Filmmakers still love making movies.

Filmmaking equipment is not hard to find, rehabilitate or use.

Projection is fun, transfer to video is affordable and useful.

IC8 is here to educate, network and encourage you, whether you are a fledging filmmaker or beginning a family genealogy and archive.

HOME MOVIES: A BASIC PRIMER on care, handling, storage

by Toni Treadway, ©1996 ©2001

publisher, editor, B&T's Little Film Notebook, a semi-annual newsletter for 8mm filmmakers

co-founder of the International Center for 8mm Film,

P.O. Box 335 Rowley Massachusetts 01969

This article is a revision and expansion of one first published in the IC8 newsletter "B&T's Little Film Notebook" (#9, November 1992). It contains extremely basic information on identification, handling, storage, labeling, and options for access and use of home movies, whether you have found a shoe box full of family movies or the life's work of an unknown artist. Of course, skip ahead if you are already experienced handling motion picture film. The text is designed for beginners and labeled to help find your way as you dust off piles of cans.


HOME MOVIES are unique cultural documents recorded on amateur motion picture film (generally on 16mm, 8mm or Super 8mm and a few esoteric gauges.) Families need to find their home movies, review their condition and store them carefully for they hold both a personal and cultural treasure that can last a long time for future generations to enjoy. More than ever, home movies are growing in appreciation as families and media producers of documentaries are beginning to understand the unique role these movies have as the repository of personal moving images.

HOME VIDEO, including copies of your family's home movies on video, is a useful and fun medium for recording and viewing family events, but video does not have the history of image permanence of amateur motion picture film.

In view of the current state of video with its ever-changing array of formats, hardware and new technologies and as advocate for the long range cultural record, the author recommends above all:



This means at historic moments, one family member must be sure to expose a roll or two of FILM. Whether still film or movies, this is necessary to preserve baby's first steps, the wedding, a family feast, or any sight or event that interests the maker for posterity. Then, process the film at a reputable lab and store it well, cool and dry. This will ensure that future generations can have access to the moments you thought were important to share. The film stocks that have the best track records for image permanence without a doubt are Black and White films or the venerable color film Kodachrome.

The good news for family historians and low budget, film-loving artists is amateur motion picture film is still available. You can find working cameras and projectors in closets and at flea markets. Super 8 and 16mm reversal films are manufactured by Kodak while film in 8mm or 9.5mm are more rare but still found in niche markets. Some people protest that movie film is quite expensive per minute when compared to home video, yet film is a very accessibly priced medium when the long range record of your family is taken into consideration.

Early videotape has not held up well over time and new videotape has not been in existence long enough to have a track record for stability or shelf life. Formats come and go in video and retrieval of images will depend on access to technology. Many families play original videotapes over and over which further puts the recorded image at risk, especially if a videotape is frequently reviewed fast forward or slow motion. In the future, access to the images may be available, to images may be degraded or lost, but access is sure to be expensive to the right equipment to play video back or duplicate it onto some new technology. Few people are taking actions which help preserve their home video collections such as setting aside the hardware that will be needed by their great-grandchildren to watch it.

More good news! Motion picture film made for families is SAFETY FILM which is not flammable. Home movies were made for amateur projection and cannot burst into flame spontaneously. Articles in the media about flammability and film preservation efforts refer to professional movies which were generally made on 35mm nitrate prior to 1950. Many of those films are indeed beyond help or at risk. Home movie cameras, film and projectors were not mass marketed until the refinement of safety film, which is acetate based, not nitrate, and melts if you try to burn it. SAFETY FILM IS NOT FLAMMABLE. Home movies are often found in good condition but the ones that are stored badly, in attics or wet places, are at risk.

Home movie fans should find their movies and check them. FAMILIES MUST GET THEIR FILMS BACK AFTER VIDEO TRANSFER, FOR IT IS THE MOVIES THEMSELVES WHICH WILL LAST TO THE SEVENTH GENERATION NOT THE VIDEO COPY. Deterioration can still exist with safety film. Usually, deterioration has nothing to do with age; it is most often due to poor processing or bad storage.

A little extra care in storage can achieve much longer life for home movies. If no other steps are taken, families should at least move film immediately to a safe, dry, cool and comfortable place to help insure a longer life. Films and other photographic materials like negatives of still images will greatly benefit from simple relocation to a desk drawer rather than the attic or a wet basement. Amateur motion picture safety film during its 70-plus year history has proven to be remarkably stable when stored under favorable conditions. It can last another one hundred or two hundred years to provide a source of enjoyment, continuity and history.


