There are many levels of quality that telecine services can achieve. The majority of labs start by capturing the projector's image with a camera or smartphone and delivering the footage as-is, without applying any restoration work. They can deliver quickly without spending much time or making any investment.

It's a legitimate way to work if they make it clear how they operate. However, such a system cannot produce good quality videos. Furthermore, there's a security issue involved in this workflow: the film is inserted into a projector that is at least 40 years old and can easily be damaged by getting stuck in the gears.

Another variant of telecine done with a projector is using scanners costing a few hundred euros. In that case, there's no "film shredder" mechanism, but the quality is still poor.

My inbox is full of messages from people who have used such services. Once, a client contacted me showing a video obtained with the low-cost system, and after I redid the job, he authorized me to show the comparison between the two videos to prevent others from making the same mistake.

It is a Super 8 film from a 1980 vacation in Egypt. When the client complained to the first lab about the poor image quality, he was told that nothing better could be done with such an old film. Since the client was not an expert in restoration and was unaware of this website, he was unable to contest the response.

For someone like him, who then contacted a professional and ultimately obtained the video you see on the right, there are at least ten others who accept the explanation given:

It looks bad because the footage is many years old.

and don't request a redo of the work.

Both types of clients wasted their money by paying the first lab, but the problem is that the majority of them, from that moment on, will be forced to watch their memories with:

  • blurry faces
  • cropped frames
  • shaky images
  • and mismatched colors

believing that the loss in quality is due to the film itself rather than the poor work that was done.

Why 8mm and Super 8 films are in HD

I've been dealing with videos since I was a teenager. I was one of those rare boys in the '90s who recorded black and white movies on their VHS VCR at night to watch them, without commercials, during the day. In 1995, at 18, I bought my first camera at a time when none of my schoolmates had one.

From that moment on, I never abandoned my passion for filmmaking. I've been a short film author, a TV editor, and eventually, the founder of a historical film archive through which I provide documentary productions from around the world.

I know about videos, and I can tell you why so many non-experts fall into a misunderstanding that then leads to situations like the one I mentioned earlier.

Television up until the 2000s had very low image quality, both because the monitors we had at home were poor and because shows were recorded on tape. Tape is a much easier medium to handle than film but can't go beyond a certain quality limit, especially in terms of resolution.

So, if in the '60s, '70s, or '80s a filmmaker watched an 8mm or Super 8 film they shot on the projector and then turned on the TV, their amateur film had a significantly higher quality than the images on regular TV channels. This is in terms of definition and colors.

And there's even better news: films degrade very little in quality over the years. At least if stored in places without humidity and not too hot (please read this guide I've written on film preservation).

If you're lucky enough to have 8mm or Super 8 reels in your hands, even if they were shot 50 or 60 years ago, the image quality you can achieve by digitizing them, if you rely on a professional lab, is no different from today's footage.

The super 8 film was shot in Acapulco in 1970. The place is completely different from today, and the filmmaker made a lot of mistakes, but the image quality is just like what you can get with a modern camera or smartphone.

It's a footage from my personal archive that I can use and share only after obtaining a signed release form from the author or their heirs.

If instead of a film, you have a video from the '80s or '90s shot on Video8 or VHS tape, the quality level would be significantly lower due to the quality limitations of analog tapes compared to film. I recommend reading this guide of mine to understand what type of media your memories are recorded on.

My professional telecine scanner

The first step in creating a professional telecine service is to buy a scanner like mine, the FilmFabriek HDS+, which is explained in detail on the manufacturer's website on this page.

I mentioned the film-ruining gears: my scanner is designed without internal gears, but with external rollers where the film cannot get stuck.

The light that illuminates the film is a cool LED. Projectors, on the other hand, have incandescent lamps, and if the film gets stuck even for a second, it burns.

Given that the mechanics of my scanner are gentle and the worst that can happen to the film, even before it's placed on the scanner, is that the splices made at the time might break (no worries: we're equipped to redo them), the next step is to evaluate the quality of the captured footage.

