In the era before consumer video formats like VHS, film on reels was the only medium for making home movies. If you’re fortunate enough to have a collection of these vintage films, you may have footage of yourself and your family as young children, and of loved ones who have since passed away. This can be a treasure trove of poignant family memories.
Kodak introduced 8mm film in 1932, which was followed by Super 8. 16mm film came earlier. These film formats were popular from the 1930s until the 1980s. While many films hold up remarkably well over the decades, imperfect storage and chemical breakdown can take their tolls on these old films. Converting films to digital stops the disintegration process.
If you want to convert your film to digital, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, inspect the film for tears or breaks, particularly in the sprocket holes before projecting it on a projector. If you find any damage, repair it using a splicer and splicing tape. Then, check the projector to ensure it’s working correctly and not tearing the film or creating its own sprocket holes. Make sure the threading path is clear and free of dirt or dust to prevent scratching the film. Avoid stopping or pausing the film when the projector lamp is on. This can burn or melt the film. If possible use a five-bladed projector for this type of transfer. Engineers created these projectors specifically for film transfers.
The shutter speed of the video camera is another variable you can adjust for making good film transfers. Set the shutter speed of the video camera shutter to roughly the frames per second (fps) speed of the projector. So, if your projector is running at 18 fps, you can set the camera shutter as low as 1/18 second or a little faster. Mount the camera on a tripod.
When the projector and film are working well, the next step is to set up the projector in a dark room. Use a smooth, white projection surface no wide than 24 inches. A white wall can work well.
Set up a digital video camera or smart phone camera and position it on a stable surface close to the side of the projector. Record some footage as a test to see if there are any problems.
Flickering is a common issue in DIY transfers. To correct this some projectors have a variable speed control. Adjusting the shutter speed to 1/60 second or less often solves the problem. Experiment to find the best combination.
Most video cameras meter light automatically and continuously which can cause over or underexposure. If your camera has the option of manual exposure, try setting it to a fixed exposure to help prevent this problem.
DIY Digitizing Film Reels vs Professional Service
The best way to convert motion picture film is frame-by-frame scanning which is how the professional services do it. Here at Oak Tree Press we use a professional scanning system for 8mm, Super 8 and 16mm films.
After inspecting and repairing the films, we apply a non-abrasive film cleaning solution that not only removes years of gunk. Not only does this make the film look better, but it also restores the film to a pliable condition so that it will run smoothly through our frame-by-frame film scanning system.
Using a reputable scanning service to convert 8mm, Super 8 or 16mm film will not only save you time and aggravation, but produce far better results than the commonly-used DIY method discussed above.