Most amateur motion picture film contains one-of-a-kind images that are unique and important to the history of our culture. So-called home movies reveal a great deal about the filmmaker, what she or he was involved with and the people and events filmed. They provide us with a deeper look into our past from many more diverse points of view than commercially-made movies. This article grew from contact with many people today who do not realize the value of amateur film as cultural document. Home Movies are the moving image equivalent of a personal diary or family journal. Home movie formats in the hands of an artist are a film art form themselves. Home movies are as important to preserve and share as old photos, old diaries, old paintings and sketches, great-grandmother's quilt or great-grandfather's carving. They are a folk art, sometimes high cinema, and always a window on the culture.

Film preservation is an exciting arena of cultural activity in the USA today and many more people are aware of its issues. But families must start creating their own archives because the public film archives are inundated with footage and lack the resources to meet the urgent need of much of the professional movie history of the first half of century. Family archivists and filmmakers in amateur formats need to understand you are front line for preservation of your heritage, of your artistic expression. Like investigating your genealogy, updating the family tree in the front of your family Bible, or copying early photos to give all the grandchildren, your family's home movies will only be preserved for future generations if you take an interest.


Home movies where first introduced to a generation who is now passing . Many skilled photographers found their hobby led them to try movies when they became affordable in the 1920's and 1930's. Family homestead are cleaned out and sold, and belongings fall into the hands of younger generations. Some remember seeing themselves on the silver screen as children, some do not know film from video. It is time to gather up the films and show them to the elders who remain. They can look at the images and recall the names and deeds of the people on film.

Another reason to save our home movies has to do with this positive development in the American culture: increased interest in our history and in our diversity. This means that primary source or "first person" documents have greater authority than in the past because they are now being sought out to amplify the historic record. We all know books or television shows that have drawn on journals, diaries and eyewitness testimony to add to, refine or challenge history. The popular series on the Civil War on Public Television drew largely on private letters of regular people. Like these written sources, home movies offer a way for the viewer to have a glimpse of a particular moment in the past as seen by an individual. We need to preserve as many views as possible for the fullest record so that in the future our heirs or our historians can have lots to consider.

Home movie filmmakers must act as their own film preservationists. Evidence of neglect abounds: too many movies reside in an attic or a wet basement, two of the worst places for storing photographic materials. An important ethnographic film was left in a refrigerator to stay cool but its images disappeared when it sat in red wine spilled from the shelf above. A Super 8 cinema punk rock classic was found in coils on the floor when its reel was appropriated by the artist on the night she was to premiere another film. One family tells the story of having their movies transferred to VHS video but the video shop advised them to throw out the film, a shocking and ignorant suggestion. Our personal film heritage cries out for attention. You can help with storage cool and dry, annotation, while the elders remember the images and sharing this word and your images with the family.



Amateur motion picture films provide a record of life that is unique. Unlike commercially produced movies, they are usually shot by people intimately connected to the experience who choose moments and subjects important to them. The impression that only rich people took movies while on safari or a cruise is not complete. 16mm film, introduced in 1923, indeed carries many images of the privileged class and some astonishing cinematic experiments by artists. The marketing of 8mm in the 1930's broadened the scope of home moviemaking to include families from a variety of ethnic, racial, economic and social backgrounds. If a family member had a hobby of photography it often turned into moviemaking. As a result, any of the amateur films of this era are beautifully composed, well exposed, extraordinary records.

Home movies often hold quite different content and form than professional films, whether newsreel or dramatic films. The professionals were paid to set up tripods and roll film of the rich and famous, the newsworthy event, the bankrolled script. Meanwhile, home moviemakers tended to family and friends, buddies with a shared love of a sport, the picnics at the beach, grandma's place, play in the backyard, or hanging on the stoop waiting for the parade. The home movies give us information that is not centralized, not government propaganda, and not made for hire.

The most famous 8mm film of the century is The Zapruder Film, the record of President Kennedy's assassination made by a by-stander in 1963. Arguably, it is quite a different record from the professional news gatherers of the day and it was the first 8mm film included in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.

As we near the end of the motion picture century, so-called "home movies" are gaining in appreciation. Amateur-made movies recently used in TV biographies reveal personal moments in the lives of famous people as diverse as Orville Wright, Malcolm X, Lucille Ball, and Lee Harvey Oswald. Meanwhile, 16mm and 8mm films also recorded the experiences of regular people, from pastoral childhood scenes at a summer camp to disturbing street scenes of the Warsaw Ghetto made by an unknown photographer.

All records of the culture, be they amateur or professional, naively or purposefully constructed, could one day have value to the maker's descendants or to artists, historians and cultural anthropologists of the future. It is not for us today to guess which films will be important, rather let's save as many documents as possible for the future to examine.




Old personal movies are increasingly used in television alongside other historic materials to expand the record of history. Media producers and audiences look to reexamine history from more diverse points of view. Unique scenes often show up in documentaries on PBS's Frontline, American Experience, NOVA A&E's Biography and other TV programs that explore culture and history. Home movies were not the sole provenance of wealthy or white families; their filmmakers came from all parts of the spectrum and their images expand the social and political context of events.

