Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Home Movie Resources

During the past two weeks, we’ve barely skimmed the surface of the complex subject of home movie preservation.  Fortunately, there are several good internet resources available that plunge into the technical depths and offer truly practical information.

Snowden Becker, co-founder of the annual international Home Movie Day event and the nonprofit Center for Home Movies, recommends checking out the Transfer Page at the Center for Home Movies:  “It’s a great guide to home movie preservation and transfer options that addresses these questions and many more, as well as a geographically-organized listing of labs and vendors that offer film-to-video transfer services.”

In addition, Snowden notes two other reliable sites to visit:  “The Home Film Preservation Guide, which you can browse or download, has excellent information for the kitchen-table film archivist; so does the Film Preservation Guide: The Basics for Libraries, Archives, and Museums, which is also available for free download.”

When obtaining permission from Reed Sturtevant to use one of his photos for Monday’s blog entry, Reed alerted me to his very relevant internet project:  the Super 8 Wiki.  Here you can find 2,046 articles covering every facet of this once-very-popular home movie format.

My very sincere thanks to Snowden Becker for helping me out not once but twice.  First, she worked with me on the home movie entries for our participation in the Film Preservation Blogathon and now she’s provided the expert advice for this two-week series on home movie preservation.  It is always an honor to work with the best!

© 2011 Lee Price

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Market for Home Movies

Archivist Andrea McCarty inspecting film for Home Movie Day, Boston, 2005.
Photo credit: Reed Sturtevant, Super 8 Wiki.

Contrary to the impression sometimes inadvertently created by popular shows like Antiques Roadshow, most old items are not valuable.  I always assumed that this was particularly true regarding home movies.  Who wants to see my family dressed in out-of-date clothes, clumsily posing for the camera?

Nevertheless, I asked Snowden Becker about the value of home movies, expecting that her answer would be that they had no value, aside from sentimental value.  But that’s not what Snowden replied.  In fact, her answer genuinely surprised me:

Could my old films be valuable?

Snowden:  “In a word, yes.  However, it’s very important to distinguish between historical value and cash value, and be aware that they are not always directly related – and sometimes maximizing one means destroying the other.

“While there is a collector’s market for home movies at flea markets, swap meets, and online auction sites like eBay, most films don’t fetch very much money.  Maximizing profit will usually require that an intact collection be broken up and sold as individual reels, which can destroy much of their context and continuity, making them less meaningful as historical records.  Furthermore, film is not a liquid asset – its specific storage needs, and the cost of transferring the film to a format where it can easily be used by contemporary producers, mean that a significant investment must be made in any film footage before its contents can be licensed for reuse.

“Copyright is another complicating factor, particularly for film of unknown origins.  Many people assume that home movies are copyright-free or in the public domain, but that’s not the case.  Most of the time, they fall into the same legal category as unpublished diaries, letters, or photographs – that is, they don’t enter the public domain until 70 years after the death of their creator, or 120 years from the date of their creation if the creator is unknown or unidentifiable. That’s NOT a typo – unpublished materials currently take over a century to enter the public domain.

“Footage containing images of celebrities may enhance its commercial value, but it can also increase the legal risks involved with using it.  Even ordinary people who appear in home movie footage have rights that should be considered, especially if the footage depicts intimate activities or religious rituals that would normally not be accessible to outsiders.

“The primary value that most home movies will have for your family and the larger public is cultural and historical, not financial, but every kind of value they have will be increased by proper storage, careful handling, and the responsible provision of access to their contents.”

© 2011 Lee Price

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Whiff of Film

Feeding home movie film into a projector for a screening at
Home Movie Day at the Urbana Free Library in October 2008.
Photo courtesy of the Preservation Working Group at the
University of Illinois.

People involved with film preservation and restoration are well acquainted with the palette of odors common to film.  Most are bad.  You catch a whiff and you know there’s something wrong.  Film is not supposed to smell like that.

You don’t need to be professionally trained or overly sensitive to detect these smells.  Snowden Becker, co-founder of the annual international Home Movie Day event and the nonprofit Center for Home Movies, outlined four of the most prominent film smells for me:

1. Mold:  If the film has been stored in damp conditions, or exposed to flood waters, leaky pipes, etc., mold may be a serious problem for it and for you.  Soaked cardboard is an ideal environment for mold and mildew to grow, so you may see signs of it on film boxes, and even on the film itself.  Black spots, or whitish or grayish fluffy or crystalline matter on your film materials are warning signs;  musty or swampy smells are, too.  Inhaling mold spores can be a serious health risk, and moldy film probably needs professional cleaning before it’s safe to view or transfer.

