The Blog

Eisensteins in the Attic: Rediscovering Your Own Film Treasures (Guest Blogger)

Clack…..clack…..clack…clack..clack clack/clack/clack….

We all know the sound of an old 8mm or 16mm projector throwing Kodachrome home movies up on a wall. For all too brief a moment we look into a coruscating window on a lost or fast disappearing past. Images roll in: jump cuts, lens flares, shaky camera work. We squint maybe, trying to improve the focus. Real, but also somehow surreal, those old film images; transporting and magical.

That time machine costs how much?

I think of old home movies as a kind of time machine – but a time machine that really exists. What would we pay for just such a machine if we didn’t have one?

What wouldn’t we spend to peer through a time tunnel at our old grandpa digging in his “victory garden”, or to see mother on her wedding day? Old home movies are exactly that time machine, and yet we don’t always know – or value – what we have.

Dan Streible knows a thing or two about old movies. He is a professor of film at New York University and the founder of the Orphan Film Symposium – the biennial gathering of scholars, archivists, curators, and media artists devoted to saving, screening, and studying neglected moving images.

Dan says people underestimate the value and power of home movies – “these millions of feet of rediscovered family films, the millions of feet of film shot by mothers and fathers, aunts, uncles and friends throughout the 20th century (that) now make up the best record we have of daily life as it was lived during the past two or three generations.”

Of course, he is talking about other people’s home movies. And if you are lucky enough to have some of your own? Well, chances are they would be like Eisensteins in the Attic – dusty masterpieces of their kind left unwatched and slowly disintegrating*.

Priceless images in dusty boxes

Priceless images are stowed away in shoe boxes all across America, locked up in now unplayable film formats like Super 8, 16mm and 8mm; or in early cassette formats like Video8, Hi8 and Digital 8.

And if you did take the trouble 10 years back to convert to VHS, S-VHS or VHS-C? Then you did a great thing. But VHS is now obsolete; and sadly, the quality of VHS was poor from the start. You’ll get a much better result today retransferring from the original films or video cassettes.

The good news of course is that every old film and video cassette format can now be converted to digital video. Most people get their old home movies transferred to DVD. But here’s a tip: When you go to the expense of transferring, why not create an uncompressed video master file and get that put on a hard drive. (Uncompressed video is the best quality you can achieve.) Then, use those home movie master files to create your DVD, your YouTube or iPhone video (or whatever else becomes the device de jour).

Turn home movies into a personal documentary

And best of all, you can use that home movie master file to help create your own personal or family history documentary – your “Reel Tribute”. The only thing then remaining is to dim the lights, toss in the DVD, and become transported into “a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas”. You may miss the old “clack clack clack” of the projector, but the experience will be every bit as magical.

*Sergei Eisenstein: Pioneering Soviet Russian film director and film theorist famous for his silent film Battleship Potemkin (1925). The sole copy of his unfinished Bezhin Meadow was destroyed in a WWII bombing raid (“Shoulda had it transferred...”).

Thank you to video biographer and Association of Personal Historians board member Jane Shafron for this article. In recognition of the importance of preserving our home movies, Jane has recently added video transfer services in Orange County CA to her suite of family history services. Jane was recently named one of the Top 10 Personal History Bloggers of 2011 by Dan Curtis.

And the winner is…

On behalf of Reel Tributes, the Alzheimer’s Association, and the contest sponsors, we would like to congratulate Carol Amos for winning the inaugural Your Favorite Memory contest. Her story, “The Dining Room”, was an emotional and beautifully-written tribute to her mother’s sense of fashion. Carol’s prize is a customized documentary film, produced by Reel Tributes, to celebrate her mother’s life.

Read Carol’s winning story below:

One of my earliest memories is participating in a fashion show with my mother at the YMCA when I was four or five years old. My mother made us matching poodle style dresses out of a white, blue, and black fabric with a poodle design. We were the hit of the fashion show.

