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Your wedding: the documentary

Kellyn.jpg

A screenshot of Kellyn McMichael, 24, from the documentary made about her August wedding to Nathan McMichael in Atlanta. The couple hired Three Ring Media to professionally film their big day to tell their "love story." (Photo by Jeremy Doublestein)

Last summer, in the weeks leading up to their wedding, Nathan McMichael, 25, and his fiancée, Kellyn, 24, sat down for separate—and private—premarriage interviews with the man who would document their love story. The final product—an interactive DVD with clickable special sections and an 18-minute trailer—intermittently shows the couple talking about how they met and their love for each other, along with video and snapshots of their wedding day.

The video has been a staple of weddings since the early 1980s, but now the common, straightforward, shot-from-a-single-tripod style has given way to a new, more ambitious approach: the wedding documentary. Couples across the country are choosing to hire professional cinematographers to tell their stories, chronicling everything from their first kiss to meltdowns in the dressing rooms to the festivities on the dance floor.

These new-style nuptial narratives often come with customized sound tracks, unusual camera angles, rolling credits and professional editing. It’s a “chick flick” individualized for any couple willing to shell out anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000.

“I thought, Why can’t something special, like a wedding story, have a unique angle to it?” says Jeremy Doublestein, the owner of Three Ring Media in Atlanta, who produced the film for the McMichaels. “I was fed up with the traditional way—it looked cheesy, poorly produced.”

The development of high-quality digital video cameras and computer editing software has greatly reduced production costs over the past decade, placing a Hollywood-style video within the reach of many more couples. At the same time, the popularity of reality television has changed the way couples want their moment in the spotlight immortalized, according to Doublestein, who has been shooting weddings since about 2000. “People kind of get the feeling they can be a star,” he says.

Indeed, today’s wedding videographers offer a variety of visual styles customized to the preferences of the bride and groom. If a couple wants an edgy, modern feel, then Vijay Rakhra, a cinematographer in San Francisco, shoots the day like a fashion show. But if the couple wants a more retro look, then hiring a firm that specializes in shooting Super 8 film, the format most popular for home movies in the 1960s, may be the way to go.

Many couples shop around, looking at sample videos before they decide whom to hire. It’s not unusual for a couple to fly a videographer with a certain cinematic style across the country—or to a third location—to shoot a wedding. “If they aren’t comfy with us, they should probably look somewhere else,” says Kristen Turick, who runs Artifact Documentaries in West Orange, N.J., because “that really shows through on camera.”

The people behind the camera often have formal cinematic training. Both Rakhra of San Francisco and Doublestein of Atlanta turned to making wedding documentaries after trying to make it as mainstream filmmakers. Producing high-end wedding stories is more lucrative than working on independent films, says Rakhra, 28, who started his company, Wedding Documentary, about six years ago as a way to pay the bills.

The filmmaking process, including preproduction, the wedding day and postproduction, can take anywhere from 60 to several hundred hours, as the videographers make cuts that turn the highlights of the day into intimate treasures. “It’s about capturing an experience and producing films for each couple rather than just documenting the day with a three- to four-hour wedding video that nobody is going to watch,” says Turick, the New Jersey videographer. She estimates that she spends “several hundred hours” on each of the roughly five films she and her husband, Jeff, make each year.

“They come to us because they want a piece of art,” she adds.

Selling couples on elaborate wedding documentaries over the next year may be more challenging as purse strings tighten because of the economic downturn. But Doublestein believes that the dream of the perfect wedding day will still attract clients. He and his wife recently started offering a discounted economy package, but he says that it’s more of a “cute” marketing stunt to grow their business than a reaction to decreasing sales.

“Most brides don’t really care about the economy,” he says. “They think they’ll only get married once and don’t care if the economy is going down.” Doublestein adds that the couples who hire him usually have about $30,000 to spend on the wedding. “They want what they want when they want it,” he says.

Limiting the number of guests or selecting a cheaper venue, rather than missing a chance to immortalize the big day, are often preferred ways to keep costs down. Jane Loh and her husband, Rob, almost skimped on the video to save money but ultimately decided to cut in other places.

In cases where the budget is tight but the couple still wants a luxurious memento of the day, Jessica Lysons, a New York City videographer, says she has been hired to shoot weddings in her signature rough-cut syle, where it’s just the couple, the judge and her. “It’s a neat thing for couples trying to save money,” says Lysons, who runs Worker Bee Designs in Brooklyn, N.Y., and also turns footage into flip books.

For some couples, however, a wedding video holds no allure, no matter what the price. Eric Swenson and his fiancée, Erin Murphy, are in the midst of planning an all-day affair in October for 300 to 400 people in Ludlow, Mass. From 1 p.m. to midnight, guests will eat twice and drink at an open bar in celebration of the couple’s marriage, says Murphy, whose family expected her to have a large wedding. Despite a $50,000 budget, the Boston couple is not planning to record the event on video.

“I see myself sitting down with our kids in 30 years with a photo album—I suppose you could do that with a video,” Swenson says. Murphy laughs, saying, “I don’t think I would ever watch it on a DVD in my life.”

But the newlywed McMichaels like to pop in their DVD some nights to relive a moment—or see some scenes of their July 2008 wedding for the first time.

“The whole night was a blur,” Nathan recalls. “You really don’t pick up on half of what’s going on—so every time we watch it we see something new.”

E-mail: hf2198@columbia.edu