In Praise of the Humble Home Movie

From our Conservation Team

Yashica 8-EIII from 1960, first released in ~1933>
Used Standard 8mm film

Home movies present a personal expression on the events of life, not a corporate vision. They present stories without the purposeful narrative that taints feature films and documentaries. Almost without exception every home movie is unique. A single tangible record of an unrepeatable moment of everyday life that would otherwise dim or be lost forever.

Motion picture film became a sufficiently mature technology in the mid 1890’s. At first it was a showground novelty, but the potential for this technology to be used for far more serious purposes was quickly realised. The five short films shot during the 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Straits, led by A.C. Haddon, are considered to be the first ethnographic films ever produced. From novelty to narrative also took only a short period of time with the 1906 “The Story of the Kelly Gang” widely considered to be the world’s first full length feature film. While these achievements cemented motion picture films place in a commercial sense, the well-heeled began to experiment with film to record their lives. The early equipment was too expensive for the average family, and carried safety risks using the highly flammable cellulose nitrate film. Just prior to WW1 a commercially viable non-flammable “safety” film was developed, however it wasn’t until after the war when Kodak and Pathé released lower cost film systems that were significantly cheaper and safer than previous equipment. In cost, Kodak’s 16mm and Pathé’s 9.5mm cameras and films were getting close to the reach of average families.

The introduction of even cheaper 8mm film in 1933 enabled many more families to now record their lives. Home movies became far more democratic in that they may ignore the class barriers that so often restricts the recording of history to a single viewpoint of society.

Cameras are extensions of a person’s eyes and mind, the simplicity of operating a home movie camera, virtually point and shoot, allowed candid, intimate records of daily life. Small, hand holdable cameras were almost everywhere and witnessed almost everything. In the hands of a wide range of people from a variety of backgrounds records of commonplace events that would have otherwise been forgotten or existed only as shadowy memories were captured, relived and shared. As a shared experience the home movie creates empathy for the actual people portrayed rather than fictional characters. Home movies document everyday rituals, ceremonies, and behaviours; commonalities, but even more importantly, the divergences and diversity of a society. All the aspects that make up an individual and a society such as body language, changed landscapes, old ways of doing things that have been displaced by more complex inventions that operate without ceremony, love of family, friends, pets, nature and culture. The ubiquitous nature of home movies provides a record that almost flawlessly mimics the world.

Home movies are unpredictable. This random and personal view can provide new interpretation on life’s events or inspire other forms of creativity. They often provide hitherto-unseen records of historically significant events captured from different angle with emphasis on different aspects of the events being recorded professionally. Captain DeGroot’s usurping of the opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge by Premier Lang was only captured by an amateur cameraman. They show us what and how we celebrated, and what we may have tried to forget. They may be embarrassing and give a pang of conscience as we review our past. But by watching them these reinvigorate our feeling that our lives have meaning and are worth recording.

Home movies link our own past and future in a way no other medium can. However, home movies are fragile. As physical objects all the layers and components of home movies are subject to the Laws of Thermodynamics and will deteriorate over time. The rate of deterioration may be slowed by carefully controlling the ambient environment, but never stopped. There are three forms of deterioration to consider, physical damage, chemical decomposition and biological attack.

Physical damage may be scratching or tearing of the film pellicle (plastic base), but may also be wearing of the critical points of the film, the perforations or ‘holes’, by repeated use. It is unwise to run old films through projectors as the film shrinks over time, but the sharp steel sprockets used by the projector’s film transport mechanism do not.

Chemical decomposition affects the plastic base via a hydrolysis reaction that is exacerbated by the reaction by-products. This is commonly referred to as ‘vinegar syndrome’ as the decomposing film smells strongly of acetic acid/vinegar. The actual image will also fade over time, either by oxidation of the black & white (silver metal) image, or the breakdown of the image forming colour dyes for colour films such as Kodak Ektachrome.

Biological attack is best exemplified by mould. As opportunist feeders, moulds will consume the gelatin emulsion of the film destroying the image that is held within the emulsion.

The most effective way to control at least chemical decomposition and biological attack, is through environmental control, that is temperature and humidity. The lower the better. Freezing is an option but does require some preparation beforehand for the best results. For physical damage careful handling and not projecting is the best prevention. Films may be viewed through hand powered viewers that do not use sprockets for transporting the film.

The memories contained in home movies are meant to be seen and shared. With the risks involved in projection the ideal solution is to create surrogates. Today this means digitisation. However, even 8mm films from the 1930’s may contain more detail than can be recorded using HD video, and 16mm will contain far more detail. But for casual viewing a good HD video transfer will provide a more than adequate viewing experience. The downside is that digitisation can be expensive and the resultant files will be large and need to be cared for to prevent loss or corruption. The preservation of digital files is a story for another day.

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