Preserve Old Family Media — 5. Movie Film
Updated: Jun 26
Preserve Old Family Media
A Six Part Series
Part 5. Movie Film
Part 1 Restore & Digitize — an overview of: (1) types of old family media; (2) why & how they are being destroyed; (3) why & how they should be properly stored and digitized.
Part 2 - 6 — specific preservation information for each family media type:
Part 2 Photographs — loose and in old albums
Part 3 Paper — handwritten letters, important documents, newspaper clippings etc...
Part 4 Film — negatives & slides
Part 5 Movie Film — film reels
Part 6 Videos — VHS videos & and camcorder videocassettes
1. Family Movies are...
For the whole of the last (20th) century before the start of the Digital Revolution of the current century, we recorded our still and motion images on some type of film. We used canisters of film strips in our cameras that were processed to produce negatives, slides, and prints. Our home movies were first recorded with movie cameras using film reels... like the movies. Towards the end we moved to videoing on magnetic tape housed in cassettes.
We still have plenty of these types of film in our homes holding precious memories that we've likely not seen in years. The problem is (1) that over time film is susceptible to deterioration and (2) we needed equipment to make the images — cameras, movie cameras, camcorders; AND separate 'play-back' equipment to view them —projectors, video recorders... do we even still have these??
2. Movie Film Reels
The early acceptance of 35 mm film stock as the standard film gauge had a momentous impact on the world-wide popularity of cinema-going to watch "motion pictures" for entertainment and communication.
Professional films were first shot onto (much, much longer than for photos) rolls of perforated cellulose coated with a light-sensitive emulsion negative film, from which multiple separate positive film copies of the movie could be made.
Before 1950 the professional 35 mm film stock was made from cellulose nitrate. This was extremely flammable, and unstable when deteriorating, so the film reels needed to be stored under controlled (cold) conditions.
....If you saw Quentin Tarantino's 2009 movie, Inglorious Basterds, starring Brad Pitt, you may remember the mountain of discarded nitrate film erupting into flames right before the end...
Fortunately for home movies, smaller (16mm, 8mm, Super8, Dual8) non-flammable cellulose acetate 'SAFETY film' (also used in photography since the 1930's) was developed. It was cheaper, with cartridges holding anywhere from 25 to 100 feet of film — enough for about 2-3 minutes of memories. The correspondingly smaller home movie cameras were more portable and convenient than the movie cameras — which could use a dozen 1,000-foot reels or more to shoot a movie.
Unlike negatives — but like slides — the home movie film is a reversal film... i.e. the film exposed in the camera is processed to become the positive film that can be projected on a screen for viewing. This means that each home movie that you find in their original box or metal can in those attic boxes is a unique (one-of-kind) item.
3. Old Family Movies are destructible...
While cellulose acetate (SAFETY) film won’t BLOW UP — and if stored appropriately (dust free, low temperature/humidity) is quite durable — it has a number of preservation challenges.
Shrinkage & brittleness issues of old film are a consequence of the chemical instability of cellulose acetate material, unrecognized at the time of its introduction. Aging film, that hasn't been stored appropriately, can have a palette of bad smelling odors:
1. The Vinegar Syndrome: especially in too-hot or too-moist storage conditions a vinegar odor is one of the first detectable signs of a sequence of safety film breakdown :
the cellulose acetate starts to break down and releases acetic acid (aka vinegar).
the plastic film base becomes brittle and can shatter with the slightest tension -- because the acetic acid breaks the links between the long chain polymer units of the cellulose acetate leading to brittleness.
As the cellulose acetate polymer chains break into smaller pieces, their side groups split off, causing the plastic film to shrink.
While the acetate base shrinks, the gelatin emulsion of the film, which is not deteriorating, separates from the film base causing "buckling."
Crystalline deposits or liquid-filled bubbles appear on the emulsion because plasticizers, from the decaying film base ooze onto the surface.
2. Mold: if the film has been stored in damp conditions, or exposed to flood waters, leaky pipes, etc., mold & mildew may grow on soaked cardboard film boxes, and even on the film itself. The warning signs are black spots or whitish/grayish fluffy matter on the film, with musty or swampy smells.
Although film was made to be projected, even going back several decades when projectors were a regular household item, these machines would occasionally malfunction: the film jammed, frames liquefied from the heat of the bulb, the splices broke, the pickup reel neglected to turn and the film spooled onto the floor...
There is also the issue of the differences between the formats (8mm, Super8, Dual 8) not being immediately evident. Even if a projector can run multiple formats it requires a separate configuration for each. So.... chances are that a dusty old projector — found stored with boxes of film in the attic? —will need new belts, bulbs, fuses etc.. or at least cleaning and lubrication before it is safe to use... even with the most pristine film AND running older film (subject to brittleness/ shrinkage and/or torn sprocket holes) through even a refurbished projector is a very risky proposition!!!
The boxes of old film themselves may also provide some unwelcome surprises:
reels of film over-full with loose ends unwinding and crumpling up.
crumbled rubber bands — rubber bands were used to secure the outer wrap of the film reels — the bits can get lodged between the film pack and the reel and then come loose in a projector and cause it to malfunction.
rusted metal film cans that are difficult to open or plastic ones that have cracked and may have scratched the film
bent or broken reels that could crush the film pack or abrade the surface of film when it is unwound.
too short, damaged, or missing lengths of blank film at the beginning and end of a reel, leaving the outer wraps of a reel of film unprotected and vulnerable to scratches, dirt, and moisture.
