Snowden Becker, a doctoral student in the School of Information, is in the home movie business. Unlike numerous amateur filmmakers, however, she’s not interested in directing or becoming the next starlet. Becker’s preoccupation lies within the preservation and usage of not only home movies, but all audiovisual materials. Becker, who has spent years helping people to preserve, archive and share their amateur films, is one of the founders of Home Movie Day, a project that helps individuals tackle those daunting boxes of unmarked videos to immortalize their family history for generations to come.
Many people have stashes of old videos and photos in closets, garages and attics. To preserve these materials, what first steps would you recommend?
Whether your materials are analog or digital — snapshots, negatives, slides, films, videotape or digital memory cards or hard drives full of digital photos and videos — it’s important to know what you have and where it all is. Take a weekend afternoon to inventory your collection, gather like materials together and make sure they’re stored in clean, dust-free and sturdy containers. A quick inventory list on top of a boxful of photos, tapes or film lets you know at a glance what you’ve got. Keeping a copy of those lists on your computer or with digital backup drives can help you figure out what’s missing in the event of fire, flood, break-ins or other unfortunate events.
eBay and other online sellers list home movies for sale. Who buys these movies and for what purpose?
Some folks collect old films to use as stock footage, in collage films, or in other new media projects; others buy the occasional reel for subject matter that’s of personal interest to them, like films shot in their hometown or travel films of exotic locations. While there is a collector’s market for amateur film, it’s important to note that the average reel of home movies sells for less than $10 and would cost many times that amount to digitize at sufficient quality to be used for stock footage.
If someone has video or photos of a historically significant person or event, whom should they go to for advice or to donate the materials?
The National Film Preservation Board has a very useful listing of public institutions in the U.S. (and worldwide) with moving image holdings. That’s a good place to start looking for an archive that is easily accessible. The Association of Moving Image Archivists and the Center for Home Movies can provide referrals to people around the world who have special expertise in preserving amateur media. People should also be aware that family films and videos don’t have to be of famous people or notable events to be of interest to an archive. For example, footage of kids playing in a backyard sprinkler on a big green suburban lawn may seem quotidian, but it’s evidence of a time not so long ago when we had very different attitudes about things like using water, wearing sunscreen and playing outdoors instead of inside on the computer. Hollywood films and the newspapers don’t cover every story that could possibly be told either, and for people who aren’t typically represented in mainstream media, another family’s films and videos may be the only place they can see the experiences, traditions and communities they share. Regional and national archives are interested in preserving this part of the historical record.
There seems to be a renewed interest in vinyl records. Why do you think the medium is resurfacing?
Probably for the same reason that thousands of people are downloading apps that make their digital photos look like they were taken with an old Polaroid camera: everything old is new to someone. I think there’s a growing appreciation that older media — analog media — are discernibly different from digital media. I think the visual and audio qualities of “vintage” analog recordings like 16mm films, Polaroid snapshots and vinyl records are pretty easy to appreciate even if you’re too young for them to inspire nostalgia. There’s also the pure gimcrack niftiness of the contraptions they were made with and played on — a vinyl record rotating under a tiny needle produces richly textured sounds and is mesmerizing to watch.
With so many electronic devices now able to take video and so many social sharing sites, what issues does this create with archiving and copyrights?
I think the most important issue is that what you might call the archiving timeline has shortened drastically, while the copyright timeline has only gotten longer. Digital formats age very quickly — chances are the digital camera or phone you use now isn’t the one you used five or even three years ago, and it won’t be the one you’re using three years from now. Even though hardware, software and file formats all become obsolete quickly, very, very few people are making an effort to back up their files regularly, or convert them to newer formats. Sites like YouTube or Facebook are thought of and treated like permanent repositories, but they have no public service mission — they are intended to make money. When and if they stop being profitable (or if they never make a profit in the first place), those sites can shut down very quickly, and they have no obligation to retain users’ uploaded media any longer than necessary.
Copyright, on the other hand, originally expired after just a few decades. It now lasts 120 years from date of fixation for unpublished materials, or the life of the author plus 70 years. The images made and shared online today are protected by copyright laws now, and they take longer and longer to enter the public domain, even as they get easier and easier to share, distribute and use in violation of those copyright protections. These images will also remain under copyright — as most 20th century creations still are — for a long, long time to come.
Home Movie Day, an annual event taking place in cities around the world, happens this year on Oct. 15. Information on activities, how to get your old reels inspected for free and the different Home Movie Day event venues can be found on the Home Movie Day Web site.