Digitizing old home movies makes them viewable on today’s devices—HDTVs, laptops, tablets and smartphones. It also preserve these precious records of family history: Old films and videotapes are slowly degrading, but digital versions will remain stable virtually forever (as long as it can play on current technology). It’s relative easy to improve the quality of digitized movies and share clips online.
But the confusing multitude of digitization options kept me procrastinating for years. I finally dove in, found solutions that balanced cost and quality, and converted all our movies (at least, the ones I can find). To help you digitize your own trove of home movies, here’s a rundown of five ways to get the job done—and how to decide what’s right for you.
5 different ways to digitize home movies
You can choose from five different ways to digitize your home movies. Listed from least expensive to most expensive, these options provide quality commensurate with the price (except for the USB converter box method).
1. USB converter box
Most of the film transfer services in the chart on page 52 digitize videos, but you can digitize them yourself with an inexpensive USB converter box. One option is used VIDBOX VHS to DVD 8.0 Deluxe for Windows.
To convert videos to digital with a USB converter box, you need a device to play them back. To play VHS and VHS-C videos, I bought a refurbished VCR on Amazon.com. I connected the VCR to the Honestech VIDBOX with the included cables, and connected the VIDBOX to my computer with a USB cable. I played back the videos and watched them as the Honestech software converted them to digital files. You need an adapter to play a VHS-C (compact videocassette) in a VCR.
To play back Hi8 and Video8 videos, I bought a used Sony Digital8 camcorder that handles both video types. I connected the camcorder to the VIDBOX with an S video connector. I saved the converted video as MPG files on my computer. Old camcorder video was never sharp to begin with, but the converted video looks just as good as the original.
You can convert unlimited videos for the cost of the USB converter box (and a VCR and camcorder, if you need them). This method takes considerable time and you need plenty of hard drive space (about 3.5GB per hour of video for MPG files).
2. Real-time transfer
Unfortunately, there’s no way to connect an 8mm, Super 8 or 16mm movie film projector or camera to a USB converter box. Real-time film transfer is the cheapest method to digitize these film types. A service that uses a high-definition camera or camcorder for real-time transfer will get slightly better results. But even at its best, real-time transfer produces video that’s slightly blurry with less vivid color. Most methods involve projecting the movie on a screen as you take digital video of it. You can do that yourself with a projector, a screen or whiteboard, and a digital video camera. You’ll probably need to do a lot of tweaking to get the setup right.
Some digital transfer services still use real-time capture to convert movie film. I tested a 3-inch reel of 8mm film, and the converted video was washed out and blurry, partly because of bad sprockets. It was so poor that the company didn’t charge me. Most film transfer services charge about $8 to $12.50 per 50-foot reel for real-time transfer, including the DVD.
This process employs a camcorder and projector for capture, but the camcorder takes a picture of each frame rather than a running video. I selected a company to do frame-by-frame scanning of my 8mm and Super 8 film. The resulting digital files closely match the original film’s clarity, color and brightness.
Depending on the scanning resolution, film transfer services usually charge between $8 and $15 per 50-foot reel for frame-by-frame transfer. Professional frame-by-frame film scanners usually cost $50,000 or more, but MovieStuff of Texas offers a unit designed for home use for just $2,995.
4. Motion picture film scanner
Made for professional use, a motion picture film scanner uses a roller-based (rather than a sprocket-based) system. That means you can get good results even if your film has bad sprockets. Many scanners also adjust for shrunken film. They produce significantly better video than frame-by-frame scanners. DigitalFilmTechnology’s Spirit and Scanity scanners are state-of-the-art motion picture film scanners, but because they carry a hefty price tag (nearly $500,000 for one scanner), this isn’t a DIY option.
5. DataCine Film Scanner
DataCine film scanners scan at very high resolutions, 2K (1,556 lines) or 4K (3,112 lines). They scan much slower than motion picture film scanners, resulting in higher quality. DataCine film scanners use pins to stabilize the film before scanning it. At a cost of around $1 million or more, DataCine film scanners are the most expensive digitization option that film transfer services offer, but they produce the best video quality.
Scanning resolutions for home movies
When comparing film transfer services, a key consideration is scanning resolution. Typical options include standard definition (SD) with 480 horizontal lines of vertical resolution and high definition (HD) with 1080 horizontal lines. The number of lines of resolution of your film depends on the camera, lens, lighting and focus when it was recorded. 8mm and Super 8 film is usually equivalent to between 700 and 1,000 lines of horizontal resolution, so a SD scan at 480 lines won’t capture all the lines, but an HD scan at 1080 lines will.
