Looking back. 8mm Memories

My late father was an avid photographer, not only of stills but also of 8mm home movies. He left me a legacy of old photographs and camera equipment, the latter all obsolete. I am also an avid photographer, and also have heaps of photographs, although nowadays I only take digital photographs, my trusty Ricoh SLR I disposed of in 1998. The problem is, while the photographs can be scanned, the 8mm movies cannot be easily converted to a digital format. I have tried all sorts of things to get it right, but the end results never really converted very well. I even sent in some spools to be done “professionally” but I suspect they used a video camera and shot the movie off a wall. My own previous attempts  I considered were a failure, but, having seen the “professional” result they were not that bad after all.
The camera my father used in his filming was a Bell and Howell, “Sportster, Double Run Eight“. It was clockwork driven with a detachable f 2/5 lens. It was not really a complex device, but considering that focusing was not done through the viewfinder but manually adjusted on the fly.

The projector is an old Eumig Wein Type P8, and it still works! although the lamp isn’t as bright as it should be after so many years. I remember changing the belt in 1995, but that’s all work that it has ever needed apart from cleaning its lenses.

The dusty innards of this machine always fascinated me, and you have to open it to fold out the take up and film spool holders. Somewhere along the line the original plug of this machine went missing and it was always an affair of propping the wire onto the terminals using pieces of paper (don’t try this at home) . Eventually the wires were soldered into place and have been like that ever since. 

When I was young we had two 8mm “shorts” which we always watched avidly. One was “Mighty Mouse” and the other “Hopalong Cassidy: Three on a Trail”. Wow, talk about weak! There was also a vintage hat box full of family home movies that I still have today. I had to smile at some of those movies, long sweeping vistas of flowerbeds, or parades, or people in strange 50’s clothing laughing and climbing mountains. Then there were odd poignant views of my brother and myself as babies and toddlers, or in Durban, my father notably being absent in most of them because he was handling the camera. There is one movie which features a train trip to Bethlehem, and in it I see the railways of the past that we all long for today. Long gone family members who I don’t know, or friends of my parents who are now nameless people in a flickering silent movie.

Amongst the many reels of celluloid, I still have some of the original boxes that the spools were mailed in when they were sent to Kodak for processing, They are a small time capsule of my late father. 

Postage was 2d and the date on the box is 21 September 1956. It seems odd that in 1956 you could mail off something like this for processing and get it returned to you when it was done. I have a collection of reels of film, The earlier reels were made of tin, while later reels were plastic. Childish handwriting on some of them shows that once we tried to catalogue what was on each spool.

Also in my collection is the leather pouch he made for it. It was a favourite prop in any movie that he shot of my brother and I; we were always clutching it in chubby fingers and waving it energetically in the air, probably while gurgling and drooling contentedly.

I am busy filming these memories with my oldish modern video camera, but cannot really capture the same ambiance these movies have. Modern video lacks that amateurish and often grainy feel of the old cine camera, with the vertical lines that permeate the images, or the large hair that suddenly jumps onto the screen. 8mm format did not have sound, although the Super8 did. Somehow though, that strange rattling noise of my old projector is unique to those of us who grew up in the age of film, as is the noise of the film as it jumps a sprocket and rattles through the gate. Or, the flap-flap-flap noise when you reach the end of the reel. We won’t even discuss what happens when the reel ends up unwinding itself onto the floor…

I did capture a few images from these films, mostly by trial and error, although error was the predominant result. The ideal is to try capture them onto a different (and more accessible) format, and grab some of the images off them. The capturing went reasonably well,  although I think leaving them on video tape will be the wrong thing to do in the long term, so ideally I need to save them in MPG or AVI format.  The grabbing of individual images is difficult though, I have tried photographing the original image off the screen while running the movie. The problem is that images will invariably be captured during a frame transition. Or at a point when the person on the screen is gyrating or moving.  Screen capture of a frame is also possible once the captured movie has been moved onto my computer, but the quality does suffer as a result. But I have had some strange results and quite a few images are usable. 

This is a sort of personal photo essay of my results. I make no excuses for quality, neither do I make any excuses for subject matter. 

My parents were married in 1954 in Port Elizabeth, and a short 2 minute movie exists of their wedding. Unfortunately, the date on the movie shows 1955. And, its not even the church they were married in!!

No useable footage exists of the ceremony, or much else for that matter, but there is one tantalising image of the blushing bride with my father and her parents.  

That is such a rare image, very few pics exist of my parents wedding, and most of them are B/W. The thought of loosing this reel of film is not worth contemplating. 

My brother was born in Port Elizabeth and there is quite a lot of stuff of him as a baby playing in the park or gurgling and drooling in various places. I am still working towards finding that all embarrassing image of him for this blog, so the image currently here may change at some later date. 

Somewhere between then and 1961 we moved to Johannesburg where I was born. I remember living in Sinclair Street in Belgravia when I was a toddler, and I remember falling down a lot. But most of the actual events here I have no real recollection of.

Nom nom nom. Possibly taken in 1961

I was grumpy even in those days, but given the outfit you can see why.

I was grumpy even in those days, but given the outfit you can see why.

There is one reel that has me riding a tricycle round and round and round; I got tired just watching it.

At some point when I was very young we headed off to the seaside (Durban), and there are at least 3 reels of footage from that trip that have survived. Unfortunately though, they are random and don’t seem to have any real theme. Just a family, on their holidays. Actually its more about 2 boys on their holidays with the occasional shot of my father in them. That means my mother must have been playing camera person.  There is one image that came out which I am particularly fond of, and which I would love to have as a still image. 

  And while I gazed into space, my brother was trying to dig his way to who knows where….

The old 8mm format was hampered by its lack of sound and the Super8 format which was released in 1965 rectified that when it emerged. The advent of video tape really sounded the death knell for the cine camera, and I suspect my father stopped using his old hand cranked camera before 1970, because I do not see any movies that are much older than the Durban holiday shots, however I still have some reels to process so who knows what I will find.  

It has been an interesting sojourn into the past, but a sad one, my father passed on in 1981, leaving me this legacy that I can do very little with. It has survived so many moves and transitions and some of the film is in a poor condition, but I am grateful to him for taking these images, because its all that we really have left of our childhood.        

DRW © 2012-2022. Images recreated and posts combined 20/03/2016

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