NORMAL — With the click of a computer mouse, Randy Wheat displays a video of a young boy walking down a sandy beach with a float tucked under his arm.
The boy slips into the lake aboard his float and starts kicking madly. A vigilant woman perched near the water's edge smiles.
Judging from their swimwear and hairstyles, this memory was captured more than 40 years ago, perhaps during a family vacation.
It's also a good bet that the video owners had not relived the moment for a long time. That's why they brought Wheat an 8 mm film version of the historic moment to be transferred to a DVD.
“This time of year I feel like Santa making toys all night long," said Wheat, owner of Imagemaker Video Productions in downtown Normal. “Transferring film to DVDs and putting pictures on video are two of the biggest parts of our business along with filming weddings."
For lack of a better term, Wheat and several others like him in Central Illinois, are in the business of preservation. Their mission in life centers on rescuing 8 mm and 16 mm film, Beta tapes and other obsolete technology from a dusty life in an attic or a worse fate in a garbage can. And business is brisk.
“I got a machine in the 1980s to transfer film to VHS tapes. I thought it would only last two years, and we'd have transferred all the film. People still bring in bags of tapes," said Dale Nitzel, owner of Jiffy Video, 3517 Wilder Drive, Bloomington. “The main thing now is that people can't see films they made years ago. Film can get dry and brittle or moldy. If you can even find a projector today to run the films, a bulb may cost $45 or $50 to replace."
While preservation of memories fuels the business, the bottom line is about keeping up with rapid advances in technology. Nitzel's entire career has banked on changing with the technological times.
He started a photo studio in 1957 that eventually gave way to photo finishing. As the digital photo age encroached, Nitzel changed his emphasis from photography to videography.
“It's a pretty steady business, but it's much busier in December because people want to give the DVDs as Christmas gifts," said Nitzel.
“A DVD has greater capacity and much better quality. Computer software allows us to edit film, too. A DVD's safe life is 100 years. Magnetic tape only lasts 15 years."
Lynn Coverstone, owner of Master Video in Washington, agreed that DVDs can last forever, but one good scratch can totally eradicate information. He typically makes two DVDs containing the same information. Customers can play one and save the other in a safe deposit box.
At Imagemaker, Wheat and his staff transfer 8 mm, 16 mm and super 8 film as well as Beta and VHS tapes to DVDs. They also convert audio reel to reel, 8-track, cassettes and records to CDs. They further film weddings, training tapes and infomercials.
Costs vary depending on the specific needs of a customer. For example, transferring super 8 film to DVD costs 10 cents per foot, Wheat said.
The process involves first cleaning a film or tape, then digitally filming images on a camera. Those digital images get downloaded on a computer for editing. Then the images get digitally transferred to a DVD.
“It all comes back to the preservation issue. And the DVDs and CDs make great gifts. That's why December is our busiest month," said Wheat, who's made video and audio technology his full-time profession for the last decade. “DVDs are the cheapest form of duplication. They should last longer than a DVD player if you handle them by the edges and clean them from the inside out. Keep them protected in a case."
Just as 8 mm film and Beta tapes have become passAC, Nitzel, Wheat and Coverstone wonder what will someday replace DVDs. Coverstone believes DVDs will prove lasting because of dual level capability that nearly doubles the amount of stored information. He also pointed to different encoding methods for DVDs that increase their capability.
“Computer chips will probably be where we'll go next," said Wheat. “We've got hard drives now the size of a small camera that can hold tons of video."
To stay on top of ever-changing technology, Wheat also takes specialized classes to be able to provide services to clients who live throughout the United States and in several countries.
“Next year we're going to HD (high definition) and mass duplication. We'll be able to make 1,000 copies in two days," said Wheat, who plans to open a Pekin location by summer.