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Use and Abuse of Home Movies in Documentaries

By Toni Treadway

Changes in the media and the culture have brought about greater use of home movies in documentary today. We witness:

  • a rise in appreciation of independent artistic expression by media artists who originate on small gauge and an increase in advocacy for them and the home moviemaker;
  • the co-optation of artists' expression by the mainstream media—anyone who loves experimental cinema can testify to the continuous referencing, plagiarism, appropriation or excoriation of artists' work in commercial music videos and advertisements;
  • the desire for greater diversity in representation—today's producers look to include more sources and more voices;
  • the public's growing suspicion of media-producers are drawn to first person documents in hopes of finding an authentic voice which will stand out from traditional sources.

All of these changes have moved filmmakers to pursue unusual, exotic, one of a kind, new, first person, point-of-view moving images that have not been seen before, that may break through public cynicism and that may shed light on their subject. Who can blame them? But then, I argue that if home movie materials are not presented in an intelligent, respectful and technically transparent manner, the resulting devaluation of them will only increase public alienation and further devastate the culture.

How Did We Get the Wrong Frame Rates?

The problem of actualities presented at the wrong frame rate is not unique to home movies. Before the general acceptance of sound movies, films were "cranked" at about 16 frames per second (fps). When sequences from these films were incorporated into later films, they were often printed frame-for-frame and projected at 24fps. Thus, the action appears sped up. When television arrived at my house in the mid-1950s, I remember being allowed to stay up to watch network documentaries. The world wars were favorite subjects, but the soldiers of the Great War often marched too fast. The technology of that day tended to limit cor­rect frame rate reproduction, especially on television. Fortunately, today's television producers have the tools to render motion accurately, in telecine transfer and in post­ production.

Amateur films shot at slower frame rates were often misrepresented by continuous film printers and projection at the industry standard of 24 fps. Copying non-standard 16mm (or even 8mm) or enlarging them frame-for-frame for 35mm/24 fps projection preserved the misrepresentation. In early television, the economics of time and money were prime excuses for this behavior. (I also speculate that producers' social conscience was not yet raised about issues of representation.) Contact printing of film was cheaper than optical step-printing to stretch out action to correct rates. It's more complicated today, since amateur film has often been transferred to VHS by family members on inexpensive systems usually limited to 24, 20 and 15 fps. Newer, more sophisticated telecines can run at all common frame rates, and the cost of access to these telecines, while significant, must be considered in the overall goal of the produc­tion. If the non-professional moving image material is important enough to include at all, why degrade the informa­tion by presenting it at the wrong frame rate? Are we not obliged to our ancestors?

I am told by movie machine historian Alan Kattelle, who is writing history of amateur motion picture technology, that George Eastman shipped his first 16mm safety film in 1923 with hand cranked cameras. Cranking rate instructions were soon embossed on the cameras, but frame rates still varied according to the enthusiasm of the individual doing the cranking. Eastman's interest was in selling the film itself, so at the same time he introduced 16mm safety film, he invited Bell & Howell and the Victor Company to develop hardware for it. Later that same year, Bell & Howell offered spring-wound cameras. Throughout the 1920s, amateur filming at both 12 fps and 16 fps was common. When theatrical cinema standard­ized at 24 fps here (and 25fps elsewhere), some amateurs followed suit—but plenty did not, preferring to film at slower frame rates for a longer run of film per roll. Lots of models of 8mm spring-wound cameras give filmmakers a choice of frame rates from 8 fps to 64 fps to represent dimly lit scenes or to slow down motion. As late as 1971, Kodak introduced its revolutionary Super 8 "XL" (existing light) cameras into the home movie market with two possible frame rates: 9 fps and 18 fps. Home movie makers would choose the slower of the two rates to capture more light or to obtain a greater depth of field. We still see this phenomenon with many Super 8 filmmakers shooting at 18 fps, even if their cameras can run at 24fps. Consequently, it is safe to assume that home movie scenes are likely to have been filmed at a variety of frame rates.

How To Establish Correct Frame Rates

1) Educated Guessing: Since it's unlikely to discover a frame rate annotated on a decaying film container of home movies, the date of the filming should be considered. If from the 1920s, the frame rate was probably somewhere between 12 fps and 16 fps. If filming occurred from the 1930s to the late 1950s, consider 12 fps to 18 fps. During the 1960s and later, most amateur filmmaking occurred at 16 fps in 8mm and 18 fps in Super 8. Many early 8mm camera manuals advised using slower frame rates (8 or 12 fps) to save film on inanimate objects or for comic effect.

