[Podcast] Tips for Producing a Family History Documentary

podcast post Dec 13, 2023
7 tips for producing a family history documentary

You want to capture your family history. That’s great! But where do you start?

Most people automatically think of a book. It’s the default. But a book has its limitations: difficulty sustaining reader attention, inability to capture the voice of all family members, lack of cohesion in the narrative arc. Writing a family history is a grueling, lengthy process, and whoever you appoint to write it might give up.

So, how else can you tell your family history?

By producing a family history documentary.

Similar to a book, a documentary can serve as a lasting legacy. It preserves the family’s history and values for future generations, while also detailing the family’s trials and success, its hardships and accomplishments.

A documentary is also unique in that it offers visual storytelling. It brings your family’s history to life through interviews, archival footage, and photographs, making it more engaging for future generations.

Most importantly, though, a documentary is flexible in its storytelling. It captures the perspectives of multiple generations, and it allows the voices of many to stand out.

Yet, producing a family history documentary can be daunting. Here are several principles to consider as you start the process of producing your family history documentary.

Where to Start Your Research

Like any storytelling project, you have to start with research.

When it comes to producing a family documentary, all you need to know are the key moments and figures in the family’s history, right?

Not exactly. Knowing the family’s basic history and its major players is important.

But what really holds the story together? The throughline.

Similar to a nonfiction book’s thesis, a throughline shapes the narrative of the documentary. A throughline simply is the central theme that holds together the different stories of your family history. It provides structure to the documentary because it limits the stories to those that relate to the primary theme.

The throughline is the guiding principle that shows how the family has sustained its values, business, history, etc. for generations.

How do you find the throughline? Through research.

We recently produced a family history documentary. To begin our research, we interviewed more than 30 people connected to the family. These interviews lasted between 20 minutes and an hour, and the more we interviewed people, the more we understood the family’s history. We started piecing together certain parts of the story—pieces of information the family hadn’t connected. These pieces were vital to constructing the documentary’s narrative.

Conducting interviews is the best place to start when researching a family’s history. Come prepared with a list of basic questions, and be prepared to deviate from those questions.

The best interviewer is curious. Pay attention to the interviewee’s responses. What makes them curious? Are there pauses that signify they want to continue speaking but don’t know if they can? As the conversation starts to flow, be willing to ask deeper questions. This will help you prepare for the script.

The Need for a Script

There are multiple ways to produce a documentary. One way is to video all the interviews up front and rely on post-production editing to tie it all together. That’s risky, though. You might miss critical turning points in the family history.

A script based on research you did in the preliminary phase helps you identify the real story—all of its complicated parts—and structure the documentary in advance of shoot day. You won’t know what questions can tie the story together during the shoot day, if you don’t do the script in advance.

Think of the script like a map. It determines who needs to be interviewed, what stories need to be included, and what questions need to be asked. On filming day, you won’t have to question or worry that you didn’t get a story. With a script, you know exactly what you need.

A script curates the documentary’s narrative, relying on the throughline you determined during the research phase. It also helps you differentiate between major and minor stories. Minor stories are typically cut because they don’t relate to the throughline. Remember: each story in the documentary must relate to the core themes of your throughline.

For example, the documentary we produced had three major themes: work ethic, innovation, and the treatment of people. Throughout the research phase and the interviews, we collected more than 100 stories telling the family’s history. But we couldn’t include all 100 stories. In the end, we narrowed it down to 30 stories that upheld the themes of the throughline and focused on those on filming day.

Determining your throughline, differentiating between major and minor stories, and writing a script takes time. It’s important to slow down and not rush this part of the process. Take the time to assess your various interviews and invite a trustworthy partner to review the first draft of your script.

Tips for Script Writing

If you’ve never written a script, here are three tips to get you started.

  1. Break Down the Script into Movements.

A movement is a conceptual way to think of structuring a documentary. It’s a section or portion of the story characterized by a specific theme or change in the plot/narrative.

A movement helps structure the story and provides a sense of progression or transformation from beginning to end, thus, keeping your viewer’s attention.

For the documentary we produced, we broke down the script into movements correlating to the tentpole scenes.

  1. Identify Tentpole Scenes.

A tentpole scene (also known as major scene) is a defining moment in the family’s history. Much is at stake—the business struggles to make ends meet, a key family member passes away unexpectedly, a natural disaster (like Covid) negatively affects the family, etc.

A tentpole scene reintroduces tension into the story. It keeps the viewer invested and determines the pace of the documentary.

Each tentpole scene in our script upheld one of the three themes outlined in the throughline. And it determined which stories to include in the Movement that related to the theme.

  1. Start in media res.

Similar to a well-written novel or memoir, you want to start your documentary in the middle of the action—in media res.Starting in the middle of the action engages your viewer from the get-go.

To learn five additional tips for producing a family history documentary, check out our podcast. You’ll come away with advice on how to build rapport with interviewees, how to have a successful filming day, and more! 



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