Old Home Movies on Film
Column for Lodi News-Sentinel
By Ann Kerr
When I was a child, our family would frequently get together to watch home movies. Like thousands of other families in the twentieth century, we played those soundless, flickering frames on a movie projector.
Our favorite was harvesting carrots in our garden and putting them in our red wagon to take to the cellar for winter storage. Of course some of the carrots dropped out of the highly stacked wagon as we made our way over the rough ground. Then we laughed uproariously as the carrots jumped up off the ground and back into the wagon. This happened because my brother thought it was very funny to play the movie backwards, and yes indeed, it was good entertainment for all of us.
Now movies like these sit neglected in shoe boxes stored in attics or closets. When I helped a friend move last month and saw his old movies in a closet, it reminded me that the question I get asked most frequently is: “How do I get my old home movies to another medium so I can watch them?”
Here’s my answer in a nutshell: For best quality, don’t try to do it yourself. It is possible to set up a movie projector in a dark room and project the film on a screen, then as it plays, tape it with a digital video camera. The results will not be the best, but it will be better than letting the film sit and become brittle and perhaps unplayable at all someday.
The best option is to have it professionally transferred. Most local camera processing places (Longs, Wal-Mart, etc.) can send your film out to be transferred to videotape or DVD. When suggesting this idea to a friend, she didn’t want to trust her precious movies to be delivered to an outside site. So she was just going to let them sit in the closet, even if it meant no one would ever see them.
Other options are available. There are some places in larger cities where you can hand deliver your film for professional transfer. As I was writing this column I put “movie transfer Sacramento” into the Google search engine and came up with several places. The cost is around 12 cents a foot or about $100 for an hour’s worth of transfer.
If you want to transfer just the best reels of film or parts of the reel, you may want to watch it first. The problem here is the same one you might have if trying to do your own transfer: a movie projector may not be available. They’re not made anymore, and if the lamp burns out, it will be very difficult to find a replacement. A quick check of eBay found quite a few for sale, however. So if you have a lot of film, and no projector, you may want to invest in one. Most of them were selling for $50 to $100.
Two wonderful pieces of old movie film recently just fell into my lap. One was my Mom in the late thirties when she was a nanny for a family in New York City. The film shows her bringing the children into the house, pushing a baby carriage, and walking through Central Park. Even the parts of the film where Mom isn’t in the picture contain great scenes that show the family and city that were such a vital part of her life for three years.
The other film is of my Dad water skiing in the canal by our farmhouse in Idaho. My brother is pulling him with a tractor. It is only 30 seconds long and it cost me $36 to get it transferred because the film was broken in six places and had to be spliced. I’ve already had hundreds of dollars of enjoyment out of it. I set it to music and put it on DVD for easy access. My kids and grandchildren love it! I use it in a presentation I do about using video in family history and it never fails to elicit a roar of laughter from the audience
There’s so much you can do (or have a professional do) with your wonderful old film, even it doesn’t have a soundtrack. Write down a few facts about the events depicted on each reel so your descendants will know the background behind the flicking images. Provide a synopsis of the story just like those on the back of the videos and DVD’s we buy. Include names of family members, as well as dates. Write movie notes and include package highlights.
With a simple movie-editing program, you can add narration and music to your old movies, as well as titles with names and dates.
By saving your home movies you’ll be putting action into your genealogy. A picture of an ancestor is a static portrait of him. Film footage allows us a glimpse of the real person, catching his personality in a way that is unique and priceless.
Here is the video of my dad water skiing.
Video of my mom as a nanny in New York City.