The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles has integrated into their exhibits the images of one filmmaker who had a camera with him during his WWII incarceration in the relocation camps. The museum also archives his films of the mainstream American lifestyle of Japanese-American families in the late 1930's prior to their imprisonment. A poignant point-counter-point, the scenes of USC football games and church youth groups contrast sharply with the rigorous, spare conditions in the camp during the war years.

For the 1995 celebration of the launching of the newest ship named "US The Sullivan" one filmmaker edited together clips of historic professional films with amateur films made by crew from the decks of all the prior ships of that name. For fifty years, friends, family and crew attend reunions to commemorate the Sullivan brothers.

While researching the life of Malcolm X for the PBS documentary, producer Orlando Bagwell and his team found 8mm in the hands of a amateur photographer. A trusted member of the Nation of Islam, this man was allowed to film inside the Temple with his 8mm camera. His film gives us scenes with cultural details not available in other media.

So-called home movies provide the culture with a deeper and different record than moving images made professionally. Home movies hold clips of life over the last 70 years, things that are passionately interesting and of importance to individuals. The uniqueness of point-of-view motion pictures from the past makes it imperative that more such records be made, be shared, and be preserved for future generations.


how to identify

Home movies date from 1923 on 16mm film, circa 1935 on 8mm film, and 1965 on Super 8mm film. Home movies are characterized by use of non-flammable tri-acetate based safety film which was the invention that preceded introduction of motion pictures to the amateur market. Late into the 1940's, professional projectionists had to handle flammable nitrate based 35mm film. It is nitrate which receives a lot of publicity and urgently needs preservation. 16mm and 8mm safety film stands up very well over time if it was well processed originally, handled carefully and stored well. Because of the durability of safety film and the fact that most family films are stored in homes, the majority of home movies can still be projected and enjoyed to this day. (A section about do's and don'ts of projecting is later.)

Here is information to help identify what is in old cans you find. The details are very basic ways to differentiate film from video for many people use the words them interchangeably. (Experienced filmmakers can skip onward.)

FIRST is it film, video or even audio tape? Physically, they are not the same although all three share some of the same functions and each is able of holding unique recordings. If you find reels or cans of materials in grandpa's desk or grandma's trunk, proceed this way. First, read the label and see if there are any clues. Understanding the time line of film and video can often help in identification.

A BRIEF HISTORY can help in identification

Motion picture film is celebrating its centennial birthday but the 1895-1910 history is filled with movies made by professionals. Home moviemaking really took off when George Eastman of Eastman Kodak, introduced 16mm safety film to the public in 1923.

In the teens, first 9.5mm and then 28mm diacetate based safety films were tried in the amateur market. To this day there are ardent 9.5 moviemakers in Europe, mostly in France. The marketing and success of 16mm meant many more families hold 16mm film than the early gauges. In the thirties, 8mm caught on right away and surged in numbers after the war and on into the late 1950's. Kodak continued to manufacture 8mm until 1991; today it is available only through niche market entrepreneurs.

A decade after 16mm, Eastman Kodak enrolled many new family movie makers by offering Regular 8mm film at greatly reduced costs. The introduction of the incredibly beautiful and stable color film Kodachrome in the late 1930's energized amateurs and helped establish home moviemaking as a phenomenon. Families around the world shot film during the economic boom period following WWII. Millions of feet of 16mm and 8mm film hold a personal record of those decades. These phenomenal cultural documents were all photographed by non-professional, non-commercial camera people filming subject they cared about, liked the look of or wanted to share on film. The subjects of these films are more diverse and quite different from the content found on commercial newsreels or feature films.

In 1965, the Eastman Kodak Company launched the Super 8 format, an improved 8mm wide film named for its expanded image area. It came in an affordable pop-in 50 foot cartridge which became popular quickly with families. One published number showed more than 100,000 Super 8 cameras were sold to US military personnel during the Vietnam era.

As Kodak was inventing Super 8, Fuji introduced a nifty format for the amateur market called Single 8mm film. Fuji's system achieved widespread use in many countries but did not penetrate the US market as well as Kodak's Super 8 film. Single 8 film is compatible in width and sprockets for viewing in Super 8 editors and projectors but Fuji's cartridge design was different, requiring Fuji cameras. Fuji's cartridge and its use of tough, thin Estar film was superior to Kodak's in some ways and many filmmakers remain committed to Fuji. Single 8 manufacture continued until a recent announcement in early 1996. Single 8 users have an international organization in England which is lobbying the company to resume making 8mm film. (address?) .

