Digitising a Super 8 film

[toc] Over the past few weeks I’ve made digital copies of quite a few Super 8 films. The proper way of doing it is by scanning each frame individually but this involves expensive and hard-to-find equipment. You can send films away to various companies to be digitised properly for not too much money, but that seems to defy the whole point of most of my hobbies. I like to learn to do things myself, not pay other people to do it (even if they could do it better!) I’ve put some effort into finding the best way of doing the conversion at home with the equipment I have and getting the best possible results out of what I’ve got. So here are my notes with some handy hints for people who want to make their own digital copies of Super 8 films. This will probably make more sense if you read it as a list of things to think about, rather than a direct set of instructions.

Equipment

The projector

First things first – if you want to play a film, you’ll need a projector. They vary in price and in specification, but there are some things you might want to look out for. Before you buy, check that bulbs and replacement drive belts are still available. These are the most common parts to fail.

The ability to play back sound Ideally it should also have a convenient sound output other than the main speaker, which you can connect to your sound capture device
A fast lens (low f number) Makes the projected image brighter, and easier to capture with a camera
A zoom lens Not essential, but handy for matching your projected image to the angle covered by your camera’s lens
Switchable 18/24 fps speed Most amateur movies were shot at 18 frames per second. Most professional ones were shot at 24 frames per second.
Fine-tunable speed On most projectors, the 18/24 speed is only approximate and will vary. Your digital camera will give you exactly what it says on the tin, so use the fine speed control to exactly match the two speeds. More on this later.

My projector is a Chinon Sound 7500 which is hardly a top-of-the range model, but it has all of the above features.

The camera

I am using a regular DSLR (Canon EOS 600D) which has a movie mode. I can’t speak for other brands or models, but the 600D lets you choose the resolution and the frame rate, which is important for this application. A fast lens is useful for this project as the projected image is relatively dim. I used an inexpensive Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 for its speed and sharpness. A slower kit lens would do if you were prepared to boost the ISO a bit.

The sound equipment

For silent movies, a DSLR on its own is fine. If you want to capture sound, some DSLRs might let you connect the projector’s sound output via a cable. Being an audio geek, I happen to have an audio mixer with a digital interface. This will record the audio onto a computer where it will later be reunited with the video from the camera’s memory card. Most laptops do not have a line-in socket (the microphone socket will not work) so you will probably need to use an external USB sound card with line-in. These are quite cheap now and reasonably good quality. You’ll also need the right kind of cable to connect your projector to the USB sound card. This might be 3.5mm jacks, RCA phono jacks, or something else entirely.

Setting up your room

  1. Make your capture room as dark as possible – any stray light will reduce the contrast of the projected image.
  2. Make your capture room as quiet as possible, if you are intending to keep the sound of the projector in.
  3. Ideally, project onto a proper screen. These are more reflective and purer white than a white wall, but of course a wall will do if you don’t have a screen.
  4. Make sure the projector is square on to the screen. Make sure it is central from left to right, and central from top to bottom. This will minimise distortion of the image.
  5. Using a tripod, place the camera’s lens as close as possible to the projector’s lens. This also minimises the amount of distortion.
  6. Determine the distance between the projector and screen by trial and error. Making the distance shorter will give you a brighter but smaller image. This depends on what angles you can achieve with the projector’s lens and the camera’s lens. In my case, the throw of the projector was about 5m down the length of my living room, with an image about 1.5m wide.
  7. Carefully focus the projected image. You can’t pause a Super 8 film in most projectors, so you may need to run the film through a couple of times until you’ve got it in sharp focus. Get someone to stand close to the screen and check while you focus the projector.

Digital camera settings

Focus

When the projector is focused, focus the camera too. Depending on how bright the image is, autofocus may or may not work. I found it easier to focus manually. Either way, once you’ve set the focus properly, set the camera on manual focus so the camera won’t “helpfully” change it for you later on.

Frame rate

Decide on the camera’s frame rate. For a 24 fps film, most DSLRs will be able to capture at 24 fps. If you have an 18 fps film, capturing at 24, 25 or 30 fps (common digital movie formats) will give you a flickery image. You could project an 18 fps film at 24 fps just to make it easier to capture, and slow it down later. Top tip: on Canon DSLRs such as my EOS 600D, the frame rates available to you vary depending on what video format you choose. When my camera is set to PAL (UK), I can choose 24, 25 or 50 fps. In NTSC (USA) mode, I can choose 24, 30 or 60.

