Thursday, April 23, 2015

Liberating Grandma's Home Movies

by F.T. Rea

A memory documented by moving images that have survived the ages.

The experience of presenting "Finding Vivian Maier" (2014) to an appreciative audience on February 15, 2015, was rewarding beyond what the Bijou Film Center took in at the box office. Yes, the screening was the centerpiece of a successful fundraiser. But it was so cold and windy that particular night the level of success we enjoyed provided some extra measure of validation for the overall concept of building a film center in the Richmond market.

The size of the turnout at the Byrd Theatre, nearly 1,000, told us Bijou-builders that Richmond has evolved into a more sophisticated movie market than it was a decade or two ago. It's hard for me to believe a documentary film of that ilk would have packed the house on a frigid February night in the previous millennium.

However, it was thinking about the serendipity angle of how Vivian Maier's fascinating work as a street photographer was discovered that prompted me to use it as the jumping off point to this short piece about discovering and preserving some of the smallest parts of cinema history -- the little jewels that have a special sparkle for a specific audience.

The stroke of luck that had a pack rat-style collector, John Maloof, stumble upon a vast collection of Maier's negatives, prints and films in an abandoned storage bin was almost magical. That he had the determination and talent to turn the story of his discovery into a well-received documentary feature (Academy Award nominee) is inspirational. It makes me want more than ever to play a role in helping filmmakers and the heirs of filmmakers to preserve and transfer their amateur films. It also makes me want to be part of creating some sort of archive of amateur films shot during the era that coincided with the Cold War.  

For example, maybe your wife's mother wasn't as good a photographer as Vivian Maier. Still, she took the little movie camera she got as a high school graduation present with her everywhere for several years. Forty-some years ago Grandma shot countless hours of footage of whatever was happening, including music festivals and anti-war demonstrations. Five years ago when your wife inherited three boxes of 50-foot reels of her mother's films, your two children were told they would one day get to see Grandma's Hippie Movies -- the same movies they have heard their mother talking about having seen when she was a little girl.

Now your kids are in high school and no progress has been made. Who has a Super 8 projector these days? And, even if you find one at a yard sale, do you want to risk running those precious old films through such a machine?

Help is on the way. 

Later this year, once the Bijou Film Center has purchased some key components of a system to transfer 8mm and Super 8mm films to digital, along with VHS videos, we will launch a business dedicated to helping our customers liberate their old moving images from out-of-date formats. Developments in this technology make it possible to achieve much better results, these days, than what we've seen in the past.

The Bijou's next fundraising event -- Music, Movies and Magic on May 17th at Hardywood Park (2408-2410 Ownby Lane) -- will launch the fundraising campaign to acquire the specific equipment it will take to get us started. More news about the show is on the way, but we can say now the we will present three bands live on stage between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.: The Red Hot Lava Men; Happy Lucky Combo; Avers (click here to read the 4/29/15 STYLE Weekly article).

Our goal for this drive is to raise the money over the summer to put us in the film transfer business in the fall. Isn't it about time for Richmond to have a non-profit Bijou Film Center that specializes in making quality film transfers? 

James Parrish and I have become convinced that the demand to view digital transfers of old home movies is only going increase. Eventually, some Super 8 footage will be discovered that documents an aspect of history and that will set loose a new wave of popular culture. Suddenly everybody who has a box of old home movies they haven't looked at in decades will want to see them (again). And, no one knows what discoveries will be made. We want to ride that wave.

We believe the films shot by amateurs -- whether they document a family vacation, or a softball team's reunion, or your Aunt Betsy's legendary biscuit-making technique -- are important and worth preserving. They should be viewed in a way that won't put the original source at risk of being damaged.

The tugs at your heartstrings upon seeing long-lost family members or old pets reanimated by the magic of motion pictures are just as authentic as the tugs inspired by Hollywood big budget melodramas. Just as real, but more special.

Watching "Finding Vivian Maier" was a trip. It could be said it was a ride on Vivian's time machine. Coming soon: Grandma's time machine.

1 comment:

  1. In old days we recorded many happy memories in VHS tapes. Nowadays these tapes are decaying day by day. We should digitization them. CD & DVD Duplication