2) Judge Normal Movement Rates: When ranting about old film shown speeded up, I have been told by professional filmmakers that people walked faster in the old days, but I have difficulty believing this. People on urban streets do seem to walk faster than in the country. Still, most viewers can readily agree on the proper frame rate for a scene of normal adult walking, and say, "That looks right." Any non-film person I have ever talked to can identify intuitively incorrect frame rates and is astonished to learn about the choic­es producers have available ("Why would they ever choose to show it wrong?"). Today's public is better informed and less prone to turn over authority to the news industry.

A little time spent observing human gestures is the surest way to ascertain the original frame rate. Most family scenes provide a variety of gestures from which to judge correct frame rates, unconscious gestures like walking, waving or brushing hair out of the face being our favorites. Moving automobiles and locomotives are seldom helpful. Each important scene may have to be scrutinized shot-by-shot if the action seems to vary, because some filmmakers did change settings within rolls. This can most easily be done on either an analyst project or with digital frames-per-second read-out or on a variable speed telecine. Notes should be kept for future users of these scenes.


My partner Bob Brodsky and I are proponents of rendering moments captured on motion picture film as transparently as possible. We believe that it is important for the viewer to be given old moving images under conditions as close to the original filmmaking as possible. This means we advocate that old film be shown with the action projected,printed or transferred at its original frame rate, copied after all the superficial dirt has been removed and as many of the scratch­ es suppressed as possible, with color restored to render skin tone as normally as possible or, in the case of black-and-white, to render as wide a range of shadow detail as the original reversal materials were wondrously able to hold.

We make exception to this dedication to transparency with artist's' work. When artists ask for something else, when it is clear from the living artist, or from her or his notations, that the film is meant to be seen with a different and explicit aesthetic, we attempt to accomplish it. In artists' works it is ethically important to me that the viewer be clear that the artist is interpreter of the material. In these works, it is the artist's expression that is being represented (and this certainly opens for discussion the doc umentary issue of "truth"). We sometimes handle film which is intentionally scratched or otherwise distressed, painted on, layered with Pantone film, and intended to be seen at a specific frame rate. In each case, a lot of research or listening is required to meet the artist's wishes as closely as possible. Such demands can tax the patience of technicians who are not used to marginal or stylistic demands. But for film as art, we believe the artist's intent must be foremost or the audience ends up with no real way of accessing a work.

Because I do intake for film-to-tape transfer work every day, I am sensitive to tech issues and find they underlie many ethical issues. I have long noticed that most artists have intense and specific instructions for us as technicians while most documentary producers do not. This curious fact has become more pressing as we approach the end of the millennium.

Now that more retrospective views of the century are being made, more producers are beating the bushes looking for unique moving images of the century. And, of course, they are finding them among home movies.

Just as a filmmaking grammar exists (or used to) for the dissolve and the fade out/fade in,there needs to be more discussion about the use of old film materials. The use of slow motion would seem to be obvious, for it extends the action to allow the viewer more time to experience it. But sped-up motion seems comic at best, demeaning of the subjects and ridiculous at worst. So, I have difficulty imagining a documentary producer's justification for presenting sped-up material. If home movies looked too good, would their authenticity undermine the authority of professionally-made media? Would the viewer be confused by good looking home movies edited next to commercial media? If the home movies looked so good,would their first person voice give them more credibility than professional source material? If the "degraded equals old" paradigm is allowed to prevail, does thi s cynically assume the public is unable to read a less mediated experience?

A lot of particular and unique information can be gleaned from home movies shown at correct frame rates. For instance, it shows the kind and quality of energy in a gesture which can lead to a surprising discovery, such as seeing that your son today makes nearly identical gestures to those of your grandfather. Correct frame rate can represent another generation worthy of respect and connect us to our human history.

Too many pundits point out that we live in a precarious age where we feel like the culture is falling apart. At the same time, this is a century with enormous reserves of moving images that can help us integrate recent history. If those images can be used in ways that help people understand our individuated and our shared experience, I am hopeful we enter the 21st Century more enabled to work on the heavy issues ahead.


TONI TREADWAY is partner in Brodsky & Treadway, film-to-tape transfer studio specializing in 16mm, 8mm and Super8 reversal film. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Fall 1995 AMIA Newsletter.