My life as a movie

Forget wobbly camcorder footage - the new vanity is to pay up to £40,000 for a professional crew to script, film and edit your life story. Jonathan Margolis goes behind the scenes on a home movie set
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Commissioning a set of formal portraits in sombrely framed oils was once the fashionable way for well-to-do families to leave images of themselves for posterity. But today's cash-rich, time-poor masters of the universe have found a new and creative way to preserve their family history.

Welcome to the age of the professionally produced family movie, where budgets almost rival broadcast TV productions. Well-heeled City bankers, consultants and the like are spending as much as £40,000 on having experienced TV crews shoot biographical documentaries about their own family, for private viewing.

These productions - some 200 a year are being made by the leading company in the field - are put together with all the skill, resources and production values of proper documentary television. Crews are dispatched worldwide to do location shoots that many independent TV companies simply couldn't afford. Hundreds of hours are sometimes spent assembling historical sequences from old family cine films, videos and collections of photographs.

And many TV professionals, depressed by the onslaught of reality and junk celebrity television that relies on the exploitation of cheap and plentiful media studies graduates, are actively choosing to make movies for private patrons because they see them as one of the last refuges of serious, story-telling documentary film-making.

Styling itself "The Personal Motion Picture Company", a four-year-old film company, eDv Productions in London's Notting Hill is the brand leader in this emerging sector of the British film industry. With a turnover of £1.2m and a staff of 24 editors, camera people and directors, eDv has all the buzz of a fully fledged TV production house - even though none of its work will ever be seen publicly.

Yet while TV professionals increasingly complain about broadcasters caring little about documentary quality, people commissioning private family films seem genuinely appreciative of their work.

"Even somebody who was not a family member wouldn't be bored watching the film we had made about my father," says Bert Piedra, a London banker, dispelling in a sentence, perhaps, most people's visceral fear of being subjected to friends' home movies and videos.

Piedra's 30-minute film cost £12,000 and required an eDv crew to travel to Washington, DC. The film was helped by its subject matter - Piedra Snr has led a life rather more fruitful as documentary fodder than most of us enjoy. He was a minister in Fidel Castro's government until emigrating to the US in 1959, and later became Ronald Reagan's ambassador to Guatemala. In his late seventies, he has just had a book published on philosophy.

But now Piedra and his wife, Jane Fraser, who also works for a City bank, are having a second movie made, a £2,500 film currently in post-production, about their children, Gordon, five, and Cameron, three. "The director came for a whole day and was very comfortable with the kids," says Fraser. "He was really in tune with families just like us. It's not intrusive, as if you've let someone into a very intimate part of your life.

"He went with the children from one of their activities to the next - construction of their Brio railway track, dressing up as pirates and charging through the kitchen and so on. He fitted into their routine of being noisy and childlike and chatted with them. He'd ask things like, 'Who's your best friend?', 'What's your favourite food?', 'What's it like being at school?', 'What's the naughtiest thing you've ever done?'. It was really good fun and they enjoyed it."

Wendy Becker and David Benelo, both partners in McKinsey Consulting who live in Kensington, have had two eDv films made costing £18,000 each.

One was about Benelo's family, and was shot as a 50th birthday present for him over six days on location in Italy, while the second was made at speed after Becker's father in California was diagnosed with lung cancer.

"Within two weeks, the guys put together a movie of his life. It was just stunning," says Becker. "It was especially great because following that, he went through chemotherapy and has changed so much. So it was a fabulous experience for my family to have this thing with my father looking like himself. We rented a cinema for a 'world premiere'. It meant so much to us to capture him, and I really couldn't put a price on the results. My parents are now busy showing the movie to all their friends - and they're really not a home movies kind of crowd."

Shooting family footage is, in practice, only a part of the new personal motion-picture industry. Most of what eDv does is painstakingly constructing watchable films from bags full of random home videos, ancient cine film and family snapshots.

