F. and S. Marriott 140 Newbegin, Hornsea, England, HU18 1PB

May 2010. Stephanie died peacefully on 19th April after a short stay in hospital. She had been suffering from acute cervical cancer. Fred will continue to run the business to the best of his ability. The web site is slowly getting under control again as he tries to take over some of Stephanie's responsibilities, and learns some of the mysteries of Dreamweaver.

Home Movies

The Family Historian's Perspective

A Brief History of Amateur Cinema

How to Tell the Gauges Apart

Copying to Video

What to Do With the Old Equipment

Dating Films  

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A Brief History of Amateur Cinema

Some lucky family historians have old photographs to bring some life to their researches. Others, even luckier, have old home movies. Just as with family photographs though, all too often home movies are unlabelled and the people in them unknown. It is possible to guess a date from clothes and vehicles, but some help can also be obtained from the film itself.

Moving pictures, using film, were invented towards the end of the nineteenth century. Although there are rival claims as to who was first, moving picture shows were soon well established, and the commercial cinema began to assume an important role in peoples' lives.

Early movie cameras were hand-cranked and cumbersome. They were also expensive, too expensive for all but the most wealthy families. Manufacturers were quick to see that there was a potential market for equipment designed for the amateur, which would be less expensive to buy and run.

One of the first attempts to reduce the cost was a German 35 mm. device which combined the camera and projector in one body. Another idea was to reduce film costs; the Birt Acres Birtac camera was one of several which used 17.5 mm. film, half the width of 35 mm. This device was produced in 1899, and again the camera could be converted to a projector. The outfit cost 10 guineas, a lot of money in 1899. These two cameras were followed by many others; one called the Biokam, also accepting 17.5 mm. film, offered a still picture release, so that still pictures could be taken with the camera as well as cine films.

Not all cameras took 17.5 mm. or 35 mm. film; the Kammatograph took circular glass plates, taking 600 pictures on a twelve inch disc. The Kinora took pictures which could be assembled into reels like those used in seaside pier machines. By loading a reel into a viewer, the pages would be flipped over, giving the impression of movement.

Film at this time was dangerous; early 17.5 mm. and 35 mm. film is on an unstable nitrate base which is extremely inflammable. It was not until around 1912 that cellulose-based "safety" film was available, and even then it was not universally supplied. Early "safety" film usually has the word 'safety' in the film margin.

Home movies were beginning to be accepted. For many families, the cost of making their own films was too high, but they could afford to buy or hire films and watch them at home. In a pre-television era, this was exciting. Edison's Home Kinetoscope and Pathe's Home Cinematograph both had the same target audience: people who were not necessarily interested in making films, but who wanted to watch commercially made films at home. Film libraries boomed, just as home video rental outlets grew rapidly in the early nineteen eighties.

None of these early film systems have survived as amateur gauges, although 35 mm. is very popular for still photography and is still used for most professional movies. The first popular amateur gauge was introduced by Pathe in 1922 and it is still used by enthusiasts today. 9.5 mm. film has the sprocket hole down the centre of the film, placed between the frames. In addition, some films have notched titles; this means that, to save film, a title frame would be held in position for the audience to read, rather than repeating the title over about 160 frames (to give 10 seconds reading time). These commercially printed films were contained in small cassettes; the system was called the Pathe Baby.

The following year, Eastman Kodak brought out 16 mm., another surviving gauge, although now more popular among professionals than amateurs. They made the Cine-Kodak camera and the Kodascope projector for their new gauge; Pathe brought out the Baby camera for their 9.5 mm. film by the end of the year. Meanwhile, other companies had produced cameras and projectors for 16 mm., notably Bell & Howell, whose Filmo was the first clockwork 16 mm. camera. Kodak brought out their clockwork Cine-Kodak Model B in 1925; this camera sold very well.

It was still obvious to the companies that their best hope of large profits was to extend their potential market, and this could best be done by reducing the cost, especially the cost of film. This led to the introduction of what is now known as Standard-8 film: 16 mm. film which is run through the camera twice, exposing half of the film each time. After processing, the film is split and joined to make one length, 8 mm. wide. In 1932 Kodak announced the new film, and the Cine Kodak Eight camera. Bell & Howell followed suit in 1935, with the Filmo Straight Eight, in which the film was only 8 mm. wide and run through the camera once.

These were the first boom years for amateur film, both for viewing commercially produced films and for making home movies. Technical innovation continued; the Eumig C-2 of 1935 was one of the first cameras to have a built in light meter; the Eumig C-4 had electric drive. Cassette loading cameras made it easier to load the film into the camera.

