They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. If that’s true, then What does that mean for video? With 24 pictures (frames) per second, a video’s worth is immesurable. This is why so many family memorise have been captured on video through the years. Unfortunately, due to the nature of film and videotape, those irreplacable memories could be at risk of disappearing forever.

You might hear about film transfer processes in the context of film preservation efforts. According to the Library of Congress, 75% of movies from the silent era of cinema are now lost forever. And the same can happen to any precious memories you have preserved in old formats.

So to see how you can prevent your old film and tapes from being lost to time, let’s take a look at some of the threats facing your old media, and the processes to digitize film and VHS tapes for posterity.

Threats to Old Film and Video Tapes

A major component of why the loss of films and tapes is so ubiquitous is the fact that these are relatively young technologies.

The earliest surviving motion picture is a two-second clip of a man riding a horse, shot in 1878. Amusingly, the inventors of the technology didn’t seem to understand what they’d done. They shot the film to settle a wager on whether all four of a horse’s hooves left the ground at the same time, they had no plans to revolutionize mass media.

Even if you discount that example as not technically being a movie, as some film scholars do, the runner-up would be the Roundhay Garden Scene, another two-second clip filmed about a decade later. In either case, the film medium is less than 150 years old.

Videotape is even younger. The first magnetic videotape wasn’t invented until 1951. And the first commercial videotape recorder wouldn’t arrive until five years later.

While both of these technologies exemplify the great leaps we were making in the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a problem. As new as they were, there was no information on how well the materials hold up over time. And that lack of information is partly why so many films and tapes have been allowed to degrade.

What Happens to Old Film

Movie film is made up of three basic components: a clear plastic base, a thin layer of gelatin emulsion, and an image composed of either color dyes or, for black-and-white film, particles of silver.

 Film degradation occurs when any of these components start to deteriorate.

Heat and extremes of dampness and dryness are the major factors that cause film to break down.

Film stock made prior to 1950 is subject to a process called nitrate degradation, a process where the nitrate plastic base breaks down. When this happens, nitrate film becomes extremely flammable, posing a fire hazard. It used to be common for entire vaults of film to go up in flames due to nitrate degradation.

Safety film was introduced to rectify that hazard. But it, too, is subject to the breakdown of colored dyes in the film stock. This is called vinegar syndrome and can make images look murky and discolored.

The Film Transfer Process

The processes for digitizing 8mm film and 16mm film are more or less the same.

First, the film needs to be cleaned as best as possible. Dirt, dust, or debris on the film can cause poor image transfer, so this step is crucial to ensure optimal visual fidelity. At this stage, the technician will also inspect the film for damaged splices that need repair.

Now it’s time to scan and transfer the footage. A real-time transfer is the fastest way to do this. But for maximum visual fidelity, scanning the film frame-by-frame is the optimal technique.

It’s possible to digitize VHS tapes with nothing more than a VCR, computer, and a few special cables. But to transfer tapes at optimal quality, professionals will use dedicated digital video converters. You could think of them as high-end VCRs combined with state-of-the-art computer systems that capture the audio and video off of the tape and encode them into a digital format.

From there, it’s only a matter of making any necessary touch-ups and converting the files to the desired output.

And speaking of touchups, one of the greatest benefits of digital transfer is the opportunity to make old footage look better than ever before.

Benefits of Transfering Old Film

As we established, film and videotape are delicate mediums. Most people don’t have the space and resources to store them in optimal conditions. And even then, it’s only a matter of slowing decay, not preventing it.

Transferring footage to digital not only preserves it indefinitely but allows you to restore damaged or degraded video to its former glory.

This is thanks to the strides made in video restoration over the last couple of decades. Efforts by film historians to preserve and restore classic films have advanced the craft of restoring old footage to pristine condition.

For example, film reels that have suffered the effects of vinegar syndrome can be restored to their original color and clarity. And VHS tapes that have degraded due to age or overuse can benefit from noise reduction. Those are only a couple of ways that digitizing your footage can give those memories a new lease on life.

Preserving Precious Memories

The point of capturing a moment on film is to preserve it for generations to come. But the technologies used to capture some of those moments were far from perfect, leaving precious memories vulnerable to the ravages of time.

Film transfer is crucial for preserving these records of our collective past. So whether your memories are saved to film, VHS, audiotape, or photographs, contact us to take advantage of our state-of-the-art digitization and preservation services.