We had a problem.

Ok, maybe we had several problems. We were super busy. We both worked full-time. We were buried in church responsibilities. We were raising four young children. We were potty-training a toddler and a new puppy. Pam had just finished Medical Transcription school. I was pursuing a Master’s Degree. We were broke. We were stressed. We were ready for a break.

And then we got this wacky urge to dig into our family history.

One more thing, right?

The big problem with family history research is this: it isolates the researcher. The last thing Pam and I wanted to do was tell our already attention-deprived children to go find something else to do—Mommy and Daddy are doing genealogy. We didn’t want to spend time getting to know dead relatives at the expense of our living, breathing offspring.

Yet, there was still that urge. It was an itch that wouldn’t go away. So, we brainstormed how to scratch it. We involved the children as best we could. We occasionally turned the living room into a family history research library for the night. We popped popcorn and began learning together how to dig up our roots. We gave the little girls some fun family history-related activities to do while the older boys and we began discovering our pedigree. We had regular story time when we would take turns reading from histories and diaries. We went on road trips to visit places that were relevant to our ancestors. But still, we were desperate for a way to spend more time together and pursue our new hobby.

The idea formulated slowly at first. What if we found a story from our ancestors and reenacted it on video? We could write a script, dress the children in period costumes, and make a short film. Of course, the video would look amateur—we expected that. But it might be fun, and it would give us an outlet for spending time together discovering our past. The children were excited. They all wanted to help.

The first thing we did was pick a story. We remembered hearing a very touching story of my Grandpa and his brother who saved Christmas for their baby sister. We all agreed that this was the story we wanted to tell. It just so happened that our children were just the right ages to play the essential parts. My mom wrote up the story, which we adapted into a screenplay. We called it Dottie after the main character.

Next, we began building and gathering the tools to help us film. We borrowed some power tools and went to work. We built a track with a camera dolly out of boards and an old exercise machine. We used some old speaker stands and some PVC pipe to build a stand for a backdrop. I designed a crane jib that worked great in theory; not so much in practice. My mom helped us sew up a green screen out of budget fabric. We watched for period props and costumes at thrift stores and tailored them to fit. We took family drives out in the country scouting for places to shoot footage.

The process was slow and sometimes tedious. We worked whenever we could, which wasn’t often with so much else on our plates. But we were having fun. We were spending quality time together in creative activities. We were getting along. We were involving the children.

One evening, we pulled out a bunch of modeling clay and some old-style clothespins. We made some dough mock-ups of the characters from the story and placed them in front of pictures that looked like the scenery we intended to film. We took pictures of the little homemade action figures and arranged the images into a storyboard.

Making storyboard figures with modeling clay 

Throughout the process, Pam and I studied filmmaking. We had to learn how to plan, shoot, and edit. We learned how to light the subjects and background, how to capture quality audio, how to set the camera to the right aperture and framerate, how to mix audio and music. Turns out, the whole filmmaking process is harder than it looks. That’s why some of the final images came out blurry, the sound isn’t terrific, and the editing needs…well, editing. We did our best with very limited knowledge, time, budget, and resources.

The real fun (and anguish) came when we started filming. We were honestly too poor to afford a decent camera, so we borrowed one. We set it up on a tripod we pieced together from thrift store parts and started shooting. Because we didn’t know what we were doing, we took a lot of takes. The crew heard this a lot: “That looks great! (I think…) Now try it again…”

I learned I’m not a very good director. I can be a real ornery old cuss. If patience is a virtue, I guess I’m not very virtuous. Despite my barking out orders and being a general, all-around nincompoop, the actors and crew were absolutely wonderful. They put up with me with smiles on their faces. They laughed through the frustration and tedium that often comes from creative work. We had fun, which I frequently had to remind myself was the purpose of this project from the beginning.

Behind the scenes in the schoolhouse. The children were AMAZING!!

To me, one of the most amazing things about this experience was the way our family and friends rallied to help us get it done. We asked a lot of people for favors. So many were willing to do whatever it takes to help us out, without any expectation of reward. We borrowed talent from actors, singers, set dressers, costumers, makeup artists, carpenters, landowners, researchers, technical consultants, etc. They were mostly amateurs, but they had a lot of heart and did a great job. My mom’s Uncle Glen drove his Model A Ford. Glen is the son of the eldest Elder son. (That last sentence was probably confusing, but it was a lot of fun to write.) His Model A once belonged to Alvon, one of the main subjects of the movie. Pam’s dad built all the toys to replicate the originals. My sister and her family gave up a significant portion of their Christmas vacation to star in our little movie. My mom put in countless hours helping with…well, everything. People donated props, costumes, furniture, filming locations, time, transportation, food, labor, etc. My biggest fear is that we left someone out of the credits. I have a terrible memory. Seriously, it’s really bad. But I’m very grateful all the same.

One of the biggest challenges for me was scoring the film. In preparation for this project, I followed film scoring Facebook groups and chatted with real Hollywood composers who helped me immensely. I set up a studio in the basement and took a long time to learn how to use it. It’s not the world’s best soundtrack. The recording is a bit clunky. I mean, I don’t expect to win an Oscar anytime soon. But, making that music was a blast.

I scoured the internet for a 1920’s-era song to use in the opening sequence. I couldn’t find one, at least not one that I could afford to pay royalties on. So, I made one myself. I wrote a purposely cheesy happy-go-lucky ditty and recorded the parts separately. It’s called “Our Garden of Eden.” I sang it in this over-the-top goofy crooner voice. Then we filtered it through an old-time radio effect.

The text for the closing song comes from Matthew 25: “I was in prison and ye came unto me,” wherein Christ explains that service to others is actually service to God. To me, that idea sums up the spirit of Christmas, the spirit of giving. This is the spirit that drove two little boys to handcraft a dozen or so toys for their little sister in the throes of poverty. I was so fortunate to have my brother sing that song. He and his family recently returned from several years of living in Hawaii.  I love my brother’s voice, and it was a rare pleasure to record him. I also had the great privilege of recording my oldest son play a cello solo for “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

A surprising and delightful outcome of this project is how it brought so many relatives together. Of the 61 members of our volunteer cast and crew, 29 were relatives. Of those, we had help from a whopping 22 descendants of Curtis and Grace Elder! (The Elders are the main characters in the movie.) It was such a joy to work with so many family members, several of whom we didn’t know before.

Several of the Elder Descendants taking a break on set.

Our original goal was to do family history in a way that brings our family together. We never expected such an awesome fulfillment of our purpose. All I can say here is WOW!

This whole process has been so amazing! What we thought would be a little project turned into a huge undertaking. We really bit off more than we could chew. No wonder major motion pictures cost multi-million dollars. Thank Heavens for all the wonderful people who helped us digest it all! This turned into one of the best experiences of my life. I think my family agrees.

Oh, and how are we doing these days? Better, for sure. Although I finally graduated, we’re still as busy as ever. But we have a much stronger family bond that helps us weather storms. We’re not perfect, but we’re happy. And together, we had the experience of a lifetime. We hope you enjoy watching Dottie as much as we enjoyed making it.

View the video here:  https://youtu.be/I_IlOgal4Os.

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If you would like to learn more, you can read the life history of Ivon Elder, click here.