The video camera zoomed in on my dining-room table loaded edge to edge with family china and bric-a-brac. The bright spotlight beside it showed up the film of dust on wedding goblets I never use and the tarnish on silverware dug out of closets and drawers. I cringed inwardly at this visible evidence of my mediocre housekeeping. Just then my husband dropped his arm to indicate the camera was running. I looked up into the lens and spoke. ``Today is December 31, 1984. We are beginning a home video recording of our furniture and household possessions for family records and insurance purposes.''
The tape that was begun that day -- and was in process for the better part of a week -- left much to be desired from a technical and professional point of view. We had never before taped anything more complicated than a family birthday party. The video did, however, give us exactly what we wanted -- a recorded history of family antiques and memorabilia, some stories about how they came to be in our family, and a household inventory for insurance purposes.
The value of photographs as a tool in settling insurance claims has long been known. Today's home video recording equipment is providing a way to enlarge and improve these visual inventories. Videocassettes are also introducing to an American public still interested in its ``roots'' a remarkably effective way to preserve family anecdotes for sons and daughters and grandchildren.
Videotaping provides an aid in identifying items mentioned in both legal wills and informal bequests. A video of family possessions also gives a wonderful opportunity to include on camera a family member who loves to tell the classic family anecdotes. Most cassettes provide six hours of taping time, ample for interspersing a little history with the basic information.
For insurance use, the video recording can show a stereo system and include on camera the owner of the equipment reading the model or serial numbers and date of purchase. It can zoom in on a display of silverware as the narrator points out distinguishing features that should be helpful in identifying items if stolen and later retrieved by the police.
As a supplement to a legal will, the video works best when it is not used to record bequests, but only to identify. Minds (and wills) change. Items are broken or given to someone else. But history does not change, and stories of the past become more valuable as the years go on. They can indeed keep heirs from giving away things that they might otherwise cherish.
The video camera remains a substantial purchase, but it is possible to borrow or rent one. Some larger libraries -- Hennepin County regional library in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina is an example -- lend equipment free of charge to qualified residents and provide an hour of instruction in its use.
Taping an inventory can be done by one person, but it is considerably easier if two individuals work together, one handling the camera and lighting, the other arranging the displays of items and providing the narrative. Here are some tips that can speed the recording process for neophyte videotapers:
Before beginning the recording session, remove from closets, cupboards, and cedar chests the items to be shown. Wash, dust, or polish anything that is so obviously soiled that it will embarrass you when it shows up on tape. But don't put too high a shine on the silver or it will reflect back into the camera and make it difficult to see the detail.
Refresh your memory about old family pieces by looking at photographs, letters, and other memory-joggers.
Make a list of the serial or model numbers needed for stereos, television sets, and other similar equipment. (This need not be done if the household items are already marked by Operation Identification numbers or other similar systems done in conjunction with local police departments.)
Plan the division of work. Arrange a way for the narrator to signal the camera operator when he or she is through talking about a specific item.
Decide whether the narrator will appear on camera, talk from off camera, or combine the two as necessary. This will influence how the camera is set up.
Discuss how small items can be displayed to best advantage. A plain dark background allows detail of ornate pieces to show. Items set individually or in pairs on a draped card table show off more effectively than those crowded in with others on a large table and picked up individually to be discussed.
Plan the order of taping. Decide whether small items should be discussed as the camera works around the room or displayed in close-ups later.
Plan possible locations for camera and lights. Provide tripods for both if possible, since both should be on the same side of the room. Bare bulbs should not shine into the camera lens or the result may be a lens ``burn.''
Although the camera has a viewfinder, it is helpful if a television set is positioned where the narrator can see what the camera sees. If the camera does not have an automatic focus, the TV screen can aid in adjusting for close-ups.
Decide whether the tape is to be strictly businesslike and informational or creative and fun.
Check what you have taped often to be sure you are getting on the cassette what you actually want recorded. Some cameras are equipped with protection devices that shut down the recording system if too much time elapses between sequences.
Mention on the tape the date of the recording. ``This table is 80 years old'' means little if the date of the taping is not known.
Identify on camera relatives who may not be familiar to younger members of the family.
Plan a wrap-up session at the end of the taping. This is the time to correct any obvious errors in dates or family events that have crept into the narrative. The wrap-up is also an opportunity to bring into camera range the person who has been running the technical side of the taping.
Relax. Don't worry. If you make a mistake, you can retape immediately.
Videotaping family possessions takes time and thought, but the resulting cassette, preserved in a safe place, can be priceless.