In 1973, Kodak, wishing to stimulate the mass market appeal of its invention, introduced a camera in Super 8 with sound-on-film recording capability. An amazing array of sophisticated sound products followed designed to use Kodak's sound cartridges of Super 8 film. Camera prices ranged from $200 to $800 and all the major photographic manufacturers competed with fabulous designs - companies like Canon, Chinon, Sankyo, Elmo, Minolta, Bauer, Bolex, Bell & Howell, Eumig and Braun Nizo to name some of the majors. Besides sound, they offered underwater cameras, time lapse cameras and a host of programmable effects like dissolves, fade-ins and outs. Projectors got bigger, brighter and more sophisticated; the best had two-track and stereo sound. Super 8 was loudly promoted until about 1980, when manufacturers were gearing up for video, fearful of missing the opportunity of selling new formats to the mass market. During the home video invasion that ensued, Super 8 film took a back seat. It was perceived as dead by all but the most serious filmmakers and artists.

Today, Super 8 film is undergoing an unexpected renaissance due to retrospective exhibitions of artists' works in art museums, use in professional productions to give an alternative "look" to commercials or music videos and ironically, for unique footage connoting the innocence and veracity of "home movies" in non-fiction or feature films.

Motion picture film is not the only thing found on round reels: both audio and video have some history in round, open reel formats. Audio tape recording became quite popular with families when the audio cassette appeared in the 1970s yet many families have cherished recordings from the 1950's on 5 or 7 inch open reels from home, school and church equipment or on 3 inch reels of early portable battery operated audio recorders.

Videotape found on round reels is usually one of the 1/2" open reel formats which were used at institutions like libraries, colleges and community art centers in the late 1960's. Open reel video is the subject of intense preservation efforts in the art and video community at this time. One-inch Type C video, a professional broadcasters format still in use today, is also an open reel format but is very unlikely to be in a family archive. Since the 1980 home video invasion, video for families (the consumer video formats) were marketed enclosed in a plastic cassette so you can't get at the video itself.


If the box, the notations or the date do not tell you it's film you have found, proceed this way: try to unroll a few inches to look at the material itself. Be gentle, do not insist; if it is stuck to itself it needs professional help. Motion picture film has holes along it and a visible image. If it's on a reel but has no holes and the material is opaque, dull brown or black, it is probably a magnetic recording media, such as audio tape or open reel video tape.

Movie film always has holes along the length because it is a machine age, photographic medium, designed for incremental exposure and projection. We are all accustomed to still photographic film which also has holes to move through the camera but it comes in relatively short lengths (about 3 feet with 35mm still film) while movies come in 25 foot, or 50', 100', even 400' foot camera loads.


Now that you have found holes and visible image, it's film! It's easy to ascertain its gauge: measure it with a ruler across its length. For the non-metric, 16mm film is about 5/8 inch wide and 8mm film about 5/16 inch. Super 8 film is the same width as standard 8mm movies but the Super 8 image is larger and its sprocket hole tiny. 8mm sprocket holes are the same size as 16mm ones but 8mm has twice as many: 80 holes per foot. Super 8 sprocket holes come 72 per foot, and are so small you would have trouble putting a toothpick through one. To be sure what gauge it is, proceed beyond any leader, or white or colored footage, because film sometimes has inappropriate leader attached.


Exposed, processed motion picture film will always show a visible image. This means when you unroll a few inches and hold up it to the light, you will be able to see a series of still images, most often in a sequence. Most home movies are reversal film which records an image for direct projection in full black and white or color and looks like slide film.

The exception to finding a visible image and declaring it film is if you find a roll in a camera that has never been exposed; then it will be dense with no image, shiny one side, dull the other. Some people ask if they should use such rolls but the results are generally poor and expensive for old film often requires special chemistry to process. Experimental filmmakers consider such rolls a "find' and try hand processing for many artists thrive on non-standard results.



There is some apprehension about handling old film materials due to increased public awareness about film preservation. Most stories in the press concern professional motion pictures which can be dangerous for an uninformed person to handle. Professional films made prior to 1950, mostly in 35mm, (some 28mm, some rare formats), used nitrate based stocks which are subject to extreme deterioration, is spontaneously combustible and should be handled by a knowledgeable person. If you find you have 35mm width movies prior to 1950, get in touch with someone for advice. Call the National Center for Film and Video Preservation at the American Film Institute (213-856-7637) for suggestions of appropriate contacts.

HOME MOVIES ARE NOT FLAMMABLE. THEY MELT IF YOU TRY TO BURN THEM. THEY ARE MADE ON SAFETY FILM WHICH CANNOT BURST INTO FLAMES. Movie film for amateurs was not introduced until the refinement of safety film, which is acetate based, not nitrate, and is not flammable. Home movie fans can't relax completely though for deterioration can still exist with safety film. Deterioration has nothing to do with age; it is most often due to poor processing or bad storage.


