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

by Toni Treadway, ©1992, ©1996 ©2001, ©2004

This is Primer 3, about handling the film.
Primer 2 offers a brief history of home movies
Primer says why these films are important.
For help with hardware, link here: to fix a viewer or splicer.

In this page:

Survey your Family Films

Alternative Storage

Geographic Separation - Storing Copies

Store it Yourself

Humidity and Temperature

Reel It Up! - Tips on Putting the Film on Reels

Silent and Sound Materials

Organizing for Access

Who owns this Heritage?


TAKE ACTION! to preserve your family Films

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 around but stored badly? Do you know a favorite filmmaker who's a rotten housekeeper? Or heard a rumor of a cache of family films at your grandparent's summer place? Next visit or sooner, take a look. 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 into normal temperature living space as soon as possible. Heat and humidity are the enemies of photographic materials.


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 120F in summer. Cold storage is recommended; the experts say film life will double for every 10F 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!

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. 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.


Continued in
Primer 2: a brief history of 8mm and Super 8

Back to Primer 1, Home Movies, why bother?

Return to home page for more information

Page by Toni Treadway, ©1992, ©1996 ©2001, ©2002.

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