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 19th, 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.)
Several years ago, NARA’s Motion Picture Preservation Lab was inundated with seals. More specifically, we received a large collection of films showing rocky coastline covered with fur seals as far as the eye could see. We wound through hours of this footage, and every so often would find something that was seal-free, reels which turned out to be the filmmaker’s personal home movies.
The collection of films was shot by Harry J. Christoffers Sr. in the 1930s. Christoffers served in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Fisheries as the Superintendent of the Pribilof Islands, made up of 75 square miles of land located about 200 miles off the coast of Alaska. In addition to acting as an intermediary between the U.S. government and the indigenous communities, Christoffers was responsible for managing the fur seal population, as the hunting of seals was the principal industry.
But how did the National Archives end up with his home movies? For my research into Christoffers, I relied on a history of the U.S. presence in the Pribilof Islands written by Betty and John Lindsay. When the Lindsays were researching their book, they contacted Harry J. Christoffers Jr., who was in possession of his father’s film collection from the family’s years in the Pribilofs. This spurred the son to donate all of the films to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Then the collection, as a whole, came to NARA.
Images from 370-HJC-10
Among the films are some shot using Kodak’s Kodacolor film, an early lenticular film color technology. The films shot by Christoffers likely contain some of the earliest color footage of Alaska’s islands and the Bering Sea. The following reel (ca. 1933) contains color footage shot from a boat passing through Seattle’s Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, a sea voyage to Alaska, an encounter with a whaling ship, and, of course, seals. There is also a sequence showing Christoffers and his family picking flowers, which was a common subject for amateur filmmakers shooting color film.
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?
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.
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.