Professional filmmakers generally use color negative stock in the camera which is sometimes orange like the material returned from the lab with your color snapshots. On negative, brights look dark and darks bright for it is a material created not for direct projection. Negative motion picture film is used in professional applications to obtaining quality prints for widespread distribution. Professional motion pictures generally are made in 70mm or 35mm in Hollywood or often in 16mm by independents.

Occasionally in a family archive, you find a print which will look like direct projection material but is not camera original. Most often such prints are copies of commercial work either bought by a film collector or salvaged from a public institution like a school or library. Prints can often be identified by clear film between sprockets, by full titles or an optical soundtrack (visible squiggles down the side.) A print is not the original material on which the film was shot, and is usually not one of a kind. However, detective work is needed to establish its value, so treat all materials as if unique until proven otherwise.


Sadly, the penetration of home video cameras into the home movie market means that family historians will find the record incomplete. Families with beautiful moments from 1954 on film have found the family record in 1984 may already be in serious jeopardy because the 1980's were recorded on video. The video industry has been understandably loath to publicize the issues around video preservation. Videotape manufacturers continue to improve the actual tape and the technology evolves almost faster than they can market it. Today's videotape is much better than earlier versions but archivists still consider "video preservation" a contradiction in terms.

Home video fans should be forewarned and learn to add film to their kit bag. B&W and Kodachrome, in both still and movie film, have proven track records in terms of image permanence over time. Film will last hundreds of years if well stored. Much evidence proves video does not last; already families and institutions are finding 25 year old open reel videotapes, 15 year old VHS videotapes, even 4 year old Hi8 metal tape in dire condition.

Restoration and retrieval of old video images for remastering will always be attempted through new technologies in the future but it will be expensive. Too few institutions and far fewer families are setting aside on shelves the hardware and parts to enable playback of their current videotapes when they update to a new recording format. Computer and Internet users point with excitement to new programs that enable copying and manipulation of moving images, but the current state and cost of memory means most people are looking at very low quality moving images in short clips on their PC. It remains to be seen whether consumers demand that manufacturers set priorities of high fidelity playback or image permanence in developing new technologies. At present, it appears that consumers are taking what is offered in consumer video: convenience, lightweight portability, interface to their existing home entertainment hardware, and price that is somewhat affordable. Image permanence does not yet seem to be a huge public concern.


Young people are always surprised to learn that consumer video in the home was not common until the early 1980's. Initially the consumer video rivalries confused the public for playback of Hollywood movies on video at home was available in two formats, Sony's Betamax and other manufacturers' VHS. In the USA, the VHS format quickly prevailed as families hooked up a VCR to their television. Soon, the public wanted to take its own "films" with video. Again, the manufacturers were happy to comply, offering an array of video hardware for recording, first the cumbersome camera-plus-deck over the shoulder, later camera-recorders in a single unit, dubbed "camcorders".


Home video's promotional hype gained ground throughout the 1980's until many families began to believe film was dead, video was film and camcorders were reliable for family documentation. Few people seemed to notice that wedding movies on video became four hour family epics that no one wanted to watch. Many videographers do not view the massive hours of images they collect, and relatively few invest in the hardware and time required to edit video. Editing, a continuing process of refinement and a challenge that characterizes the 100 year history of cinematic expression, has been forgotten as an exciting part of the filmmaking process..

Old-time moviemakers took pride in screening a 3 minute "gem" they edited on film. Often, editing was accomplished in the camera by a discerning and disciplined cinematographer. Many worked on the film itself with an inexpensive viewer and splicer to create an edited version before screening. Some filmmakers designed elaborate titles and intertitles in homage to the earliest silent films.

Screening a film used to be a big event for families, especially in the days before television. Viewing a projected moving image on the silver screen in a darkened room is an engaging experience that bonds viewers in an intimate way that is quite different from watching TV together. There's something about bringing out the projector, setting up the screen, and understanding the technology of light passing through a strip of film that is accessible, and "user-friendly" to the group. Artists, their audiences and some families still cherish this experience on a small scale, but there's proof it's still magic: the public still goes to movie theaters despite the availability of movies on VCR or cable TV.

Home videomaking has vast numbers of adherents who argue it is more affordable than film. In price per minute of images, this is a valid argument if the issues of hardware, editing and image permanence are set aside. Picture and sound quality have certainly improved with each new evolution of video hardware, and the recoding medium itself keeps advancing. But there has been an introduction of new video products on average every 18 months in the last 15 years, in the consumer and professional video worlds as well as the computer hardware and software ones; why should anyone expect that this pattern will change? Technological innovations had led to today's better-looking Hi8 and S-VHS and quite recently, the fantastic Digital Video camcorders, but what of the state of the 1980's family videotapes? The manufacturers will tout the features of the new, but who will do the work to sort, file, store and retrieve the old cultural record on home video?

