Biography Archives - Heirloom Films and Storybooks

Category Archives for "Biography"

Number Five: Design

Five: Design

Design is partly about sequencing your story

Whether you are making a family history film or a book, there are a lot of design decisions that need to get made. Everything from colours to typeface, style, spacing, sequencing, and in the case of films there are other considerations like music and on-screen titling. Because your life story family history film or book is entirely unique you get to decide what it looks like, how it feels, and what the reader or viewer experiences. So you get to be creative. We highly discourage plagiarism or copyright infringement but it's okay to be inspired by someone else's design, other films you might have seen, other books that you might have read. Yours is going to be entirely different. Contents and many aspects of your book or film will be entirely unique.

In the case of a life story family history film or book the project is divided up into sections. In a film they're called parts. In a book they're called chapters. One of the dilemmas often facing folks with these kinds of projects is to decide the sequence that stories and characters are rolled out. For some, a purely chronological approach starting at the beginning of time and ending with the latest makes a lot of sense. For others following themes, ideas, philosophies, groupings of like people or objects or events is another way to go. And it gets more complex with lives because for most people when a child becomes an adult there are many forks in the road, many things happening all at once. For example, the young person finishes high school and then perhaps goes on to post-secondary education or maybe they start a job or they fall in love and get married. There's just three forks in the road right there. Some people do all three and so which do you cover first in the book or film? These are things for which there's no right answer for but you get to decide. Either way your viewers or readers are going to absolutely love the fact that they are experiencing your life story family history film or book. They’ll be grateful and inspired.


So those are the five things to consider when getting ready to get started on a life story life story family history film or book: Number One Characters & Genealogy, Number Two Stories, Number Three Interviews, Number Four Imagery, and Number Five Design. It's important to realize that these projects take time. If you include a considerable number of characters your project can take approximately a year, sometimes more to be completed. It's not full time work but it will take up some of your time and your focus and so you need to be prepared to follow it through.

But when your grandchildren and the great-grandchildren who haven’t even been born yet read your book as a bedtime story or watch your film and take it to school for Show-And-Tell their hearts filled with pride and joy and their minds energized with useful concepts about living a meaningful life. That makes all your efforts worth it!

Schedule a free Family History Zoom Consult with personal historian Cory Bretz.

Number Four: Imagery

Imagery for Family History Films and Books

All about the imagery that you might use in your life story family history film or book.

Photos, films and slides are the main imagery that will make your life story family history film or book visually captivating. See in your mind’s eye a beautiful montage of images of your grandmother at the same time your grandmother’s life story is being told, maybe with her voice or yours. Your family will love watching that at the next family gathering or on their own phones. Imagine flipping open your family history book and seeing all your grandfather’s photos displayed in one place, right beside the narrative about his life. Now that’s bedtime story material!

The most at-risk and most precious form of these visuals are the old photographs that are down in the basement, up in the attic, or in a box somewhere. Likely there may be only a few people living who remember the names of the family members in those old photos. So the clock is ticking on showing those old photos to the family’s elders and identifying them. Do it now. Once those living relatives are gone, the people in the old photos become lost, unknown faces and there really is no way to identify them. Facial recognition technology has come a long way but it only recognizes similar faces. Somebody still needs to do the identifying. 

Photo albums are very useful for video interviews. The Fingertip Tour is a method whereby the album is placed on a table and the Storyteller uses their finger to point out people in those old photos and tell their stories. The camera films over that person's shoulder down at the photo album. This is an excellent method for cataloging who the characters are in the photos. Old 8 mm films and slides and even analog video footage like camcorder tapes are perfect fodder for family history films and also books. They just need to be digitized correctly. Your personal historian from Heirloom Films can advise you on how best to handle this.

Don't overlook the hutch in the dining room behind those glass doors. Often there are medals and trophies and ribbons and certificates and cherished family keepsakes stored there. The visuals that illustrate the stories can trigger new stories and they might even lead to related publicly available newspaper articles, newsletters, and historical documents and books. Even old love letters can make beautiful visuals either scanned and directly applied to the pages of a book or shown in a family history film with a voiceover and some heartfelt music.

If you’ve got old paper print photos or slides that you’d like to digitize we can give you a quote and then help you make something out of them.

Schedule a free Family History Zoom Consult with personal historian Cory Bretz.

Number Three: Interviews

Family History Interviews

Good family history interviewing creates a recording, video and sound that can be used in your life story family history film or book.

