Sunday, November 6, 2011

Family memories and film conversion

I always enjoy the opportunity to watching and listening to people who are experienced experts talk about and demonstrate their trade. I’ve had interesting conversations with the state demographer about the art and science of the census. I’ve toured and observed the operation of a small Amish chair manufacturer. I’ve learned fascinating things about insects and ecology from my two entomologist friends.

Recently, I had the great opportunity to spend a fascinating afternoon learning about the world of audio/visual materials conversion. Oh, and I heard a lot of stories.

A while ago I took on the project of digitizing my parents’ slides and when they delivered the slides there were also a handful of reels of old 8mm home movies.  I recalled that a couple years ago I had sold an antique film projector to a guy who mentioned that he did film conversion and gave me his card. After about 3 years of carrying his card in my wallet I finally had some film to convert and gave the guy a call.

Carl has been in the “business” his entire life. He is 72. He began at 11 by running the projector at the junior high. He also got in with the guys who ran the projectors at the local theaters and spent a lot of time there. His working career was in radio and tv as well as owning a few movie theaters. Now he is “retired” but maintains an impressive operation out of a cramped corner of his house.

When I made contact with him about getting the film transferred to dvd I also asked about the opportunity to see his operation. He was more than glad to oblige.

He showed me all the equipment he used, how it worked, where he got it, and the various modifications he made. In his small site he can transfer 8mm, Super8, and 16mm film, reel to reel audio, cassette tapes, and 33/45/78 records, as well as any foreign and domestic video tape format, and slides.

He then offered to do my film transfer while I was there so I could watch the whole process. I gleefully said yes. Early on in the process he said something, which I then also observed, which caught my attention. “Every inch of the film will run through my hands several times during the process.” As one who is interested in hand skills, and in training people’s hands to repair books, it was intriguing to see the role his experienced hands played in this much more technologically driven process.

The process began by him rolling the film onto a large reel as he checks the condition of the film, testing old splices, making new splices where the film is broken, and dealing with any other condition issues. Two of the smaller reels had some mold on them, and part of one reel had been fed into a projector wrong causing a very jagged edge. He was quite concerned about whether this part of the film would cause problems. He then cleaned and lubricated the film – all by hand.

Parent's wedding
After checking, fixing, and cleaning the film he loaded a reel on his 8mm transfer machine. The machine looks a bit like a film projector except the light source – an array of LEDs – is where the lens would typically be. Conversion is done in real time so my just over 600 feet of film took just under an hour to do. It was a thrill to see this film which I don’t recall ever seeing before. The film was from the early sixties and included my parent’s wedding, my older brother as an infant, and a vacation trip to South Dakota. The image quality wasn’t great, but the color was phenomenal. Carl explained that Kodachrome does a phenomenal job of retaining color, while if it was shot on Ektachrome, everything would be moving to shades of magenta.

In the audio/visual branch of the library preservation world, digitization is seen as the best hope for preservation. While paper folk may complain about acidic paper, the media we work with is in general much more stable than the various audio visual media.

The film I had transferred is now burnt on 4 dvds, and will also be copied to a hard drive or two and will be dispersed to various family members who are dispersed across the continent. So, abiding by the principle of Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe, the stuff of these family films should now have a better chance of surviving into another generation. (But really, the best part was talking to an old guy about craft and technology.)

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