Some consumers resisted the home video revolution during the 1980's and stuck with Super 8 film cameras which were extremely affordable and reliable for most of the decade. With the renaissance of Super 8, the choicest hardware has risen in value; it is not unusual today to pay twice list price for a great camera, used. The film image, even on 8mm wide film, is inherently higher quality than electronic image gathering which is why most so much Hollywood material is filmed for long range commercial exploitation. For the family moviemaker, film still offers very low-tech and low-cost options for taking movies. Film allows editing and projection at home or the film can be transferred to video which allows you to view the content as TV while storing the original film carefully away. Film-to-tape done professionally for television enables Super 8 film and old home movies to be used by TV producers in a variety of artistic and historic ways. A lot of home movies are showing up in non-fiction television while a lot of Super 8 is used in for its own aesthetic in music videos, advertising and experimental bits across the spectrum of today's media productions.

Many young people jump off the marketing treadmill and grab old Regular 8mm or Super 8 film cameras from family closets or at flea markets or yard sales. The best way to reduce the risk at flea markets is to take batteries with you and see that the camera runs. If it sounds good and the price is low, take a chance. If the price is higher, try to make an agreement with the seller that you can test a roll of film.


There are some easy things to do to help your films survive into the 21st century and beyond. These suggestions are tailored to home moviemakers of modest means and drawn from experiences of filmmakers and technical people who handle film professionally. Advice can differ in a young field like film preservation and we'll try to represent the different views. Take it all in, decide and act. Even modest changes can bring great benefits to the film.

SURVEY what films you have and where you are storing them. Label and list everything, including deciphering existing labels. Add any new information from your sleuthing like what gauge, footage length, condition, full names, date, location of events and best guess as to filmmaker. Segregate any films with strong odor, fungus or obvious water or other damage, so that their deterioration cannot spread to unaffected parts of the collection.


What other films or photo materials do you suspect may be stored badly? Do you know a favorite filmmaker who's a rotten housekeeper? Heard a rumor of a cache of family films at your grandparent's summer place? Next visit or sooner, take a gander. Talk the filmmaker into handing over his or her originals. Take those family films out of the trunk in grandma's attic now! At very least, bring them down into normal temperature living space.

ADVANCED DETERIORATION happens to home movies regardless of age, more often the product of bad processing or bad storage conditions. Extreme deterioration can be catchy so isolate any films which smell like vinegar at least 12 to 20 feet away from the rest. These films are probably suffering a decomposition process sometimes referred to as "Vinegar Syndrome" or "VS." Don't fool around with VS as one infection can catalyze deterioration of other nearby films. While color movies were initially assumed to be more at risk, Black and White (B&W) films can be affected. The recommended action is to copy a VS film as soon as possible, preferably onto film.

The vinegar odor is often a clue that leads you to find various other physical problems like creases or emulsion falling off, a bad U-shape making the film hard to remove from the reel, white powder over all surfaces, mold or mildew. We notice more mold and other problems in films stored in plastic bags when they cannot "breathe." One expert warns some people can be allergic so protect your hands when handling deteriorating films. VS needs oxygen and water present to catalyze, which is why professional film archivists so adamantly recommend you dehumidify and ventilate a storage area.


Archives, museums, historical societies, libraries, other family members or a friend can often give your original materials a better home. Both filmmakers and family historians must look at their working style and life style very hard to devise a plan. If you're disorganized or a hopeless grunge, if you smoke, live in a risky neighborhood or hot loft, travel a lot or can't be bothered, consider donating precious originals to a person or an institution where the films will be better cared for.

Institutions will be more interested in your films if you have cataloged them and can give them a sense of what you have. Look for an institution or adoptive home by compatibility of content. In other words, if your grandfather was a train buff and all the films are about trains, look for a train archive. If he documented town life, try the local historical society, or local public television station. Large institutions like universities often have multiple archives or libraries. If one reel of home movies contains specific moments of wide interest, you must decide if the collection stays together or if that reel can go where it will be more accessible. An example would be the families who filmed a scene of President Hoover and Truman which was unique footage for each Presidential Archives and for a PBS documentary.


If copies exist, NEVER store an original at the same location with them. Why risk losing everything if one house is flooded, if one roof leaks? If you have materials like a camera original and prints, or the film and the master of a video transfer of it, store each in different places. The policy of geographic separation is cheap and simple insurance. Ask your favorite aunt to store a box of originals in a cool, dry place. Be sure to label such a box thoroughly: "motion picture film" "this side up", "keep in a cool, dry place." It must not end up in an attic. Include owner or copyright notice on the box. Keep a list of materials in the box itself and disseminate copies among interested family members.


