Monday, February 18, 2013

Telling an Engaging Story

One of the fun aspects of writing a blog is that I have contact with a lot of people who are working on interesting projects. Some months back I was contacted by David Adelman and learned about his business venture ReelGenie. ReelGenie provides software to assist you in writing and creating videos to share family history stories online. Many of us who have been deeply involved with family history, eventually arrive at a point where we want to share our stories with family and friends. Our efforts are not always successful. Too often we attempt to share our excitement only to watch our audience’s eyes glaze as we talk about second cousins once removed.

Crafting a story and making it accessible challenges us to think about our audience. While not everyone shares our enthusiasm, it is a rare person who does not enjoy a well-crafted story. How we tell it matters. In the past many people created books and distributed them to family members. When I attend genealogy conferences there is a lot of discussion about new ways to tell stories to the next generation for whom books are not a particularly effective vehicle. ReelGenie offers a more contemporary means of telling stories using imagery, voice-over and story. Its approach easily integrates with social media and supports a collaborative approach to the creative process.

My experience in working with ReelGenie began with drafting a story. I decided to focus on the immigration of my grandparents as each had a story laden with mystery. I have found that mystery always makes for good stories. I had begun my genealogy research when I stumbled across a few pages of history my grandfather had written. He began by talking about his immigration to the United States in 1911 and his wife’s immigration ten years later. He wrote about her being shot at crossing the border and recovering in a hospital in France, something that seemed quite unusual to me. More surprises were in store as I pursued those threads. When I found my grandfather’s immigration record, it asked about his nearest relative in Europe. His response was none, married or single, single. Hmmm…and yet he gave his destination as his brother-in-law’s and left a wife and child behind in the Ukraine.

I searched for my grandmother’s manifest and finally found her coming from a location in France lending credence to my grandfather’s story. She was heading for Rotterdam and then New York. Supposedly she came with her younger brother, but when I found his manifest he and his wife came from Rotterdam one week later. In an era without cell phones how do you connect? Were they trying to connect and didn’t succeed? Were they unable to secure passage on the same ship? Mysteries abound.

Once at Ellis Island my grandmother was held as a likely public charge. This was typical of a woman traveling alone. She needed a man to show up and take responsibility for her. After waiting a day and a half, her brother showed up to pick her up. But where was her husband?

Part of telling a story is editing. Not everything is included in the video. For example, my grandfather changed his surname, perhaps contributing to my grandmother's difficulty in locating him when she arrived. She was still using his old name. They both Americanized their first names, Sima and Ben-Zion became Sadie and Benjamin. There really wasn’t room to include that. Too much detail makes eyes glaze. It is a delicate line, enough detail to make a story come alive, not so much that you weigh it down.

Once I had a script, I had to come up with photos. I discovered that I had one photo of my grandfather in 1922, but nothing else of him as a young man. I had a photo of my grandmother as a child and as an old woman, nothing in between except a painting I had done. I had to figure out if I had the visual imagery to support the story and in fact there were some gaps we had to paper over.

The voice-over was actually simpler than I expected. I did it within with a small microphone plugged into my computer and I let David suggest the accompanying music. With the ultimate product, the user will assemble the pieces. It will be easy to do everything--including recording the story and adding music--directly on their website. As this was a test, David and his team did the assembly. Along the way they sent me versions for my critique. Once the site is launched, there won't be any assistance given, but they will have tutorial videos, sample movies, and an option to work with a professional storyteller to tell the story.

You can click on this link to see the video to see how it came together. I have had challenges using it in my Firefox browser, although it plays well in Internet Explorer, Chrome and Safari.

ReelGenie will be launching its product at RootsTech and is a finalist in the SXSW Accelerator Competition. For more information, sign up at www.ReelGenie.

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