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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Preserving Your Memories II - Preserving old Films

In the last blog I talked about preserving old photos and slides by converting them to digital formats that are easy to share. In this KEMEdia Moment I will talk about 8mm, Super 8, Super 8 Sound, 9.5 mm and 16 mm films, the various ways they can be processed and what to watch out for in a quality transfer.

You may remember Dad dragging out the projector and screen, fiddling with splices and reels and the old family home movie night. I certainly do because my Dad was all thumbs when it came to anything mechanical and so I was usually the one called to be the projectionist and splicer.

16 millimeter
The first home film format was 16mm and you pretty much had to be well off or well connected to be able to afford the camera, film stock and developing.  This format can be silent, meaning it normally has sprocket holes on both edges of the film or with an optical sound track on one side of the frame with sprocket perforations on the other. There are variations on 16mm stock but Standard 16 is by far the most common.
The earliest films KEMEdia ever transferred were from the late 1920's. They were in fantastic shape and came out extremely well. It was fascinating to see footage of my native Montreal almost a hundred years ago.

Standard 8 millimeter
Later, Standard 8mm film (also known as Regular 8 or Double 8) came around. This was a much more affordable home movie format than 16mm and soon became a great addition to family souvenirs. It was developed by Kodak in the 30's and was in reality 16mm film stock that had more sprocket perforations than normal. The film was exposed along half of its width and then the reel was flopped in the camera to expose the other half. During processing the film was split into two 8mm widths and spliced together for projection. It was an exceedingly clever idea that allowed 4 times the number of images than 16mm making it much more economical for the masses. The format exploded and soon everyone was shooting home movies. Normal shooting speed was 16 frames per second and a roll lasted approximately 3 minutes.

Super 8 millimeter
Super-8 film was released in 1965 and was quickly adopted as the new standard as it It featured a better quality image, and was much easier to use. It was now a cartridge-loading system which did not require re-loading your film stock halfway through exposure.  At one point Super-8 was available with a magnetic sound track at the edge of the film but as video cameras became more readily available it was doomed and was discontinued.
Oddly enough in this "video age", there has been a bit of a renaissance  of Super-8 film use. Because of advances in film stocks and digital technology, real film aficionados can shoot on low cost Super 8 equipment and then transfer the footage to a digital format for editing. Film is much more versatile than video and so those who want a different look and feel to their projects have found this an interesting alternative. I have seen wedding videographers advertise this as an option for their clients.
9.5 millimeter
Developed by Pathé this format uses a single, central sprocket hole between each frame. This is different than 8 mm film, where the holes are along one edge, or most other film formats, which have them on each side of the frame. This format was popular in Europe but was not used much in North America. In fact in all of my years of media production I have only seen one reel come through my doors.
Transferring Film to Video
The transfer of film to video is called telecine. There are many different ways to transfer film. Some are excellent others are poor.
At a bare minimum the projectors used have to be in some way or other, synchronized for video and the video camera that captures the image should have 3 image sensors for best results.
The important things to remember are frame rates and parallax.

Frame rates
Most film runs at 16 or 24 frames per second with 16 fps being the norm. Video works at 30 frames per second (29.97). If you do not compensate for the the frame rate difference your image will have a flicker to it. In simple terms every few frames of image will have the black bar of the frame projected in the image. In other words, each frame is not shot fully registered (full image frame). This happens very fast and your eyes interpret it as a shadow or flicker. It is most annoying to watch films with this especially when it is easily removed by having a synchronized projector. Synchronization can be achieved in three ways; a speed rheostat (good), a 5 blade gate (better) or a spot scanning system (best).
A scanning system allows you to scan a distinct frame of digital video for each frame of film, providing higher quality than a traditional telecine system can achieve. Without sounding too technical, best results are achieved by using software that uses a smoothing (interpolating algorithm) rather than a frame duplication algorithm to adjust for speed differences between the film and video frame rate. All you really need to know is that it works.

Wall Projection
This is where someone projects the film on a wall or screen and then sets the video camera up above or beside it to capture the image. There are a number of reasons why this results in poor quality and should be avoided at all costs. First. true good results can only be achieved by having the recording camera in a non-parallax position. That is to say at complete right angle to the projected image. Wall Projection won't allow for this because the video camera lens would have to be exactly where the projector lens is in order for it to be perfect. The end result is that it is exceedingly difficult to get corner to corner coverage and something in the image will be soft or out of focus. If the projector used can't compensate for frame rate differences then the results just frankly suck. This is the setup used by people who just want to make a quick buck.

Telecine Chain
This is the most popular setup. The projector projects the image into a box that has a mirror which refracts the image at a 90 degree angle. This allows the placement of the video camera at right angles to the projector which eliminates parallax and the aforementioned softness in the resulting image. If the operator has the right gear and pays great attention to the setup and execution, the results can be excellent. As this type of chain allows for a huge diversity of projector and camera combinations you should ask about their gear and to see some examples before going ahead.

Direct Transfer Telecine
This setup has a video camera mounted facing the projector lens. Usually the camera is built in to the projector. It is monitored by connecting the camera to an external monitor. results are good and much better if a 3 image sensor camera is used.

As explained above, this is the current winner for high quality transfers as it compensates for all of the artifacts associated with film to video transfers. Newer HD units offer the best bang for your buck. While you can't improve on the original it is nice to be able to capture it in the best format possible. If this service is available it will be worth the extra cost.

Film transfers are a very time consuming and persnickety service for the provider to offer. All transfers happen in real time and have to be manipulated to the media of your choice. As a result, it can get expensive with rates ranging from 10 cents to 25 cents per foot. My advice is for you to strike up a relationship with your provider. Ask questions. Ask to see their set-up(s). Ask to see examples. How long have they been doing this? Do they do it in house or do they farm it out to a lab? Ask them to run a test reel for you. If you like what you see and the price is right then go for it. Films deteriorate with age. The sooner you have them transferred the better.

As always if we can help here at KEMEdia then contact us by email at and visit our website at:

In coming KEMEdia Moments we will discuss preserving;

Vinyl Discs (45's. 33's, 78's) & Audio Tapes (Reel to Reel, Audio Cassettes, 8 Tracks etc.)

Tape media 
(Consumer & Prosumer formats VHS, S-VHS, Beta, Video 8, Hi8, Digital 8, Mini DV, DVCam)

Disc media CD & DVD (DVD 5, Dual Layer DVD 9, BluRay)

and Memory Cards and Drives

We will also talk about the care and storage of all media and how you can help preserve and prolong the life of older formats until they are placed in a digital form.

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Mike Reid can be heard approximately once a month on the Dave Fisher Show, weekends on CJAD 800 in Montreal. Mike and Dave talk about technology and new directions during these ten minute spots.

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