Frame-by-frame acquisition

The difference between professional scanners and others is that the best equipment doesn't record a video but instead captures a sequence of photos. Let me explain, because this is also a very technical but crucial step.

8mm and Super 8 films were shot at 16 and 18 frames per second. This means that what we perceive as a moving image is actually a sequence of photographs:

  • 16 frames per second in 8mm films
  • 18 frames per second in Super 8 films
  • 25 or 29.97 frames per second in modern videos

Filming the projector playing an 8mm or Super 8 film with a camera recording at 25 or 29.97 frames per second means that many frames recorded by the modern camera contain simultaneously two frames of the old film. When those frames are converted into a video, the resulting image is blurry and confused, like the one on the left side in the video at the beginning of the page.

If instead, a professional scanner like mine is used, it ensures that each frame is individually photographed, without the overlaps of cheaper systems. Therefore, the video obtained in the end is sharp.

Not only HD or 4K resolution

Many base their concept of quality primarily on resolution, which, as I explained at the beginning, must indeed be HD also in old films. However, be careful: there are phones costing less than 100 euros with 4K resolution, the same resolution as professional cameras costing hundreds of thousands of euros used in TV series and movies.

Resolution, therefore, is not the only parameter that measures the final quality of a video. Other elements influence it, mainly:

  • The lens capturing the film.
  • The performance of the sensor capturing the light.

This is why cheap 8mm and Super 8 film scanners sometimes have Full HD or even 4K resolution: despite this feature, due to the low cost sensor and "toy camera" lens, the image quality is unacceptable.

My scanner also reaches 4K resolution, but this is useful only for 16mm films, which have a frame surface 4 times larger than those of 8mm films. For regular home movies, Full HD resolution (1920×1080) is sufficient because the definition of such small frames doesn't allow appreciating the difference with 4K scanning.

At this point, someone might object:

A panorama photographed with an iPhone is not much different from the same scene photographed with a DSLR or a mirrorless camera equipped with professional lenses.

The observation is correct if an amateur is looking at the photo. And the amateur is a person very similar to the one who then watches 8mm and Super 8 films, so... let's talk about it.

The point is that a panorama in excellent lighting conditions is an easy to shoot scene, while the digitization of amateur films falls into critical situations because the image is dark, and those who shot at the time, being amateurs, didn't have great technical skills, so there are frequently challenging situations to manage such as:

  • backlit images
  • wrong framing
  • shaky shots.

In these conditions, to achieve good results with restoration, it's necessary to:

  1. Digitize the film using professional optics and a sensor.
  2. Illuminate the film with lamps that provide a huge amount of light to capture every detail on the frames.

The II phase of restoration: post-production of footage

Returning to the scanner's settings, experienced operators know that films should be captured with a slight underexposure because:

Dark images can be brought to the correct brightness, which is not always possible with those that are too bright.

Once again, the scanner must be of a professional type, the only type that allows for the acquisition and export of video files with a very high color bit depth; otherwise, when brightening footage in post-production, the difference is noticeable.

This is again a very technical aspect, but to work well, expertise is needed, and becoming an expert requires years of study and practice, as well as continuous updates.

To honestly take the responsibility of working on others' memories, which may have also immortalized people who are no longer with us today, you must take into account that much more time will be spent on the restoration phase than on the acquisition phase.

The fact that some labs skip restoration to do everything faster is not acceptable.

I say this because when I was a child, we didn't have a cine camera at home, so there are only photographs of my childhood, and I would be more than happy to pay a professional digitization lab charges to have footage of some of my family members. Unfortunately, I don't have this possibility, but I hope that those who find 8mm or Super 8 films at home carefully choose what lab to give them to.

DaVinci Studio for restoration

After digitizing the films with the scanner, the sequence of images, or the video of the sequence of images that the software has exported in the meantime, must be imported into a post-production software.

