Monday 13 February 2023

Preserving Home Movies

My dad was a great movie maker! No, not for Hollywood but for the family. He was one of the earliest people who took up picture-taking with 8 mm movie cameras. He shot thousands of feet of film. The first years of action were in black and white.

Taking movies was part of regular family activities. Dad usually had his movie camera(s) everywhere we went. Some of the family activities every year was getting together with other keen members of the Calgary Movie Makers club for picnics and other events where, of course, everyone took movies.

I believe Dad may have been a charter member of the group which was just a bunch of friends who loved to take movies and enjoy each others’ company. When my parents moved away from Calgary in 1971, they were presented with a Lifetime Membership certificate "in recognition of long and meritorious service." They had previously been awarded an Honorary Membership in 1970 “in recognition of 25 years continuous service” (from 1945). I do not think the club is active anymore as all the old friends are gone. 

I still have Dad’s movie cameras, as I wrote about in a previous blog post (My amazing picture-taking machines, 22 October 2019. They have become family memorabilia, even antiques given their age, and rest proudly in my camera cabinets.

I got involved a bit as well, but never to the same extent. I do own movie cameras, but they never got a lot of use. I switched to video records when they came out, first a big ungainly VHS machine and then a Sony camcorder.

These days we all use our iPhones or other such digital equipment to take videos (they are not called home movies anymore). Our kids and their kids are very active in this realm, and we must have hundreds of hours now in our digital libraries.

We moved from VHS recordings to Camcorders which was a real boon to getting videos of special occasions as the equipment was light and easily portable and tapes could be stored in smaller places. The tapes could be converted to longer MP4 files using video converter software. We have several videos taken at events such as birthday parties.

Several years ago, I decided I needed to get all our 8mm films digitized and put into a format that everyone could enjoy and get a copy of. It was getting to the point that the old film was deteriorating. It only has a certain shelf life. So do CDs and DVDs as we are learning now.

Part of the problem, of course, was that the films were on dozens of individual rolls, some of which had been compiled by my father on to large reels but many that had not. Dad’s idea of giving people copies of the old movies was to cut up the various rolls and put them together in four individual collections. That way, my sisters and I would each have a copy of some of the memories of trips and special events.

The downside, of course, was that we would only have a small piece of each film record, mainly ones with ourselves in them. At the time he started the project, which was just in the year or so before his death, he did not have access to techniques with which he could convert the films to other types of media.

I have all the films still stored in a suitcase-like container, but I suspect over coming years they will continue to dry out and eventually will not be playable.

I thought the best way to accomplish my preservation goal, was to put together all of the small bits and pieces of film that had been cut up and, together with the original and compiled reels, find someone to convert them to a format that could be put on a DVD.

I contacted Myron and Malcom Achtman, at Adita Video Inc., again, who had done the wedding slide shows for me. They were willing and able to digitize all the old films and get them in a form that I could assemble into reasonably sized files that would be copied on to DVDs.

I broke down the collection into films from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, which spanned the life of my father’s movie taking. For each collection I chose a number of songs that had been hits during those decades to use as background music to the films. The old movies, of course, were recorded without sound and it would have been boring to just sit and watch pictures with no background noise.

Each DVD comes with a list of what scenes are present, the locations and dates when the films were taken and the people who are shown. The names of the songs are also on the list so that people under 50 years of age (now) who eventually view the DVDs will know what the music is.

The videos each run for about an hour so there is lots to see (almost three hours of action). There are some rare movies of all of us as we grew up, as well as members of the family who no longer are around. The quality is not always great, but these are live-action scenes which will never come again.

If you have old movies still on film, look at getting them into digital format. The film will deteriorate with time.