Reel Treasures

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

After you’ve scoured your closets and sifted through your kin’s film collections, what should you do with all the old home movies you’ve turned up? Follow these steps to organize, share and protect this unique part of your heritage:


Find out if the boxes or cans are labeled with subjects, dates, names or places. If not, try to identify the date of the film based on the information written on the side of the box or by product and format. Basically, you’re looking for information that will help you place the images in your family history. Start sorting them in chronological order while they’re still in the boxes to see if you can construct a timeline of films and events. Interview family members to find out what they know about the films, including their memories about making the movies. And don’t forget to use the footage to help jog their memory — your relatives may not recall some details or situations until they receive a visual clue.


Before you start digging out the old projector, you need to be aware of film-preservation issues. The movies in your possession may not be in good shape: Film shrinks and becomes brittle over time and will need treatment before it can be projected. Color film fades or shifts as it ages. Playing those old movies could break the film. And a faulty projector could actually destroy the images.

Avoid handling the film, but if you must, touch only the edges (much as you’d handle old photos). Examine it for signs of deterioration, such as cracks, tears or brittleness. Before you lose the images, copy the film onto another format and store the original at a stable temperature and humidity. Don’t dispose of the original — videos and DVDs aren’t as stable as film. (See the next page for video-, CD- and DVD-preservation hints.) Store film lying flat in metal cans or plastic boxes in a cool, dry area; less than 50 percent humidity is ideal.

The National Endowment for the Humanities recommends having an expert make a videotape copy for viewing rather than projecting the original film. You should also make a second, “master” copy of the film that you store somewhere else, so you have a backup in case the others get damaged or destroyed. Check the yellow pages under Video Production Services to find local companies that offer film-to-video transfer. A professional film conservator can help stop the deterioration of any particularly important movies. To find a conservator who works with motion-picture film, contact the American Institute for Conservation: <> (click on Selecting a Conservator), (202) 452-9545 or 1717 K St. NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20006.


You’ve probably discovered that your home movies are unedited with lots of rough transitions and extra footage. You’ll want to edit them to eliminate blurry images and blank footage, but not at the expense of the film. You have a choice: Edit the movies before you transfer them to video by cutting and splicing the footage, or wait until you have a video copy and edit in that format. It’s cheaper to edit pre-transfer, but you risk damaging the original film in the editing process.

Either way, today’s technology will help you transform the edited footage into a new movie you can share with others on video, CD, DVD or even online. See “Memory Insurance” in the August 2001 Family Tree Magazine to learn techniques for preserving your home movies using your computer’s multimedia features. Microsoft’s XP or Millenium Edition and Apple’s iMac make it easier than ever for genealogists to edit video images at home. And with technology changing all the time, it promises to get even easier.


Computers also make it possible to make home movies part of your family history. Some genealogy software can import digitized film or video, which you can then incorporate into your family file. To learn how to add multimedia elements in Family Tree Maker and Generations, see “Power Tools” in the June 2001 Family Tree Magazine.

Another option is to use those edited clips on a family Web site. Programs such as Apple’s QuickTime Pro <> let you embed video in a Web page. Or take advantage of online video-sharing services where you can upload your digital video to the site and invite your family to see it live (see page 45). Similar to photo-sharing services, these sites are either password-protected or for public viewing. But don’t use any images without the permission of the person in the pictures.


Once you’ve organized and identified these films, make sure you have someone to take care of them later. Find an interested relative or donate the films to an archive. The Library of Congress, the National Archives of Canada and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences all maintain home-movie collections. You can also contact the Association of Moving Image Archivists <> or The National Film Preservation Foundation <>. Both match donors with suitable libraries and archives. Some collections are specific, such as The Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles <>: It wants footage depicting the “experiences of Chinese-Americans living in Southern California from 1850 to 2000.” Before donating your films or video, find out who will have access to it. And if you don’t want the archive to reproduce your film, be sure to state that in your gift agreement.

Your final task is to get behind the camera yourself. If you haven’t been documenting your family history through home movies, start now. As a family historian, part of your job is to leave a legacy so that future generations can understand and know their ancestors. Your children will appreciate the chance to see their grandparents’ mannerisms and personalities. And your grandchildren will gleefully watch the footage of their parents’ embarrassing childhood moments. Encourage other family members to pick up the camera, too, so you can appear in the movies. Just don’t let them catch you doing any more Elvis impersonations.

From the June 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine

Five steps to save your home movies from Toni Treadway, a technician at the Rowley, Mass., film-to-tape transfer studio Treadway and Brodsky <>:

1. Don’t throw away the original.

2. Don’t project the original unless it’s in good condition.

3. Make sure your hands are clean before handling film.

4. Store in a cool dry place, not in the attic, basement or garage.

5. Record the oral history of the film. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

Care, Handling and Storage of Motion Picture Film

<>: Guidelines from the Library of Congress’ Preservation Directorate.

Digital Fridge

<>: Free online community to share your photographs and videos.

Film Decay and How to Slow It

<>: Article from the National Film Preservation Foundation.

General MacArthur’s Home Movies

<>: Watch the famous general’s family in action.

Home Movies: The Family Historian’s Perspective

<>: Online history of home movies for genealogists.

<>: Share your videos online.

Making Great Home Movies

<>: Tips on how to make your home movies or videos more interesting.

National Film Preservation Foundation

<>: Film preservation information from professional conservators.

Northeast Historic Film

<>: A New England-focused archive that collects movies and lends films.

Preservation of Processed Film

<>: How composition, processing and storage contribute to film’s life expectancy.

Preserving Your Precious Home Videos

<>: Find out how to care for the videos in your home collection.

Saving Your Family Treasures: Home Movies

<>: Tips from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ My History Is America’s History project.

Caring for Your Family Treasures by Jane S. Long and Richard W. Long (Heritage Preservation), with a chapter on home movies

Home Movies: A History of the American Industry, 1897-1979 by Alan Kattelle (self-published), <>

The Book of Film Care (Kodak Publication No. H-23) edited by Paul L. Gordon (Eastman Kodak Co.), order from (800) 847-8755

The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs: Traditional and Digital Color Prints, Color Negatives, Slides and Motion Pictures by Henry Wilhelm and Carol Brower (Preservation Publishing Co.)

Reel Families — A Social History of Amateur Film by Patricia R. Zimmermann (Indiana University Press)


Kodak black-and-white standard 8 mm film first sold.


RCA-Victor’s 16 mm sound-on-film camera can record the operator’s voice.


Home Movies, a monthly magazine for amateurs, launched.


Kodak publishes How to Make Good Movies, a guide for the home-movie enthusiast.


Kodak agrees to stop selling its film with a processing charge included as part of an antitrust suit brought by the US government.


Using a home-movie camera, Abraham Zapruder films the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.


Kodak introduces Super 8 color film and Fuji issues Single 8 color film. Sony makes a 30-pound video camera for amateur use.


Kodak develops a combination video camera-recorder.