I use DaVinci Studio, which also exists in a free version called DaVinci Resolve, more than sufficient for most uses.

DaVinci Studio has all the functions for video editing, but since its early versions, it has been designed to work on images, making it the ideal solution for the restoration of historical films.

The video acquired by the scanner looks like this:

The image is:

  • Dark
  • Too blue
  • With a lot of grain and black dots

It also needs to be resized and cropped.

The first operation to perform is to bring the frame to full screen.

Professional scanners give the operator the possibility to capture not only the main frame but also portions of the previous and next frames, as well as the lateral parts. This is necessary because 8mm and Super 8 films used to vibrate during recording, so margins are needed to stabilize the shots in post-production.

Once the video is imported into Davinci Studio, or another restoration program, the following steps must be taken:

  1. Zoom in.
  2. Crop
  3. Center the frame so that the lateral vertical black bands are of the same size.

Since the sensor resolution is much higher than the definition of 8mm and Super 8 films, the zoom operation does not result in loss of quality and allows the operator to choose the zoom level. Unlike what happens with amateur scanners that automatically resize the frame by cropping large parts of it.

The curves

Once this is done, the image needs to be processed in terms of colors, brightness, contrast, saturation, and so on.

The main tool to do this is the curves. The curve graph initially appears like this:

The white line on the left remains straight, indicating that no adjustments have been made yet.

On the right, you'll find the three primary colors: Red, Green, Blue - hence the term RGB. In the lower section of the graph on the right, you can observe the presence of each color in the darker areas of the frame. As you move upwards, the same presence is reflected in the lighter areas.

Now, the operator must determine the desired type of image. But first, let me clarify. Professional scanners adjust their lamp intensity based on the scene's brightness: increasing it in dark interiors and decreasing it in sunny exteriors. However, LEDs and other light sources can only adjust their intensity across the entire image, without differentiation between light and dark areas. This presents a challenge, but an experienced operator can rectify it in post-production.

8mm and Super 8 films, due to the effects of time, primarily experience a decrease in brightness in dark areas, while light areas remain largely unchanged. Only adjustments to the curves can restore the balance.

At the left side of the image above, the previously straight white line is now curved at the bottom, reaching the original point at the top right. This adjustment increases only the brightness of the dark parts.

Additionally, different adjustments have been applied to the three lines representing red, green, and blue, enhancing the red and reducing the blue. This results in a more balanced representation of the basic colors, as seen in the graph on the right.

Following this, contrast and saturation adjustments are needed, which are much easier as you only need to specify a percentage for the program to increase them.

Problematic images to be corrected

The example footage is simple to correct because it follows a pattern of image decay recurring in the restoration of 8mm and super 8 films:

  • Dark parts lose brightness.
  • Light parts remain unchanged.
  • The image takes on a cold dominant tone.

However, things can be more difficult. But when it happens, an experienced technician can fix it because, whatever the problem, with thousands of reels worked on in the past, it's never the first time this happens, so they already know how to work it out.

Below are the curves and scopes from Davinci Studio of an amateur film shot in Burma (Myanmar) in 1970, for which I have acquired the rights for my archive and can therefore publish.

You will notice that on the scopes (on the right), comparing them with the same graph published earlier, there is something wrong because the red is particularly intense in the dark shades (bottom part), while the blue and green are intense in the light shades (top part).

The amateur director, in fact, halfway through the journey, runs out of the film he brought from home and is forced to buy new film. However, in that country, there are no products of Western quality.

The result is that in the first part of the film, everything is fine because the images reach us without any particular problems, while in the subsequent part, recorded on film purchased locally, the colors are completely out of sync.

To tackle the restoration, one cannot simply rely on standard adjustments, otherwise the images remain a disaster, but one proceeds by acting on the curves in this way, completely different from what was shown earlier:

This modification generates more balanced scopes, as seen on the right, where the three primary colors now have more or less the same intensity.