4. How to Store Movie Film
It goes without saying that our 50+ year old, one-of-a-kind family movie films should be handled very carefully — clean hands, away from food and drinks, dust-free environment. Using nitrile gloves is a better idea than using cotton (the fibers can scan scratch the emulsion) and of course Do Not Touch the face of the film!!!
The best option to ensure the continued 'good health' of these one-of-a-kind films is to store them away from dust, moisture, and temperature/humidity fluctuations and protect them using modern 'breathable' archival-quality storage solutions.
The only thing that should be on the film reel is the film, everything else should be removed - bits of broken off plastic reel, crumbling rubber bands secured to the film, dried-out pieces of adhesive tape affixed to the film, pieces of paper (with information about the film) etc.. This (and any new ) information should be transcribed onto acid-free paper affixed to the outside of the film cans or boxes.
You may want to keep the films in their original boxes, as these are part of each film’s individual “history.” This is okay if they are in good condition— not so much rusted film cans!! The film reels (with or without the original enclosures) can then be stored in archival plastic ( films can “breathe” but protected from dust and moisture) polypropylene boxes and polyethylene bags or noncorroding metal cans, that pass the Photographic Activity Test.
As with ALL Family Media, these are better off stored in the main part of the house — where temperatures are relatively stable and humidity is under control — than in unregulated attics, basements and garages.
5. Why Family Movies MUST be Digitized.
Family Memories are Priceless
The motion pictures of our families, captured on film reels — some not seen in many years, for lack of the equipment to view them — hold unique insights into our family histories. The stories they tell are worth so much more than the 'plastic' they are stored on. Digitizing these family treasures and backing them up, is the ONLY WAY to truly preserve, fondly relive and lovingly share and pass on poignant family moments.
Media has a shelf-life
Proper storage and NOT playing them will add many more years to the shelf life of 50+ year old family movies than to their much younger videocassette replacements. Still, all media is prone to age-related degradation.
Play-Back Equipment is becoming Obsolete
Like the media film/tape, the mechanical components of playback equipment are prone to age-related deterioration. Even in their heyday, film projectors sometimes malfunctioned, damaging the film. Manufacturers of old equipment cease operations and/or stop providing support (parts, technical updates) over the years, for machines that they no longer make.
Digitized movie media can be edited & shared
Editing our digitized old movie films is a great way to consolidate many hours of footage and gives us the best way to easily view and share our collection. The footage can be as simple as 1-2 minutes of highlights, or as involved as an edited down version of our entire film archive. By clipping out the best footage, we can combine it with images, audio and writing to tell a full family story. By adding effects such as custom transitions, text effects, captions, title slides, music and voice-overs etc... we can make new "one-of-a-kind" digital keepsakes.
6. How to Digitize Home Movies
There are options for digitizing some home movies 'at-home', but this is not as simple as scanning "still" images. The age/type/condition of the film and the availability/condition/cost of playback/scanning equipment can determine whether DIY is even feasible. Realistically, unless you are a highly motivated and committed DIY film enthusiast with thousands of film reels and the hours and patience to dedicate to digitizing films, using a professional service is really the only option.
DIY Film Digitizing
Portable Film Scanners
There used to be only high-end film scanners on the market, designed for capturing professionally-made movies and motion pictures. Nowadays, some more affordable film scanners have been introduced for digitizing home film, making DIY conversion a viable option. Most of the newer portable film and slide scanners come with multiple film inserts & adapters for Super 8 and 8 mm movie film, as well as photo negatives & slides. These scanners capture images one frame at a time and output them as JPEG snapshots. Provided enough frames are captured, these snapshots can be reassembled into video format with movie making software. Googling will pull up models and reviews of these. Some are under $100, with most in the $100 - $150 range.
Reel-to-reel film scanners
There are also a few 8mm & Super 8 Film reel movie digitizer machines on the market. They work like a projector where the film, mounted on 3" or 5" reels, is played. The equipment scans the film frame-by-frame to create a digital MP4 movie file which is saved to an SD card. Googling will pull up Wolverine models in the $300 to $400 range & a more expensive ($800+) Reflecta scanner
The problem with these film scanners is that THEY DO NOT CAPTURE SOUND.
Projecting the film onto a wall and recording the film using a digital camcorder or video camera.
Rigging up a "Telecine " imaging system between the film projector & recording system. This involves (1) back-lighting the film with a low-wattage diffused light source; (2) magnifying the surface of the film and (3) mirroring the film reflection onto a back screen. In this way NOTHING comes between the film and film imaging equipment —no screen, no wall, no plastic — and ensures an exact replication of the film being copied without "distortion, screen texture, noise and unstable images".
Using a DSLR camera in video mode to access manual shutter/aperture settings to capture the film images directly from the lens of the projector into the camera.
NOTE: With these methods an 'obsolete" projector in good repair is need together with digital video recording equipment. If interested, there are HOW TO YouTube videos.
In most cases, using a professional service is going to be the best option. High-quality professional imaging equipment provides much better color reproduction and resolution and evenly lit and focused images from 8mm film reels, WITH sound, if there is any.
In the last few years digitizing companies have begun to offer more affordable fixed price options based on the number of reels or how many feet of film is transferred. These can work out at just a few cents per foot.
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The information presented in this Blog is an accumulation of my own experience and internet searches. I am not affiliated with any of the institutions, services or products that are mentioned.