Preserving the Past
When we were in Illinois visiting my parents, my dad got out the old (old!) projectors and showed us some of the 8mm film he’d shot over the years (most of which I remembered from my younger days) and 16mm film his dad had shot (none of which I remembered). I wasn’t terribly impressed with the 8mm stuff (familiarity, etc.), but the 16mm film absolutely astounded me. It was in excellent quality, especially for film 75–80 years old that had been treated nicely but not professionally (no temperature/humidity controls, for sure). The quality was clear (except where the original camera was out of focus), the motion was clean, and my grandfather (who died before I was born) had an excellent cameraman’s eye.
So my wife & I decided it was worth the cost to preserve these. I got two reels on loan from Dad and went looking for a company to digitize them. One major criterion: the transfer had to be frame-by-frame, since some of these reels had images of people I’d never seen in stills. I was taken with The Photo Archival Company’s website (both quality and quantity of information), so I got an estimate from them. For 2 7-inch 16mm silent reels, the cost came to $180. Ouch! But if they did the kind of job they promised, it would be worth it. Hopefully.
Second major criterion: the digital format had to be something I could edit. Even if I kept all the footage for the final product (doubtful), I would still need to do titles, exposure correction, etc. Some quick correspondence with TPAC found they can save in AVI format in 720x480 pixels. That works.
TPAC’s site walks you through packing, boxing, and labeling your content. I shipped it via UPS on January 21, and it got there on Jan 24. I got an email acknowledgement from TPAC.
After a few days, I got an email asking permission to post a compresses (lower quality) version of the reels in an online page where I could view them with a login and password. I okayed that, and not long afterward got the link and password. The quality of the posted video wasn’t great (they had to allow for slower connections, I reckon), but it let me and my family get a peek at it.
Before they returned the film and the digital product, they confirmed that I really did want it in AVI format, and not as a playable DVD. I don’t know if that’s standard, or if my request was odd enough that they wanted to be sure I hadn’t clicked something wrong when I ordered. Either way, I appreciated it.
I was notified when the return product shipped and was given a tracking number; I was also told my credit card would be billed. Cost was exactly what I’d been told when I signed up. One thing I appreciated was that I could opt for delivery without having to sign for it; being at work all day, and having had to chase Fedex before with promises of delivery, I was willing to trade convenience for security.
The film came back in the same packing (same zip lock bag!) in which I’d sent it. The AVI files were each on their own data DVD. Minor criticism: the DVDs were not labeled externally, so there’s no way to tell them apart. A Sharpie fixed that, though.
Both files were in excellent shape and fully readable. No compression artifacts. Some of the individual frames were sharp and clear enough that they can be turned into stills. Parts of each file were not good (fuzzy, over/under exposed), but that only reflects the originals, alas (these were shot back in the day when you never knew what your camera was doing until you got the finished product back from the developer). It’s not TPAC’s job to fix things (although I think they will try, if you ask); that’s why I wanted the conversion to be in a format I can work with. Each imported perfectly into Final Cut, which is what I wanted.
At $5.45/minute of finished product, was it worth it? I’d say yes. I can watch my great-grandfather, who was always just a portrait on the wall, play with his grandson (my dad) and show his sense of fun. I can see my dad as a little kid, who sometimes looks like his grandson, and sometimes makes a move or gesture that is so Dad even 75 years later. And I can pass this on to my sister and cousins and others. So yes, I’m glad I made the investment, and I’ll be making more with TPAC.