Video Biographies

Some years ago I worked for a non-profit and had the opportunity to travel across the world. Of all the types of videos I produced, my favorite became BIOGRAPHIES.

We were often dispatched to some part of the world to do a documentary on some individual who was doing extraordinary things. News of such individuals usually came from others, and from these news and reports a script treatment would be put together. While the existing research and scripting seemed to portray, well enough, an extraordinary story, I soon found that the news and reports that generated the interest in a project and the subsequent research and scripting usually barely scratched the surface. You see, as I was to discover, these “extraordinary” people didn’t think of themselves that way. The “extraordinary” things they did were, to themselves, quite ordinary. So ordinary, in fact, that below the surface of what other people knew about them and may have passed along, were some amazing details that nobody knew–and I eventually learned how to uncover them.

The fact is that these people were truly humble and invariably very hard-working. The furthest thing from their minds was personal promotion and public relations. Moreover, in the process of interviewing hundreds, if not a thousand, people from all levels of the social strata from bottom to the top; from drug addicts to celebrities; from cops to religious leaders; from civil servants to royalty, in the course of making either documentaries or biographies, I started to realize that all people have fascinating stories; that all people are extraordinary in some, if not many ways.

Later, in researching the field with an idea to start a video biography business, I started looking at the sites and pricing of those who did it. I was disturbed by the fact that video biographies had been reduced down “cookie-cutter” packages whereby for a certain price you could get “1 hour of interview and X number of still photographs”, and so on. These were called “Bronze, Silver and Gold” packages. I was appalled. That’s not how you do a video biography.

I learned my approach from two different sources. The first was a book –Chuck Yaeger’s biography, called “Yaeger”. For those who don’t know, he was America’s first flying ACE in WWII and later, as a test pilot for the Air Force, became the first man to break the sound barrier. It was one of the most fascinating and intriguing books I had ever read. Why? Because I had never before seen the style in which it was written. It was written from “multiple viewpoints”. In other words, take the story of breaking the sound barrier: Who was part of Chuck’s life at the time? Well, there was his long time engineer, the Generals and other Air Force personnel, his wife and his friends. Each had been interviewed on the subject being taken up–in this case, the breaking of the sound barrier. And each had a different view of the events and different ways of telling the story, including Chuck himself. Each of these accounts were inter-woven together to tell the story. Chuck was a humble guy, albeit one of the true hero-types, so tended to give under-stated accounts of some incidents that were actually quite terrifying. Or he’d add details that hadn’t occurred “because it told a better story” adding a pleasurable element of humor–especially when others would then tell us what really happened.

The second source was an A&E biography I watched on some celebrity. To my amazement, they used the exact same approach. They interviewed multiple sources, including the celebrity, about the same event and then inter-wove them together to tell the story. It made for a compelling and interesting biography. I started using this approach and, hands down, it was the best technique to capture the essence of the person’s life the best and and which would hook the audience attention bringing smiles and tears to their eyes.


So the way to do a personal video biography is by placing absolutely no preconceived limit on number of or hours of interview. In fact, plan on hours and hours of interview. First you interview the person the biography is about. Cover everything you can think of for all aspects of their lives. Note the subjects that make their eyes light up and keep directing them back into these areas with new questions until you’ve exhausted that area, then moving onto the next area. This won’t be the last interview, but it is from this one that you will find all the key personnel in their lives and all the key moments in their lives.

Now find and interview as many of those other people that you can, covering the exact same areas that the principle person talked about and get their rendition of the story. Do that subject by subject for every additional person you interview until exhausted. You may find now, as you start to get a better picture of all the interesting aspects, that you’ll want to go back to the principle and ask him or her more questions about different events based on what the other people said about different events. Now it will get very interesting and quite a bit of humor may develop. In the process you’ll also start developing a list of all the visuals (photographs, letters, press articles, video, artifacts, etc.) that represent or document the various aspects of the persons life.

Now, with probably several hours of tape you’re ready to interweave the interviews and B roll together. And you’ll find, the edit will practically fall into place. So what are you going to get out of a “Bronze Package” with 1 hour of interview and 25 still photographs?…. Pure crap.

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