[This is the second in a series of interviews with filmmakers and home movie aficionados]
Emily Happell lives in Nashville and transfers home movies to video for a living. Some of her favorite home movies can be viewed at her YouTube Channel.
PSU Film & Video started in 1976 as a family-owned camera store. Over time, the store’s focus shifted to video transfer, which is now the primary service provided by PSU. The owners have been transferring film for over 26 years; I joined them as a film colorist about four years ago. I have a love for photography, was craving a creative job, and I jumped at the position when it opened up. I was born and raised in Nashville, with a few years also spent in New York City. I have absolutely fallen in love with home-movie film, and love helping people dust off their memories! I treat every order as if it were my own family’s film, and am dedicated to making each frame look the best it can. I plan on continuing develop this career as long as I am able to!
Home & Amateur: People send you their films. You send them back DVDs. What happens in between?
Emily Happell: Well, first we try to put them in chronological order. Ideally, the filmmaker has labeled each box with the subject and year. If not, there are little tricks I’ve learned over the years to help me find the date. The easiest way is if the boxes have a stamp—a postage stamp, a date stamp on the inside of the box, or sometimes a stamp on the leader or the film itself. This tells me when the film was processed. An alternate (and lesser-known) way is to finding the “date code” on the film. There are 1-3 various shapes that you can compare to a chart found online to determine the date on which the film was manufactured. In most cases, people would shoot their film within that first year or so.
Second, I splice together the 50-foot reels onto a 400-foot reel (if this has not been done already), inspecting the film as I go. At this point I fix any broken or bad splices, and repair ripped sprocket holes if possible. I then clean the film, which also lubricates it and makes it static-free. Then it is ready to run.There are many transfer units out there. The ones that we use at PSU are Elmo TransVideo CCD telecine converters. They plug into a box called a Canopus, which converts it from analog to digital and then sends the signal to the computer, where I capture it. I then edit out anything that’s completely black or white, leaving the footage in which you can tell what is going on. In addition, the customer is welcome to come in and edit with me. We can move any reels that are out of order, add titles, delete scenes, and so forth. Then I create the DVD, DVcam, Mini-DV, or transfer the files to an external hard drive provided by the customer.
I have had many people ask me if they should throw away their film, now that it’s on a DVD. Every time a customer picks up their order, I always instruct them to continue to store their film in a room-temperature, dry place off of the floor in their home, or in a fireproof safe. People don’t realize that film is one of the best—if not the best—format out there. It’s just not easy for everyone to watch them in that format. The DVD is merely a viewing means.
H&A: What is the most surprising thing you’ve seen in a home movie?
Happell: I’ve seen a lot of funny, sad, and interesting scenes of history and American culture, but by far the most surprising home movies were of a seemingly normal, middle-class family in the 1960’s. I watched a good hour of this little girl with cute pigtails grow from birth to about three years old. She was just a normal little girl, playing with dolls. Next, I see the little girl sitting in a booster chair inside her grandparents’ house. I believe Grandpa was filming. Suddenly, Grandma proceeded to take out the girls’ pigtails, comb her hair out, put a towel around her, and start hacking all of the hair off. The “girl” then had a boys’ crew cut! Later on in the movies I saw a flash of his reproductive organs, verifying that sure enough, he was a boy. From then on he seemed to live a normal boy’s life. The two 50-foot-reel boxes were both titled “Eric’s haircut.”
H&A: Has watching home movies for a living changed the way you document your own life?
Happell: I have always taken photographs of everyone around me, since I was 11 or 12. But since starting this career, I have purchased a MiniDV video camera (and have a Super 8 camera for special occasions). I have definitely made more of an effort to document almost every event for me and for my family’s future generations. I have seen how special it is to customers to see their relatives, some of whom aren’t around anymore and some that they have never met. To be able to see what such people from the past were like, to watch their mannerisms… I’m still kicking myself for not documenting my grandparents when they were still around. My grandfather told me so many great stories, and I can’t remember them all. So I think it’s very important to document your family in some form or fashion, even if it’s just with audio or photographs.
H&A: You’re based in Nashville. How much does this affect the content of what shows up in the films you transfer?
Happell: Most cities have their landmarks, and Nashville is definitely one of them. I see lots of footage from the country-music industry: Grand Ole Opry concerts, home movies of many country and rock musicians. Centennial Park, where the Parthenon replica resides, is in almost every Nashvillian’s film. This is where families in decades past would walk through the garden on Easter each year, feed the ducks, ice-skate on the frozen pond, have a picnic, play on the playground, and (from the late 60s to the present) watch musicians play in a circle on the lawn or a concert in the band shell. I also see many historic places that no longer exist, such as the “Fair Park” amusement park that my parents went to as kids, or the Opryland Theme Park, where I used to go as a kid.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the people lived if they only filmed in and around their house. So many people have moved to Nashville in the past few years that it seems that only about half of the film I transfer was taken around Nashville. In the Tennesseans’ film, I tend to see the same vacation spots, including Gatlinburg, the Smoky Mountains (lots of good bear feeding footage!), Florida, and—from the adventurous families— a trip out west to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and California, or to New York City and Niagara Falls. But I love to see film from all over the country and sometimes beyond. I’ve transferred Russian home movies (B&W 16mm from the late 60s) and film from a Mexican family (standard 8mm from the 1950s), in addition to films from the vacations people have filmed around the world. (And a good amount of war footage. It’s not all happy times in home movies.)