The footage obtained maintains an image not without flaws, but the difference between the initial version and the one obtained by working in this way is noticeable.

Such situations, beyond the fact that the films in your collection have nothing to do with Burma, occur not only due to the poor quality of the film used but also due to the more frequent poor conditions in which the reels have been stored.

In the video below, the frame on the left shows the footage as acquired by the scanner. On the right, the same footage after restoration:

In addition to color and brightness correction, grain and black dot containment have also been applied, along with stabilization, anticipating the stages of work that I explain in the following paragraphs.

Correction of grain and black dots

8mm and Super 8 films often exhibit noticeable grain. If significant brightness adjustment is required during post-production, as is common in amateur footage due to filmmaker errors, the grain becomes more pronounced. There are various software solutions available for correcting it.

While some post-production programs may have a built-in function for this purpose, it is often ineffective. The most effective solution on the market is called Neat Video, a plug-in compatible with Davinci Studio, Adobe Premiere, and Final Cut.

The settings window for Neat Video looks like this:

There are several adjustments required to correct the grain, and only experienced colorists can navigate software settings accurately; otherwise, mistakes may occur.

Neat Video also has a function to correct the black dots, which in 8mm and Super 8 films are caused by dust and the deterioration of the emulsion on which the images are printed over time.

While films in a reputable laboratory are cleaned with a proper liquid called isopropanol, and professional scanners like mine have a wet gate, an accessory that reduces scratches and dots, they are not entirely eliminated in the video imported into the post-production program. Neat Video handles this job with an effectiveness of 95%.

The image obtained at the end of these steps is the one you see below:

The frame is centered, the brightness reflects modern technology, the colors are balanced, and there are no visible black dots or scratches.

Now that the image is in good condition, the video needs to be stabilized. This is necessary for several reasons:

Film cameras did not have optical or electronic stabilizers.
Internal film movement amplified vibrations.
Amateur cameramen didn't always have a steady hand.

Failure to address these issues would result in shaky and frustrating video.

Below, I am publishing an 8mm footage shot in 1964 in Spain and restored by me. The image in both frames is already good, but only the video on the right was stabilized by Davinci Studio.

Conclusions

I am contacted daily by people who ask me for information about my telecine before entrusting me with their home movies.

Alongside them, I also receive messages from those who want to create a do-it-yourself workflow and seek the help of an expert. I always respond to them as well, as everyone is free to make their choices, provided they are honestly explained how different acquisition and restoration systems work.

Not long ago, a gentleman contacted me, whom I had initially mistaken for someone who had shot super 8 films in the '70s and '80s and was interested in acquiring them with a self-built system. After the initial messages, I understand that instead, it is a man who was charging other people for digitizing their 8mm and Super 8 films. He did this using the projector-camera system and entrusting the "restoration" to the fact that, in his opinion, leaving the camera on automatic would correct all the defects.

At that point, my attitude changes because I know well the awful results that this kind of system gives. I tell him that his clients should not be deceived in that way.

He replies to me:

It is not true that I have poor equipment: I spent a good 80 euros on the adapter needed to frontally capture the projector's frame with the camera.

From that phrase onwards, "a good 80 euros," I stop responding to him.

In this guide, I have explained what a professional telecine consists of. Now that you know, it's up to you to decide whether to save your memories forever, watching them in the best possible way, or to waste your money with laboratories that use amateur systems. Because if you rely on these, after seeing what can be achieved by working professionally, once you understand the difference, you will contact someone skilled to redo the work.

Daniele Carrer

THE LAB IS BASED IN ITALY AND OFFERS FREE RETURN DELIVERY IN ALL THE EUROPEAN UNION COUNTRIES

The price to digitize and restore your 8 mm, super 8, 9.5 and 16 mm films in my laboratory is always 5 euros per minute of footage, regardless of the format or the fact that they are mute or sound.

If you want me to work on your home movies, please contact me with this form: