How to Set Up a Video Personal History Business.

Are you thinking of setting up a video personal history business?  A reader of mine is doing just that and asked for some advice. What I’ve learned over the past 30 years as a documentary filmmaker and personal historian might be of some value. So here goes:


1. Decide how much of the total production and post production you’re going to take on. Are you going to operate the camera and do the interviews? Or will these be separate functions?I do both and it works but it takes confidence in both your camera and interviewing skills.

Who will edit your raw footage? If you’re going to do the editing, it’ll require editing software and sufficient computer power to do the job. If you’ve never edited video before, it’s a very steep learning curve.

2. Talk to other video personal historians who’ve been in the business for a few years. Most personal historians are happy to provide advice to newcomers. And each will have a slightly different perspective. You can find video personal historians by going to the Association of Personal Historians website and clicking on the “Find a Personal Historian” button.

3. Determine the range of products you’re going to offer. A full video life story with photos, music, graphics, and archival footage is expensive. Not everyone will be able to afford  this. What can you offer that’s less expensive? In my case I offer straight unedited interviews. These can be done quickly and because of this are relatively inexpensive.

4. Do have a sample of your work. Clients want to know that you’re capable of excellent work.  Put a sample on your website or have a video clip available for screening when visiting a client.

5. Purchase the minimum amount of equipment necessary. Camera, sound, lighting, and editing equipment is expensive. I’ve shot major television series for the National Film Board of Canada, using only one prosumer camcorder, one light, two lavalier microphones, and a tripod. And I’ve continued using the same modest kit for my personal history business.

The reality is that you don’t know if you’re going to be successful or for that matter even enjoy the work.  By starting small you minimize your financial risk. Down the road, if business is good and you love what you’re doing, you can always upgrade your equipment


1. Don’t buy overly expensive equipment. This advice follows on the last point above. You can get a quite decent professional camcorder for under $3,000. Take a look at the Canon XF100. For a single light you can get something under $600. Check out the Lowel Blender.

Good sound is important so the  exception to my buy  “cheap” rule is don’t skimp on mics. I’ve been very happy with my Tram TR50 mics which are priced at $310 at B&H. If you want to save some bucks on a tripod and lighting stand,  see what you can find on craigslist or Ebay.

2. Don’t forget to account for equipment depreciation. Unfortunately, your camcorder will be outdated the moment you leave the store. Chances are that within three years you’ll be looking at the need to purchase a new model. That’s why you want to build an “equipment rental” fee into your client’s project costs . This can can go toward the replacement of old equipment.

3. Don’t let clients screen their video until the final cut stage. Most clients aren’t familiar with the editing process. If they see a rough cut, they’ll be alarmed and  make  suggestions, some of which will not be useful.

By showing them a fine cut, your clients will have a good sense of the video’s content and flow. And if concerns arise, you’ll still be able to make some editing changes without too much grief.

That’s it. Any further advice from experienced videographers out there?