In the making of any life story family history film or book inevitably there will have to be some interviews. Those who are still around know those old stories and are in a better position to guess. But somebody is going to have to ask them. That’s where interviews come in. With today's modern technology interviews can be conducted in a lot of simple ways. Still the best way is in-person, face-to-face with two COVID-19 vaccinated people in the room: Interviewer and the Storyteller. And you might have a techy friend handling gadgets like cameras, audio recorders, lights, batteries, etc so you can focus on the stories.

Interviewing isn’t hard if you do two things: Listen deeply and ask good questions. Typically an interview session is somewhere between two to four hours with breaks. A professional interviewer is skilled at being methodical in helping the Storyteller cover their stories in a way that makes sense, is interesting, and efficiently gathers the facts and the complete story. Sometimes using props like photos, mementos, trophies and memory zingers like newspaper headlines, letters, scrapbooks and documents can trigger stories that aren't actually forgotten but are just buried deep inside one's memory. Emotion is a key element of a Storyteller’s delivery and the Interviewer is key to creating a safe and non-judgemental space for deep sharing to happen.

Other methods of interviewing use online digital platforms like Zoom, Google Meetings, FaceTime, and Skype. The video quality might not be as good as being in the room with somebody with a great video camera but the fact that we can include people in films and books who are on the other side of the country or planet without having to get in an airplane is a huge advantage. It also adds powerful, credible content in a first hand kind of way. The trick is setting up a date and time with your interview subjects and making sure that they have a working internet connection and a webcam-equipped computer, tablet or phone. These virtual interviews turn out quite well actually.

The product of a good interview is a recording. The best approach is to record with video and sound and that way you can then later make either a film, book or both. The audio recording is most useful if transcribed into readable text so it can be searched and later used for reference when editing video or edited into a readable narrative for your book. Even the old-fashioned telephone works good enough for story-gathering and smart phones have great apps that can record an interview phone call and automatically transcribe the audio into editable text!

Personal historian Cory Bretz can coach you on how best to use these technologies so you can record the stories of your family members. Or you can schedule Cory to do the interviews for you in-person in British Columbia or online almost anywhere.

Schedule a free Family History Zoom Consult with personal historian Cory Bretz.

And to get you started, download free 110 Interview Questions that you might ask your Storyteller during an interview. 

Number Two: Stories

“Once upon a time there was … “ Life story family history films and books are basically just stories combined with images. Having genealogical information like dates of birth and dates of death and places is nice, perhaps even important but the main ingredient of any interesting and inspiring family keepsake is stories. Each of the characters in your book or film has a story and it's based on the challenges and triumphs of their life. They grew up somewhere and perhaps moved somewhere else. There were certain things going on in their town or city. Their lives and choices were influenced by world events. They had interactions, partnerships, conflicts and love affairs with other people. And everybody has accomplishments, big and small. Stories don't have to be earth-shattering or epic, but there does need to be a story.

The nice thing in storytelling about people who have passed on already like your ancestors is that there's very few people around who can dispute the stories that you tell about them. So the invitation is to gather what you can about each person and then make some assumptions, draw some conclusions, maybe even give yourself a little artistic license to add a touch of fiction to round out the story. You see this all the time: “Based on a true story”. The point is to honour and celebrate that ancestor. A good story is a great way to do it.

When I was growing up, my uncle told me many amazing, inspiring big fish stories. As I look back (and after doing some some research) I would say about a third of those stories were actually true and the other two-thirds were brilliant make-believe! As a kid I loved those tales and learned lots about life. Allow yourself to nurture your family’s kids with nourishing, entertaining stories.

To help you with your storytelling we created the Life Story Questionnaire. Just by filling out this document for each of your characters you’ll be able to hone in on things like schools, careers, military service, places, historical events, achievements, and relationships so that you can surmise their story. It’s not a difficult process. And you’ll be surprised about how much you actually know about your ancestors.

Stories have a typical formula. They have a beginning, a middle and an end. The most versatile storytelling metaphor is “The Hero’s Journey”. You can use it to sequence the happenings of an ancestor’s life into a compelling and meaningful adventure that makes your readers and viewers look forward to the next bit of the story and they’ll think you’re a master writer. Writing and editing is easy for some and more difficult for others. If you get stuck personal historian Cory Bretz can help you with this creative process so it becomes fun and rewarding. Or he can ghost-write it for you so you can take the credit without any of the frustrations!