If you take on the role of family archivist, or it if falls to you, you must do it well or pass it to someone who will. This means learning the discipline of a good librarian. Keep the list of materials up to date if things are taken out of the box. Example: 16mm Film reel # 4 -Family 1946 loaned to Cousin Jane Jones, Ocean Ave. Homeville on 5/1/96 for her parents 50th wedding anniversary. Or Reel # 3 - California trip 1963- sent 5/5/96 to XYZ Lab etc. for printing or video transfer. Always make sure you get all the materials back and track them in.


If you need access to the films, to use or edit or show, or just want them nearby, look around home for the appropriate space. Move the films to a place where the temperature and humidity will vary as little as possible. Avoid an exterior or south-facing wall (if you're in the northern hemisphere). At least, store your film in a bureau or a closet away from heat conduits and magnets (like those in big stereo speakers.) Consider dedicating a refrigerator to the job of storehouse if you have a lot of photographic materials.

Avoid self-storage rental units where temperature and humidity probably vary with the season. If you must use a storage warehouse, ask if internal combustion engines are routinely operated in the corridors. Some warehouses have lifts and moving equipment. Ask what kinds of flammables (like chemicals or rubber tires) might be stored there. There is an unbelievable amount of yucky stuff stored in commercial storage spaces and if they ever caught fire, the smoke alone could seriously damage a film collection. Be wary of leaving original materials with a lab for labs close, move, change ownership, or get claimed by creditors.

HUMIDITY: If you can control it, below 50% is desired; the lower, the better. Spend a few bucks on a reliable temperature humidity gauge. The average filmmaker does not have a lot of money to spend on ideal film storage, so the compromise is to keep the films in living space where you are happy because temperature and humidity don't vary alot.

TEMPERATURE: Heat is a big enemy so forget storage in the attic for most climb above 120ºF in summer. Cold storage is recommended; the experts say film life will double for every 10ºF drop in average storage temperature (See SMPTE Journal Vol.101 #5). Never leave film in a garage, a car's trunk or glove compartment, not one minute! Beware cool basements unless they are also dry year round. Basement humidity usually varies widely with the seasons. Mildew on those frames you do not want.

Consider investing in a frost-free refrigerator as a dedicated film archive (no food allowed!) Keep its temperature just above freezing and humidity in the 25%-45% range. Make sure the seals are good and open the door from time to time to change the air inside. A refrigerator with a light inside is a real boon in finding reels. When ready to show a film from the refrigerator/archive, take it out, seal it temporarily in a zipper bag so condensation can form on the outside of the plastic bag. Let it stand several days in normal temperature before projecting.


8mm film is often found on the small (50 foot - 15m) reels that represent one camera load; it is acceptable to check them and leave them on original reels in the little paper boxes. If they came back from the lab with a plastic snap cover to the reel, discard the cover and try to find acid free paper boxes or envelopes. Small reels increase curl of film in the long run so we encourage you to consider a plan for organizing the footage onto larger reels. Re-spooling represents a commitment of time by some dedicated person as well as the purchase of splicer, splices and reels and lots of hands-on practice. Remember, the hero or heroine who takes on this project gets the first view of this treasure! (Kodak 800 # and Catalogue # for ordering here?)

Some film archives have a formal policy of cataloging one item per can, and store all film flat spooled on a core. This is impractical for many family archivists inexperienced with handling 8mm. Buy 400-foot or 600-foot reels, like the library style reels and boxes with vent holes. Discard rubber bands which can emit sulfur over time. Be ready with correct supplies to add new head and tail leaders. Log rolls as you go, and be sure to save the historic annotated boxes or notes from the filmmaker. Making good cement splices is an acquired skill; tape splices are easier for many people to make. Use only real movie film leader. (Kodak 800 # and Catalogue # for ordering here?) White or colored plastic leaders shrink over time.

Be sure to put the right gauge leader on your movies. THIS IS IMPORTANT: NEVER compile regular 8mm and Super 8mm on the same reel. The two gauges need different sprockets to be shown: even if a viewer or projector is named "Dual 8" it requires a sprocket change between gauges or serious damage to the film will result. Combining different gauges or putting the wrong leader on a reel is a sure way to have the film irretrievably damaged the next time it's projected.

Opinion diverges on what kind of reels to use for a family collection: the simple answer is any ones you can get as long as they're in good shape. If you find metal reels, avoid ones with rust. Beware reels in bad shape like bashed in along the edges, for they make a horrid scraping noise and abrade the film as it unrolls. Within the professional film preservation community, a dialogue is going on about whether painted metal reels or archival plastic reels are best. Archival plastic reels made of polypropylene, a plastic considered inert, while desirable, are not available for 8mm at this writing. (Perhaps some web surfer knows of a source?) In sympathy with family archivists on limited budgets, be assured any good reel is better than a bad one. Make sure the reel (hub) is correct for the regular 8mm or Super 8 gauge or a projectionist can assume wrong.


