Digitizing 8mm movies with a digital camera
In 2011, I digitized two eight-inch reels of 8mm home movies from the 1960s and early 70s. Back then, I used a Canon point-and-shoot camera attached to a macro lens to take photos of all the frames. I advanced the film, one frame at a time, by pulling it with my fingers. The end results were excellent, but it was a very slow process – it took weeks to digitize all the frames, and almost as long to crop the images so they lined up with each other. It was also probably hard on the camera – I’d guess that digitizing a couple of film used up about half of its shutter life.
There were a few reels of film left over, and I digitized those last year. I wanted a better method of scanning,, so the film frames would be correctly registered (in exactly the same position) when each photo was taken.
I ended up constructing a homemade film gate, which is easier than you might think. I used some of those flexible magnetic sheets. They’re sold in business card size, so you can stick a magnet to the back of your business cards, but if you put two together (and remove the glue with rubbing alcohol), it will clamp the film flat in front of your camera. (This method probably wouldn’t be good for sound film, which uses a magnetic stripe to store the sound.)
Here’s the bottom half of the film holder. The white strips are correction tape, but I’ve also used strips of thin card. They work as guides to keep the film straight, as well as giving the film clearance to slide along the channel. You want something slightly thicker than the 8mm film, so the film slides easily through the gap. The easiest way to assemble it is to place the film on the sheet, then add the tape to each side. The measurement should then be almost exact. There are two holes. The one in the centre is big enough to show about two frames, and slightly wider than the film. The other hole will be used to grab sprockets and advance the film.
This is the top of the holder being lowered and slid into place. After the film is placed on the bottom, the top magnet snaps into place above it. The film is held completely flat. It has a holes that match those on the bottom layer. (I made them by putting the two pieces together and cutting them with a scalpel. The white strips on top can be used to block out part of the image, so you see only the film frame and not the sprockets. (I later removed these, because it’s useful to see sprockets.)
Movie film is very tiny – the width of the actual image on “dual 8” 8mm film is only 4.5 mm, and the image on Super 8 film is only slightly wider – 5.79 mm, so digitizing these images is like working with a microscope. But if you have the right equipment, it works well. A SLR style digital camera, with a good macro lens, can capture all the detail worth seeing on these tiny images.
I used a Panasonic camera – a Lumix GH5 – with an Olympus Zuiko 30mm 3.5 macro lens. I used the electronic shutter setting, so there’s no physical wear and tear on the camera as it takes thousands of photos. The macro lens didn’t get me as close as I wanted, so I added some cheap macro extension tubes so the 8mm film filled the frame.
On a movie projector, the film is advanced by a metal claw. I made a plastic claw by cutting an angled shape from a plastic binder cover. For each new frame, I placed the claw in the gap and pulled the film to the bottom of the hole. With the plastic claw in one hand and a shutter release cable in the other, I found I could digitize about one frame every two seconds. At that rate, it takes a little over an hour to digitize one 50-foot reel. The registration of the images was about as good as you’d get from a projector – I could run though the images in the camera and the results were as smooth as a movie.
I added a couple of cheap filter rings to the camera lens, so the film holder would be at the closest distance for reliable focusing. I glued the lower half of the film holder to the front ring. (It was a step-down ring, which provides a nice flat surface for glueing.) This makes a very stable surface. You can wobble the camera and it won’t affect the image.
Here’s the camera mounted on the tripod, looking up at an overhead light. There are two inexpensive macro extension tubes added behind the lens, and a couple of adapter rings screwed into the front. I’m sliding the plastic “claw” into the gap to advance the film by exactly one frame. It’s just a piece of black plastic cut into that shape with scissors.
A wider view. The film stretches several feet from a spool (off screen) on the left, and is picked up by a spool visible on the right. The spools are just mounted on pencils. Every so often, I’d roll some more slack from the supply reel, and roll the loose film onto the takeup reel. Although it’s convenient to have the film facing upwards, a minor hitch is that any dust and dirt may fall down onto the surface of the lens. I had to clean it out at intervals.
It’s a messy looking arrangement, I know, but I was very pleased with the end results. This 8mm film will never produce a high definition picture – under ideal conditions, digitizing it so the image is about 500 dots wide should be enough to capture all the image detail it’s possible to see. (Of course, you can go higher if you want to see details like film grain, dirt, and scratches.)
Here a sample scan, reduced in size. That’s my great-grandmother looking at the gifts on a wedding table, and this is probably as good as you are going to get from this film. Physical details, like spots of dirt (window top left) and rough edge of the sprocket hole, show that the digital image is very sharp. But the original image is not.
Here’s the same image, cropped and with some colour correction applied to remove the magenta cast from the original film.