2. Vinegar Syndrome:  This smell is particularly indicative of condition problems in older film – vinegar odor is one of the first detectable signs of vinegar syndrome, or acetate deterioration.  As safety film ages, especially in too-hot or too-moist storage conditions, it breaks down and starts to release acetic acid compounds that are not only harmful to the film but harsh on the delicate tissues in your eyes, nose, and throat.  A strong whiff of vinegar when you open a can or box is a good sign that it needs professional help, and soon!

3. Dust:  Dust from old cardboard boxes and crumbling pieces of paper that might be stored with the films gets everywhere – including your nose or lungs!  Sneezing is an occupational hazard for the film archivist who handles home movies. If you’re prone to asthma or allergies, be especially careful that you're working in a well-ventilated area if and when you examine your old films.

4. Wintergreen:  You may also detect mothball-y camphor or wintergreen odors in film collections, but those are often good signs – oil of wintergreen and oil of camphor were sometimes applied to paper inserts in film cans as plasticizing agents and can actually help stabilize the material.

© 2011 Lee Price

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Rusty Film Cans and Broken Reels

The recovery of long-neglected family items from poor storage conditions is nearly always a time of regret.  When you strain to pry open a rusty film can or feel the desiccated rubber band disintegrate as you attempt to remove it, it’s natural to wonder why you put the task off for so long.

Press on.  Things will never get better without intervention, so rescue what you can while there’s still time.

Snowden Becker, co-founder of the annual international Home Movie Day event and the nonprofit Center for Home Movies, notes that the storage of old home movies can be very problematic, sometimes creating problems that will need to be addressed before the film can be recovered.  Snowden walked me through a typical situation:

“Abandoned or neglected film may have been hastily tossed in a box or not properly prepared for long-term storage, so you may encounter reels of film that are over-full with loose ends unwinding and crumpling up, or boxes of film fresh from the processing lab with rubber bands securing the outer wrap of the reel.  Or at least, the rubber bands would be securing the reel if they weren’t crumbling into little bits that work their way down between the film pack and the reel, where they stubbornly lodge themselves until they have the opportunity to come loose and muck up a projector’s workings!

“Film cans may be rusting and difficult to open if they’re metal, or cracked and prone to scratching film (and hands!) with sharp fragments if they’re plastic.  Bent or broken reels may crush the film pack or abrade the surface of film when it's unwound.

“Leaders – lengths of blank film at the beginning and end of a reel – may be too short, damaged, or missing altogether, leaving the outer wraps of a reel of film unprotected and especially vulnerable to scratches, dirt, and moisture.”

In cases like these, remove the films to a stable environment where you can calmly examine the items to determine appropriate next steps.

© 2011 Lee Price

Monday, March 14, 2011

Home Movies and Their Projectors

It’s been several decades since projectors were a normal part of our family life.  Back in the 1960s, I remember times when we would set up a projector and a roll-up tripod screen in my grandparents’ living room.  My grandfather would show us home movies and trick special effects scenes that he’d shoot with the family, as well as some professional reels that he must have bought somewhere (I vividly remember one that showed a lion or tiger being caught in a pit and then lunging toward the camera to escape!).

Within the family, we had 8mm, Super8, Dual 8, and 16mm projectors.  Even under the best conditions, these machines would occasionally malfunction.  The film would jam, or the splices would break, or the pickup reel would neglect to turn and film would spool onto the floor.

Now let’s say you find some old film in the basement, conveniently stored away with the dusty old projector.  Is it time to blow off the dust, plug in the projector, and let the good times unreel?

I asked Snowden Becker, co-founder of the annual international Home Movie Day event and the nonprofit Center for Home Movies, about the risks of loading an old film onto an old projector.  She recommended extreme caution:

“It’s quite common for people to find a projector and other equipment in the attic along with that box of films.  My general recommendation, though, is NOT to just throw those reels on that projector.  Although film was made to be projected, and is comparatively durable, older film is still subject to shrinkage, torn sprocket holes, and brittleness that makes running it through a projector without careful inspection and preparation extremely risky.

“Home movies are typically shot on reversal stock; that is, the film exposed in the camera is processed to become the positive element that you run through the projector.  This means that the reel you hold in your hands is a unique original, with no associated negative or copies.  For this reason, it’s especially precious.

“Home movie collections often include film in multiple formats – a mix of 8mm and Super8 is quite common, for instance, and the differences are not immediately evident to someone who doesn't handle film often.  Even if you have a Dual 8 projector, which can run either of the 8mm formats, you must be very careful to configure the projector properly before you run a reel through it.  Improperly projected film can be quite efficiently destroyed.  And even if you know how to use the projector you find in your attic (I know there are lots of A/V Club alumni out there who can still thread up an old Bell & Howell Filmosound!), chances are that if it’s been sitting unused for a long time it’s in need of new belts, bulbs, fuses, or just a good cleaning and lubrication before it is safe to use with even the most pristine film.

