Digitizing 16mm film at the archives

2010 November 9
"Finding that the town, like scores of others, had no complete records of its infant births and deaths, the women decided to make one by a house-to-house canvass."

Intertitle from "Our Children," at 9:27 of Reel 1. I went looking for the film at all because I knew that most children's-health films of the period would have promoted birth certificates and birth registration. Obviously, I found what I was looking for.

When I was at Archives II last year looking for Children’s Bureau material, I discovered a neat little film.

“Our Children” (1919) is a 2-reel silent short designed to be shown in rural towns as part of a health-promotion campaign. The Children’s Bureau hired filmmaker Carlyle Ellis to make it, and it was filmed in Gadsden, Alabama with the cooperation of the local women’s clubs. Mostly, the projectors which showed movies like this operated out of the back of a traveling “Healthmobile” truck owned by a state health organization. States bought copies of “Our Children” usually with help of matching funds provided by the Sheppard-Towner Act. (I know this because the textual records of the Bureau give some detail about which states bought copies.)

This film was only available in a 16mm reference copy; unlike some of the other films produced for the Bureau, there was no VHS or DVD reference copy– either of which can be copied on-site for a small fee. Having a copy run for me by a professional duplicating company would cost time and money, and all I wanted was a digital reference copy to look at when I went back home. What to do?

I ordered up the film and took it into the dark projector room, which has these little personal-size viewing screens (a little bit like a microfilm machine). Once I had the first frame of the film displayed, I put my little Nikon Coolpix up on my monopod, switched it to video mode, hit record on the camera and play on the film machine, and took the best-quality digital copy I could. Since it’s a silent film, I didn’t have to think much about getting good sound quality, but it helped that I was the only person in the film viewing room that day.

After running the results through iMovie and uploading them to YouTube, here’s what came out.

This technique probably isn’t of use to a lot of people, since most archives with substantial moving-pictures collections won’t want researchers to copy them, but if it’s useful to you, great. (Most federal moving-picture collections are slowly being digitized as part of FedFlix, but I haven’t seen any of the Children’s Bureau material on there yet.)

5 Responses
  1. November 10, 2010

    How cool! Thanks for sharing this – I haven’t done film in the National Archives yet, but this could be a useful approach for me.

  2. December 3, 2010

    Great technique and I’m totally fascinated by the films! Is it okay if I use them to blog with?

    Thanks for sharing :)


    • December 3, 2010

      You’re absolutely welcome to blog about them. If you do, I’d appreciate a link back to this post. Thanks for asking!


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