The Preservation of Home Movies:
A Field Report
This article distills some of the expertise gathered over a quarter of a century in the field. It reports on the difficulties of respecting the ethical principles of conservation and restoration from within the specific field of home movies, especially with the ongoing move from analogue to digital. It illustrates the vast area of experimentation by small gauge amateur filmmakers, and how digital techniques can today give us greater opportunities for both preservation and access to this very special heritage.
An Ounce of Ethics
To begin with, a little refresher of ethics could be useful. The following three principles have governed our restoration work for years. At our lab, we believe a restoration can only be considered such if:
- The probability that a work is available in its integrity in the future is increased.
- All the options that existed before taking an action remain open after the action.
- Every step is carefully documented.
If, after restoration, the probability of survival decreases, then you are certainly doing something wrong; and if the probability remains the same, you are simply losing your money. We believe that restorers today do not have the right to close off the doors to the next generation. On the contrary, their work has to keep all the possibilities open for future restorers. Even if it is not always possible to do this in practice, it should still remain our ideal goal and we should at least always keep it present in our minds, even if we cannot follow the principle to the letter. We must know when we are doing something “dangerous”. And the third point should be the evidence. Every single step must be carefully documented. In documenting the restoration process, the following questions must be answered:
- What is the state of the original element before taking action?
- What kind of intervention is done? And how? And why?
- What is the state of the original element after taking action?
- Which new elements have been produced? And how? And why?
Please keep in mind that if you go through an analogue or a digital restoration process, you end up with more elements to take care of, not less.
Everything Has Been Explored
The small gauge formats currently still in (albeit limited) existence are: 9.5 mm (“Pathé Baby”), 16 mm, various 8 mm flavours and Super 8.
The image is often reversal but can also be negative-positive. Sometimes the majority of a reel has been shot in black and white with some key scenes shot in colour. Many colour systems are to be found in home movies: the spectacular Kodachrome, the natural colours produced by the fascinating lenticular systems like Kodacolor and Agfacolor, or the technically tricky to achieve Dufaycolor.
The possibilities to add sound to the image are vast: from a music cassette player started more or less simultaneously with the projector, through to a fully mixed magnetic or optical soundtrack (commag or comopt), or the synchronous separate magnetic reels used by television (sepmag). And, of course, both mono and stereo formats have been extensively used.
Typical issues inherent to small gauge amateur films include flicker, blurriness, instability, creatively adventurous splicing techniques, over- and underexposed shots, non-standard projection speed – and, of course, all kinds of scratches. Many of these issues are frequently to be encountered all at once on a single reel of film.
Analogue and Digital Workflows
There are several possible workflows for the restoration of 9.5 mm films. To date, we have explored the following in our lab:
- analogue blow-up to 16 mm;
- analogue blow-up to 35 mm;
- digital blow-up to 16 mm;
- digital blow-up to 35 mm;
- digitisation in HD quality.
There are other possible workflows, which we have not yet attempted, including:
- analogue reduction onto Super 8;
- digitisation in SD quality;
- digitalisation in 2K (or higher) quality.
Currently we are exploring the exciting possibility of recording digitised images onto 9.5 mm film. In reality, this experimental project will entail the recording of the images onto 16 mm stock, which will then be subsequently cut to the 9.5 mm format.
But in the Meantime…
I strongly suggest we continue to follow the best practices which archivists have been following in the analogue world for decades. Please continue to take care of the “original” film elements. I am convinced that in the future we or our successors will be a lot happier if we still have the possibility to go back to those “original” film elements. For this reason, “original” film elements should be kept for as long as possible, even in the “digital era” (and, I guess, also in the post-digital era).
Every archivist should be effective. In the end, only one cost-efficient solution exists in the real world:
- Keep the “originals”.
- Take more preventive actions on “originals” (improve storage conditions by improving insulation, air conditioning and packaging).
- Less handling of the “originals”.
- And create plenty of digital copies for easy access.
I wish to acknowledge the help provided by Oliver Hanley.
Reto Kromer became involved in audio-visual conservation and restoration as early as 1986. From 1998 to 2003 he was head of preservation at the Swiss Film Archive, in charge of cataloguing, conservation and restoration of the film collection. Since 2004 he has been running his own facility, reto.ch, which provides comprehensive services that encompass the whole range of moving image preservation. He is currently a lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, the University of Lausanne and the Berne University of Applied Sciences.
In: Kerstin Parth, Oliver Hanley and Thomas Ballhausen (ed.): Work/s in Progress. Digital Film Restoration within Archives, Verlag Synema – Gesellschaft für Film und Medien, Wien 2013, p. 80–82