Make sure your priceless family treasures don't get left behind. Here are some tips to turn your twentieth century celluloid into twenty-first century ones and zeros.

My family has long been one filled with motion picture enthusiasts. Recently while picking through a trunk in the attic of the family estate, I came across a crate marked "rhino horns" which turned out not to contain rhino horns at all, but rather a collection of several dozen 8mm film tins. These themselves bore meticulous labels such as "Atlas 2 rocket test" and "Attica Riot," but upon closer inspection revealed themselves to be images of me as a small child performing important tasks such as mashing birthday cake into my face and pulling the dog's tail.

Realizing at once the great historical significance of my find, I called the Smithsonian, who not only wasn't interested but also asked me somewhat less than politely to stop calling them. It was at this point that I realized that in transferring these masterpieces from celluloid to DVD, I was going to be pretty much on my own.

There are basically three ways to get film to video: videotaping it directly; using some variety of telecine machine; or, lastly, getting someone else (a professional) to do it for you.

The Old Projector on the Wall Trick

Of the several do-it-yourself methods of transferring film to video, the simplest is to project your film on a wall and record it with your video camera. This is the same setup you'd use for bootlegging popular films to sell outside your grocery store. The upside is that it's very easy, the downside is that there's always a woman a few rows down wearing a large hat that's partially blocking your view.

"The biggest problem with the wall-projection method," says W. Stuart Debenham, III, president of mymovietransfer.com, "is the frame rate difference. An 8mm movie can have a frame rate anywhere from 14 frames per second to 24 frames per second — and this needs to be resolved into NTSC's 29.97 fps. Unless you have some sophisticated electronics to control film speed, you'll get flicker, which is when you capture half or part of a frame."

To avoid flicker, any projector you use is going to need to be "variable speed" — the 18 fps rate that 8mm film is shot at won't synch without flicker; however, 20 fps will.

While projecting your film onto a clean white wall (light gray works best to control bright differences in contrast) or piece of foamcore, aim your video camera at it and slowly adjust the shutter speed on the projector until the flicker goes away in your camera's monitor.

If a variable speed projector is not in the cards for you, there is also a plugin called MSU Deflicker for VirtualDub, the open source freeware video editor, which will help reduce flicker by eliminating some frames and doubling up others. Your mileage may vary.

A second problem with simply videotaping a projected image is that that your camera and your projector cannot be on the same axis — physically, there's no space for them–your camcorder has to be next to the projector, meaning, well, that your resulting image will be somewhat trapezoidal and possibly requiring some cropping. Enter the telecine.

The Old Telecine Trick

The telecine fixes the off-axis problem by projecting into a mirror which then bounces the images onto a rear screen so you actually are on the same axis. Clever. Hollywood films make it to video this way, but using very sophisticated devices. The simplest telecine units are very no-frills, and can be found at yard sales and online for $25 or so. (Of course, you'll still need to have a variable speed projector on hand.)

There are several mid-range telecines that are no longer in production, notably a digital one made by Elmo (the document camera people), and one made by Goko.

The Elmo, which can be picked up on the used market in the $400 – $600 range, projects film onto a CCD device and outputs a VHS-quality composite video signal, which you could then connect to a camcorder, computer or real-time (set-top) DVD burner. Slightly better and slightly more expensive ($500-$800 used) is the Goko TC-20 that allows you to use your own camcorder which, hopefully, has better than VHS resolution. The Goko uses a 24-facet prism, which fades between one frame and the next to cleverly eliminate flicker.

Both these are options to consider if you have a lot of transfer work to be done, or you're looking to open a side business. For important film and for people who don't have a lot of time and/or money to spend on equipment, outsourcing is the sensible solution.


Getting a Professional

If you're not going to be doing a lot of transfer, or if your film is damaged, sending it out to a professional might be the most expedient method. Some pro shops are actually using Elmos or Gokos, but the best ones use professional telecines designed for the motion picture industry. These high end machines, like the Rank Cintel (which you may find used from $60,000 to more than $160,000) have much better color correction and control over the final image.

Costs

Having a movie house do your transfer will cost something between seven and twenty cents a foot, depending on how much needs to be done with it.

Some questions to ask your transfer house:

  • Can they handle your format? Some will be able to do 16mm but not 8mm, and vice-versa.
  • What type of equipment are they using to do your transfer?
  • Will they clean and lubricate your film before transferring it? (Film can become brittle after being stored for a long time and showing it without first lubricating it can damage the film.)
  • Will they be able to give you a high resolution master on Mini DV? (Remember: MPEG-2, the DVD format, is a lossy form of compression, and eventually you might want to transfer your home movies to HDV.)
  • Are they capable of performing color correction?

Conclusion

Ultimately, factors of expediency, importance and access will lend the most weight to your decision. Amateurish copies can always be made by simply recording your projected image, preferably with a variable speed projector, which you can set to 20 fps. Better than that is a mid-range unit like the Goko or Elmo. These devices open the door for the industrious, but neither will be able to touch the quality of a high-end, dedicated professional machine in the hands of a competent engineer.

Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who writes extensively about technology.

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