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What’s All This Frame-by-Frame Stuff, Anyhow?

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April 24, 2011 by admin

Years ago a knowledgeable associate of ours (Thomas Video Studio) in Eau Claire, Wisconsin) carefully inspected the projectors offered by an impressive company in Texas. They completely rebuilt projectors, widening or removing the framer windows, reinventing the transmission to allow for the “snap shot speed” of frame-by-frame capturing, tied the projector in (electronically) to a PC via computer cable and hardware card, and developed their own proprietary software to go with it. He told us that the CCD camera was supplied and mounted onto the front of the projector in place of the projector’s lens, the halogen light decreased and properly defused or magnified essentially building a video microscope that would shoot each frame of film up close.

On some web sites the claim is made that each film frame of the movie film is scanned. It is easy to get distracted with terminology on this. A “scan” is a time-consuming process whereby a transparency scanner will actually scan the film one frame at a time in the fashion that we think of print photos being scanned. Such scanning is only worthwhile for professional Hollywood 35mm productions where the original film quality is superlative and a multi-thousand dollar budget will pay for the duplication to digital. In a frame-by-frame process the film is not being scanned but a simple video frame is snapped–a picture.

The frame-by-frame home movie film conversion and transfer process for 8mm home movie film (not available for 16mm movie films to our knowledge) is a rudimentary version of the Flying Spot Rank Film Transfer Process, a state of the art process that Hollywood uses to duplicate 35mm major motion pictures to digital video & DVD for worldwide distribution. The difference between the frame-by-frame and the Flying Spot Rank process is that the Flying Spot process does an actual scan of the home movie film frame whereas the frame-by-frame process merely takes a video still picture of the frame.

The frame-by-frame film transfer process requires specialized software written for a small market of film transfer service providers. This means that operators will face never ending battles involving conflict of drivers, computer operating systems, and such. Because the software has a small user base, updates to correct for conflicts will by definition be rare. Consider also that the transfer process is slow necessitating an unattended mode of operation. As the movie film conditions change within a given reel there is no ability to adapt the transfer process in real time. The end result is that the movie film transfer process becomes time consuming necessitating a high cost but with only minimal benefits plus the increased risk that something might go wrong and be unnoticed. If the home movie transfer service provider does not charge enough his profit margin erodes making it impossible to satisfy a viable business model. The frame-by-frame movie transfer service provider charging too little, in an effort to compete, will be forced to look for other corners to cut with the ultimate conclusion what we believe is that overall quality will suffer. Please understand, though, that this is merely our opinion. Ultimately we recommend that you sample a service provider’s work before committing your entire home movie collection to that provider. Many home movie transfer operations are beginning to do one 50 foot reel for free when you ask. Please see our offer at the bottom of this blog post.

A by-product of the frame-by-frame process is splicing of small reels of film to larger reels. This is usually billed as “free splicing.” Because the film transfer process is so slow it must of necessity run unattended. When the service provider splices smaller reels together he can dramatically increase his through-put making it possible to charge the consumer less. Consider the case of eight (8) 3″ diameter reels. These reels collectively hold 400 feet of film and will fit on a single 7″ diameter reel. Processing of the individual reels requires that the operator return to the projector eight times to first unload and rewind one reel and then thread and start the next reel rolling. If the operator only needs to return to the projector at the conclusion of the 400 feet he has clearly reduced his labor and become more competitive.

The big loss to the consumer, however, is that any ability to look to the original media for historical clues has nearly vanished. Often mom & pops wrote notes on the leader or the cardboard box holding a given reel.

For Super 8mm sound film transfers to digital media the frame-by-frame method presents additional overhead. Because the images are not captured in real time the sound track must be captured in a separate step. Once the frame-by-frame image capture is complete the film is rewound and then run through a Super 8mm sound projector in real time to capture the audio track to digital media. There now exist two separate media–the digital video of the film and the digital audio from the film. The two must be matched for reasonable lip sync which is not a straight-forward task. Super 8mm film speeds were only roughly achieved at 18 frames per second. Because the 8mm film market was very consumer driven the manufacturers looked for corners to cut allowing lower dollar entry points facilitating increased sales. A number of variables consequently affected the actual film speed. The only way that we know the speed it should be played at is by how natural sounding the voices in the audio sound which itself has considerable variation. The end result is that it is a time consuming process to marry the digitized movie film to its digitized audio track and still have reasonable lip sync. The frame-by-frame film transfer service provider must therefore charge a fee to reflect this additional film transfer overhead. The good news, though, is that Super 8mm sound home movie film usually only needs a quick audio sync. Usually only a gross miss-match would be noticed. More often than not they can probably do a reasonable sound sync in a minimum of time considering the loose requirements.

There is a special case for 16mm silent home movie film (not applicable to 16mm optical sound film or any 8mm films) where a frame-by-frame process would present an advantage. In another post scheduled to release soon we describe a special nuance of 16mm silent home movie film transfer. If special provisions are not made a slight choppiness or strobing can be detected in the digital transfer upon close inspection. Usually this is only detectable for slow but evenly moving objects such as a tourist boat floating down a river and then only with close inspection. Please read that blog post when it comes out for details on this nuance but for now we will say that a frame-by-frame process in theory eliminates this problem. It should be carefully noted that most people will not notice this nuance of 16mm silent film transfer and that there are other methods we implement to correct it.

The Flying Spot Rank Process is the only way to go for brand new 35mm commercial film stock, projected for the first & only time, in brand new condition. In our opinion the tiny 8mm consumer home movie films with much wear and tear and damage/age issues are not ideal on this system. These issues are magnified and made even more annoying on the TV monitor. Oh yes, there is a software “scratch & imperfection” solution for those issues but with prohibitive cost increases to the consumer.

Flying Spot Rank Frame scanning services usually retail between $0.50 to $1.00 per foot (at the time of this writing in 2011) if it is an experienced, reputable industrial company. At W. Cardone Productions we offer the Flying Spot Rank Film Transfer Process to our more discriminating customers if they ask. However, when they are given a choice between $10.00 per 50 feet of film or $50.00 per 50 feet of film, and they have 58 reels stuffed in their shoeboxes……they just won’t pay $40.00 more per reel, nor probably notice or care enough about how the movie images look between our superlative quality aerial and Flying Spot Rank Frame Capture imaging. While we truly appreciate excellence in ultimate imaging quality, a video business owner and service provider can go too far into the overkill area, without a realistic working speed, turn around time and profit margin on equipment and service that consumers will not pay for.

Free Trial Invitation: Why not just take the easy road: Let’s just dump all the hype and look for free before you leap. Let us convert and transfer to modern digital media one 50 foot reel of your 8mm or 16mm home movie film (silent or sound) without charge. Send the same reel of movie film to a frame-by-frame service provider who will provide a similar free trial service. Compare the results for yourself. This offer is given for 2011 but may be available later as well. Please call for availability. Free pickup and delivery of your complimentary order may be available as well. Please call for availability and scheduling. We would not make a special effort to promote this free offer if we were not 100% convinced that our conversion service is among the best in 8mm, Super 8mm, and 16mm home movie conversion and transfer within the Greater Detroit, Jackson, Lansing, Ann Arbor, and southeastern Michigan regions.


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