Home Movies: Then, Now, Forever?

Jewish Homegrown History

Skirball visitors watch some of the many home movies screened in Jewish Homegrown History, organized by USC’s Labyrinth Project. Bring your own home movies to Home Movie Day at the Skirball this Sunday, April 22, and find out how best to preserve them for the future. Photo by Daniel Bydlowski.

With the exhibition Jewish Homegrown History now on view, there’s something I’ve been wondering about: When you hear the term “home movie,” what comes to mind? I dare say that the image will vary considerably based on when you grew up.

If you were a Depression-era kid, born in the 1930s and 1940s, most home movies were an elaborate affair shot in 16mm film and screened using a large projector much like the ones used in school classrooms back in the day. It was an expensive undertaking that only a few could afford and was reserved for special occasions.

Baby Boomers remember small 8mm handheld cameras, which could shoot about eight minutes of footage and whose images had no accompanying sound. In order to shoot indoors, the camera operator had to mount a gigantic light bulb, which, in addition to providing the necessary lighting, could also blind and burn its subjects! Dangers aside, we would gladly dance in front of the camera—run around like wild animals, leap off furniture, dive into swimming pools.

In order to view these mini-masterpieces, we would have to wait until the film had been processed and brought home. Then it was a matter of setting up the projector, threading the film, and running it against a screen or blank wall. No sound, just pictures. The most fun part was hitting the reverse button so that my cousins and I (in matching red plaid bathing suits) would jump out of the pool and onto the back porch!

Home Movies

My collection of video tapes, dusted off and waiting patiently on my shelf to be brought in for transfer to DVD.

For the children of Boomers—Generations X and Y—home movies mean something else entirely. The cameras varied from huge machines that could break your shoulder to smaller handheld types, but the tapes themselves could easily be watched at home on a TV screen using one’s VCR. At last we had sound, better color, and easier access to the movies. No longer did we have to wait for processing. We could shoot the movie and watch it almost immediately.

Today we have moved to digital cameras and enjoy the added convenience of taking home movies on our digital mobile devices (I can’t even refer to them as phones anymore). The movies can be instantly uploaded to YouTube and shared electronically with friends, family, even strangers the world over. I am sad that the era of the Flip camera came to an end so soon, but that’s progress.

So, where has this evolution of the home movie phenomenon affected what we do with what we shoot and how we value it?

In some ways, the experience is the same: we record events, scenery, people, pets, etc, then maybe watch our creations before forgetting all about them in a virtual lost-sock drawer. The difference may be that in the past, we were more likely to preserve our filmed memories when we had to go to a lot of trouble to develop the film and store it. Even if they’re stashed in the attic, we can dig out dusty boxes of old 16mm film, 8mm film, Super 8, and VHS tapes and look back on our lives. The home movies are stored away, sure, but we have wonderful means for transferring these stories to the latest format and preserving them for future generations. [By the way, if you’re looking to think outside the iPhone and try a 16mm or Super 8 recorder, you can rent one from the Echo Park Film Center, which is doing great work to teach youth about filmmaking.]

What worries me is whether anyone is really preserving all of the video shot of babies’ first words, families on vacation, art happenings, summer barbecues, etc. To capture any moment, all we need do is reach into our pockets to pull out a high-tech video recording gadget. We can take hundreds, even thousands, of little clips. But are we safeguarding this footage for the future, or is it languishing on our smart phones, never uploaded or archived properly? Will families forty years from now be able to look back and see what life was like in 2012? I hope so because I love looking back at me and my cousins as we jump in and out of the backyard pool. I hope that future generations can enjoy connecting to their families as well.

Come to Home Movie Day at the Skirball on Sunday, April 22, between 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. to learn how to preserve and transfer your own home movies. In association with USC’s Labyrinth Project, the Skirball invites visitors to bring samples of home movies that reflect growing up in California. Staff from Labyrinth will be on hand to load and screen movies you would like to share. Experts on image transfer and film preservation from DVD Your Memories will also be available to teach you how to preserve those great moments from your family’s past.

Posted in Exhibitions, Family History and tagged , .

About Adele Lander Burke

Adele Lander Burke is Vice President, Learning for Life, at the Skirball. She creates and manages the Skirball’s adult continuing-education initiative, providing opportunities for adults to learn for learning’s sake, one of the greatest pleasures in life. Her portfolio also includes docent training for adult tours, an extension of the free-choice learning model that she enjoys developing. Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Adele considers herself an honorary Los Angeles native after living here for thirty-six years. And yes, her favorite performer is Adele!

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