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

by Toni Treadway, ©1992, ©1996 ©2001

Continued in
Primer 1: why bother?
Primer 3: care, storage, annotation
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Home Movies, a brief history

8mm, to enroll more families

Super 8, a great advance in 1965

Sound for Super 8, another leap, 1973

Film: a visible image with holes

Home Movies NOT flammable

Negative Film different from Reversal

Home Video, the vanishing record

FILM v. Video

Video hype in the 1980s

Young people like old film

How to identify your movies

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.

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.


Today's professional 16mm and 35mm 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.

Today, 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.

Continued in Primer 3

Back to Primer 1, Home Movies, why bother?

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