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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Lights, camera ... Grandma? Lights, camera ... Grandma? (August 28, 2002)

Palo Alto entrepreneur creates TV-style autobiographies so people can leave lasting memories

by Jocelyn Dong

First, there were tales told around the campfire. Then came diaries, memoirs, scrapbooks and tape-recorded oral histories. Today, say hello to the video autobiography, the latest way to pass on family history to the younger generation.

Video autobiography is the brainchild of Palo Alto resident Molly Rathbun, who is betting that people in today's TV-soaked society are ready to communicate their legacies to relatives far and wide through custom-made videotapes. Rathbun likens her product to an episode of "A&E Biography," the cable-TV series.

Just think: Grandpa Joe's life story can take its place on the family's video shelf alongside Meg Ryan and George Clooney flicks.

Rathbun, 37, is like many entrepreneurs: She simply started with an idea. Rathbun had neither experience in video nor journalism, but she has a love of talking with older people and was searching for meaningful work.

"I wanted to find something fulfilling to me, and helpful to other people. It took me a year (to hit upon the idea)," said Rathbun, who has worked in sales and as a personal assistant.

Also typical of entrepreneurs, she found a partner whose skills complemented hers. Last fall, she pitched her idea to Carolyn Alexander, owner and president of Infinity Productions in Sunnyvale, which produces wedding and special-event videos. Rathbun would interview people, and Infinity would handle the camera work.

The timing couldn't have been better.

Alexander had bought the company in January 2001 and had been looking to expand what she calls the "family video" category of products, having noticed how well people responded to Infinity's photo-collage service. Photo collages are made from a family's existing slides, photos and videos and assembled with music. Infinity's photo-collage business has nearly doubled in the last year, according to Alexander

"The baby boomer generation -- that's where the population is right now," Alexander said. "They're getting older; their parents are passing away. They've got time and money on their hands. They're planning birthday parties and memorial services and getting nostalgic."

And the events of Sept. 11 have led people to focus more on their families, Alexander added.

To create her first video, Rathbun needed a subject, and for that, she looked no further than over the fence of her south Palo Alto home, to her next-door neighbor. Joanne, a retired school teacher who preferred to withhold her last name, had been thinking about writing some memoirs for her grandchildren, so Rathbun's idea of a video autobiography interested her.

"I was concerned about leaving a memory for my grandchildren," said the grandmother of four, whose fifth grandchild is due in September. The one-hour video that Rathbun proposed making would tie together an interview with Joanne with photos, slides and memorabilia from her life. Music of the era rounds out the video's soundtrack.

Rathbun has collected a host of resources to aid the creative process, from old atlases and anthologies of newspapers illustrating different eras, to CDs with music from the '30s and '40s and beyond. She says she studies televised interviews and biography shows to get ideas.

Mostly, though, Rathbun says she's motivated by a desire to help people through her work. "I try to get a loving sense of the person, how they lived their lives in relation to family members," she said. "I try to touch on areas that are really revealing, to bring the person's emotional feelings about their family out. I try to get more emotional than just chronological."

For example, one of the questions she asked of Joanne was what attracted her to her husband.

"You never know what people are going to say," Rathbun said. According to Joanne, her husband of 50 years learned things about her from the interview that he'd never known.

But lest a subject fear they might say too much, Rathbun noted that editorial content is up to the client. In Joanne's case, they erased part of the tape after she said some things she didn't feel comfortable with others viewing.

She labeled herself "more camera-shy than most," but in the end said that all of the hours spent pouring over photos with Rathbun and telling stories from her life made her feel comfortable. "It seemed to be evolving naturally," Joanne said of the process. "I had fun doing this."

So far, Joanne has shown a 5-minute version of her one-hour video to her daughter and grandchildren. She said her grandchildren especially loved the Elvis Presley music.

"I hope they'll get some idea of (my) personality as far as that's concerned. And the stories that some of them will forget in 10 years will be refreshed. It's a good feeling to leave a record," Joanne said.

And the cost for recording one's legacy? Not exactly cheap, Rathbun admits. A one-hour video carries a $4,800 price tag. She said she has two clients lined up and preparing for their interviews right now, although she said they haven't made payments yet.

But Rathbun noted, this is the first time in history that a video biography can be made for relatively little. Televised biographies can cost upwards of $50,000 to make, according to the entrepreneur. The advent of personal computers and digital cameras has brought the price down to what she believes is a marketable price. Right now, she added, she and Alexander are the only business in the Bay Area making video autobiographies.

For those who hesitate to shell out the full price, however, Rathbun is planning another product at about half of that cost. The difference would be on the technical end, such as limiting the number of slides and photos the video would include, and reducing the amount of editing. The key will be in finding a balance between people's high expectations for a TV-quality product versus affordability.

Although the business is just getting off of the ground -- it's run from Rathbun's home office -- she and Alexander already have big dreams. They hope to go national in five years, flying Rathbun out to do interviews and hiring a technical crew on location.

But no matter how big those dreams, the personal-assistant-turned-entrepreneur said her work will always come down to one thing: helping others.

"My real goal," she said, "is if I could make one person's family know them better."

For more information about Family Video Memories, visit or call Rathbun at (650) 320-9767.

E-mail Jocelyn Dong at [email protected]


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