Guest blog post written by Kirsten Larvick, founder of the Al Larvick Conservation Fund.
- Documenting Decades in Motion
- The Impact of Personal History
- Preserving Legacy
- Your Home Archive
- Safe Space
- Get to Know Your Media
- Rediscover Your Story
- Share and Create Meaning
Documenting Decades in Motion
Like many of my generation, I have memories of watching my grandfather thread film through a projector in my grandparent’s basement. The projector was the vehicle for family home movie night. My Grandpa Al was our self-appointed documentarian. He photographed life in moving image from approximately 1953 until 1981.
Rockne, their oldest son, purchased for Grandpa Al an 8mm hand crank film camera when he was stationed in Germany during his service in the U.S. Air Force. Rockne suggested his father strategize games by recording the football and basketball practices at the high school where Al taught social studies, coached sports, and served as Athletic Director. The camera became a cherished extension of our grandfather. He rarely attended an event without it in tow. Some evenings he’d sit down at his home editing station under a hard light with the rewinds, viewer, splicer, glue, and razor blades. Watching my grandfather wield his camera, edit his films by hand, and show his home movies was part of our family’s culture.
Grandpa Al passed away in 1981. Years later, when my Grandma Ethel passed on, my uncle asked if I wanted the films. Inheriting the 30 plus movie reels and film equipment proved to be an unexpected turning point. Since I was quite young when my grandfather died, these moving images proved particularly meaningful and influenced my path forward.
The Impact of Personal History
I like to credit Grandpa Al for my affection for documentary as both a historical document and an artform. As an adult I find myself working in both the fields of nonfiction filmmaking and its preservation. The gift of his films was my introduction as to why the preservation of our audiovisual heritage, both “professional” and “amateur”, is critical to understanding humanity. Al wasn’t a filmmaker in the artistic sense necessarily, but more a shutterbug of his surroundings. He seemed to appreciate the importance of capturing everyday moments in motion. His creativity emerged through the care and attention he gave to the films and the joy he clearly experienced sharing them. All this left a lasting impression on me of not only how much evidence of history matters, but the power of motion picture and what it adds to our respective and shared narratives.
After gradually digitizing the family film collection, I discovered a few reels that were discrete from the others. One in the collection was labeled “#4 V.C. High School s.t.c. Activities”. My mother and father attended the school where Al taught, but the container didn’t list any years or further specifics beyond the title taped to the outside of the film can.
It was in this combined 400foot reel that I discovered my parents as students and became immersed in their teenage life as revealed through these recordings. After watching the reel repeatedly, I began sleuthing to identify others in the film. Most of the collection are typical home movies of the era. This was of high school basketball and football practices, team dinners, gym classes and even a rehearsal of my father’s senior class play.
I used my parent’s yearbooks to pinpoint who was who. I borrowed my mother’s reunion contact list and reached out to former students my grandfather coached. As a result, I was able to collect distinctive histories from a variety of lived experiences. His former students shared poignant recollections that further contextualized my personal history, as well as theirs. It deepened my understanding of the positive impact my grandfather had on others. Through revisiting and sharing his films, I came away with a more layered and richer knowledge about individual relatives and my family as a whole. That particular 400feet of footage was shown at my parents’ next school reunion. The project provided a collaborative opportunity with family (my mother and brother, aunt and uncle) and school alumni alike.
In 2014, I founded the Al Larvick Conservation Fund in an effort to revive and preserve other home movie collections. The nonprofit provides micro-grants to individuals and small institutions. The awards are used for the cleaning, repair and digitization of analog film and obsolete videotape media. The organization considers applicants with personal media that falls under the categories of home movies, amateur cinema, and community recordings. As part of our mission, we additionally work together with collection holders to publicly screen their media and capture corresponding histories through the Homespun Histories program featured on The Screening Room webpage of the Fund’s site.
Resurrecting Grandpa Al’s home movies influenced my professional future and enriched my sense of self. It heightened my commitment to saving and sharing personal legacies and to help others do the same through their media. For those interested in taking a deep dive into their own home movies, but unsure where to start, I suggest the following tasks.
Your Home Archive
Move any media you have from basements or attics to spaces where there is as much climate control as possible. Cool and dry spaces off the floor are ideal, whether film, videotape, or digital files on hard drives. A main level of a house is often best. Store film cans, reels, and boxes flat/horizontal. Videotapes can be placed vertically and kept in their sleeves/shells. Avoid stacking tapes on top of one another and keep them distant from any electronic devices.
If you’re storing media together in larger containers, paper boxes are preferable in lieu of plastic bags or bins. This avoids trapping moisture. I store my 50foot film reels and MiniDV videotapes in Archival Methods boxes of varying sizes.
