What You Need To Know Before Choosing A Film Transfer Company

by : Ron Wicker

Most people are amazed to learn that each little film frame can range from a horizontal resolution of 700 lines to 1400 lines. This means that the resolution, or detail, on your old 8mm film is better than DVD and that the resolution on your 16mm film is better than HD!! Well, it's true. The available resolution for old movie film is only limited by the film grain size and the size of the frame. This is important to understand when choosing a company to do your film transfer. After all, you want all the quality you can get from your film when you produce a digital copy of it.

Equally important as resolution is the type of film transfer the company is offering. There are a few basic types of 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 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 film transfer will result in video that is 30-50% worse than the film's current condition.

A second and much newer film transfer process is called frame by frame. A frame by frame process means that each 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 film 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 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 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 old movie 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.

Take your time to compare the different companies offering film transfers. After all, you only want to do this once and you want the film transfer to be as good as it can be.