Fast-Forwarding

R on Davis is in what he calls the video conversion business, which means he’s really in the memory-saving business. People come to VideoLab, his shop on the Post Road in Orange, with old tapes and reels—of their parents as disco clubbers or themselves as birthday kids—that technology has left behind. Davis and his longtime assistant Rechelle Radcliffe then bring those old recordings forward into the 21st century, playing them on one machine while capturing them with another. Customers can then elect to receive the result—digital and infinitely replayable—on a shiny, shelf-ready DVD or straight to a hard drive.

When freeing the contents of outdated film, magnetic tape and even magnetic wire recordings, it helps to have shared a history with those formats. In 1961, inspired in part by the capstan on his father’s boat and by the light inside a fishbowl, Davis invented a machine that could duplicate microfilm with no discernible loss of resolution. Over a period of 10 or so years, his invention brought him patronage or employment from Walt Disney, the U.S. Department of Defense and CBS Laboratories—all of which exposed him to more media technologies in their infancy. CBS once asked him to build a machine that could copy frames from broadcast-sized film to a format tiny enough to fit inside a cartridge. He only found out later what the cartridge would have been for: “watching a movie that you hold in your hand—on your television set,” he says, expressing the wonderment of his younger self. “That was in 1963.” The so-called Electric Video Recorder was shelved by CBS shortly thereafter, and Davis’s prototype converter dismantled.

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Conversion of old recordings requires machines that have outlasted their own obsolescence, just so a film or tape can be played one last time and its contents freed. Davis now has well over 200 machines in a single room, stacked and intricately connected. He took me on a 20-minute tour that encompassed 8 and 16mm film projectors rigged with cameras, high-speed photo scanners with feeder trays, a bank of 12 VHS players, a tower of disc trays for mass-duplicating DVDs and a back wall of video players and converters in what Davis called a “montage of formats”–including Betamax, Super Betamax, Super VHS, and regular VHS in four switchable overseas display systems. Most of those machines are luxe professional boxes in burnished silver, with quaint, sturdy toggles and buttons that suggest a Hollywood studio storage room or the set of a reasonably convincing sci-fi B-movie. There are also BetaCam and U-matic players that had only ever been marketed to television broadcasters, but Davis has them hooked up just in case. He showed me a U-matic cassette, which has the familiar form factor of a VHS tape but the dimensions of a TV dinner tray.

The room isn’t so much a machine graveyard as a machine afterlife, all of the players plugged into monitors and switchboxes so Davis and Radcliffe can work on multiple conversion projects simultaneously. “We both do everything,” Davis says. “She’s been doing this for 30 years. She’s good at it.” Radcliffe, who was then coaxing a stuck cartridge out of a Mini DV player, added jokingly, “He doesn’t have the patience to sit here and play with it.” Managing and coordinating the machines is the job at its most basic, but often Davis and Radcliffe work on the images as they emerge too, using software and process amplifiers to restore some of their color and sharpness.

The crown jewel of Davis’s laboratory is a platform once used by Disney animators, with a camera pointing straight down at what would, in another age, have been animation cel sheets. Davis uses it to animate photos for what he calls “photo stories,” turning the precision dials to move a photo print while a video camera captures the movement. “It is exactly the Ken Burns effect,” Davis acknowledges. “I think he uses one of these too.” A montage of moving photo shots can then be loaded onto a DVD, with titles, pans and wipes from one image to the next, set to “Wind Beneath My Wings” or one of VideoLab’s 200 or so other celebratory music choices.

Toward the end of the tour, Radcliffe brought out the lab’s most recent completed project, involving a Ziploc bag full of keychain-sized plastic cylinders in pastel colors. Davis laughed. “Ever seen one of these? I’d never seen this one myself.” Radcliffe, however, remembered them from her own younger years. “They used to give these to you at Great Adventure. You go in and they take a picture and they put it in these little magnifiers.” The cylinder could then be held up to your eye like a kaleidoscope. Davis had looked at a couple when the customer brought them in, and decided he could get full-sized jpegs out of them by popping out the translucent plastic tabs, fishing out the 16mm frames and inserting the frames into a slide reader.

One of the duo’s most challenging jobs came in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The Fox news affiliate in Hartford had recovered a water-damaged videotape from the flotsam on the beach in Fairfield. The studio made a multi-day story out of finding the tape’s owner by first taking the tape to VideoLab to be rescued. That story is on YouTube, where Davis can be seen explaining his method to the camera. He and Radcliffe had removed the tape from the casing and soaked and agitated it in water to remove the salt and sand. Then they hung the tape up to dry for several days, having previously learned not to use a hairdryer. Then, Davis says, “sync them up. Put them in a new cartridge, run them back and forth in the rewinder half a dozen times. Then cross your fingers.” The method is similar for tapes damaged in a fire. “I’ve gotten tapes that were just a blob. But you break it open, and there’s still a reel sitting there in one piece.”

Water and fire are more obvious dangers to videotaped memories, but it’s almost always the back of the closet that gets them instead. “I’d say one in 500 need what we do,” Davis says. “But that’s not really true; one in 500 figure out they need us.” The publicity boost Davis got from the Hurricane Sandy story was also publicity for all the home movies that are still in hiding. “I can go to a cocktail party and, chatting with three or four people around the table, [someone will ask,] ‘What do you do?’” I’ll tell them what I do. And every time. Somebody will say, ‘Really? I have some old tapes.’ … I give them the idea they can go into their closet and get this stuff.”

And tomorrow, we’ll go deeper into Davis’s closet, pulling out his adventures as a video rental pioneer.

VideoLab
200 Boston Post Rd, Orange (map)
Mon-Fri 10am-6pm, Sat 10am-4pm* (*please call to confirm)
(203) 799-7017 | RDVideoLab@aol.com
www.videolabct.com

Written and photographed by David Zukowski.

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David Zukowski got his start writing for the Arts & Culture section of The Telegraph in southern New Hampshire while attending graduate courses in Albany, New York. He doesn't do that kind of driving anymore, but returns to New Hampshire often to climb mountains.

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