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Scanning heaps of 8mm movies

After my father passed away, I brought home most of the personal items he had, both at home and at his office. Among many, many (many, many, many) other things, I brought two of his personal treasures: His photo collection and a box with the 8mm movies he shot approximately between 1956 and 1989, when he was forced into modernity and got a portable videocassette recorder.

I have talked with several friends, as I really want to get it all in a digital format, and while I’ve been making slow but steady advances scanning the photo reels, I was particularly dismayed (even though it was most expected — most personal electronic devices aren’t meant to last over 50 years) to find out the 8mm projector was no longer in working conditions; the lamp and the fans work, but the spindles won’t spin. Of course, it is quite likely it is easy to fix, but it is beyond my tinkering abilities… and finding photographic equipment repair shops is no longer easy. Anyway, even if I got it fixed, filming a movie from a screen, even with a decent camera, is a lousy way to get it digitized.

But almost by mere chance, I got in contact with my cousin Daniel, ho came to Mexico to visit his parents, and had precisely brought with him… a 8mm/Super8 movie scanner! It is a much simpler piece of equipment than I had expected, and while it does present some minor glitches (i.e. the vertical framing slightly loses alignment over the course of a medium-length film scanning session, and no adjustment is possible while the scan is ongoing), this is something that can be decently fixed in post-processing, and a scanning session can be split with no ill effects. Anyway, it is quite uncommon a mid-length (5min) film can be done without interrupting i.e. to join a splice, mostly given my father didn’t just film, but also edited a lot (this is, it’s not just family pictures, but all different kinds of fiction and documentary work he did).

So, Daniel lent me a great, brand new, entry-level film scanner; I rushed to scan as many movies as possible before his return to the USA this week, but he insisted he bought it to help preserve our family’s memory, and given we are still several cousins living in Mexico, I could keep hold of it so any other of the cousins will find it more easily. Of course, I am thankful and delighted!

So, this equipment is a Magnasonic FS81. It is entry-level, as it lacks some adjustment abilities a professional one would surely have, and I’m sure a better scanner will make the job faster – but it’s infinitely superior to not having it!

The scanner processes roughly two frames per second (while the nominal 8mm/Super8 speed is 24 frames per second), so a 3 minute film reel takes a bit over 35 minutes… And a long, ~20 minute film reel takes… Close to 4hr, if nothing gets in your way :-Þ And yes, with longer reels, the probability of a splice breaking are way higher than with a short one — not only because there is simply a longer film to process, but also because, both at the unwinding and at the receiving reels, mechanics play their roles.

The films don’t advance smoothly, but jump to position each frame in the scanner’s screen, so every bit of film gets its fair share of gentle tugs.

My professional consultant on how and what to do is my good friend Chema Serralde, who has stopped me from doing several things I would regret later otherwise (such as joining spliced tapes with acidic chemical adhesives such as Kola Loka, a.k.a. Krazy Glue — even if it’s a bit trickier to do it, he insisted me on best using simple transparent tape if I’m not buying fancy things such as film-adhesive). Chema also explained me the importance of the loopers (las Lupes in his technical Spanish translation), which I feared increased the likelihood of breaking a bit of old glue due to the angle in which the film gets pulled… but if skipped, result in films with too much jumping.

Not all of the movies I have are for public sharing — Some of them are “just” family movies, with high personal value, but probably of very little interest to others. But some are! I have been uploading some of the movies, after minor post-processing, to the Internet Archive. Among them:

Anyway, I have a long way forward for scanning. I have 20 3min reels, 19 5min reels, and 8 20min reels. I want to check the scanning quality, but I think my 20min reels are mostly processed (we paid for scanning them some years ago). I mostly finished the 3min reels, but might have to go over some of them again due to the learning process.

And… Well, I’m having quite a bit of fun in the process!