To get started, download the Life Story Questionnaire for free. You can also schedule a free Family History Consult on Zoom with personal historian Cory Bretz to strategize your best storytelling approach.

Read Number Three: Interviews [COMING SOON]

In the meantime, check out some samples of life story family history films and books to get some ideas for your project. 

Number One: Characters & Genealogy

Number One: Characters & Genealogy

You already know that you are getting involved in a family history project that is both very inspiring and valuable to your descendants. You can see the smiling faces of your future great grandchildren reading your book or watching your film. And you’re also probably figuring out that this labour of love requires an investment of your time, money, and perhaps your creativity too. You can definitely do it yourself but you’ll increase your chances of success if you get some help. Personal historian Cory Bretz talks about the Five Things For Getting Started that will need your attention, time, energy, and decision-making ability. 

Number One: Characters & Genealogy

All films and books are finite — you can only cram in so many people’s stories. Decide who the main characters are going to be in your life story family history film or book. Yup, pick out which relatives are going to be the stars. Be certain to include yourself and perhaps your spouse(s). Make a list of your parents, step parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, maybe even your children and grandchildren who you think need to be reflected in your film or book. Having that list of names helps you focus in on what information and imagery will be needed to put this project together. Understanding the breadth of characters and the stories that they represent determines the amount of time, effort and very likely the money that you'll need to make available to create this amazing family keepsake … and to do justice in honouring those ancestors.

To help you with this step we developed the Family Tree Chart that makes it simple to map out who your relatives are so you can start making casting decisions. This is also the time to go crazy with DNA and genealogy because you will be needing the basics about your characters. WARNING: Genealogy can be highly addictive and will definitely prevent you from getting to the next next steps if you get stuck there. Resist the temptation to add another 100 ancestors to your tree. While that might be fun and even valuable, those ancestors won’t be featured in your film or book and you could be wasting precious time for the next crucial step.

Building a basic family tree is a useful step because it can be reflected as an illustrative graphic in your life story family history film or book to explain how your weird uncle is actually related.

At Heirloom Films and Storybooks we can help you coach you on genealogy, research it for you, and we’ll put together that family tree. You can schedule a free Family History Consult on Zoom.

Download our free Family Tree Chart  to get started casting your characters.

Click to read Number Two: Stories

Publishing Your Own Family History Book

Family History Video Interviews

The participants of our recent course Write and Publish Your Family History Book got together to show off their books. During this 8 weeks of meeting on Zoom for two hours each week we covered all the various steps in crafting your own book: Planning Your Book, Free Online Technology, Organizing Your Story, Storytelling Basics & Writing, Images: Digitizing, Developing, & Storage, Research, Genealogy, & Interviewing, Book Design, Proofing & Preflighting, and Publishing & Sharing Online.

Click here to see upcoming intake dates for the next course Write & Publish Your Family History Book.

Celebrating Skumpy

Personal historian Cory Bretz interviewing Margaret for her Celebration of Life Tribute Film

When I first met Skumpy I liked her instantly. She had a unique blend of humour and humbleness, decorum and irreverence. We very quickly became friends and tongue-in-cheek sparring partners. I could tell that she liked me because she would gently feign shock and outrage at things I would say, all the while smiling and winking. It was very endearing. But this wouldn't last very long. 

Margaret Christensen -  or "Skumpy"  as she had been nicknamed by her sister a lifetime earlier -  had been issued a terminal diagnosis by her doctors. She had been told her prognosis in the summer of 2019 that she would be gone by December. Struggling with all the effects of an illness and coming to terms with her impending transition, Skumpy made time for a video interview and a review of her photo collection.  

The complexities of life prevented us getting together until mid October and she transitioned about 6 weeks after this interview. We did the interview in her living room, her on her favourite couch. She was self-conscious about her oxygen tubes and of course, her appearance. But she very quickly understood that what she shared was far more important than how she looked. 

Personal historian Cory Bretz interviewing Margaret for her Celebration of Life Tribute Film

This very short life story family history film was made from a single video interview session because that's the most we could squeeze in given her condition and all the other care concerns happening around her. Some of the storytelling was about herself and her sisters, and some about her parents and ancestors. During the session we occasionally gave her a few old photos to look at, which triggered more memories, laughs and sometimes tears. 