My mother was an expert seamstress but mainly self-taught. She made all of our clothes and also my brother’s Easter suits with matching coats. She transformed our dining room into a sewing room and we spent countless hours together as she taught me to sew at an early age. She taught me the importance of perfection. Even if a mistake was not visible, my mother would say, “I will know that it is there.” So I learned how to remove stitches and took pride in wearing my well-made garment. My mother taught me about fabric, color, fashion, and how to modify a pattern to suit my own taste. I made some of the widest bell-bottom pants in high school. I continue to use my sewing skills today.

I learned to sew in the dining room but more importantly I learned life lessons. Some of the lessons were direct conversations with my mother about God, faith, achievement, honesty, time management, setting goals, and how to be a lady. My mother modeled some of the lessons as I watched her stop sewing to listen or give counsel to a friend on the telephone or to bake a cake for a bereaved friend. Other lessons such as commitment, service to others, and how to treat people, I overhead as she spoke on the telephone to friends. All of these lessons helped transform me as I developed from a girl into a woman.

When my mother began to lose her memory seven years ago, we moved her to an assisted living facility. Her sewing machine was placed in a prominent place in her suite but we soon realized that my mother lost her ability to sew. The sewing machine became just another piece of furniture. Now my mother resides in an Alzheimers facility and the sewing machine resides in my basement, both a reminder of what used to be.

After battling Alzheimers disease for over eight years, my mother still has a keen fashion sense. She sometimes compliments patients in the doctor’s office about their clothes, shoes, or purses. When my mother receives compliments about her outfit, she sometimes responds, “I made this outfit not long ago.” I smile because I know that I recently purchased her clothes and her statement confirms that she truly enjoys the outfit. On one occasion, my mother complimented me by saying, “I like your new suit.” I was shocked because it was a new suit. Glimpses of the mother I used to know are pleasant surprises and give me strength for the remainder of this Alzheimers journey.

What does Samuel Pepys’ diary mean to you?

Samuel Pepys (pronounced ‘Peeps’) was born in London, England on February 23, 1633. Samuel was the fifth in line of eleven children. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1654 and married his wife, Elizabeth St. Michel in 1655. He later became Secretary to the Naval Board, a member of Parliament, and as was written of him, ‘master of an elegant household, owner of a coach and pair of black horses; a man rich enough to retire and live with comfort, if not in abundance.’

However, what probably has brought Samuel Pepys the most fame and renown is his personal diary. His diary shows his gusto for life. His interest in recounting his daily activities and very private observations comes through in this diarty.  He speaks of his work in Parliament, of counting his many pieces of gold, of lusting after certain women (particularly those of “low virtue”),  and not surprisingly, of squabbling with his jealous wife.

Pepys began his diary at the age of 26 in 1659, and concluded it on May 31, 1669 when he feared eyestrain might lead to blindness. Pepys’ daily diary entries have intrigued and educated people over the centuries. They have also provided insight on 17th Century English life, from the royalty to the mundane.

In 1665, Pepys records burying in his garden a piece of Parmesan cheese and a bottle of fine wine, in the hopes that they would both survive the Great Fire of London.  One wonders what happened to them, and if he considered burying his precious diary as well.

Pepys also writes of experiencing tremendous pain due to a kidney stone. Despite being left sterile by the surgery, he survived.  Pepys proudly kept his recovered kidney stone in a felt lined box, and was happy to show it to anyone who wanted to see it. He also covers more “highbrow” topics including the entertaining lives and public deaths of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell.

To bring this to a close, please give a little thought to this idea: think if you were related to Samuel Pepys.  Imagine all of the insight you would have into your ancestor’s life, his character, and his curious personality.

Okay, so maybe you aren’t related to Samuel Pepys. However, it’s not too late to preserve your own remarkable story so that your descendents will know about you. What have you buried in your backyard, or your heart, that may intrigue descendents hundreds of years from now? What observations do you have on the current political or social environment?  Nothing is too mundane. Just start writing; your children’s children will be happy you did.

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: New Year, New Genealogical Project

What’s the point of genealogy project? Sure, it’s to uncover a family’s history. But the real mission should be clear: results!

Nobody wants to spend time on a project that goes nowhere. That’s a frustrating experience that you shouldn’t ever endure. So to kick of the new year, in the next few months I will focus on one genealogical project and show you how to get real, tangible results.

