I’ll be up front with you: I am not a Video Person. I hail from the pro audio world. So why am I here? Because a close family friend (an aunt, you could say) happens to be a pre-eminent Video Person by the name of Joan Logue. Logue’s work in video portraiture has been featured in cultural powerhouses like MoMa, and some of her subjects include Paul Simon, Noam Chomsky, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, John Cage, David Hockney, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Spalding Gray, and a whole lot more—including my family.
See, as I grew up, Logue appeared at every holiday party, every family dinner, often with a camera in hand. Some of my earliest memories involve her viewing us through lenses with a perennial, California-sunshine smile behind the camera. She was “editing in-camera” as the evening unfolded, and frequently, before she’d leave, we’d watched a recap of the night’s events. We were always stupefied because, without fail, she had captured everyone’s essence.
It’s weird to say it, but it’s true nonetheless: The godmother of a New York movement shot my Bar Mitzvah—and the only reason she missed my wedding was because she had to film in Venice for an installation at the Ikona Gallery. So, when the opportunity to pick her brain about holiday videography came up, I jumped at it.
You might not get as many technical tips as you’d like out of this article; after all, it’s written by a pro-audio person interviewing a woman famous for her avant-garde video portraiture. If you want technical tips, they abound elsewhere online. This is more about the spirit of capturing a family event, techniques for the heart rather than the mind.
I think we could all use a bit of that right now, don’t you?
Straightaway, I asked Logue how she commits the quintessence of a person to tape.
“When I started in 1971 with the portapack,” she told me, “people were not used to being videotaped. But if they trusted you, they let you shoot, and if they didn’t trust you, they just kind of shunned you.”
These days, the air around being photographed has changed, not so much because of mobile technology’s ease of use, but because of its overall impact.
“The phone has progressed portraiture into a whole other arena,” Logue said. “Everybody’s doing their own portrait—it’s an everyday occurrence. People are actually seeing themselves; in a way, it’s self-acceptance. People don’t feel like strangers in front of themselves anymore.”
This, it would seem, is something you can take advantage of.
When Logue is shooting at a familial event, she told me she often walks around with a simple phrase up her sleeve—six little words that engender an immediate, personable response.
“I always say, ‘Look like you know each other!’”
I asked her to explain; surely family members don’t need to be told to look like they know each other, right? Then, what’s so special about this phrasing?
“It breaks the ice,” Joan said, “because of course they know each other—or else they wouldn’t be standing next to each other talking! They have to realize they’re standing next to a good friend. So, you say, ‘pretend you guys know each other!’, and they say, ‘of course we know each other!’, and then things get a little softer. Because what you’re trying to do is make people feel comfortable.”
When I inquired about the nuts and bolts of shooting your family party—about how to play with light or set up a shot—Logue gave me a very disarming, yet encouraging response.
“Right now,” she said, “I don’t think there are rules, because the cameras are so good. Steadicams, light balance—they just have every possible way to shoot. Gone are the days you have to lug around giant equipment. The technology has made it so simple, and that’s the secret of it.”
If Logue has another secret, it’s discipline. In fact, when she taught her craft, she always gave one simple directive.
“Every day, you have to shoot thirty seconds. I don’t care if you break it up into ten-second increments. Just shoot. Because if you shoot something every day, you can actually build your own diary, and by the end of the year, you have a fantastic record you can look back on.”
This exercise connected with me, because I fashion similar routines to practice my own craft. So, if you were inclined, perhaps a bit of practice is in order. You could do what Logue advises and start shooting a week or two before your holiday party. Take your camera or phone, and capture thirty seconds a day in whatever increments you choose. Every week, see what you’ve caught; see what it stirs in you about the week you just had. This might prep you for next task, which is…
Logue told me how she filmed the cultural critic John Rockwell over a Christmas weekend. In capturing him with his family, she shot everything chronologically, editing in-camera, and always maintaining a sense of discipline.
“I didn’t go on for five minutes shooting,” she said. “You watch for what you think is important and you clip maybe ten seconds of this, four seconds of that… maybe thirty seconds of something if it’s really, really good.”
Indeed, this seems key—especially for shooting holiday videos that won’t bore everyone to tears.
“You don’t let things run on,” Joan said. “Put some discipline in what you’re shooting, so at the end, it’s already edited. You set limits for yourself—you get a glimpse of this and a glimpse of that, then, when you’re done, you’ve already edited. You get the sounds, you get the ambiance, you get to see the people you love. But it takes a lot of discipline to edit in camera like that. Just shoot, shoot, shoot—and by the end of the day maybe you only shot ten minutes, but it’s the whole day.”
I interjected here. “But Joan, you’re so good at knowing which seconds to shoot—how do you get to that point?”
“Well,” she replied, “you know what’s important at that moment. Or you see what’s important at that moment. Or you just see what’s funny.”
“But how do you keep yourself from missing it? Like, if someone’s laughing at a joke, you’re missing the joke!”
She didn’t miss a beat. “Maybe it’s just important to hear people laughing. Maybe you don’t need the joke—you just need to see the joy of people laughing.”
If you aim to edit in-camera, as Logue has often done, you wouldn’t need to edit later. But if you do decide to edit, she has a few tips for you.
“First, decide how long you want the piece to be. You’re not going to make Gone with the Wind—figure out how many minutes you want something to be, and then work on the timing. You can even put three of four frames on one frame if you want to, overlay images...”
Here, Logue showed her experimental roots, pointing me to her videos documenting the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s jarring, immediate footage that I recommend viewing for their sheer artistry, no matter your viewpoint or affinity. In these films, she goes beyond split-screen to build collages of film, images rubbing up against each other for an immersive overload totally unlike a typical documentary. Indeed, this technique allows you to cram “fifteen minutes of video within three minutes,” as Logue told me.
Still, we both acknowledged this might be a little too out-there for your holiday party, so Logue left off with some more concrete advice. “Basically,” she said, “You have to ask yourself, who’s important? And you have to think about what you want to say. You know? If it’s a whole family portrait, you want to make sure everybody has a time slot. You star everybody.”
Yes, these aren’t the most technical tips. But they will help you preserve the memory of the party, not only for your friends and family, but for yourself—and in ways you might not expect. Take what Logue had to say about my Bar Mitzvah, which she shot more than twenty years ago.
“What I remember is your Grandma Rose and Grandma Dora,” she said. “They were from a different world. Dora was five years old, and her mother died, and she ends up raising the family. For me, I always thought she was very special, because she never experienced childhood. And your other grandmother, Rose, she got up every single morning to work. These are the people who suffered the Great Depression, who got through World War II. They saw real suffering, so for me, they were special in my heart. I was always sorry I didn’t have this record of my grandparents, so when I saw your grandparents, I just saw something so special.”
What moments do you hope to capture with your family this year? What moments are you so very happy to have preserved? If anything leaps out at you, and you’re feeling sentimental, please feel free to leave us a note.