the time to professionally light them. That alone can make a world of difference. But if your loved one just doesn’t want to be videotaped, we can always do an audio interview. Your family stories will still be saved; that’s the most important thing.

“I’ve led a pretty boring life. Who would be interested in my stories?”

Just about everybody among your descendants! Your stories are unique. What may seem boring to you today could be fascinating to later generations. The simplest, most mundane details of daily life will be eye-opening to your great-grandchildren.

“My sister and I did audio interviews with our parents years ago. We don’t need to do another project.”

Wonderful! Congratulations for your foresight. Now we can take those tapes and add new dimensions to your parents’ stories — family photos, interviews with you and your siblings, happy memories of the grandchildren. I can also help improve the quality of old audio — bringing out voices and reducing the noise, much like restoring a sooty masterpiece.

“The minute we finish doing a video, I’m afraid I’ll drop dead.”

This may sound like a silly reason not to do a project, but it’s not silly at all. Doing a personal history video reminds people that they won’t be around forever. That’s disconcerting to some. I’m reminded of what pediatric cancer specialists tell their young patients who ask, “Am I going to die?” The answer: “Yes, you’re going to die — someday. And I’m going to die. And so are your parents. But nobody knows when. So in the meantime, let’s celebrate life together.”

“This is a great idea, and I’d like to do it. But not anytime soon.”

This objection may be related to the one above. “If I don’t think about my mortality, I don’t have to face it.” The problem with waiting to do a personal history project is this: Eventually, you or your loved one will begin forgetting important details that family members in the future would have treasured. Some of us will develop Alzheimer’s. Others will have medical emergencies, even in our 50s or earlier, that will close the door to storytelling. A solution here is to start small and proceed gently. Then you can relax, knowing that at least some of your family’s stories are safe and sound.

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If the idea of a personal history intrigues you, I invite you to contact me. The initial consultation is free. If you live in the Durham – Raleigh – Chapel Hill area of North Carolina, I’ll be happy to come to you. If you live farther away, we can Skype or have a phone consultation. But please — don’t repeat the mistake I made with my Dad. Let’s save your family’s stories together.

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