Store your 8mm silent films heads out on reels, which is to say in position ready to be projected. Store sound tails out (including things like Super 8 sound film, mag stock, audio tapes and videotapes.) Magnetic materials benefit from storage tails out (forwarded to the end) so that if audio bleed-through happens between the magnetic layers, the resulting sound print will be heard as a faint echo immediately after the dominant soundtrack, not before. Professionals advise reversing the position of sound materials every year.

For a magnetic sound film print in distribution, leave it heads out, for the thickness of the film will probably deter potential bleed-through and heads out is the accessible storage position for exhibition. Reel films up gently but firmly. You want the film to sit snugly on the reel on top of itself, not tight, not loose. Watch out for succeeding layers piling up to the sides. A well-spooled reel is a thing of beauty which you can check by looking at the side and seeing an even round of film. Tie down the leader with removable masking or film tape, preferably acid-free bought from a photo archive supplier. If a film is extremely loose on its reel, put it on rewinds and reel it fully onto another reel and then back on its home reel. Never pull on the loose end to tighten a film as this can cause cinch marks (horizontal scratches across frames).

If well wound on the reel, the practical suggest storing 8mm reels upright, while 16mm should be laying down in horizontal position only. A film hanging loose off the reel stored upright can become "egg shaped." When laid down, the box or can must support the weight of the stack of films so no weight bears on the film edge itself.

BAGS Get some inert paper bags (acid free for photo storage) for dust and pollution is a present danger. It's great to let the gases of chemical reaction escape, but 8mm reels and boxes or 16mm cans will do as long as you put the films in them only on a clean dry day and change the air from time to time.

DUST is all around us. Yikes! Vacuum the room before assembling film and keep your work table clean. Wash your hands often. Clean the film before you store it if it has ever been handled or projected. White gloves may add class and be useful when cutting negative, but they are disastrous for the beginner making tape splices.

AIR POLLUTION and SMOKE are also all around us. However, there's no sympathy for filmmakers who handle or show original through a haze of cigarette smoke and never clean their equipment or films. They are asking for trouble since film attracts these particles.

ORGANIZATION FOR ACCESS It makes sense to have the films cataloged in a way that is accessible to others. This could be as major as designing a computer database in sync with real archives or as minor as making 3x5 cards with notes on each reel. If still living, interview the family filmmaker who made the films. At very least, please include technical notes about each film: gauge, approximate length, film speed and sound specifics where appropriate (sound on film? 1 track, two track, stereo, mag? cassette audio tape? how to sync, etc.) Do not trust your memory, especially about frame rate. Regular 8 and Super 8 do not have a standard speed but rather a handful (24, 18, 16, 12?). Mark down whether original or what generation material it is. Please make notes about content, filmmaker, places, names, events, date and any titles or credits. While the credits may be in the images themselves, save future fans the work of finding them. If your family filmmaker was a real artist, there may be extra materials to keep for posterity, things like production and publicity stills, copies of reviews, production notes and any journal entries about the artist's mood, vision or intent which can be a gold mine for future writers and film historians. While you may not see your work or your family collection as part of film history, those of us who see enough works are well aware of the importance of all this material. Right now, we're afraid too much of it's probably in jeopardy.

Finally, who owns this heritage? Make a will with specific instructions about the films. Assign copyright to materials. Do it now! Old age, cancer, AIDS, accidents and despair have already claimed too many filmmakers; inaction could claim their filmed legacy.

If the excitement of saving the family film heritage turns you to wanting to make films: film with an eye to making a 'permanent' cultural record. Choose stock for longevity, process for quality and store it right. And for the future, keep yourself and your films healthy.


IC8 founders

Bob Brodsky and Toni Treadway, 8mm filmmakers and founders of IC8, have worked together twenty five years in the independent media arts. They focus on advocacy, services, publications and technical assistance for people using the most accessible movie film.

The IC8 is the INTERNATIONAL CENTER for 8MM FILM, a non-profit 501(c)3 arts and educational organization which acts as advocate and clearinghouse for 8mm film. IC8 publishes a semiannual newsletter "B&T's Little Film Notebook" to reflect changes in the environment for 8mm filmmaking. It is of interest to filmmakers and other artists, TV producers, film and video exhibitors, media arts policy makers and Media Arts Center staff people. To obtain back issues, send $2 and your postal address to


P.O. Box 335

Rowley MA 01969-0735 USA.

Donations are welcome to support our information and technical assistance. Fellow artists make donations as they are able in lieu of subscription fees to support IC8 as a resource. Please make checks payable to "IC8" at the above address.

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