8mm Film Transfer Guide: What You Need To Know

By: Ron Wicker

Video has several characteristics that determine how good it is. One of the most important characteristics is the number of lines of resolution. The resolution determines how detailed and sharp the video is. If you've ever watched a standard definition video channel on an HDTV and then switched to the HD version, you notice that the HD version is much sharper and detailed. The reason is that standard definition video has 480 horizontal lines while HD has 1080 lines.

In a similar way, your old 8mm movie films have a maximum resolution. The maximum resolution for an 8mm film transfer is limited by the film grain size and the size of the frame. Research has shown that 8mm film has the equivalent of 700 lines of horizontal resolution. So, a standard definition 8mm film transfer will only be able to capture 480 out of the 700 lines of resolution on your film. A high definition 8mm film transfer will be able to capture all 700 lines of resolution on your 8mm film since it is a 1080 line video format.

In addition to resolution, the type of film transfer is equally important to the final video quality you receive from your 8mm film transfer.

There are a few basic types of 8mm film transfer processes. More than 98% of the companies out there today use a real-time transfer. That is, they capture the film at the same speed that the film normally runs at. So, if a 3 inch reel runs in 3.5 minutes, the capture takes just 3.5 minutes. There are several ways to perform a real-time 8mm film transfer. Some shoot the film on a screen and record it with a camcorder. Some use mirrors and a camera. Some transfer the film to VHS first using equipment from the 1980's and then transfer that to DVD. Because of the transfer speed and nature of a real-time capture, the resulting video frames are usually slightly blurry and the colors are faded compared to the film. In general, any type of real-time transfer will result in video that is 30-50% worse than the film's current condition.

A second and much newer 8mm film transfer process is called frame by frame. A frame by frame process means that each 8mm film frame is captured like a separate digital picture. Most frame by frame machines are high-end $50,000+ machines that scan or project the image directly onto a CCD device. Reading each frame one at a time ensures that all the details are captured from the film. A frame by frame process will result in video that is 30-50% better than a similarly configured real-time process.

Be aware, some companies claiming a frame by frame transfer are doing a real-time transfer and then are extracting each film frame after the real time capture. Because the capture process is real-time, it will still produce video that is 30-50% worse than the current film's quality just like any other real-time process. These companies are trying to capitalize on the "Frame by Frame" slogan and price without giving you frame by frame quality.

So, at this point you've learned that film transfers can capture at standard definition (480 lines) or high definition (1080 lines). You've also learned that a frame by frame transfer can be 30-50% better quality than a real-time transfer. So, looking at it this way, there are now four 8mm film transfer process combinations. In order from least to best quality we have:

1) Real-Time Standard Definition (least quality)
2) Real-Time High Definition
3) Frame by Frame Standard Definition
4) Frame by Frame High Definition (best quality)

You'll find all four processes being used today and you'll see the price reflect that. Real-time standard definition processes go for 10 to 15 cents/ft, real-time high definition for 16-21 cents/ft, frame by frame standard definition 21 to 28 cents/ft and frame by frame high definition for 40 to 60 cents/ft

Besides these 4 different 8mm film transfer processes above, you'll notice that a few companies have started to offer restoration services. The reason is that over 90% of the 8mm film today has colors that have shifted, exposure that is now darker, is grainy and scratched. These are natural side affects of the aging process. In addition, there may have been exposure or other types of issues that were originally recorded on the film to begin with.

Companies will have a wide range of abilities from no restoration at all, to a limited scene level color corrector, to full frame by frame restoration using dedicated film restoration machines.

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