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Preserving Memories: Home Movies

This past October I had the pleasure of volunteering at “Home Movie Day”, an all-day festival, held at locations all over the world, consisting of (not surprisingly) home movies.

I’m always intrigued by watching home movies, because they capture the time and place in which they were made without any of the stylistic pretensions that mark professional filmmaking of all stripes.

Since the advent of video (and particularly since the advent of cell phone cameras), home movies have become ubiquitous. Websites like YouTube have given the home movie the potential for worldwide distribution.

However, how often do you hear of the need to preserve home movies? What becomes of those video files on your cellphone or portable video device if they get erased? A simple hard drive crash could result in the loss of an entire collection of home movies in a single moment.

One of the points that is stressed at Home Movie Day is the need for preservation of home movies, both of film prints and video tapes. This isn’t an issue that gets nearly enough attention. I became aware of the problem myself several years ago when I undertook transferring family home movies to DVD to create access copies for easier viewing. My experience involved a VHS tape recorded in 1994. This videotape was in good enough condition when I transferred it from VHS to DVD-R, but when I went to play it back later to transfer a second time onto another DVD-R disc, I was astonished to find that the tape no longer played!

The condition in which tapes are stored has to be taken into account as well, since I was also transferring VHS tapes of home movies recorded in 1984 that still played fine. But a tape that was only 12 years old at the time was already rendered unable to play back.

For people still storing 8mm and Super8 home movies, film preservation is an extraordinarily important issue.

Proper storage and handling is essential in guaranteeing these precious works will be available for viewing in another 50 years. The color on Kodachrome stock holds up very well, and it is often breathtaking to see home movies recorded even 60 years ago, as the color holds up so well. Of course, it is essential to store the reels of film in cool, dry places to prevent fading. Videotapes hold up well, some better than others, depending on what speed they were recorded at (tapes recorded in the Standard Play mode usually holds up much better over time than Extended Play format).

Another point that is worth stressing is that the issue of preservation also has to tackle the idea of “original” copies versus derivative copies that can often result in an exponential degradation of quality as the original is reproduced.

For instance, a home movie shot on 8mm videotape (Sony’s popular format in the 1990s), transferred to VHS, and finally to DVD, represent two generations removed from the original. In the transition, quality is lost with each transfer. This is the issue I faced when preserving my own home movies recorded on Sony’s 8mm tape in the mid-1990s, which had been transfered to VHS (the originals were erased), and then transferred to DVD-R. The copies that are made on to the latest formats, such as digital media, are good for “access copies” (ones convenient for quick and easy viewing) but shouldn’t be mistaken as replacements for the original.

It’s important to remember, too, that the earliest VHS home movies are approaching nearly 30 years in age. As tapes can become worn from repeated play, the need to create access copies for repeated viewing becomes a bigger and bigger issue.

An interesting trend I’ve noticed in recent home movies is toward shorter and shorter recording lengths, not unlike the 8mm and Super8 rolls of film.

One of the initial advantages offered by VHS was the ability to record single shots lasting as long as an hour or more (sometimes two hours, depending on the tape being used). This certainly has its advantages, but it also raises the question of how “easy” it will be to sit and watch a recording of that length at a later time. Because of the limited recording capacities of recent devices like the iPhone and Flip Video cameras, there has been a return to the shorter running times, which of course are also well-suited to websites like YouTube that are so frequently used for sharing home movies.

That, of course, is another major difference: the distribution of home movies to an international audience on the web. Whereas home movies used to generally be viewed by the close friends or family of the person who took them, they now reach a potentially worldwide audience of unprecedented size.

As home movies become ever more ubiquitous, the need to preserve them will become ever more important, especially as the media on which they are recorded becomes increasingly unpredictable, unstable and prone to loss.

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