I’ve kept my original film boxes and reels, even though I have also rehoused many of my films in breathable archival grade reel containers or acid free smaller boxes for each reel. If you want to rehouse your films, shop for vented archival containers made from chemically inert polypropylene. These cans restrict off-gassing and will help extend the life and quality of your films. I add cotton silica gel packs in boxes and containers to deter humidity. If you live in a humid climate, an electric dehumidifier is helpful. [also see rechargeable Desiccant Canisters.]
Isolate any film from the remaining collection that smells or looks musty, shows the appearance of mold, or smells like vinegar. A vinegar like odor is related to “vinegar syndrome” which is a form of film degradation that will spread to other nearby reels if not quarantined. To isolate those and keep the decay from worsening, contain those reels in Ziplock bags inside a freezer if you have the space.
Get to Know Your Media
Put together an inventory that includes basics:
- Reel or Tape # Assign one if there isn’t a number on the media already.
- Title per Reel or Tape A simple title from information on container (i.e. “Larvick Family Films: Grand Canyon, 1972, or a basic title that includes the assigned reel or tape number “Larvick Family Films #001”).
- Date (If known).
- Content Description (If known. Look at original container labels, index cards, notebooks in film or video boxes. Anything that provides clues. You may not know much until you digitize your media and can watch them. You can always fill this in then).
- Primary Maker (If known, name the filmmaker. In many cases it’s the original camera owner).
- Film Gauge or Videotape Format (If known. i.e. Super 8, S-VHS, MiniDV).
- Feet of Film or Duration of Videotape Content (If known).
- Media Condition (Note any media that appears to be forming mold, rust, contain a bug infestation, or any other environmental and health hazards – includes smell of vinegar or must. Isolate, separate and make notes).
Even if you rehouse media, keep original containers, especially if they include information about your media’s format and content. They are part of your original source materials and legacy. They may have the handwriting of your grandparents or relatives who are no longer with us, so they also become keepsakes for emotional reasons. Organize, save, and conserve other related personal materials, such as photographs, slides, yearbooks, diaries, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, media equipment and tools. They collectively contribute texture and nuance to your story.
Rediscover Your Story
Once you have your films and videotapes organized, reference the inventory when talking to a vendor about digitizing your media. Do your research. Not all labs and vendors are created equal. Vendors should be scanning film at a minimum of high definition (HD), or better yet higher (2k or 4k resolution). Make sure to get a scan that includes the entire picture of each frame of film. Some labs provide “overscans” that capture each frame of film edge-to-edge, so the digital file will show the entire picture, as well as the surrounding information including the film’s perforations and film codes. This ensures the picture doesn’t get cropped anywhere and some people like the look of seeing picture framed by the film’s edges and sprocket holes. It also provides metadata about the film stock itself which can help place a date on the recording and offer other valuable data. With videotape, vendors should be capturing uncompressed video at its native aspect ratio and use a time-based corrector to ensure best quality and sound sync. Ideally the vendor should make another derivative off the uncompressed file that is a compressed version for easy upload to the internet or making copies to send to other family and friends.
Ask the vendor if all their work is done in-house and how long they’ve been in business. Avoid getting media transferred straight to DVDs or low-resolution digital files. Ask for high resolution digital files on a hard drive. Specify how you want it formatted. Do you use a Mac or a PC? Let the vendor know so they can format your drive accordingly and create digital files that you’re able to play on your computer. If you feel overwhelmed by some of this semi-technical jargon, ask another family member who is more comfortable with computer use and digital media.
If you’re not ready to take all this on, or lack financial resources, perhaps begin by making sure your media is in an environmentally safe place. Start the larger project with small steps. If the goal is to make your analog and obsolete formats more accessible, look at the Al Larvick Fund grant.
You can also prioritize your media list and have small batches digitized at a time to avoid a big expense up front. I suggest to get any film that smells of vinegar digitized first since those are most obviously in the process of decline. Even after everything is digitized, keep the original media. Digital codecs and wrappers come and go. Digital files can become corrupt and hard drives crash. There are safety measures, but those are always risks in our digital world. Save your original films and videos. They are your original source materials. They will always have the highest value and you’ll need to return to them.
Share and Create Meaning
Once your media is available digitally, there are many ways to share it. Obvious choices are online platforms to upload your digital media to. Watch the movies and add content descriptions. Enlist your family to help identify persons, places and things. Document what you learn. If you’re extra inspired, reach out to your local historical society or become part of a Home Movie Day event.
Your home movies are your story. If you’re interested, you’ll find meaning in the motion, from the expressions and mannerisms of your younger parents; background details of their childhood home; storefronts that line the hometown parades; to vacation footage of roadside attractions, which no longer exist. There is a window of discovery in every frame.
Kirsten Larvick is a documentary filmmaker and archivist. Her work as an archivist includes advocating for the preservation and access to independent documentary arts. She is the founder of the Al Larvick Fund, and co-chair of the Women’s Film Preservation Fund, where she also serves on its Grants Selection Committee. As an autonomous consultant, Kirsten works with independent filmmakers and collection holders on documentary preservation and archiving projects, and produces film restorations.