Home Movie Day 2016: Preserving the Films of Albert M. Breen

In honor of Home Movie Day, we’re featuring a collection of home movies recently preserved by the Motion Picture Preservation Lab and providing some tips for how to care for your home movies. Home Movie Day is an annual event to raise awareness of the importance of home movies and encourage their preservation. This year’s Home Movie Day is October 15th, but your local event may be held at any time throughout the year. (See the Center for Home Movies website to find a HMD near you.)

Albert Breen’s Home Movies

Home movies usually end up in the National Archives’ holdings because they were collected by a federal agency (think UFO sightings in the Project Blue Book films). This includes the most famous home movie of all time—the Zapruder film, which captured the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on a succession of tiny 8mm frames. Home movies don’t have to be historically significant to be important, however. Many would argue that these films, which document the mundane aspects of family life, from birthday parties to outdoor barbecues, make up an important part of our nation’s cultural history, as well as serving as a precious family record.

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Home movies capture the ordinary moments, but that does not mean they are unimportant. (Still from Albert Breen Home Movies, Reel 17)

The family of Albert Breen donated his home movie collection, shot over three decades, to the National Park Service in the late 1990s, and it recently came to the National Archives for long-term preservation. In addition to shots of children and grandchildren at play, the films feature the Breen family’s many trips to national parks around the country, from Skyline Drive to Sequoia National Park.

Albert M. Breen was born in Brecksville, Ohio, in 1894 and lived his adult life in the suburbs of Cleveland, working as the vice president and treasurer of Richman Bros. Co. Breen started filming black and white reversal in 1929 and switched to color with the advent of Kodachrome in 1935. The last reel in the collection was shot in 1963. Breen was clearly a serious hobbyist, and edited his films to include descriptive intertitles with his initials embedded in the frame.

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A still from Albert Breen’s home movies shows the custom intertitles Breen edited into his films.

The Motion Picture Preservation Lab recently preserved this collection of 31 reels of 16mm film. Nearly half of the reels had high shrinkage, and a quarter were suffering from vinegar syndrome, a form of deterioration in which the film base breaks down and leads to a number of physical problems. The lab made new polyester film elements for all of the reels with high shrinkage and vinegar syndrome. All of the reels were inspected and transferred to archival film cans.

The lab has digitized three of the reels for access.

Reel 1, shot in 1929, depicts the Breen family close to home, in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and at the family farm in Brecksville. The little girl in the film is probably Breen’s daughter, Gladys.

Reel 8, shot in 1935, contains Breen’s first use of color film (beginning at about 5:00). Unfortunately, the first batches of Kodachrome were not very stable, so the color is mostly faded. The reel covers the family’s trip to Yellowstone Park, where they get uncomfortably close to a family of bears, as well as trips to Pikes Peak and other locations in Colorado.

Reel 17 was shot in 1949. The reel begins with Breen’s granddaughter, Judith, playing outdoors, and continues with footage of trips to the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Rocky Mountain National Park, Painted Desert, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

 

Preserving Your Home Movies

Even for the well-meaning family historian, home movies often become forgotten family artifacts that stay hidden in basements and attics. Experiencing an old photo album is as simple as opening the pages. A scanner or even a smart phone allows easy sharing with relatives. Films, however, require equipment to be viewed, which is a significant barrier to access for an individual who may not know what happened to the family projector or who worries that a machine may damage them. So how can you ensure that your home movies will be viewable for decades to come?

Storage

First and most important when it comes to preservation is proper storage. At NARA, we store film in climate-controlled vaults that were specifically designed for film. Of course, most people don’t have a film vault in their houses, but if you want your films to last longer, store them on the main floor of your house, which likely has the most stable temperature and humidity levels throughout the year. Typical storage places in your home, like basements and attics, are terrible for film. The heat and humidity common in these spaces cause film to deteriorate more rapidly than if they are stored in a climate-controlled space. Worse, if your basement floods, the films may be unrecoverable.

Viewing Home Movies

While it is still possible to view home movies with a projector and screen, the way they were originally seen, you should approach this with caution. Be sure that your films are not highly shrunken or damaged, and that your projector is clean and in good working order. Finding a Home Movie Day event in your area is a good way to get a quick assessment of your films and perhaps see one screened.

Digitization

For longer-term access, you probably want to have your films digitized. While you should be skeptical of any company that claims that they will “preserve” your home movies by transferring them to DVD, this is an easy access format will enable you to view and share your films with others. Just remember that the original film will probably last longer than any format you transfer to, so continue to protect it for the future. You will also need to migrate the copy to newer formats from time to time.

Already transferred your home movies to VHS in the 1990s? Digitize those now or you won’t be able to view them much longer—VCRs are officially obsolete. You could also spring for a new digital transfer of the film originals, but you still need to maintain the data in multiple places and keep up with new formats to ensure that your files are preserved and accessible for years to come.

For much more on how to view and preserve your home movies, check out the recommendations from the Center for Home Movies.

About Audrey Amidon

Audrey works in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, which is responsible for performing conservation and preservation work on motion picture records held across the National Archives.
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