Personal Histories

Doctoral student helps people put home movies back on screens

Feb. 11, 2008

A toddler testing unsteady legs. A child dressed as a Pilgrim in a first grade play. Relatives hugging at a family reunion. A new graduate smiling, showing off a diploma. These are some of the memories captured by home movies.

Snowden BeckerWhen home-movie makers take their cameras outside the home, the results can be significant. Note the 26-second film of the John F. Kennedy assassination that Abraham Zapruder shot with 8-millimeter. Or the videotape made of Rodney King’s arrest in Los Angeles in 1991.

Home movies are a key element to preserving the cultural heritage of the United States–except when those movies can no longer be seen because of out-of-date technology or damaged film.

Enter Snowden Becker, a doctoral student at The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Information and a Harrington Fellow. Becker is working to help people maintain or regain access to their amateur movies.

Her research deals with how audiovisual materials in general, and home movies in particular, are integrated into the larger cultural heritage. She’s also a founder and participant in Home Movie Day (HMD), a nationwide effort to help keep home movies on the screen.

The problem for people who have canisters of 8-millimeter and Super 8 home movies stacked in closets is not so much deterioration of the film as it is access to the film.

In some cases, projectors are missing or broken. In other cases, the family’s projectionist is no longer around.

“The most frequent question we get from Home Movie Day participants and visitors to the Home Movie Day Web site is ‘I don’t have a projector. How can I get my films copied to a format I can watch?’” Becker said. “I’ve heard that question hundreds of times.”

Then there’s the question of what format to use, from VHS, to DVD to high-definition DVD to who knows what else.

VHS tape isn’t as durable as film has been and DVDs are likely to have playback problems because of the rapid evolution of compression algorithms and quality control in manufacturing optical media.

“If you’ve tried to watch a DVD burned on your computer or someone else’s home player and had it fail for some mysterious reason, you’ve gotten a sneak preview of what it’s going to be like to try to watch any DVD in about five years,” Becker said.

And posting your family’s videos on YouTube or another commercial site is not necessarily an answer.

“They can be wiped out at any time if someone decides that it doesn’t make sense to offer all that access for free anymore,” she said.

Home Movie Day is a way for people to get help.

The mission of HMD is to increase the number of people who can see their home movies, and to help film preservation become a family undertaking as opposed to exclusively an institutional one.

Becker and four colleagues came up with the idea–inspired by a conversation over lunch–to start Home Movie Day in 2002 at the Association of Moving Image Archivists conference in Boston.

HMD, which will mark its sixth anniversary in October 2008, is an annual event which invites local motion picture archivists, film programmers, lab technicians and filmmakers experienced in caring for small-gauge film to coordinate a home movie “Open House” in their city, welcoming everyone to bring their home movies for viewing, inspection and tips on preservation. In 2007, more than 50 cities worldwide participated.

At an HMD event people can view their original films with minimal risk just to see what is on each reel.

“We have people who are experienced with film inspect every reel for damage or condition issues before they’re shown,” Becker said. “This is much easier for most people than dragging a mysterious piece of equipment out of the attic and trying to figure how, or if, it works.”

It’s good to have more than one generation in attendance to identify unknown friends or relatives, she said.

“Seeing a home movie at an HMD event is often the first step toward making copies to share with other family members or friends,” Becker said, “which, in turn, increases the likelihood that some version will survive into the future.”

Becker has participated in Austin’s HMD events in 2006 and 2007.

For someone immersed in the world of home movies, the only movies Becker has from her childhood are Super 8 animations she and her brother made for art class.

But her lack of movies is what gives Becker the incentive to make sure other peoples’ movies are preserved.

“When I see footage from the late 1970s and early 1980s, that’s really special to me,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if the films were shot in Alabama or Albuquerque or Austria instead of Shelton, Wash., my hometown.

“Kids in those films are often playing with the same toys I had, or their moms and dads had similar haircuts, beards cars and clothes. Preserving other people’s home movies is a way of ensuring that the past I remember–but have no personal record of–survives into the future.”

That survival will be an ongoing concern as technologies change and proliferate, she said.

“As audiovisual media become more and more inextricably woven into our society and the ways in which it works,” Becker said, “we will have less and less time to solve those problems and more and more will be at stake.”

For more information, contact: By Elisabeth McKetta, Kathleen Mabley and Tim Green

Photo: Christina Murrey