Narrow-Gauge Film Use by Documentarians - Part 1
Content producers often prefer to shoot or record original content. Documentarians, on the other hand, typically must rely on material recorded by others that is often stored on film stock, Regular 8mm and Super 8mm being common formats. Working with older technology is a challenge requiring special techniques.
Documentarians seeking topics far less miserable than those from our current times might want to look within the ranks of America’s Baby Boomers for stories. Boomers—and their times—provide a plethora of fascinating topics. Born between 1946 and 1964, the ~65 million boomers who remain alive (down from ~76 million at their peak) plus the non-boomers—who by 2019 will number greater than the boomers themselves—constitute a large audience for documentaries.
When documenting this period of history, if documentation exists, it’s most likely going to be film-based. Photographs will typically be 35MM Kodacolor negatives and/or prints. There are also likely to be trays of Kodachrome reversal “slides.” None of these formats should present a resurrection challenge.
The challenge will be in making use of Regular 8 and Super 8 film. Multiple questions await a producer who plans to use old movie film in a video production.
Figure 1. The Bolex H8 essentially was a H16 with a film gate sized and positioned for 8mm film. After shooting a 25-foot roll, the roll was flipped, and 25-feet was again shot. Each pass captured a strip of 8mm frames. After processing, the reversal 16mm film was slit and spliced into a 50-foot of roll of 8mm film. Click to enlarge.
The first question is a practical decision: view and log all film before transfer to video or simply transfer all to video and then log on a computer. When the films are on 3-inch reels—as they are after processing—the extensive time and physical dangers inherent in threading, viewing, and rewinding, suggest it is best to do a batch conversion at a lab.
While you could save money by having the batch transferred to, for example, NTSC H.264, this approach will require extensive effort to keep track of reel numbers and times—not timecode—of the segments which will need to be later re-digitized at full quality.
Figure 2: Chance 1966 meeting with a team from Bolex shooting with their new Super 8 camera. The Super 8 system used 50-feet of reversal film packed in a cartridge. Super 8 film has a slightly larger frame. Click to enlarge.
The second question is quite different, as it’s an esthetic decision. Do you want the film portions to feel historic or contemporaneous? I’ve watched many documentaries about WWII and most used newsreel film. The real horror of the war didn’t register until more recent documentaries made use of more fully restored footage. From my experience, a “historic look” creates an emotional distance from the subject matter.
Your answer to the esthetic question impacts the answers to three remaining technical questions. How will you handle film that after transfer yields poor quality video? The older the film, the more likely you’ll find unfortunate color shift even when the color remains strong. (Of course, a poor-quality transfer might be appropriate when you want a historic look.)
Then consider how will you handle the mismatch of modern video frame-rates (23.98fps and 29.97fps) and film frame-rates. Regular 8 had a nominal frame-rate of 16fps. Super 8 film usually would be shot at 18fps.
Finally what image resolution (720p, 1080p, or 2160p) and color-sampling (4:2:0, 4:2:2, or 4:4:4) are required to meet your esthetic goals? Obviously, these questions will be of most interest those who are not looking for a historic esthetic.
Poor Transfer Quality
Figures 2, 3, 4, 6, and 8 show NTSC transfers of Kodachrome Regular 8 film shot in 1966 using my Bolex H8 with three Switar lenses. (See Figure 1.)
Figure 3 presents an image from a portion of 8mm film that has a strong greenish cast. The challenge was to remove the green cast while keeping the shadows color-free and preventing skin tone from becoming too pink. By judicially using Resolve’s Lift, Gamma, and Gain color-wheels, I was able to create an acceptable correction
Figure 5 presents a more difficult situation. The foreground person’s face is too green yet the car hue is perfect. By using Resolve’s Motion-tracking Power Window, I was able to isolate the face and color correct only it. I was also able to independently lighten the remainder of the image. The result is shown in the lower-right.
Figure 5: Resolve’s Motion-tracking Power Window used to isolate a face for correction. Click to enlarge.
Figure 6 presents a frame of video transferred film that has multiple defects. Figure 7 presents the same frame after employing Resolve’s Dirt and Dust tool on the transferred video.
Resolve’s powerful tools usually solve picture quality problems. Figure 8 presents a scene where the Motion-tracking Power Window approach failed—or I failed it. In this shot, my Triumph Spitfire drives around the corner and then proceeds down a Yugoslavian road. As shown by the lower-left image, I corrected the scene to remove the road’s green cast. Because I used a Power Window to isolate the car, it’s British Racing Green color was not altered. Nevertheless, color quality remained low as shown by the lower-right image. Figure 9 shows how applying a warming filter made the result more usable.
Figure 8: Resolve’s Motion-tracking Power Window used to isolate the car while the background was color corrected. Click to enlarge.
To this point the questions asked, and hopefully answered, have not dealt with the technical choices that need to be made when specifying the type of transfer you want performed by the lab.
When you want the best transfer possible, the fundamental technical question is how much information can be extracted from narrow-gauge movie film. And, what type of transfer should be used.
The latter question focuses on the way Regular 8 and Super 8 frame-rates can be matched to video frame-rates. The former question involves image resolution, Log/Non-log transfer, and the codec to be employed. Part 2 of this article will deal with these technical questions.
As a preview of Part 2, Figure 10 shows a frame from an HD ProRes 420 HQ file as viewed in Avid Media Composer. The lab employed a Log transfer of Super 8 film shot in 2017.
Figure 11 shows the same frame after I simply applied a ARRI ALEXA LogC to REC709 LUT to the Sequence. The resulting quality is certainly high enough to support editing.
Figure 12 and 13 show the same frame enhanced using Composer’s Color Corrector—with the LUT disabled.
Avid’s release of Media Composer | First allows you to edit with a true professional NLE at no cost—other than its steep learning curve. My comprehensive Introduction to Media Composer | First can be obtained for no cost at the shown link. The tutorial is ideal for those with little, or no, experience with film or videotape editing.
Compared to other books and videos, including Avid’s own documentation, my introduction avoids 30-year old film and tape editing concepts. The Introduction provides a much simpler common-sense approach to editing the digital data captured by today’s DSLRs and camcorders.
Steve Mullen. You may wish to explore some of Mullen's other articles, a few are listed below. Search The Broadcast Bridge home page for "Steve Mullen" for a complete list.
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