By the early 1930s, sound could be provided by disc systems which synchronised with the projector, but a sound-on-film system for amateur use had been demonstrated in 1931. This British system did not achieve general acceptance however; it was the American system which did that, demonstrated in 1932 by RCA-Victor. By 1933 there was a choice of sound projectors for the 16 mm. home movie viewer and in 1937 Pathe brought out a 9.5 mm. sound projector (the Pathe Vox). Colour film was made available for the amateur in the nineteen thirties, with several different systems for both 16 mm. and 9.5 mm. by 1935. Kodachrome colour film was made available in 1936. All of this development effort was financed by the boom in home cinematography, even though the equipment and film costs were too high for all but the relatively wealthy. It was cut short by the outbreak of war in 1939.

After the war, it was apparent that the huge improvements in film had made the smaller gauges much more attractive for the amateur. 9.5 mm. survived, helped by a loyal home-market in France, but 8 mm. was the popular amateur gauge, with 16 mm. for the more serious amateur film-maker. Technical innovation continued, but the next, and last, really major innovation was in 1965, when Kodak launched Super 8. This is an easy-load cartridge system which runs through the camera once. It made filming easy for everyone, and cheap plastic cameras were made in large numbers for the snap-shooter who wished to take some films on holiday. Fuji brought out their 8 mm. cassette loading system, Single 8, in the same year. All three 8 mm. gauges still survive, although they are used by enthusiasts now, the mass market having defected to video.

How to Tell the Gauges Apart

Knowing what gauge you have will help with dating the film. Measure the width. If it is more than 16 mm., look at the film by holding it up to the light. Cellulose-based film will have "Safety film" along the edge; if that is not there, the film is likely to be nitrate based, and expert advice is required on both the storage and handling of such film. If it is 8 mm. look at the sprocket holes; Super 8 and Single 8 have sprocket holes which are smaller than Standard 8; the picture area is slightly larger.

Copying to Video

There are many commercial companies who copy film to video. Most of them will add music or speech to the tape. Many of these companies charge more for film on several small reels, than for the same length of film on one reel, so consider splicing your films onto larger reels to save money. If your films have a sound track, contact the copying company for a quote. Most published prices are for copying silent films. Find out how the sound track will be transferred.

It is also possible, but time-consuming, to copy silent films at home, by projecting the film and filming it with a video camera. Experiment with lighting; the main problem is excess contrast but this can be reduced if the copying is carried out in a room with some daylight, rather than in a completely dark room. Ground glass screens are sold for video copying, but they can be difficult to use as they tend to give a "hot spot" of bright light in the centre of the picture. Sound can be recorded at the same time as the film is copied, but this will result in degradation of sound quality.

Having transferred your films to video, if possible it is best to retain the original films. They are unlikely to have any significant commercial value, and they may be required for further copying if video formats change in the future. If space is at a premium, and you must dispose of the films, contact the Local Studies Library or Archives Department who may be interested in having them.

What to Do With Old Equipment

Very old cine equipment, dating back to the beginning of the century, is quite rare and can be quite valuable. Contact your local sale-room for free advice. Most of the mass-market cameras of the 1930s and later are worth very little now. Ironically, it is the good quality cameras from the 1970s and 1980s, which are still very usable, that have more value. Again, a local sale room or photographic dealer, like ourselves, should be able to help.

These cameras and projectors can make interesting display pieces but it is important to remember that they must be kept in dry conditions, free of dust, and they must be used occasionally. This can present a problem as old electrical equipment should only be used with extreme caution; it is safest to have the item examined by a qualified electrician and rewired to modern standards. Be warned though, while users will welcome a rewired projector, some collectors will reject projectors which have been rewired, although this will only adversely affect the very best machines. In our experience, there are more users than collectors. No mechanism can tolerate long periods of immobility, and to keep whatever value there might be the camera or projector must be in good cosmetic condition and fully working. Only experts should attempt repair or restoration; a botched job can wipe out any value and wreck the item completely.

Dating Films

The best way of dating films is to look at the clothes and traffic in the film. But there are some things you can do without finding a film projector or getting the film copied to video. Just look at the film itself, and using the information above to identify the film format, use this checklist to get an idea of when the film was shot.

Black and White films

9.5 mm. film, introduced 1922; steadily declining usage after the war.

16 mm. film, introduced 1923

Standard 8 film introduced 1932; declining usage after 1965.

Colour film

16 mm. and 9.5 mm. of various kinds introduced in the early 1930's.

8 mm. of various kinds introduced just prior to the war, but little used in Britain until after the war.

Super 8 and Single 8 introduced in 1965

Sound film will have either an optical or a magnetic sound track running down one side of the film. An optical sound track is very rare on amateur films, but quite common on packaged films. 16 mm. and 9.5 mm. sound systems for amateur use were available from the mid-thirties, but were little used.

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