“At Home Movie Day events, the first step is careful inspection and preparation of the films brought in by participants, including cleaning, identification and replacement of unstable splices, checking for shrinkage or other dimensional instability, and application of fresh leader at the beginning and end of the reels.  Films in projectable condition are then shown on clean, well-maintained equipment by people who know how to operate them.  If you want to see your family films under the safest possible conditions, the best thing to do is to find a Home Movie Day event in your area and take advantage of that once-a-year opportunity to get free expert advice and helpful information.  You can also share those images with members of your local community, who can help you identify people, places, and activities in your movies that might be a mystery to you!”

© 2011 Lee Price

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Variety of Home Movie Formats

Courtesy Image Services, UO Libraries

My maternal grandfather (that would be Grandpa Anderson) first used 16mm film for his home movies, later moving to 8mm in the 1960s.  I remember shooting 8mm in the early 1970s and advancing to the new Super8 format, probably around 1973.  We had a dual projector that could show either 8mm or Super8, just by plugging in a few accessory pieces.  Moving to Super8 felt pretty sophisticated at the time – like upscaling from DVD to Blu-ray today.

When you find these standard “home movie” formats – 8 mm,  Super8, 9.5mm, and 16mm – in your basement or attic, you can safely assume they are cellulose acetate (safety) film as opposed to that infamous, unstable cellulose nitrate film.  Safety film has its own set of preservation challenges, but at least it won’t blow up your house.

So what formats do you have?  Snowden Becker, co-founder of the annual international Home Movie Day event and the nonprofit Center for Home Movies, suggests using a “rule of thumb” in identifying film formats commonly found in family collections:

“Identifying formats is quite easy; there are several online guides that include visual examples, such as the Film ID Card from Northeast Historic Film.

“An even easier method, if you don’t have a ruler or an ID card handy when you find your films, is literally a rule of thumb:  Film that’s about as wide as your thumbnail is probably 16mm, while film about the width of your little fingernail is probably 8mm or Super8.  (If you can fit your little fingertip into the hole in the middle of the reel, and it has tiny perforations – sprocket  holes – along the edge that a toothpick wouldn’t fit through, it’s Super8.)  A 35mm film will be about the width of your index and middle finger held together, while 28mm is a bit smaller – perhaps the width of your ring finger and pinkie.  Some reels may have convenient markings on them to indicate footage.  If these markings are absent, this simple guide from a transfer house is useful for estimating footage capacity based on the diameter of the reel.

“These cellulose acetate (safety) films were introduced with the 28mm home-viewing format in 1912. While they have their own inherent vices, safety stock has the significant advantage of not being liable to burn your house down when you watched your home movies in the living room!  The commercial film industry eventually transitioned to acetate-based safety film, too, and then to polyester-based safety stock, which is still used today.”

© 2011 Lee Price

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Is Old Film Safe?

Flamable nitrate film in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009).
In the museum business, it’s not that unusual to hear stories of the discovery of unexploded ordnance in a collection.  It’s been sitting there in storage for decades (perhaps since the Civil War or World War I) and then suddenly – in the blink of an eye – it’s a crisis.  Police are called;  the building is evacuated.

It’s understandable to have a similar panicked reaction when old film stock is discovered.  Perhaps you’ve heard the stories of horrifying theater fires in the 1920s.  Or recently watched the mountain of discarded nitrate film erupt into flames at the climax of Inglourious Basterds.   Nobody wants to find a ticking film bomb in their attic.

Is this a reasonable fear?  I posed this question to Snowden Becker, one of the co-founders of the annual international Home Movie Day event and the nonprofit Center for Home Movies.  Snowden is a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas, Austin, School of Information where she is studying how home movies and amateur media become integrated into our larger cultural heritage.  She frequently consults on preservation issues for personal and institutional film collections.

Snowden’s answer was fairly reassuring – at least 99% of the time, there’s no reason to call the police or evacuate the building.

“If there's one thing an average person knows about old film, it’s that the cellulose nitrate stock used before 1950 was extremely flammable, unstable when deteriorating, and very dangerous to store in the home or under other uncontrolled conditions.  The fact that people are generally aware of this is a testament to the potency of the ‘nitrate won’t wait’ slogan of pioneering film preservationists who were desperately trying to save the disappearing treasures of early cinema.  The only downside of their successful messaging is that it may have made some people fearful of handling film they discover in their homes or institutional collections, because ‘it might blow up.’

“The good news is this:  Any 16mm film that you might encounter in your attic--as well as ALL of the other commonly encountered amateur film gauges such as 8mm, Super8, and 9.5mm--is what’s called SAFETY film.  Instead of cellulose nitrate, it’s cellulose acetate, a non-flammable alternative to the more dangerous nitrate film.  Chances are that any family films you find will be safety film.  HOWEVER…  if you do discover any 35mm film (it’ll be about two fingers wide, with matching perforations running down both edges), you should immediately contact your nearest film archive for advice and assistance.  They’re easy to find online.  A good place to start is this easy-to-access National Film Preservation Board directory.

