Syndicated section: 8mm memories in the digital age | Opinion


In an interview promoting his new movie “Being the Ricardos”, on the beloved sitcom “I Love Lucy”, writer-director Aaron Sorkin referred to Lucy’s “Friday public taping”. I guess even a media expert like Sorkin should be forgiven for the bollix terminology on motion pictures. We all do.

“Lucy” was never recorded. In fact, the videotape was not used in 1952 when the story is set. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were actually pioneers in developing a three-camera setup using 35mm film and not tape.

At this time of year, most of us shoot a lot of digital cell phone video, and we could call it “recording” or “filming,” but it isn’t. To appreciate the distinction, you had to grow up in the days when people actually made movies.

The Kodak camera my parents owned in the 1950s used 8mm film and had to be rotated before each use, much like a child’s winding toy. A small reel of film was good for about 3 minutes. Once displayed, the precious images were handed over to the local pharmacy for processing, which typically took around a week as they had to send them to a lab.

When the film returned, on another small reel, Dad carefully set up his projector to display the glorious, bouncy, rough and silent moving images on the living room wall. Since there was never adequate interior light during photography, the color images were almost too dark to identify. Lighting was better outside, except that solar flares often erased the image.

Still, the family watched with close attention, the kids shouting at how awkward we looked. As for my parents and grandparents, whenever the camera was pointed in their direction, they waved. They didn’t smile much back then, but they really did know how to wave.

The real horror came when the movie stuck. The projector bulb required so much power that it would turn red, causing the film to burn. We were staring at a strange image on the wall of a still image burning from the center outward until it melted.

Home theater became simpler when videotape hit the consumer market in the 1970s. Technically, we weren’t “filming” anymore, we were “recording”. I owned a bulky Panasonic camcorder that used full-size VHS tapes and was so heavy I had to balance it over my shoulder.

Most of us quickly threw away our movie projectors, leaving many 8mm reels of family memories that were impossible to view. I sent my film to a company who transferred the content to VHS so that it “lasts forever” which turned out to be about 15 years.

VHS tapes did wear out, especially during furious fast forwarding and rewinding, with hours of material on a single tape. I had Christmas celebrations, followed by baseball games, followed by an old episode of “Saturday Night Live,” followed by another Christmas rally.

When the digital formats arrived, I sent in my VHS tapes to be digitized so that they, you know, “last forever.” That’s when I started reading something called “digital rot”. This refers to the fact that when our phones stop working or online storage sites go missing, video memories are lost.

Today, I use a sophisticated iPhone to shoot “high dynamic range” (HDR) video. I will be delighted if the pictures last as long as the episodes of “I Love Lucy”.

Peter Funt is a writer and lecturer. Her new thesis, “Self-Amused”, is now available on CandidCamera.com.


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