Taking family record to the next level with modern tech

Exeter High alumni Nikki and Dan Stern create digital video of past family members for generations to enjoy

By Stephanie Barraza
Special to the Sun-Gazette

EXETER – It used to be that our life story would be passed on to future generations through spoken language and oral storytelling.

With the advent of ever-changing technology, however, our life story, and those of our loved ones, can now be easily recounted through digital means. But will we take the time to do it?

This is where Nikki and her husband, Dan Stern, come in. The husband and wife team have launched a project called, “In My Own Words,” a unique business where they offer professional documentary-style films for people who want to tell their life story, all in the comfort of their own home.

“In a global world, we’re not all living close to our parents and grandparents and we miss out on that oral tradition of storytelling,” she said.

Nikki, who was born in Strathmore and graduated from Exeter Union High School in 1999, began this project with her husband when there was a moment in their own lives when they realized that their son wasn’t given the opportunity to meet Dan’s late father, who passed away before he was born.

“I had all of these stories to share about my dad – his time in the service, his love of playing football in the street with us boys, his life growing up in Chicago and going to Cubs games and his sense of humor,” he said.

Nikki Stern

Dan Stern

Dan, who is a television producer and director, built his career in making award-winning documentaries, which include several on National Geographic. But it was at this moment that he realized how important it was to preserve his own family story for his children to look back to.

“First and foremost, it’s deeply personal,” said Nikki. “Our son, Jack, is eight and my husband’s father passed 13 years ago. We have photos, a few video clips and everyone does their best to answer Jack’s questions and stories about his grandfather, but we can’t help but imagine what it would be like to have something like ‘In My Own Words’ to show him.”

“That’s why we want to help people craft their stories and make it memorable,” said Dan.

Equipped with this personal motive, Dan and Nikki set out on a journey to help create biographies about “ordinary people who have lived extraordinary lives.”

The process of putting together one of these documentaries starts with a conversation with the client. After filling out a pre-interview questionnaire, the client is contacted for a formal interview in the client’s home, which includes collecting and organizing personal memorabilia, like photos and home videos, and researching relevant historical footage and cultural events from their interview.

“My role is to make this process as enjoyable and seamless as possible for our clients,” said Nikki. “My husband has an incredible gift in his ability to relate to people, help them feel comfortable and effortlessly draw out the beauty of their story. This is their film, they’re the star and while a client might not feel like they’re ‘star-worthy’ I assure them they are.”

After about three to four weeks of editing, the client receives their first cuts of their custom-made biography film.

“This is so much more than a slideshow,” Nikki points out. “Our clients are watching a professionally produced film about them. It’s a piece of art that captures the essence and life of people and remains long after they’re gone.”

Since the beginning of this year, “In My Own Words” has produced 10 custom-made documentaries in California, one of which is Nikki’s 89-year-old grandmother and is being filmed in her hometown of Strathmore.

“I feel really grateful to capture her story,” said Nikki. “[She] looks forward to recording her family history from her parents’ village in Italy to their journey to Southern California and to Strathmore where she raised three children with her husband, Domenic, who passed away two years ago.”

Other subjects have included veterans and those in their early stages of dementia. This has led the team to expand their business and by eventually working with charities.

“One of our goals is to create partnerships with organizations serving veterans, the terminally ill or Alzheimer’s [disease] so that we can provide this service to those who wouldn’t be able to afford it,” said Nikki. “Currently, we donate a film package to auctions for causes we support.”

As available spots keep filling up for their project, Nikki says that what is still important to them is making sure they keep the quality of the filmmaking, which means they can only take so many projects at a time without sacrificing the hand-crafted effort.

“Dan has been interviewing people from all walks of life professionally for 20 years,” Nikki explains. “Without this experience, there is no way to replicate what we’re doing. The amount of time and expertise that goes into crafting personal interview questions and creating a film that captures the essence of a person and does their personal history justice is a gift my husband has.”

As their project starts to catch on and as stories are being brought to life, Nikki says she will never forget the time as a student at EUHS when she brought a drunk-driving prevention program to her school and hearing the story of a mother who experienced the death of her toddler son after they were hit by a drunk driver.

“In that moment, I realized that everyone’s story, though not always so tragic, is a powerful one,” she said. “There are no boring people and getting people to tell their story is not only healing for them, but it allows for us listening to connect.”

For more information on their project, In My Own Words, visit www.dlstern.com/in-my-own-words.

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