“When rummaging through that box of films in your attic, basement, or closet, your only concerns should be inadvertently damaging the film material itself or possibly exposing yourself to some health risks related to the films’ storage conditions and state of preservation.  For instance, if you’re prone to asthma or allergies, be especially careful that you do these initial investigations in a well-ventilated area.  This can be dusty work and sneezing is an occupational hazard for the film archivist or anyone who handles home movies.”

© 2011 Lee Price

Friday, March 4, 2011

Other Audio Formats

The family collection material that has passed down from our parents and grandparents is sadly lacking in audio material.  It would be great to have tapes of our ancestors sharing their family stories, but alas…  if they exist, we haven’t found them.

But just in case – as we continue searching through the boxes – I thought it might be wise to ask Cassandra Gallegos, Preservation Administrator at George Blood Audio and Video, about the preservation of other audio formats besides tape cassettes.  Do families ever find other audio formats stored in their basements or garage?  And if they do find an old reel-to-reel tape, how do they go about listening to it?

Here’s Cassandra’s response:

“I'd say that any imaginable audio format could find its way into a family collection. Especially if anyone in your family happened to be a pack-rat!  You might find Eight-Tracks, Reel-to-Reel, and various disc formats including Instantaneous, Lacquer, Transcription, and commercial Vinyl discs with cores ranging from glass to cardboard.  We’ve gotten a quite a few queries from people who happened to find this type of material in their attic or packed away in a closet.  It was once common for folks to go down to the local five and dime to record a quick message as a novelty and soldiers overseas often jumped at the chance to record a message to send back to their loved ones.

“If you find an unknown audio format, feel free to take a picture and contact us at George Blood Audio and Video.  We take lots of questions from people who just want some information on what they have.  The audio preservation community is small and tight knit.  If we can’t help you, we can certainly put you in touch with someone in your area that can.  If you happen to live in the area of a university, you might want to see if they have a preservation department in the library or an audio program.  They often have equipment they use for their own collections.  Local/regional archives can also help you.  They may even be interested in having the audio digitized if you are willing to donate the original object to their oral history collection.”

One of the great pleasure of doing this blog is the opportunity to collaborate with some of the finest, most respected people working in the field of preservation today.  Thank you, Cassandra, for sharing your expertise in audio preservation during the past month!

© 2011 Lee Price

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Appropriate Care for CDs

George Blood Audio and Video uses these machines from Rimage to create
and thermally print labels on CDs and DVDs.

This is what I want to do:  I want to digitize the taped oral history memories of my mother, save them to CD, and then store the CD in a safe and secure place.  Then many decades later, my great-great great grandchildren will find it, pop it into a 22nd century CD player, and hear the voice of their great-great-great-great grandmother telling the stories of her youth.

Chances are it won’t happen quite like that.  But I at least want to start the process following 21st century protocol for best preservation practices.  For advice, I turned to Cassandra Gallegos, Preservation Administrator at George Blood Audio and Video.  An expert in audio preservation, Cassandra knows the weakness inherent in CD technology and has good recommendations for minimizing their impact:

Thermal printing on CD.
“CDs have a number of preservation concerns.  Optical discs consist of various layers. Their metallic reflective layer categorizes them.  This layer can be either gold or aluminum.  If air reaches the base of an aluminum disc through either a deep scratch or a manufacturing defect in the protective lacquer top coat, the metal will oxidize (rust).  This phenomenon is referred to as CD rot. Gold discs do not suffer from CD rot but have higher starting error rates.  These errors are unnoticeable
at first because of the built in error
CD with writing on hub.
correction system; however, by the time errors start becoming a problem, the CD is very close to being over run by errors that can rendered the CD unplayable.

“The way you label a CD is a preservation concern as well.  CDs should never be labeled using a any pen that could scratch or make indentations on the label.  This is because the information within a CD actually sits closer to the label side.  Many people
lay a CD to rest on its label side thinking this will keep scratches from damaging the CD but a scratch on the reflective side of a CD can often be buffed out while a scratch on the label side might destroy the CD.  There are various CD labeling markers that claim to not harm the informational layer.  These pens have not been around long enough to have any evidence that the ink will not damage the disc.  Paper labels can cause a disc to spin unevenly in a drive and are susceptible to water damage.  We use a special thermal process to print ink directly onto a specially coated CD.  If a special CD printer is beyond your price range, you may safely write on the clear inner hub of a CD without fear of losing the information.”

© 2011 Lee Price