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.