5Dmk3_video_system Untitled-1-43

Once you’ve decided on the nominal frame rate, you need to finely set it. For me, it took quite a bit of experimentation with the fine speed tuning knob before the projector’s “approximately 24 fps” was the same as the DSLR’s exact 24 fps and the flicker disappeared. This is just a case of trial and error. Be aware that your camera’s LCD has a different refresh rate and a low resolution, so flicker is often not visible until you play your footage back on the computer. If you’re feeling adventurous, you could adjust the fine speed control (if you have one) on the projector to project at 20 fps, and then capture on your DSLR at 60 fps. 60 is a multiple of 20 so there shouldn’t be any flickering, and you can downsample your movie to 30 fps on the computer later on.

Exposure

Pretty much every camera with a video function will offer you auto-exposure for videos. In this case, we don’t want this as the camera will try and compensate for the exposure when a dark scene is played back. Choose manual exposure. This will be easier if you have a fast lens – I found my 50mm f/1.8 very useful for this. Experiment and set the exposure to a value where neither the blacks nor the whites go off the end of the histogram scale (on Canon, press DISP to bring up the histogram). Try and get the main bulk of the histogram roughly in the middle.

Video histogram
Video histogram

If you have chosen a high frame rate like 50 or 60 fps, be aware that your longest possible exposure will then be 1/50 or 1/60. You might need to set the ISO quite high to get a decent exposure.

White balance

The white balance depends on whether you are working with a colour film or a black & white film. For black & white, the white balance doesn’t really matter as you can always make your video monochrome later on. For colour films, the white balance matters more. The light source in the projector is usually a halogen lamp so you would choose incandescent or tungsten on your camera. However, many colour films have faded and the colours have shifted over time so you will still probably need to work on the colours later.

Post-processing

I’m no expert on video editing, and as a Linux user I am not familiar with recent versions of Windows or Mac video editing software. Adobe Premiere would be an excellent choice but is expensive. Windows Movie Maker or iMovie would probably be fine, and there are various other options too. On Linux I use kdenlive but I also hear that OpenShot is very good these days.

Crop

Depending on your video camera, it is likely to have shot the video in 16:9 widescreen format. This does not match the Super 8 format, which isn’t so wide. Whether or not you crop out the surroundings is up to you. If the area around your screen is sufficiently dark and non-distracting, you could keep it in. Otherwise, crop it out.

Colour correction

If you are converting a black & white film, you may prefer to switch the video to monochrome rather than a colour image of a black & white film. It will get rid of any tint you may have picked up from the yellowish projector lamp. If you do a monochrome conversion, you can skip the colour correction step. If you are converting a colour film, you will probably need to fix the white balance. The procedure varies between editors but often “auto” is good enough. Or drag the slider until it looks OK. If the film is very faded, you might need to take more drastic action and manually fiddle with the colour balance. One of my films looked very red to the naked eye with only a hint of blue and green. I manually multiplied the amount of blue and green in the picture by a huge amount to restore a sort-of normal looking picture.

Contrast

The projected image is likely to be quite low contrast. Blacks won’t be pure black and whites won’t be pure white. Depending on what you did in the colour correction step, you might want to boost the contrast a bit to give your picture a bit more “punch”.

Audio

It’s up to you if you want to keep the sound of the projector in. I like the sound of the projector in both silent & sound films, but I had to make it quieter so it wouldn’t dominate. In films with sound, I ended up with a separate sound file that had been recorded directly onto my laptop from the projector. To incorporate this, I had to manually sync the soundtrack with the video. Usually when you switch the projector on, the switch makes a click that appears on the DSLR’s soundtrack while the direct audio output also makes a satisfying pop that you can use to align the two soundtracks.

Frame rate

The final frame rate you choose depends on what you want to do with your video. If it’s just for YouTube then the frame rate is pretty much irrelevant as YouTube can play back almost any format. If it’s for burning to DVD for viewing at home then you should use 25 fps in the UK or 30 fps in the USA. For the rest of the world, check your native television format. If you shot at 60 fps to counteract the flicker, you might prefer to convert the video to 30 fps (even if in the UK) just to make the file size a bit more manageable.

Export

Video codecs are a dark art and again, your choice depends on what you want to do with the video. For most purposes, H.264 is a good choice. The settings for most codecs compromise between quality and file size.

Samples

No article about Super 8 conversion would be complete without a converted Super 8 film. The first film is a 1945 news review. It’s a 24 fps film with sound, but when I had my first attempt at conversion I only had a silent 18 fps projector. Look at the flickering!

This is my second attempt, with sound and projected and captured at 24 fps.

And this is a badly-faded colour film, which I sort-of fixed by mangling the colour correction by hand. It still looks a bit odd, but it’s a lot better than it was!

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply