Thursday, November 30, 2006

Home Movies

Here is an interesting story from today's NY Times

From the Desk of David Pogue: Saving Home Movies From
Disappearing Formats

Well, it's all over. The first six episodes of "It's All Geek
to Me," my new TV series, are in the can. I've spent the last
couple of months writing and shooting it, which explains why
there haven't been any Pogue videos at for
awhile. (Never fear -- they'll return shortly.)

Now, I've done TV *segments* for years, but this is my first
actual series, in which I'm the writer, creator and host. The
show will air next spring on three relatively tiny Discovery
Network channels: Discovery HD, Discovery Times (which will
have a new name), and Discovery Europe. I tell myself that
there's a silver lining: if the show tanks, at least it will
be on a quiet corner of the cable dial, so I can learn from
the mistakes and do better the next time.

One episode was especially educational -- for me, I mean:
Rescuing Old Memories.

In this show, we wanted to cover the increasingly important
problem of decaying or disappearing formats: home movies on
film, VHS tapes, vinyl records, data on floppy disks, and so

Turns out you can transfer audio records and tapes yourself,
with terrific results, using a CD recorder, Ion's iTTUSB
turntable, or a preamp directly into your computer. (Those
solutions produce far better-sounding copies than the Teac
all-in-one turntable I reviewed recently
VHS tapes aren't so hard, either, especially if you buy a
combo VHS-DVD deck.

Old reels of film, however, seemed like a tougher nut to
crack. My plan was to demonstrate, on the show, the old
"mirror box" gadget that's designed to bounce the light from
your old projector into the lens of a modern camcorder, thus
transferring the footage--except we couldn't find one. The
manufacturers told me they stopped making these things about
five or ten years ago.

We finally did find an old used one on eBay, though. It was
actually in great shape. But good grief, I pity anyone who
thinks that it's the solution to the decaying-reels problem.
It took an hour to get the projector lined up with the mirror
box, the box lined up with the camcorder, and everything in
focus and adequately bright.

The results looked reasonably close in quality to the film
reels--but the problem was the quality of the film reels! The
home movies from the 70's were red, red, red, as though shot
on Mars. (As film deteriorates, red is the last color to go.)

That's what's wrong with the drugstore and cheap mail-order
transfer places, too: they transfer the footage, but don't
color-correct or fix it. We actually got to see the machine
they use. It's called the Elmo, and it looks like a projector
except that, in essence, it has a camcorder sensor built
right in. You can connect the video output to any recording
device, like a DVD recorder. But the results, again, can be
really disappointing.

There is a way to restore old movies to their original color
and brightness, though: send your reels away to a
professional transfer house.

Later in the episode, we visited such a place. There, the
reels are first inspected by hand to make sure the actual
film is intact. Then they're run through this amazing, ten-
foot-tall cleaning machine that gently, gently lifts off dust
and particles.

Finally, a technician at a huge, NASA-style bank of video
computers in a darkened room watches every part of every
scene, color-correcting as he goes. He can program color and
brightness changes that fluctuate, even within each scene;
later, at the moment of transfer, his computers replay his
adjustments in real time.

It's jaw-dropping to see the kind of restoration they can do-
-but jeez Louise, it's pricey. About $700 for an hour of

I was amazed to learn that the target format for many of this
company's customers is VHS tape--not DVD. Yes, people will
pay $700 to have their movies transferred from one old,
obsolete format to another one with even less quality!
Even when transferred to DVD, though, the news doesn't get
any better. Home-burned (or transfer company-burned) DVD's
have an unproven longevity record.

They're not the same thing as commercially *pressed* DVD's
from Hollywood; recordable DVD's instead have patterns etched
into organic dye on the underside. And nobody knows how many
years they'll last.

"Eight to ten years," is what the transfer company told us.
Of course, the company has a vested interest in triggering
panic (and repeat business).

But it sure is depressing to realize that, even with all the
technology in the world, we still have no truly permanent
storage format for our data, audio and video. Think about it:
punch cards, tape drives, music cassettes, Zip disks,
floppies--how long does a typical recording format last
before society abandons it? Usually less than ten years.

Ten years from now, maybe I'll have to do another show:
"Rescuing Memories from Your Old, Decaying CD's, DVD's and
Hard Drives."

1 comment:

Martin Weiss said...

David Pogue has this followup to the story Richard cited.