Do-It-Yourself Film-To-Videotape Transfer

Minimal Investment of Time and Money Big Payoff in Quality and Convenience

If you’re like most people, you have a shoe box or two hidden away in a closet, carefully tucked behind an old pair of ski boots. Every year during spring house cleaning you pop open the lid and say, “Gotta go through these some day.”

Squirreled away in that old shoe box are countless little plastic reels of 8mm movie film held by rotting rubberbands, or little plastic boxes filled with 35mm slides carefully labeled by date and event.

Inside that old shoe box are memories just waiting to be relived: the kids growing up, that dream vacation, mom and dad’s 50th wedding anniversary, and maybe even proof that Uncle George did once have hair. Yes, it sure would be nice to see that stuff again.

But setting up the movie screen and cranking up that noisy old projector takes time. Even more unpleasant is the thought of mining your precious film; you’ll recall, that projector can eat as much film as it shows!

The Solution?

Put those memories on videotape for the convenience of TV viewing-as easy as popping a cassette into your VCR. It’s not expensive or difficult to transfer film and slides to videotape if you use my cheap-and-dirty method. And it could be a great winter project.

By “cheap and dirty” I mean it will cost only a few dollars plus your time. Paying to have your film transferred to videotape can be expensive-as much as eight cents a foot or $160,000 for two hours of film. And I’ve heard too many complaints about the quality of commercial filn and slide-to-tape transfers.

To do the job yourself without investing in a telecine converter, all you need is a movie projector, camcorder and tripod, a color TV, a large piece of plain white poster board, a fresh videocassette. . . and your shoe box full of movie film and/or slides.

The cheap-and-dirty method works well, but results may not be perfect. For no mater how hard you try, you will not improve upon the quality of the original film or slide.

Most inadequacies will be attributable to the use of two totally different imaging systems for your transfer-one mechanical, the other electronic.

Simple Setup

The basic setup for transferring film and slides is the same.

Your screen material canbejust about anything that’s white and smooth. If it’s not white, color will be off. Textured material, such as a plastered wall, are not good to use because marks or even a slight fold in apiece of cloth will show up in the video and distract viewers. Beaded screens aren’t recommended either. Plain illustration board works as well as anything and is inexpensive.

Once your screen is in place, set the projector on a table or projection stand no more than four or five feet away. The closer the projector is to the screen, the brighter the picture will be. Also, the smaller the projected image, the better its resolution.

Load as much film on as large a reel as the projector will hold. This will avoid having to pause the tape and reload the projector every three minutes.

Position your tripod-mounted camcorder as closely in line with the lens of the projector as possible.

If the camcorder is too far off to one side and/or above the projectorlens, objects in the video will distort with a “keystoning” effect. The top of the pictures will be larger than the bottom and one side will be larger than the other.

Test for the Best

Darken the room so the only light on the screen is from the projector bulb. Stray light from a window or lamp will wash out the projected image and destroy the brilliant colors of the film or slides.

Using a bulb of the highest wattage the projector can take will give you the brightest picture possible. But… Warning! If you exceed the wattage limits of the projector, you’ll bum the film.

If the projected image appears to be washed out, move the projector farther away from the screen or decrease bulb wattage.

Next, set your camcorder’s white- balance control to the indoor or tungsten setting (sometimes marked by the symbol of a light bulb).

For efficient focusing, place a page of a large print flat on the screen surface. Don’t use your camcorder’s automatic focus when transferring film to videotape; adjust the focus manually.

Before beginning the transfer process you should test the setup. Connect the camcorder to a TV, then project sample images on the film screen. Adjust the camcorder’s framing as you watch the monitor. if the picture is too bright, adjust the iris control to stop down the lens. If the picture is too dark, open the iris.

Finally, record and play back some video to see if the system is working to your satisfaction.

