Converting 8mm Film Into Digital Video

It all started in 2010 when my mother decided to surprise me with DVDs of some old 8mm film my father had shot. She found a local firm that promised to digitize all of her 8mm films into DVDs, complete with menus and background music. She dropped off the movies hoping to have them completed in time for a great Christmas gift. Well, it didn’t work out exactly as she’d hoped…

Thus began my long journey into the secrets and capturing and digitizing film. I used to say that all the nifty video clean-up they do on CSI and NCIS was largely fiction. Well, I don’t want to get ahead of myself but after you read this and check out the videos, you might just become a believer in the magic of digital video like I have.

Back to the story… Christmas 2010 came and went. The digitized movies finally arrived in the summer of 2011. Here’s an example of what we received.

It’s not great but, hey, the movies were very old, probably blurry in the first place and I felt like I should be glad just to have them transferred into bits and bytes. But, I just wasn’t satisfied. As my friends all know, I’m passionate about film and video so I set out to see what I could learn in hopes of getting better digital copies of my family’s precious old movies.

The first thing I learned was that the method of capturing the video may well be the most important part of a high quality final video. A lot of firms just point an old 8mm projector at a screen and then record it with a video camera. While this is workable, it falls short on several fronts. First, old 8mm movies were typically filmed at 16 to 18 frames per second but modern video is typically 30 frames per second. The result is lots of flicker. Second, old film is usually covered with scratches and dust. And, third, the optics of a manual capture often undermine the focus and color of the original film.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of the top film capture firms in the country was just up the road in Marietta. The firm is called Cinepost and they are the proud owners of a Wetgate film transfer system. This dedicated capture device adds a unique step that involves running the film through a fluid that fills in the cracks and scratches as it captures each frame one by one. While it may well have been overkill, they captured each of my 50 ft 8mm reels to a 1080i (HD) QuickTime file. Each file ended up being over 7 gigabytes (yes, that’s gigabytes, not megabytes). Either way, the results were a huge leap forward as you can see below. My thanks to Myron and John for their great work on my project.

The results were really good but they only piqued my ambition to see how far I could take this project. After a lot of additional research, I discovered Jim Battle’s personal website, http://www.thebattles.net/video/8mm_restoration.html. It was the first comprehensive and truly helpful overview of the process I was undertaking. From here, I found the work of Fred Van de Putte, aka VideoFred, and his tool of choice, AVISynth http://vimeo.com/13173031.

AVISynth is a programming language for video editing. It’s a strange idea but, after a lot of time and effort, the power and promise of this tool became clear. Fred’s genius is a series of advanced AVISynth scripts that take high quality 8mm captures and turns them into even higher quality final video.  I tweaked them a bit and added in a few elements of my own but Fred deserves all the credit. As you can see, the results below are nothing less than miraculous.

So, 8mm films are not the same as, say, a street corner camera miraculously discerning a license plate on CSI but, as you’ve seen, the state of the art in video clean up may well be much further along than most people are aware.

And for me personally, it’s hard to describe the magic of seeing my family as they lived and laughed 50 years ago, especially when each clip is clear, smooth and bright.

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