My Father's Camera (NFB Video)
by Karen Shopsowitz

The social implications of home movies 1920 - 1970

My Father's Camera
My Father's Camera

My Father's Camera - September 15, 2004

The camera is the unofficial documentor of family life. "Basements and attics across the continent contain countless reels of the stuff - flickering images of baptisms and bar mitzvahs, weddings and graduations, dazed toddlers by the Christmas tree and bored teenagers on cross-country road trips.

"Home movies and their unique place in our popular culture are the subject of Karen Shopsowitz's My Father's Camera." A Peabody Award (New York) winning production.

You can click on the picture at the left to visit the Natonal Film Board of Canada web site for My Father's Camera. Hover over any image below to see more scenes from this award winning video.

Karen Shopsowitz grew up in Toronto "in front of her father's camera". Her father, Israel, established the popular Shopsy's delicatessen in Toronto. She includes footage from her father's home movies plus other sources like the earliest known film clip taken by the Lumiere brothers in 1895. Her video explores the social implications of home movies.

Home Movies
Very early in the evolution of movies, they split into two streams — professional movies catering to a paying audience, and amateur movies recording family outings and celebrations.  Many of us remember the jerky, often poorly exposed and framed movies often featuring subjects confronted with the age-old quandary, "what to do in front of the camera?" 

The home movies were shot on reels that recorded for only three to four minutes. These brief clips had to be edited and joined to other clips to make a finished movie. These movies engage a different feeling in the viewer than still images -- the ghosts of departed family members and friends come briefly back to life in front of the viewer's eyes! 

The Cameras
The Kodak Cine A was one of the first home movie cameras on the market. A 16mm camera, it was sold only as a complete 'outfit' – camera, projector, tripod, and  editor/splicer. In 1923, a time when the average household income was $1,500.00, this package sold for $25.00. Hollywood Stars were given amateur cine cameras and taught how to make good movies Hollywood style with continuity and proper framing. For the rest of us, Kodak published a long running book "How to Make Good Home Movies" that was updated over the years to reflect new materials and cameras.

The 1920s gender attitudes affected camera design. Cameras intended for a male audience were given more technical features and longer lenses. They were heavy, study devices finished in black leather with chrome trim. The ladies' models had fewer controls came with shorter focal length lenses mounted on smaller, more  colourful bodies. The slogans of the era emphasized that these models were “So simple to operate even a woman can use them”.

Depression Impact
The depression forced changes on the home movie industry to keep the hobby within financial bounds for the  family. The 8mm system was introduced to help cut film costs. Regular 16mm film was run through the camera  exposing only half of the strip. The reel was then removed and flipped over to run through again and expose the second half. After processing, the film was slit down the centre and the two halves were spliced together to fit the familiar 8mm movie reel. This gave about four times the running time of 16mm film.

Movie Clubs were formed to trade information and loan cameras and projectors to members. One of the earliest was the Toronto Movie Club, founded in 1934. During the 1939 Royal Visit to Toronto, members lined the route to record the entire visit in colour while news reels of the time, shot in black & white, covering only highlights of the visit.

To expand their market, the makers of photographic accessories began offering the amateur movie maker advice on creating more unusual movies with silhouettes, double exposures, close-ups, etc. Even though sound was possible, most amateurs ignored it. Capturing good quality sound and editing it to keep in sync with the image was just too much work.

When the post war economic growth ended the long running depression, there was a boom in movie camera use that lasted into the 1970s when video took over.

Social Aspects
In Western society, it is usually the women who keep family records, making them logical candidates for movie cameras, especially ones equipped with wide-angle lenses to capture family groups, parties, and  celebrations.

Old clips show how tourism has changed over time. In the 1920s if you could afford a movie camera, you could afford the life style. People took hours of movies showing all aspects of day to day life without thinking that they were making an historic record. One clip in the video shows the operation of a local A&P store; another of people banking. Titles could be made with home-made signs or enhanced with custom templates.

An interesting aspect of home movies was the comparison of news events covered professionally by the newsreel companies (black and white) with amateur coverage (colour). For example, the 1935 birth of the Dionne Quints in Northern Ontario, prejudices towards blacks, Asians, and others, and choice of subject matter.  For example, professional clips would show big buildings and economic progress while amateur clips would show day to day life of people (eg a clip showing scrap yard workers in Toronto).

Karen relates how her dad hired a professional to film her sister’s Bat Mitzvah. By chance, Karen was completely missed in the movie with all the attention on her sister and the guests. To remedy the omission, her father restored the decorations and had family members dress as they had at the celebration. He then shot extra footage and skilfully spliced it into the original film. Voila!  Karen is right there with her siblings and family friends.

Weddings but not funerals are favourite subjects, as are flowers. Young children were often pushed to act in home movies. As they grew up, they appeared less and less, finally totally disappearing when reaching the teens.

During WW 2, home movie footage was shot of army cadets in high school, soldiers training on beaches, and even actual war front footage such as the D-Day landing, actions of troops and prisoners, burial at sea, etc. The Nazis banned amateur movies by edict in Holland during their occupation because they couldn’t control or censor the content. News reels of the war were treated like home movies by viewers back home seeking a glimpse of  loved ones. Film stock was rationed with most going to the war effort.

The period from 1920 to 1970 is well documented in home movies. These movies have values - both obvious and hidden, but there is a real need to preserve the fast fading footage. Many people convert their film to digital and toss out original not realizing the digital copy may itself have a short life.

Archivists today are trying to save home movies. Museums like Northeast Historic Film located in Bucksport ME have been established to preserve the media. There are also many avid private collectors like Eric Krasner of Items from his collection are shown from time to time, and segments have been used in advertisements.

In closing her hour long video, Karen quoted three rules from her father for good home movies -- rules that fit life as well: First, edit the bad stuff; second, be as steady as you can; and third, follow your dreams.


Note: The Saturday before this presentation, I attended a TIFF showing of "Le Fantome d'Henri Langlois", a four hour documentary of Henri Langlois's efforts in France to preserve commercial films beginning in the 1930s, and  continuing even through the war with the clandestine assistance of devout film buffs on both sides. At one point after the war, he lectured in Quebec. Thanks to his efforts much historic film footage has been preserved world-wide. 


All images were taken with a Nikon Coolpix 990 digital camera and adjusted in Photoshop CS. The images are © 2004 the Photographic Historical Society of Canada unless otherwise noted. The images and content of the presentation are © 2003 National Film Board of Canada. The video was projected from a VHS tape via Mark Singer's digital projector. Resolution was limited by the VHS tape source.

Questions? Please contact me at

Robert Carter

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