Film Transfer FAQ
- Steve Puffenberger
- Movie Film
Why 8mm/16mm film transfers look the way they do
1. Can you transfer films in High Definition?
Yes, we do! 8mm and 16mm films are captured in 1080i at 29.97fps - the very same format you see on TV these days. 16mm sound and Super 8 sound films are captured at 24 fps, to match the frame rate of sound films. With the magic of digital video, both frame rates are supported on most displays. However DVD is another matter. DVD is a STANDARD DEFINITION medium, so if you specify DVD, we capture at 480i, which is the DV specification.
2. Why does the picture look fuzzy (especially on an HDTV)?
A frame of 8mm film is smaller than your smallest fingernail -- about the width of a pencil eraser. Super 8mm isn’t much bigger, but by shrinking the sprocket holes and the line between frames, it's a little better. Sharpness of a film is measured in terms of “lines of horizontal resolution." (Imagine taking a picture of a picket fence with alternating black/white pickets. The number of pickets you can count before they turn to mush equals the lines of resolution.) With really high-resolution film (e.g. Kodachrome 25), a 35mm slide is capable of 4,000 lines of horizontal resolution (equivalent to 8K Television!) 35mm motion picture film (not pictured) resolves around 2,000 lines.16mm film only about 400 lines (equivalent to broadcast SD TV resolution). 8mm is half of that, at only around 200 lines. That’s the equivalent of VHS at slow speed. So 8mm is by nature fuzzy. For best results watch the video in a small window on your computer, or at a distance on an HDTV.
Why is this? This was Kodak's way of making filmmaking affordable for the masses. Large format film cost a lot of money back in the day (and it still does - which is why everything has switched to digital projection). By shrinking the size of the film they made it affordable for consumers to enjoy the magic of motion pictures. We're thankful that they did, because it gives us a glimpse into what life was like 50-70 years ago.
3. Why does the picture look grainy?
There are two factors that make a movie film transfer "grainy" (like grains of sand that swim around on the screen). High resolution film is “slow,” meaning it needs a lot of light for proper exposure. Early on Kodachrome 25, (iso 25) was the only 8mm film that was available because it had high enough resolution to look good at a tiny size, but that meant you had to film in sunlight or with huge floodlights. When exposed correctly, this film delivers decent resolution and transfers very well. Due to public demand to take movies without those very bright lights indoors, they needed to increase the “speed” of the film to make it more sensitive to light - which by the 70s they had done for 35mm slides. So when the rolled out Super-8, they introduced "High Speed" films that enabled shooting in ambient light indoors, but at the expense of resolution and increased contrast. Thus, some Super-8 films of the 70s look worse than 8mm films of the 50s. Interestingly many theatrical films from the 70s used the grain of high speed film as a sought-after artistic effect.
The other thing that adds grain in video transfers is underexposed film. Early on there was no automatic exposure control so sometimes the camera was set wrong - but often Dad would film anyway despite not having enough light. When projected you see a faint image on an almost fully black background. Our transfer camera uses automatic gain control which, almost miraculously, makes this dark film viewable! In so doing, the camera amplifies the grain, the picture becomes very contrastsy (because shadow information is missing), and colors will shift because the film can't resolve full color when underexposed. If you see funny-looking footage, chances are it was underexposed.
4. Why does the picture have an orange or blue tint?
Unlike today's video cameras which use automatic “white balance” to correct color based on the tint of ambient light, film came in two types, “Daylight,” for exposing outdoors in sunlight, and “Tungsten,” for shooting inside with traditional incandescent light bulbs (or floodlights). Daylight has a lot of blue. Tungsten, in comparison, is very orange. If a blue color balancing filter wasn’t used inside with daylight film, you’ll see a very reddish tint to everything. If an orange color balancing filter wasn’t used when shooting outside with tungsten film, everything will have a steel blue cast. Our automatic white balancing camera corrects some of that, but full restoration is an extra cost option - and may not be able to fully restore color.
5. Why does the picture look red with no other color?
If you see a monochromatic red picture, this is a sign that your film’s blue and green dyes have faded. This is the fault of either the film, or a step left out of processing. Because blue and green information is essentially gone, there’s really no way to reconstruct the color information accurately. We may be able to restore some of it, but if it's past the point of no return we can convert the digital transfer to black & white.
6. Why is there an occasional flicker or speed-up in action?
In another cost saving move they decided to lower the frame rate in order to use less film. The frame rate for all sound films is 24 frames per second (FPS). But cutting that in half to 12 frames per second was too slow to for people to perceive smooth motion, so they chose 16 FPS for silent 16mm and regular 8mm. Then along came Super 8mm, and they chose 18 FPS to make it look a little smoother.
