A look at do it your self and professional options to transfer your classic 16mm film (or any other type of film) to video or DVD.
Transfers of Yesterday: Video to Film
Ironically, early television broadcasters had a different problem. Since the 1950s, the only way to preserve television images was to make an inter-negative or a film dub. Television broadcasts were preserved using a Kinescope process, which involved filming live video feeds directly off a television. You've seen samples of this in broadcasts like "The Honeymooners: The Lost Episodes." The quality is not that great: How good can a filmed copy from a TV really be? Then again, a Kinescope copy is certainly better than no copy.
Transfers of Today
Today, we want to do the opposite: transfer from film to video and DVD. There are two primary reasons for doing so: (1) to archive content from a decaying media, in this case film, and (2) to give us convenient access to our movies.
The preservation process is big business for the film industry which uses a very sophisticated process. 8mm, 16mm, 35mm and 65mm film negative or film positive is transferred to any one of 26 (and counting) available media. One transfer instrument common in the professional arena is the Rank-Cintel film-to-tape machine. This is what the pros use to get the highest quality possible film to video transfers. The source film is often transferred to DigiBeta tape so it can be easily processed on a computer. The process is complex and expensive. Costs might range from about $300 for a simple transfer with no color correction to $600 per working-hour for a supervised transfer. In this process, a Rank operator and colorist stops the machine at each shot to color correct each single run or exposure of the camera negative. The results are typically very good. But you'd still need to find a way to transfer video tape to DVD, if that's its ultimate destination.
Using Reverse-Kinescope to Transfer 8mm and 16mm film to video or DVD
OK, so you've had some trouble lining up the funds for a Hollywood transfer. We're going to explore three other, more affordable, do it yourself methods of transferring film to DVD.
The first idea that may pop into your mind is what we might call a reverse-Kinescope. We'll point our camcorder at our old movie screen and hit record. This process has one major advantage: it's free. (Once you buy a new bulb for your old projector.) The first step is to clean your 8mm, Super 8mm or 16mm film projector's gate and sprockets to eliminate dust. If the film is not too fragile, take a photographer's negative dust brush and dust off the footage. You can use a blower brush too, but you need to discharge the static first. Short film rolls can be hand-cleaned by unwinding the film from the source reel to an empty reel, then, using a dust free eyeglass cleaner cloth, wipe the film as you unwind it. Check for any broken or bad splices. Fifty-footers (three-minute reels) usually don't have splices, but longer reels will. If you find bad splices, replace or remove them, breaking up the longer reels into smaller ones.
The next step is to set up your home movie projector close to your projection screen. If you don't have a proper screen, use a white blotter board fastened to a wall. Place your camcorder's lens, set at a middle focal length, above the projector so the projected image fills the video viewfinder. A projector image size of about eight to twelve inches is probably about right, producing maximum brightness while still filling the camcorder's frame.
Of course your first problem is going to be that the camcorder is necessarily off-center from the screen. You may have to adjust the camcorder placement or tighten up the frame size to get the image into a reasonable rectangle. The second problem that you might not notice right away is that you will get flicker: an annoying (or quaint, depending on your perspective) pulsing of the picture. Flicker can be almost eliminated if you have a projector with a variable speed motor control and coordinate this with your camcorder's shutter speed. Unfortunately, the coordination process is going to be one of experimentation. It takes skill to work the variable speed control, but once you figure it out it can remove almost all of the flicker.
Using Rear-Reverse-Kinescope To Transfer 8mm and 16mm film to video or DVD
The second film-to-video transfer method is similar to the first. Instead of shooting the screen from head-on (but off-center), you'll use a rear screen projection unit which sells for about $60. The unit, which is about the size of a toaster, is placed in front of your projector. A fun house mirror configuration inside the box reverses the image and projects it out so you can point your camera right at it. The image size projected is smaller and brighter than what you get from a projection transfer. You'll still have the potential for a serious flicker, but it will certainly be no worse than you'd get just shooting the screen.
Of course, you could pay someone to do your transfer for you. Some companies that advertise film-to-video transfers use a rear-projection process much like we've just described. Hiring a pro who uses this film to video transfer system does have its advantages in terms of experience and convenience, but you aren't likely to get any higher-quality results.
Send It Out
It's almost impossible to completely eliminate flicker without using additional technology. It's a matter of finding a way to compensate for the difference between the frame rate of film (typically 18 or 24 fps) and that of video (30 fps). It's this difference that causes flicker. There are companies out there, sprouting up like mushrooms really, that can do a more precise film to video transfer, scanning your footage frame-by-frame using a special machine that stops the film momentarily while a camcorder records. The camcorder is usually a professional model, but it is largely not unlike the one you own. The cost for this service is roughly $15 to $50 per hour, but the quality is very good. The service often includes film cleaning. Some companies will transfer your movies to videotape. Others, like YesVideo, will transfer them straight to DVD with menus and packaging already made.
Armed with what you've learned here, you should be able to find a good one. Browse their Websites, read their literature and, by all means, give the company a call. Ask them about their process. Do they just shoot a rear projection? You could do that yourself, after all. Ask them what kind of camcorder they are using. This is becoming a big and competitive business, so you should be able to find personalized service at a reasonable rate.
How to Transfer Video Tape to DVD
Whether you've transferred your film to tape yourself, or had it done by a professional, you may now want to get it from tape to DVD. If you didn't use a service that makes DVDs for you, you may want to attempt this step yourself also.
You'll need either a freestanding DVD recorder or a DVD-recordable drive in your computer. With the former, you can typically send your video from your camcorder to the DVD recorder by way of a FireWire jack. The DVD recorder will do the rest, including making a simple DVD menu.
To do the job with a computer, you'll also need simple DVD authoring software. Some software products automate almost the whole process, making it almost as simple for you as the DVD recorders do. Others will allow you some creative freedom in the design of menus, backgrounds and buttons. Once you have created these in your software, you will encode the whole project for DVD and burn it to a blank disc.
Do it yourself Film to Video Transfer or use a pro?
Remember, every day that passes your 8mm and Super8 film fades a bit. And with every trip it makes through the hot projector it risks serious damage. If you are on a tight budget, you might as well try to do it yourself, provided your film is in relatively good condition. You are going to be hard pressed to beat the quality of professional film to video transfer services, however. And if your films are in rough shape, the repair and reconditioning that a service offers may extend the life of the source footage, in addition to making video copies. Perhaps the best route is to try one reel yourself and send another one out as a test. It's definitely more than a question of money and convenience, however, so it is worth it to do it the right way once and for all.
Garret Maynard is a professional videographer.
You may have films that are far more than just the sentimental kind. What do you do if you want to preserve your footage of a WW2 tank deployment or a battleship attack from the Vietnam conflict or footage of a presidential visit to your hometown? It's best to seek the advice of a film archivist or lab technician. If you can afford it, employ the folks at a transfer house: they can make you the ultimate transfer.
[Sidebar: Dub or Transfer]
We should make a distinction between a dub and a transfer. A dub is the copying of the images on to the same medium, VHS to VHS. A transfer is copying the images on to a different medium, VHS to DVD or 8mm film to DVD.