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Transferring Old Home Movies To Digital Media

Jim Carroll solved that problem, building his own tools for automatically converting movies to digital media. Other solutions already exist for this problem, but th

Mitch Wagner

December 1, 2006

3 Min Read

If you grew up in the 70s or earlier, you've probably got a box of home movies sitting around somewhere, probably in 8 mm or Super 8 format. It's just sitting there, gathering dust and fading into worthlessness. That's some precious family memories and history there, slowly being destroyed by time and changing data formats.

Jim Carroll solved that problem, building his own tools for automatically converting movies to digital media. Other solutions already exist for this problem, but they involve gadgets that project the movie into mirrors that reflect it into a digital camera lens. Carroll tried a different approach -- laying the movie itself, 14 frames at a time, on a flatbed scanner, scanning in the images, and then running the images through open source software that he wrote himself, to stitch the frames back together into a movie.

But that's not the coolest part. The coolest part is where he built himself a mechanical gadget to automatically advance the film through a flatbed scanner. He built the tool with structural plastic from a hobby shop, Lego parts, a DC motor from an old VCR, sprockets from old movie projectors, and (of course) duct tape. The set-up scans a 50-foot roll of film in about 10 hours.

Carroll's Web page has a detailed discussion of the issues he faced building the set-up, along with photos of the apparatus and embedded video of the results -- a cute home movie that appears to be from the 1960s, of a very small child exerting himself to push a baby in a stroller. It's an impressive result -- looks exactly like the Super 8 movies I remember watching as a kid.

The New York Times's David Pogue discusses some other options for transferring old movies to modern formats.. One big problem: Correcting for the chemical deterioration of the film, which lead to gross color distortions. The simplest solution is just to take your movies to a professional transfer house -- but those cost a lot of money, $700 for an hour of video.

Another problem: Once you've got the home movie transferred to the latest, greatest digital format -- well, time doesn't stand still, and modern formats deteriorate and become obsolete too. A recordable DVD, for example, has an estimated lifespan of about 10 years. Paul Kobulnicky says, "Welcome to the world of preservation librarians and archivists." He writes:

The points that are made in the article are why we (1) choose microfilm negatives stored in salt mines as the preferred alternative mode for text preservation (2) why, for digital preservation, we are investing in digital repository software where we can continually update and refresh the application software and the associated data bitstreams to avoid data loss and (3)why were are focused on converting data files into open source formats (such as XML for text) that don't require proprietary software to open them since proprietary software usually has a finite operational lifetime.

And James Thoroman recommends archiving to mini DVD format.

I've got a box of Super 8 movies sitting here in my home office; I inherited them when my father passed away. I don't know where the Super 8 movie projector went, and I haven't had an opportunity to transfer the movies to DVD. I'd better act fast, though, because those movies are deteriorating, and I know my wife will not want to miss a single episode of the Wagner Family Chronicles, starring me, the Most Awkward Fat Kid Of The 20th Century.

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner is California bureau chief for Light Reading.

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