How to Care For Home Movies

middle-aged woman filming with a handycam
So you've captured the grandkids singing in the park -- but how can you be sure those memories will be preserved properly?

Walk into any home of a certain age (or with residents of a certain age), and it's pretty much guaranteed that somewhere -- most likely in a dank basement or attic -- you'll find a moldering crate of old home movies. When you stumble across a treasure trove like this, your first instinct might be to watch them right away -- or have them converted immediately into DVDs. But curb that instinct for just a second: There are a few steps you need to follow before you take any kind of leap with old home movies. We'll walk you through them in this article so you can make sure all your precious memories of Great Aunt Ida are perfectly preserved.


Before You Watch Your Movie

We know you're pretty psyched to have found the footage from your first trip to Disney World, but hang on: You should examine the film or videotape first to see if it's even playable. If it's in bad shape, you could damage it even further by shoving it into an ancient projector or player. You can fix some film problems -- like broken splices and torn side perforations -- but it's often more difficult to repair a videotape without destroying the case. If you're dealing with 8- or 16-mm film, here are a few signs that it might need professional help (or be beyond repair):

  • a vinegary odor (caused by decomposition of the acetate film)
  • shrinkage (even 1 percent shrinkage could cause damage in a projector or splicer)
  • cupping
  • cracking
  • mold

If you find out that your film is viewable -- and your projector is in working order -- by all means, go ahead and enjoy the footage of your 2-year-old self meeting Mickey and Minnie. But how do you store it when you're done?


Packing It Up

If you want to preserve your memories in their original state, there are specific storage requirements for each format -- none of which involves attics or basements. And if you're dealing with a bunch of different formats, you can't just dump them all in one box. Here's what you need to do:

  • 16mm film: Wind film onto cores (as opposed to reels) that are at least 3 inches in diameter, which minimizes curling. Store flat in metal or cardboard archival cans, but don't tape them shut! You do want some circulation.
  • 8mm and Super 8 film: Should be left on plastic reels and put in archival cans.
  • VHS: Store vertically in plastic cases, ideally at 60 degrees Fahrenheit and 40 percent humidity.
  • CDs and DVDs: Store vertically in jewel cases, then put the cases in special plastic or steel storage containers. The ideal conditions are 62 to 70 F with 35 to 50 percent humidity.

If all this seems like a huge hassle -- or you don't think you can maintain the right conditions -- you can always store your movies at a professional archive. Whatever you decide, though, you need backup. On the next page, we'll talk about converting your movies.


Going Digital

Film purists might insist that watching Super 8 movies with a projector and screen is the only way to go. But let's face it: It's a whole lot easier to enjoy them on DVD. And even if you have your film perfectly stored, disasters happen -- you should absolutely convert your movies to a digital format to make sure you never lose them.

If you have your film or videotapes professionally converted to DVD, make sure to get a master copy of the footage on industrial digital videotape -- not every company does this, but it's well worth the extra expense. That way, you'll always have a backup if you lose or damage a DVD, and you'll easily be able to convert your movies again whenever the next newfangled format pops up. And it's probably a good idea to put the backup tape in a safe deposit box.


You can also convert your movies on your own -- we'll talk about that on the next page.

DIY Movie Converting

There are a number of ways to convert your movies into a digital format -- some are more effective than others, of course. Videotape might be easiest: You can buy a VHS-to-PC converter that plugs directly into your computer (it should also work with old camcorders). Film-to-digital is more problematic. You can go old-school and use a camcorder to record the action from the movie screen, but the resolution will obviously be pretty bad. There are other methods, but most of them are fairly complicated and involve outdated and hard-to-find equipment. We say pony up the dough and get it done right by a professional -- but do your research and make sure you get that digital backup (and your originals returned, of course). Be sure to keep the originals! As we've learned, film can outlast any other format -- it would be a shame to throw it out.

For more information on home movie preservation, go to the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Baguley, Richard. "Making Movies: Copying Old Home Movies to DVD." PC World, Sep. 1, 2005. (Accessed Aug. 18, 2010)
  • Cawley, Christian. "Converting Old Home Movies to DVD." July 29, 2010. (Accessed Aug. 18. 2010)
  • Council on Library and Information Resources. "Magnetic Tape Storage and Handling." (Accessed Aug. 19, 2010)
  • "The Home Film Preservation Guide."
  • "8mm, Super 8mm, and 16mm film to digital video tutorial. (Accessed Aug. 18, 2010)
  • "Super 8mm Film General Tips." (Accessed Aug. 18, 2010) Spotlight_on_Super_8/Super_8mm_Resources/tip.htm
  • National Archives. "Frequently Asked Questions about Optical Storage Media: Storing Temporary Records on CDs and DVDs." (Accessed Aug. 19. 2010)
  • Sunray Productions. "8mm, Super8 and 16mm Movie Film Transfer to DVD & Video." (Accessed Aug. 19, 2010)