One of the few Falls Church businesses to better prosper during the pandemic was Transvideo Productions.
The electronics lab downtown was “surprised to be busy,” said proprietor David Downey. “People were staying home and getting sentimental, feeling it’s time to get out those old tapes and films to be transferred” to our digital age.
“Bring Your Memories Back to Life!” shouts the folding sidewalk sign in front of Transvideo at 107 Pennsylvania Ave. It deploys an old-tech medium to invite veterans of past technological eras to bring in their “reels, photos, audio tapes, VHS, video 8, MiniDV.” to be transferred on site to formats familiar to young consumers: online, DVD or thumb drives.
Downey can also repair broken tape and help with video editing, he explained from his shop lined with such dinosaurs as reel-to-reel tape recorders, VCRs, film projectors, cassette players and computers with disc drives. He can handle 16 mm films (a format dating to the 1920s) and 8 mm (popularized in the 1930s), converting the images to flash drives or posting them on YouTube.
“DVDs don’t hold up over time and are being phased out,” he explained, noting that their dyes fade after about 20 years. A newer product called an M-DISC has been tested to last 100 years. “A lot of modern TVs now have USB ports,” Downey adds, which allows for large-screen viewing of those flickering shots of grandma and grandpa’s honeymoon trip to Yellowstone. Transvideo can also convert old film to ultra-clear high-definition.
The self-taught Downey got the idea for his transfer service while in Arlington working for the now-defunct Photronic Photo Service back in the 1980s. That outlet contracted overnight photo developing for the then-ubiquitous Ritz Camera shops. When customers started bringing 8mm film to transfer to VHS, his boss said, “This is a fad and isn’t going to last.” But when Christmas came in 1986, “they got an unbelievable amount of work they couldn’t handle, so I set up my business for the overflow,” Downey recalled. He went on to book contract work for nearly 50 photo outlets in the region.
Downey spent three decades working out of his home on Arlington’s Pershing Drive before transferring operations to Falls Church in 2019. He paired up with longtime Falls Church contact Mike Williams, of Ventures in Video, with whom he shares space and collaborates on commissioned photography shoots at Arlington National Cemetery. They share an assistant, and Downey continues to perform subcontracting jobs for Photoscope in Arlington and Dominion Camera on West Broad St.
The obstacles the technicians encounter include deteriorated or shrunken film, for which the holes don’t line up on the intake reel. Some of that is solved by new “sprocklet-less” systems, Downey said.
Part of Transvideo’s service is to enforce confidentiality with customers, some of whom are famous. Like a good public librarian, the employees refrain from commenting judgmentally on whether a customer’s project is interesting or dull. As an extra service, Downey said, he retains a back-up copy for a month or two in case an original gets lost or stolen or accidentally deleted in this era of allegedly idiot-proof electronics.
He would like to perform additional creative editing for clients, Downey said, though most of the work is “straight transfer.” He is modestly pleased that Transvideo has survived since 1986. “There’s not a lot of competition.”