While an HD scan is adequate for 8mm and Super 8 film, there may be some benefits to scanning at an even higher resolution. Video Conversion Experts, which offers scanning with high-end DataCine film scanners, recommends 2K scanning for better color reproduction and restoration of 8mm and Super 8 film.
Some services scan at a lower resolution and then upconvert to a higher resolution. That doesn’t match scanning at a higher resolution to begin with, so ask what the native scanning resolution is without upconverting. Also find out if the service uses interlaced or progressive scanning, indicated by an i or p, as in 1080i or 1080p. Progressive scanning is preferred because you can change playback speed without loss of image quality and it produces better still images.
Most film transfer services charge by the foot. A 3-inch reel has 50 feet and a 7-inch reel has 400 feet. Some services charge extra for splicing film from 3-inch to 7-inch reels, cleaning and lubricating the film, correcting color and exposure and converting audio, plus fees for setup and shipping. They also might charge for adding a menu to your disc and a title at the beginning of each reel. When preparing your discs to be transferred, number the reels and supply a title for each one. Consider getting your movies on different types of media—and figure these costs into the total price.
Video format choices
- DVD: SD video on a DVD plays on a TV or a computer with a DVD or Blu-ray player. The video isn’t as clear as your original movies. You can use a menu to jump to different chapters (reel numbers).
- Blu-ray: HD video on a Blu-ray disc plays on an HDTV with a Blu-ray player or a computer with a Blu-ray drive. Windows 7’s Media Player plays DVDs, but to play DVDs with Windows 8 or Blu-rays with Windows 7 or 8, you need a third-party player, such as the free VLC media player. HD video on a Blu-ray should be about as sharp as your original movies. You can use a menu to jump to different chapters.
- Editable files on a hard drive: If a DVD or Blu-ray includes an on-screen menu for jumping to different chapters, the files on the disc are in a format you can’t import directly into a video editing program. You need file formats such as AVI, MOV and MP4 for editing. That allows you to use video-editing software to rearrange scenes, add music or narration, and compile clips to share with relatives. DVD and Blu-ray discs eventually will become obsolete. Editable files on a hard drive are better for long-term archiving your video.
- Progressive files on a hard drive: Another option to consider is numbered images of all the frames in your video. You can import Motion JPEG (MJPEG) files into video-editing software to reconstitute the movie. You could create the files yourself with software such as QuickTime 7 Pro ($29.99 for Windows or Mac), which lets you export progressive frames from editable files, such as AVI, MOV and MP4.
Compare and contrast film transfer companies
The chart below compares film transfer services. Many customers safely mail their movies to a service, but if you worry about losing them, look for a nearby service where you can hand-deliver your films. Search the web for film transfer service plus the name of your city or state. Verify that the service handles your film type, with sound if necessary, plus the digitization method, scanning resolution and output media you want. Find out how much the project will cost and what’s included in the pricing.
The cost could be substantial if you have many films to transfer, so it’s a good idea to start with one film as a test. You’ll have to pay for it, but it could save you from spending a lot of money only to be disappointed. In the test transfer, look for color accuracy, even illumination across the film frames, and details in dark and light areas.
To digitize my 8mm and Super 8 films, I chose Studio Vision Productions (SVP; now The Memory Preserve) of Bismarck, N.D., for the pricing, frame-by-frame scanning at a resolution of 1080, and full range of media output. They’re also located nearby, so I didn’t have to trust my home movies to the mail. I started with a test on a 3-inch reel. The converted video was excellent, except for one thing: the motion was too fast. As it turned out, SVP converted it at 24 fps (frames per second), while my films were shot at 18 fps. It was nice to get the speed figured out before transferring the rest of my movies. I was pleased with the results. A three-minute stretch from one reel turned out shaky because of loose sprockets, but given the variable quality of the original films, the rest of the converted video has good detail, accurate color and proper illumination. SVP returned the original films in perfect condition, with the 3-inch reels transferred to 7-inch ones.
