Need a special holiday gift? Transfer and preserve old family movies

A family member’s illness prompted Judy Frigault of South Weymouth, Mass., to finally dust off her decades-old collection of family memories captured on home movies and convert them for viewing in the digital age.

“We have a lot of family memories captured on VHS tapes, and VCRs have gone away,” Frigault says. “I have all these tapes I hadn’t looked at in years. So I thought it would bring joy to [my family], especially at a time like Christmas.”

Milestones and holidays often bring families together and inspire people to reminisce with old photos and videos. Video duplication and transfer companies see business pick up around Christmas, followed by Mother’s and Father’s days, as many customers digitize old family movies to share or give as gifts.

Highly rated video duplication and transfer companies offer mail-in or drop-off service to copy and digitize old video formats in playable DVDs, uncompressed videos on hard drives or uploaded to the Internet or the cloud, where they can be backed up for generations to come.

Questions to ask before hiring a video processor:

• How long have you been in business?

• Who will be handling my film?

• How long does the process take?

• How do you set your prices, and what’s a reasonable estimate for these items?

• How much personalization can you offer on my project?

• What will you do with my original media?

• How will you deliver the items (and originals) to me, and if mailed, can I choose the carrier?

“The busiest season is the holidays and then special occasions,” says Luis Reis, owner of highly rated HDV Studio Video & Multimedia in Natick, Mass., near Boston. HDV’s turnaround time can double during the holidays, so it will take longer than the typical two- to four-week turnaround for transferring film to DVDs and three- to five-day turnaround on tapes to DVD. If you want to wrap up your family’s home movies this year, he suggests getting in your Christmas order in before Black Friday.

Last year, Frigault hired HDV to convert about 20 tapes to DVDs and make copies to give as Christmas gifts to her extended family and grown children. The emotional experience was worth the cost — $19.90 per tape transfer — because the videos included not only moments from her children’s youth but also records of now-deceased family members in their primes.

“We watched it together, and it was awesome,” she says of her children and in-laws. “There were some tears, but a lot of laughter at seeing the kids interacting with each other.”

Which is better, mail or drop off video-transfer services?

Emotion brings in a lot of customers, and it also drew Julie Cole, owner of highly rated One Flip Media based in Lenexa, Kan., into the family memories business. When her father died in 2005, friends who saw the memorial slideshow she put together asked her to do work for them. Her father had been a photographer, so Cole grew up around slides and dark rooms, and her own background in computer engineering gave her the right mix of appreciation for old photos and films, plus the technical skills needed to help families like hers recapture forgotten memories. She built the business from there.

“I have one foot in the past and one foot in the future, and we try to find that happy medium so people can enjoy those happy memories into the future,” Cole says.

One Flip Media expanded beyond scanning slides and photos — a service many video duplication and transfer companies also offer — to transferring everything from old 8 mm films to VHS tapes to DVDs and increasingly hard drives.

Though many of One Flip Media’s customers are locals from the Kansas City area, they also accept films from customers around the country and have positive reviews from Angie’s List members as far away as Maine and California. Photo scanning starts at 50 cents per high-resolution picture, while film prices vary based on the size of reels and the desired format, such as DVD, BlueRay or hard drive.

Cole suggests customers concerned about mailing their videos ask questions of the provider as well as check their reviews to make sure they’re dealing with a reputable company and not a fly-by-night, cut-rate business. “If you are concerned about mailing it off, find someone reputable who is local,” Cole suggests.

HDV in Boston also accepts mailed media to digitize and edit into films, but Reis says most of their business comes from people in the Boston area or in New England. “This stuff is very precious for people who bring it in,” Reis says. “They want to sit with someone and talk to someone and get a feel for what’s happening and who’s talking to you. The reason they come here is they don’t want to put it in a package and send it somewhere.”

But not every city has a local store offering these services, so when mailing the items Cole suggests customers make proper packing and vetting the company a priority. If you’re sending many videos or photos together, she recommends binding the items together with a rubber band, putting them in a Ziplock bag and then bubble-wrapping the stack. This will keep the items for jostling around inside the box, and protect the items in case the box is mishandled or gets wet in the mail.

Beyond packaging, make sure you can track the package and confirm it arrived safely. “Definitely pay extra for tracking,” she says, adding insurance may offer peace of mind but not much else. “Insurance will pay you for the object, but they can’t replace those memories.”

Why hire someone to transfer family films?

While home equipment can do some video transfers, it’s time-consuming and, if done incorrectly done, can damage the originals, says Syd Rabin, owner of highly rated Big Shot Video and Computer Services in Las Vegas. “It’s what I do, so I have it down to a science,” Rabin says.

Typically, Rabin says people hire his company to back up their family memories because they no longer have access to the equipment needed to play the old films, slides or even VHS tapes — who has a VCR or working film projector these days? — or they want to condense their collection into a handful of DVDs they can share or post to the Web.

Like the people captured on the media, those old family films aren’t getting younger. Whether it’s old 16mm or 8mm reels or more recently captured VHS tapes, media can be irreparably damaged if left to age improperly in a damp basement or unconditioned attic with constant temperature fluctuations, Rabin says. “The highest volume of tapes over the years has been VHS, and people don’t realize, if you don’t play them, they can still deteriorate,” Rabin says. “People leave them for years.”

He says some problems are easy to fix, such as color or contrast issues, but tapes cam develop black spots or tracking problems that make them time consuming and therefore more expensive — and in rare cases impossible — to transfer. While film, historically, has held up better, it too can succumb to problems of age, developing mold or becoming brittle, for example. “That process will continue until at some point the tapes will have nothing playable at all,” Rabin says. “Once it’s locked in a digital format, as long as you protect the underside of the DVD it’s not going to deteriorate anymore. There is a sense of urgency.”

Cole says typically they can slice around parts that are too damaged to transfer cleanly, but that extra time for intensive repairs may mean customers incur additional costs. She once had a tape that was eaten by a dog, and they were able to recover about half of the video material from the slobber-filled case. Reis agrees that in about 99 percent of cases even damaged films and tapes can be recovered, at least partially, but he also offers advice on how to prevent degradation and when time really is of the essence to preserve items.

When you receive your originals back, experts agree you should keep them in a climate controlled space, such as a closet. “The best thing to do is keep it out of extreme cold, heat and moisture — so not unfinished basements,” Cole says. “I notice, the best media I get usually has been in a closet for years and the better media usually was in a box.” She advises against storage inside plastic sealed containers, where moisture may get in and be unable to escape.

In addition to retaining and storing original media, Rabin advises customers to keep backing up your media or moving to new technology in the future. “A lot of people got old family movies transferred to VHS tape [from film], which is what we did before DVDs, so I tell people to move those things forward to the next generation of media,” he says, adding already, people ask him to transfer original video files to the cloud, where they’re backed up off-site in case a disaster, such as a fire or tornado. “At some point DVDs will not be so common, like you can store things on the Internet now. It’s changing right before our eyes.”

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Keepsake Media Group recently started offering disc repair. This machine buffs out DVD and CD scratches to make them play normally again. (Photo courtesy of Jim Britt)
Keepsake Media Group recently started offering disc repair. This machine buffs out DVD and CD scratches to make them play normally again. (Photo courtesy of Jim Britt)

Super Service Award winner Keepsake Media Group of Carmel, Indiana, helps preserve family memories with video transfer, photo scanning, disc repair and other family film-related services

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