The problem with that slow of a frame rate is that if the camera is moved too rapidly, you'll see a "judder," where the motion doesn't look smooth. Because most home movies were shot handheld, we see a lot of judder, and the video transfer only enhances it.
With 16 or 18 FPS we have another problem trying to get it to digital. We can transfer 24 FPS sound films to 24 FPS video without any problem. We can also convert 24fps to 30fps using the "3:2 pulldown" method and interlaced video frame rates. But 16 or 18 FPS rates are not divisible by 24, or even 30. The solution is to use a variable speed projector to sync with the 30 FPS DVD standard. Sometimes the variable speed machines take time to come up to speed, or they drift slightly during a reel requiring adjustment. A "rolling" bar may be observed when sync drifts a bit, and we try to correct it as soon as it's observable.
If you see a scene that looks normal for a minute or so then speeds up to a Keystone Kops routine after a while, that's because old movie cameras were spring wound. No batteries! (At least there was no risk of them blowing up.) For some models as the spring wound down the speed of the film would slow down, and when projected normally the action would speed up! Fortunately most models would stop before they slowed down, so we rarely see this.
7. Can my film be burned or damaged in transfer?
Those of us old enough can remember when the projector would jam and we'd see the picture melt before our eyes. That can't happen in our system, as we've converted all our transfer machines to cool LED lighting. We can leave a still frame up all day with absolutely no risk of burning.
If film is quite old, it is possible to be damaged in transfer. The biggest threats are old splices, brittle film from improper storage or previous film damage. If an old dry splice simply breaks, that can be fixed easily and we restart the transfer. We often see bad splices cause "loss of loop" incidents, where the film doesn't break but it starts "chattering" and the picture gets really blurry - for those we restore the loop and continue the transfer. But if a splice causes a jam, or the film was stored with torn sprocket holes, the damaged section of film can no longer be projected. We will splice out the damaged footage to complete the transfer. Whenever we must splice, some frames are lost, but we try to keep footage loss to a minimum. We have seen some films so brittle they literally break apart as the footage winds off the reel. In those cases it may be impossible to complete the transfer.
Because it is possible for film to be damaged in transfer, you acknowledge that the transfer of film is at your own risk in the release you sign to start the job.
8. What's with the flashes of color, double exposed film, bright dots or other anamolies?
With Regular 8mm film, you got a 25' spool of 16mm film with twice the normal perforations. There was no leader protecting the film. You'd load the film in the camera and run it all the way through, exposing the film on one half of the width. Then you'd open the camera, flip the film reels over, and run it again, exposing the other half of the width. In processing they would slit the film down the middle and splice it together. Each time the camera was opened, the film end would be exposed to light, washing it out, and if the light was particularly bright (like if doing it in bright sunlight), it would expose deeper into the roll. That gave this psychadelic light show look at the head or tail of your film, and sometimes in the middle. Instructions said to change film in subdued light, but no one reads instructions, then or now.
Then there are reels that have double-image movies. Regular 8 had no indicator that the film had been exposed, so it was easy to forget and run it again, creating another psychadelic double-image look. When they invented Super 8mm, they delivered a 50' roll in a cartridge that didn't have to be flipped. And when it was exposed, the end of the film showed through the window saying "Exposed," meaning we never see any double-exposed Super-8.
The white dots at the end fo the roll are an ID number that Kodak would punch into the end of the film to identify it. Since they couldn't count on paper tape to make it through the chemistry, they indellibly punched the number into the film, and we see it flash by every time it's projected.
If there's leader between rolls of film on a spliced reel, we'll leave those in. Some leaders are plain white, others have the red "Processed by Kodak" stripe. If you'd like those edited out, or titles added, we can do that in post production (additional fees apply).
Occasionally we'll see a long stretch of film that's black or shows the inside of someone's camera bag. That meant the trigger got bumped accidentally and locked on. With Regular 8 that would only last a minute or so until the spring wound down, but for Super 8 with a camera on batteries, it could ruin the whole roll. Sometimes we see up the nose of the person holding the camera, which makes for good "Funniest Home Movie" stuff.
There are aging film artifacts that sometimes appear. "Snowflakes" all over are indications of crystal growth on the film, which could mean that the film wasn't processed properly or stored correctly. There may be what looks like black lightning flashing around the screen. Those are cracks in the film emulsion, again a sign of incorrect storage. Then you'll see black vertical lines, which are scratches caused by either the camera or projectors used previously. Finally there's all the black specks and wavy lines that flash around. That is dust and dirt on the film, which is usually heavist at the head and tail of the reel. At this age, the dirt is embedded and pretty much impossible to remove, and if we cleaned the film we risk damaging it more, so unless the reel is coated in dust, we transfer things as-is.
We hope you enjoy our movie film transfers of your precious memories! Send us an inventory of what you have to transfer and we'll get you a quote.
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*Resolution of Kodachrome 25 fine grain film