Film transfer services
Pricing for film transfer service varies depending on resolution, scanning method and delivery mode (DVD, Blu-ray or external hard drive). Having files put on an external hard drive usually costs extra and requires digitizing at the highest resolution. Ask whether film cleaning, splicing and minor repair is included in base pricing. Also ask whether shipping is included or if minimum orders are required. In addition to transferring 8mm, Super 8 and 16mm film, some companies also transfer VHS, VHS-C, Betamax or MiniDV video.
|Company||Price (per 50-foot 8mm reel)||Film Types||Digitization Method||Scanning Resolution||Output Media||Additional Information|
|DigMyPics||$15 (at 1080p)||8mm, Super 8||frame-by-frame||480p, 1080p||DVD, Blu-ray, hard drive||Price includes manual color and exposure correction, online viewing and organization and custom DVD menus. They can also transfer sound.|
|Heartland Box||$12.50 (at 720p, includes DVD)||8mm, Super 8, 16mm||frame-by-frame||480p, 720p||DVD, hard drive, flash drive||Offers an “easy box” option for better pricing when you send a lot of reels at once.|
|iMemories||$14.99 (plus cost of DVD)||8mm, Super 8, 16mm||frame-by-frame||1080p||DVD, Blu-ray, hard drive||Price includes color correction. Preview movies online and create customized DVDs and Blu-ray discs. Access videos and photos free online for 30 days. Apps for iPad, iPhone, Android, PC and Mac.|
|Just8mm.com||$7.95 (includes DVD)||8mm, Super 8, 16mm (shot at 24 fps only)||real-time||480i||DVD, hard drive||Archives 8mm movie backups indefinitely at no extra charge. Turnaround time is six or less business days from time they receive the order until they ship it to you.|
|The Memory Preserve||$8, plus cost of cleaning and lubricating film||8mm, Super 8, 16mm||frame-by-frame||1080i||DVD, Blu-ray, hard drive||Scans film at HD for Blu-ray and then converts those files into standard definition for maximum clarity on a DVD. Footage is corrected for color and density.|
|Mymovietransfer.com||$25 (plus cost of disc/drive)||8mm, Super 8, 16mm||motion picture film scanner||720p, 1080p||DVD, Blu-ray, hard drive||Scans at a higher resolution and then downconverts it to the resolution needed for the disc/drive. Produces greater detail in underexposed film.|
|Memorable||Subscription prices vary||8mm, Super 8, 16mm||motion picture film scanner||720p||Streaming or downloadable files||Lets you share digitized videos on smartphones, tablets and computers.|
|ScanCafe||$12.50 (includes DVD)||8mm, Super 8, 16mm||real-time||480p, 1080p||DVD, Blu-ray, hard drive||Includes color correction and dust and scratch reductions in HD movie film scans. Express scanning is done in California; other orders are shipped to India. If ScanCafe loses your order, it will pay you up $1,000.|
|ScanDigital||$5||8mm, Super 8||frame-by-frame||1080p||DVD, hard drive (special order)||Caters to customers who want to watch their old movies on a DVD.|
|Video Conversion Experts||$8 to $36||8mm, Super 8, 16mm||frame-by-frame, motion picture film scanner or DataCine film scanner||480p, 1080p, 1556p||DVD, Blu-ray, hard drive||The 1080p (mid-priced) option is usually sufficient, but use the higher priced option for the highest quality clarity and color reproduction. Offers digital restoration to remove most film defects.|
|YesVideo||$8.99 (plus cost of DVD)||8mm, Super 8, 16mm||real-time||480p||DVD||Uses standard definition only. Send your film in or drop it off at one of 34,000 retail partner locations. View video in an online account. iPad app is available.|
Share and save
Once you get your digitized movies, the first thing you should do is to make backups and, preferably, store them offsite.
Some film transfer services offer simple film editing online, so you can rearrange clips and create custom DVDs. If you used a USB converter box to digitize your video or you ordered editable files on an external hard drive, you can edit your movies with video-editing software. Popular free programs include OpenShot, Windows Movie Maker and iMovie, part of the iLife suite of software applications included with new consumer Macs. Using Sony Movie Studio Platinum 13 for Windows, I’ve created collections of clips to share on DVD and Blu-ray, and I’ve extracted clips to post on Facebook.
My computer already had a DVD burner and I bought a Blu-ray burner, so now I can easily duplicate DVD and Blu-ray discs. I also purchased a Canon PIXMA Wireless Inkjet Photo All-in-One Printer with scanner and copier, which can print on blank printable discs. Printing titles and pictures on the discs looks nicer than just writing on them with a Sharpie.
To catalog my movies with descriptions, I created a table in Microsoft Word with columns for reel number, starting time in movie, date, place and subject. I fill in the table as I play a movie in another window on my computer. Digitizing my family’s old home movies has been a huge project, but it was worth the effort. Now I can enjoy them, share them with relatives and preserve them for the future.
Tip: Not sure what film type you have? 8mm has single sprockets on one side. Super 8 film has smaller sprockets on one side. 16 mm film has sound if it has sprockets only along the top. If it has sprockets on both the top and bottom, it’s silent film.
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 2013 issue of Family Tree Magazine.