Friday, March 11, 2011

The Variety of Home Movie Formats

Courtesy Image Services, UO Libraries

My maternal grandfather (that would be Grandpa Anderson) first used 16mm film for his home movies, later moving to 8mm in the 1960s.  I remember shooting 8mm in the early 1970s and advancing to the new Super8 format, probably around 1973.  We had a dual projector that could show either 8mm or Super8, just by plugging in a few accessory pieces.  Moving to Super8 felt pretty sophisticated at the time – like upscaling from DVD to Blu-ray today.

When you find these standard “home movie” formats – 8 mm,  Super8, 9.5mm, and 16mm – in your basement or attic, you can safely assume they are cellulose acetate (safety) film as opposed to that infamous, unstable cellulose nitrate film.  Safety film has its own set of preservation challenges, but at least it won’t blow up your house.

So what formats do you have?  Snowden Becker, co-founder of the annual international Home Movie Day event and the nonprofit Center for Home Movies, suggests using a “rule of thumb” in identifying film formats commonly found in family collections:

“Identifying formats is quite easy; there are several online guides that include visual examples, such as the Film ID Card from Northeast Historic Film.

“An even easier method, if you don’t have a ruler or an ID card handy when you find your films, is literally a rule of thumb:  Film that’s about as wide as your thumbnail is probably 16mm, while film about the width of your little fingernail is probably 8mm or Super8.  (If you can fit your little fingertip into the hole in the middle of the reel, and it has tiny perforations – sprocket  holes – along the edge that a toothpick wouldn’t fit through, it’s Super8.)  A 35mm film will be about the width of your index and middle finger held together, while 28mm is a bit smaller – perhaps the width of your ring finger and pinkie.  Some reels may have convenient markings on them to indicate footage.  If these markings are absent, this simple guide from a transfer house is useful for estimating footage capacity based on the diameter of the reel.

“These cellulose acetate (safety) films were introduced with the 28mm home-viewing format in 1912. While they have their own inherent vices, safety stock has the significant advantage of not being liable to burn your house down when you watched your home movies in the living room!  The commercial film industry eventually transitioned to acetate-based safety film, too, and then to polyester-based safety stock, which is still used today.”

© 2011 Lee Price

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