No, that may not mean having one hundred new ancestors’ names by next Tuesday. I won’t be getting into a specific record group or telling you where on the internet you can find that answer you’ve been looking years for.

Rather, I’d like us to put one project on the fast track and show you a proven method for organizing the research. In the next few months I will go into detail about:

1. Goals and Background Information
2. Timelines and Maps
3. Research Plans
4. Writing as a Research Method

We’ll take each of these, break them down into small goals, and move forward slowly but surely. By the end of these four organizational steps, you’ll be surprised at how much you do and don’t know about your own research.

Step One: Goals and Background Information
1. Define your goal. We hear the word “goal” and our eyes roll back into our heads. It’s as if we are conditioned to hate having goals. But take a deep breath. A goal is just a road with a sign saying, “This way to your destination.” If you don’t know where you are going, how are you going to get there?

Write down your goal. Be specific. Do NOT say, “I want to prove myself all the way to Charlemagne.” Do say, “What happened to Uncle Dolphus after the Civil War?” or “Who are Grandma Eulalee’s parents?” Even if you want to prove your relationship to a Revolutionary patriot, you still have to do it one generation at a time; make each generation a separate goal.

So, what is your goal? Write it down and refer to it frequently.

2. Write the background information. This is simply a summary of what you know about the ancestor and WHY you know it. It may be full of blanks like:

“Uncle Dolphus was born in 1836 in Livingston County, New York. He never married. He moved away from the family after ____. He was living in Solano County, California by 1881. He died _____.”

The blanks are just as important as what you do know. They help us focus on the missing pieces.

3. Use footnotes.  Be careful; sometimes the “facts” are actually misleading. That’s where footnotes come in. The footnotes tell you and other researchers you may work with in the future how credible your information is. Do I know for sure that Uncle Dolphus never married? The footnote would say that it was a family story passed down by his great-niece. This isn’t the greatest piece of information; the source is too far removed from the events.  How do I know that Dolphus was in California? The footnote would show that he and the other siblings quitclaimed their father’s home and property to his little sister, Anna. I have the probate file book, page number, and year. I use Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Evidence! or Evidence Explained! to keep my footnotes consistent. Use any footnoting system you want, just make sure you are citing each fact you claim, and where it came from.

4. Collect as much info as possible. Where does the data come from? You need to go digging in your own house. In my case, it almost felt like archaeology: the strata of paper and photos was so thick! I dug out all the paper relating to Uncle Dolphus; all the printed pages, research notes, everything. Then I re-read it all. I realized I’d miss-remembered some things, such as thinking someone said he had died in San Diego County instead of Solano County. I found that I had some information I hadn’t quite put together before. In writing out, in paragraph form, what I did know and footnoting each fact to say why I knew it, I got a better hold on the problem.

To summarize:
1. Make a focused goal.
2. Get out all the papers and information you have about that person or family.
3. Write your background information with blanks and footnoted citations.

Feel free to write and tell us how you’ve done, and if you learned anything new. We would love to hear from you.

Next month: Timelines and Maps.

We’re thrilled to announce a partnership with TrustedFamily!

Sometimes, you hear about a company doing amazing things and know right away you have to meet them. When we at Reel Tributes heard about TrustedFamily, that’s exactly what happened. Founded in 2007 by two young entrepreneurs- Edouard Thijssen and Edouard Janssen–  the company’s technology enables business families and family offices to manage their affairs more effectively and to keep the family together over the generations.

After talking with Edouard Thijssen, we quickly recognized the potential for collaboration. When you visit their website, www.trustedfamily.net, it’s easy to see why they’ve been so successful. Their platform is easy to use, well-designed, and brings together a wealth of resources (family, business, financial, and philanthropic) into one place. It’s no wonder they’ve grown their client base to 50 families spanning 15 countries.

We are excited for the amazing things to come from Reel Tributes’ new partnership with TrustedFamily! To learn more about the partnership, and how Reel Tributes’ clients can benefit from the TrustedFamily’s services, read our press release at http://www.reeltributes.com/view/news/trustedfamily/.

Have thoughts or questions? Let us know in the comments below, or send us an email at info@reeltributes.com.