Job spotlight: Phillip Wyatt, film transfer and photo restoration technician

One photo shows a little girl sitting at a table and smiling in a black-and-white shot, probably a half-century old, its image marred by creases, scratches and chips.

The restored photo has none of the wear and tear. There also are splashes of color, bringing even more life to the smile and the once-worn picture.

Such is the calling of Phillip Whitt, a film transfer and photo restoration technician whose career for the last dozen years has been keeping people's precious memories from fading into oblivion.

"I had been doing the photo restoration as a hobby for a couple of years. So I just decided to make a jump and do it professionally," said Whitt, 49, who launched his home business, Whitt's Image Works, in 2000 in Lynchburg, Va., after his wife, Sally, developed rheumatoid arthritis just before giving birth to their only daughter. That meant he needed to give up a sales job to stay home with them, while also generating income.

The business has grown through the years and has survived the Great Recession after the family's 2008 relocation to Columbus, where Whitt's wife is from originally. Commercial customers and individuals seek him out to restore those special photos or transfer old home movies from 8mm or VHS to the current DVD format.

The Ledger-Enquirer talked with Whitt recently about his job, the process it entails and why he enjoys it. It has been edited for length and clarity.

What jobs do you handle the most, photo restoration or film transfers?

The bulk of it is film transfers, with photos being a pretty close second. Beyond that, to a lesser degree, I transfer slides to DVD and make slide shows.

Do people tell you why they are having their memories restored or saved?

I find that people know they've had this film for decades sometimes, and it's one of those things where they've been meaning to do it and somehow they hear about me and go ahead and decide to have it done. Unfortunately, it does happen, but a recent death in the family may prompt them to have them restored, or a milestone anniversary coming up or an older person's birthday. More often than not, it's just something they've been meaning to do, but they've been putting off.

You must see some pictures and home movies that are in pretty bad shape?

Yes. In some cases they are so far gone that I can't do anything with them. It doesn't happen very often, but on occasion it does.

Can you restore the quality of films or home movies?

I can to an extent. I can do some basic color correction if the colors are off. In many cases it will improve it. In some cases it will actually fix it. In other cases, if the dies have shifted one way, the film will take on a strong blue (tone). Sometimes I can reduce the severity of it, but not necessarily bring it back all the way. The only thing I can't really fix is out-of-focus film.

What type of equipment is required to do your job?

The film transfer equipment I use is all professional. They're self-contained units that are, technically, film scanners. They have built-in cameras. They look like reel-to-reel decks, like a reel-to-reel audio player, but it's for film. The advantage of it is it captures the image directly off the film surface. Of course, the condition of the film does determine how good it's going to look. But when the film looks good, it really captures a very nice clear, crisp image.

What's the worst thing consumers do to their images and videos?

Improper storage is really the biggest enemy to both of them. Photos often may be thrown into a utility drawer or a box or something like that. When things are piled on top of it, they get creased. The number one type of damage I deal with in photos is digitally taking creases and tears and scratches and things like that out. To a slightly lesser degree ... bad processing was real common back in the '70s, where a color photo would just fade. Almost all of the colors would drain out of it and I have to take those and restore density and color.

Are some photos too far gone?

There's some that I can make look a little more artistic, maybe make it look a little more like a painting, if I can't really restore the actual photographic qualities to it. But usually when I run across something I can't fix, more often than not it's severe fire damage or severe water damage, where there's really no image to work with. I rarely run across anything that I can't fix to some extent. Most of what I get has some bad damage, but there's usually plenty of image data to work with.

Do some folks become emotional after seeing a restored photo?

Yes, sir. Ninety-nine percent of the time they're delighted and it brings smiles. I have had a few occasions where it has brought people to tears, tears of joy. There have been a couple of times where it was a recent death, and the customer realized they had this photo of a loved one that had recently passed and they wanted something done with it because it had some damage. And sometimes it was the only one that they had of that person.

What's the oldest picture you have restored?

There's been a few Civil War photos. It's pretty common in Virginia. I don't run across it here in Georgia quite as much. But there's a lot of photos in Virginia and they've been in families for generations. A few of them have been Civil War pictures. Some are from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Do you use Photoshop a lot in your work?

Photoshop is one program that I use. I have Paintshop Pro on one of my computers. Some of my computers are older, so I use older software, which does the job. As far as restoring photos, I use an older version of the full Photoshop and it works just fine.

You work out of your home. That has to have its pros and cons.

Saving money on overhead is a huge advantage. One disadvantage -- and it hasn't really been that big of a deal -- is I have to work by appointment. But I find that most people are fine with that. There would be an advantage to a brick-and-mortar store, especially if I was in a shopping center or something like that, where people might see the shop and think, oh, I'm going to go home and get my film and bring it. But the flexibility in my schedule is a big advantage, too.

How does your commercial business work?

The commercial business I get, they're essentially resellers. They're getting the same kind of clientele that I am. For example, my biggest commercial customer is a video duplication house in Virginia. They do a lot of CD and DVD replication, some on-location printing, and they offer film-to-video. For the owner, it's really more of a convenience for him. He just doesn't want to spend the money on the equipment or the time on it. So they hire me to do it.

Why do you enjoy doing this?

I love restoring photos, but I love old home movies, too. I was born in 1962, so a lot of the old movies I see are from that time period. In a way, it's kind of familiar. A lot of them are from before I was born, in the '50s and '40s. I transferred some 16mm film a few years ago that was from 1928, and it was a home movie. The customer, who was in his 80s when he brought it to me, was a little boy in the film. It was an old black and white, about a year before the Great Depression. It was a short film, only about 3 minutes. But for it's age, it looked pretty good.

What's the general costs to have film transferred or a photo restored?

On photos there's a basic $39.95 rate, which covers about 95 percent of the type of damage that I get. If it's something that's extremely light, like just a little dust that I'm digitally removing, it's cheaper than that. On the film side, it's priced by the foot, which is 12 cents a foot. One thing I should mention, and a lot of people don't realize this, but the film has to get handled two to three times because in most cases I have to clean it first. I clean it with a film cleaner and replace any bad splices and leader, because over time the adhesive dries on the splices, especially on the larger reels where they've spliced it together.

Your job of dealing with people's personal memories would seem to come with a huge responsibility?

Absolutely. To articulate it the best way I can, when I'm restoring a picture, sometimes I spend more on it than is really profitable. But, at the same time, if in the evening I want to sit down in front of the TV and watch something, I can do it with my laptop and work while relaxing.

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