The Real Thing

Now the fun begins. Reload the projector and run the film up to a point five or six seconds before the first image frame. Rewind the videocassette and record 30 seconds of tape with the camcorder’s adjustable iris closed or the lens capped, then pause it. This will give you a clean piece of “leader” at the beginning of your tape.

If you have access to color bars, record 30 seconds at the beginning of the tape followed by 10 seconds of black. At the end of the “leader,” pause-but don’t stop-the tape. Now, start the projector. As soon as you see the first image frame, unpause the camcorder.

If you have more than one reel of film to transfer, simply pause the camcorder just before the last frame, reload the projector, and continue.

The Slide Side

Working with slides can be a real challenge. Don’t just roll the tape and let the projector run through a tray of slides. If you do, the slide changes and the projector’s autofocus maneuvering will accompany your images-and spoil your production.

Instead, pause the camcorder between shots. Change the slide and re-frame the camcorder, unpause, record the video, and pause the camcorder again. Follow this procedure until you’re done.

If only a portion of a slide is good video, frame up to what you want. And to give an ordinarily dull slide show movement, pan or tilt the camcorder, use the zoom lens, or improve picture composition.

You might start wide and zoom in on the focal point of the slide, or start on the focal point and pull back to reveal the surroundings. Starting tight on the left or right side of the frame then slowly panning to the other side is another of numerous possibilities, depending on the image you’re working with and the effect you desire.

Vertical slides will force you to frame only a portion of the image. Otherwise you’ll have black edges on each side of the picture and a smaller image on the screen. Try tilting the camcorder. For a shot of the Eiffel Tower, start at the bottom of the frame and tilt up.

Whenever you pan, tilt, or zoom, dont begin the move the instant the tape starts. Hold the shot three, four, or even five seconds, then make a slow and deliberate pan, tilt, or zoom. At the end of the move, hold the shot again for an- other three, four, or five seconds.

Quality Control

In most instances you will not be able to improve image quality. If the film or slide is out of focus it will stay that way.

Film tends to exaggerate colors and contrasts on bright, sunny days and go flat and colorless on dull, cloudy days. Blues are most noticeably “colorized.”

Although these conditions cannot be improved upon in the transfer, if your camcorder can adjust color, the TV hookup will let you monitor necessary adjustments.

Color correctors, such as Sony’s XVC900, will let you increase or decrease color intensity. Be sure to do your fine-tuning before you record, however, so corrections aren’t seen on tape.

Record in the “Standard Play” mode using high-grade tape,for the best color possible. Cheap tape will cause trouble. If you want to make copies of the transfer for friends or relatives without losing too much picture quality, consider connecting a video enhancer between the playback and record VCRs. Some enhancers are not worth the money; the higher priced ones usually are.

You should operate on a trial-and-error basis before you begin your transfer project in earnest. There’s little chance of getting a perfect copy the first time: The color may be off, the focus may not be sharp, the screen material may have a blemish.

Although this system isn’t very fancy, you can’t beat the price and results should equal or beat what video services can offer. With a little patience and practice, you’ll get the hang of it.

Sounds of Success

As you may have already discovered, the camcorder will record the sound of the projector along with any other sounds in the room as you transfer your film and slides.

To eliminate unwanted sound, insert a dummy plug into the camcorder’s accessory mike jack, or try unplugging the camcorder’s built-in mike. Another alternative is to simply turn down the TV volume during playback.

You’ll have more control over the situation if you add sound to the tape after the transfer using a VCR’s “audio dub” feature.

Adding background music to dress up the tape can be done before or after you make the transfer. Simply connect a stereo system to the camcorder’s external mike jack or the VCR’s “audio in” jack. To include both music and narration, you must incorporate an audio mixer with the stereo system.

John Fuller is a television news cameraman for WXYZ-TV, Detroit, and a “hobbyist videomaking” columnist for the Detroit Free Press. He is the author of Prescription for Better Home Video Movies (HPBooks).

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

Related Content