We digitally captured all the photos Skumpy and her daughter had on hand that day, leaving them with the original prints and albums. The interview footage and photos were assembled together with music to create a short tribute film to show at her Celebration of Life.  Those assembled to honour Margaret told me after the funeral service that as they watched the film they felt that they had just had a visit with her again - that Skumpy was present at her own Celebration of Life!

I often wonder what I would say if I was being interviewed on video by a personal historian just weeks before my own predicted transition. I hope it would be as real and as poignant as Skumpy chose to be. 

I've been interviewing elders for more than two decades now. Each time it is a pleasure and an honour to be able to witness and record their uniqueness, their gleanings from life, and to help them toss something meaningful forward beyond death to inspire their loved ones and future great grandchildren.  

Thanks for the fun, Skumpy!

Beyond Image Scanning Services

Stories are what make digital photos interesting.

Digital Is Good, But A Warning To The Wise

Kudos to you for investing your money and your time into having your collection of old photos digitized! Having those irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind images stored on a memory stick or portable hard drive along with your old 8mm films, slides, and camcorder videos is the right thing to do….technically speaking.

Because you’re absolutely right that leaving all that family history media in the attic or closet or wherever it’s hiding in it’s original paper or analog format is risking it will be lost, destroyed, or forgotten. Some day some future family member will be thanking you for being so diligent in converting all those old photos, films, slides and old newspaper articles to digital images and video files. Making those things digital means they can be easily stored, copied, and shared with your family members. 

But a warning for the wise…even though converting old photos  and films to digital media is an advantage for many reasons, it doesn’t solve the oldest problem we humans continue to have: passing on our family stories. 

Who Are Those People?

The fact is that whether your descendants inherit a box of musty old paper paper print photographs or a slick modern memory stick loaded with thousands of sequentially numbered high resolution digital images, without some identification and relevant storytelling, those images will be quite meaningless. It’s so sad to stare at a beautiful restored old photo with all it’s antique charms to not know the names of those people, nor anything about their lives or the context of the photos. You don’t want your descendants to inherit digital photos of strangers, do you?

How To Pass On The Stories Along With Those Digital Photos and Films

With modern technology we now have so many awesome tools available to connect those digital images with your story so they will be educational, cherished, and inspiring! The internet has made it possible to put your rare family history photos, slides, and films in a place where you can easily share them. Social media sites like Facebook and Instagram offer fabulous ways to showcase ancestors with photos, videos, and text story. Ancestry and other genealogy websites provide often free locations to build your family tree and upload your photo and films, along with story text. 

Video Is One of The Most Consumed Media Types

Video is now one of the most consumed media types on the internet and your great grandkids will be looking for the video about their family history. Those old photos, slides, and films are the perfect fodder to assemble an interesting and inspiring video for them to watch 24/7 anywhere in the world. Videos are easy to make using verbal recollections, video interviews, even remote video interviews on platforms like Zoom and Skype. Life story family history films are the perfect vehicle to contain life stories, family history, genealogical data like family trees, profiles of ancestors, old photo collections, 8mm, Super8, and 16mm films, and important things like values, philosophies, religious beliefs, life wisdom, and personal messages and blessings.  Future generations will be searching Google looking for videos about your family, their ancestors. 

Storybooks: Old Technology Still Works Best For Bedtime Stories

Print storybooks offer a simple and non-screen way (no batteries required) to do bedtime stories with little kids, infusing them with family identity, your family’s values, and celebrating their amazing ancestors. The best storybooks are designed so you don’t have to read the whole book in one sitting and sweet, educational conversations are started with the kids. 

Do Something With Your Old Photos, Slide, and 8mm Films!

So while at Heirloom Films and Storybooks we’re happy to digitize your old photo collection for you, for the sake of the next generation of your family we’d love to help you do something with those images and videos so they can in fact be inspiring.  Ask about our life story family history films, print storybooks,  online galleries, family history websites, interactive family trees, and photo collection organization services. 

Frances Loretta Warham – Mom’s Love Story

This is a love story about a young nurse who married a handsome pilot and they adopted the most adorable baby twin girls. Kudos to those daughters Linda and Leslie for getting together to tell their Mom's Story! This is a snippet from a full length life story family history film personal historian Cory Bretz made for the Sawle family almost a decade ago. Even though it was produced in SD video, it's an enjoyable heartwarming story made for Linda's grandchildren and it's worth watching.

Who's going to tell your Mom's Story? See more at

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