David Clinton, a partner at Accenture management consultants, "dumped", as he puts it, 20 years worth of photos and video on eDv's doorstep. The material, 75 hours of video and 25,000 still photos of his six children, filled a van that arrived to pick it up from the family home near Guildford, Surrey.

Six months and £30,000 later, the Clinton family movie is nearing completion. It spans six DVDs of 50 minutes each.

"The first two DVDs have been delivered and the children are glued to them," says Clinton. "They just keep watching them again and again, beginning to end, and then putting on the next one. The editor did a great job of selecting the best material. We would never, ever, have looked at the original material. Even for those of us in it, it wasn't really watchable before, and it was completely un-catalogued.

"It is a lot of money, but when people see the finished product, they realise just how much you're getting for that. If I could put a pound into this and a pound into my pension I'm pretty certain this is better value." The Clintons are planning to keep on filming and snapping and to go back to eDv every few years to commission and update.

I gave eDv our own modest Margolis family cine-film archive, a jumbled selection of mostly dreadful home movies from the 1950s that had been rotting away in a garage unwatched in nearly 40 years since our projector broke down.

The result was a superbly selected and edited 10-minute montage of film and contemporary music has been shown even to non-family members, who if they were bored by it were polite enough not to say so. Some even went as far as to say that the film was genuinely interesting and evocative.

What was remarkable about their work was how the editor, Adam Bossick, somehow made sense of all the fuzzy relatives and toddling infants and got the archive into a sensible chronological order.

"It's detective work," explains Bossick, a 26-year-old media studies graduate with experience as a staff editor on a Sky Digital channel. "With your film, there were no labelling clues as to what was what and it wasn't in order. So you're looking for visual clues. The only narrative you have with this kind of montage work is the chronology. You're working out which holiday was which, which Christmas, even counting the candles on birthday cakes."

For Aldo Paternostro, eDv's 29-year-old head director, private family movies are the future for his film-making career. Paternostro, a film-school graduate, has a hard news cameraman background in New York, but says: "I find this work really stimulating. It's actually film-making at its most personal and emotional. We get stories from the people that lived them, and there's nothing more fascinating to me than that."

Fellow American Richard Williamson founded and runs eDv, and explains that the company's success is based on a demographic change in middle-class society.

"I started this because I had kids in my thirties, and I realised that by the time my kids were in their twenties my dad would probably not be with us any more and they'd never get to know each other. I wanted something that my son, when he's in his thirties, would have to realise what a great guy his grandfather was. And then I also wanted something for my dad to have, so he could know how cool his grandchildren are.

"Also, my family is really spread out and getting people together has just become impossible. I was aware that while I had these strong family ties, there was little chance that my three kids would spend much time with their cousins or get to know one another.

"A good percentage of our customers are in a similar boat in that their parents or sister or brother are in Paris or Cornwall or the US or South Africa and they never really see each other. When I was a kid, my great fear was family reunions, because I didn't know who anybody was. But when my kids meet their family in Atlanta, they know them all from the telly."

That's all very well, but isn't it all a bit, well, un-British, to spend large sums of money on (whisper it softly in the presence of eDv clients) vanity film-making?

"I certainly needed convincing that it wasn't going to be something incredibly tacky that only rich investment bankers would do," says Jane Fraser. "But you could see from looking at the films they'd done of other families that they really capture the essence of the families and the children. And with us, they got it right.

"My American friends were perfectly comfortable with the idea, but to my British friends, I have to say I mentioned it with embarrassment because they were initially like me. But then my British friends came round to the idea that it could be a nice way of capturing the family in a way that most of us are pretty incompetent at. You know, all those terrible home-video soundtracks you get with the kids saying, 'Mummy can I stop doing this yet?'.

"But now my British friends have realised that this isn't something brash or showy. Quite a few of them are now considering doing the same." Montage documentaries of archive material typically cost between £2,000 and £5,000, full biographical films, £5,000 to £40,000