Keeping Your Film Reels in Good Shape
You can literally see the difference between the film quality of movies that have been restored, and the film quality of those that have been left alone for some time. Now, this link to how the Star Wars special edition films differ from their 90’s “special edition” re-release is minor. But you can still see the difference.
If you dig a little deeper, you can find a comparison of the original theatrical reel to even later VHS releases. See, Hollywood knows how to deal with film. But with that knowledge, after 20 years, there is a definite loss in film quality; loss which is best corrected through digital means, and that means footage transferral; but we’ll get into that shortly.
Meanwhile, the purpose of this article is to give background on how best you can preserve 8mm and 16mm film. It’s notable that, properly preserved, such film can actually outlast DVDs. However, there is still going to be some degradation. At any rate, consider the following strategies.
1. Keep them Cool and Dry: 40º F and 40% Relative Humidity
First things first: you don’t want to give the film opportunity to expand or get too warm. A great idea is storing it somewhere that averages 40ºF, and no more than 40% relative humidity. If that sounds like a freezer or a refrigerator, you’re correct. You can precisely control such things in that sort of space, and it’s a lot cheaper than a cooled “film room”.
That said, it’s not the most convenient option; especially if you use such refrigerators or freezers for food. At minimum, such devices should have a specific purpose, and be used only for film storage. Conversely, if you can control the climate in a room, that’s not a bad idea either.
2. Transfer Footage to DVD Prior Storage for Failover Protection
Another recommendable strategy is to just transfer 16mm to DVD and go from there. Still, it’s a good idea to keep the original print, so what you might do is make the transfer before you put the film in storage. This gives you an amount of failover protection both ways. If the DVD is destroyed, you’ve got the film. If the film is destroyed, you’ve got the DVD.
Also, when you transfer film to DVD, it’s a lot easier to store it on other digital formats. You can easily download a DVD to your hard drive.
3. Assure All Film Reels Are Kept Out of Any Sunlight
Sunlight gradually breaks everything down. Just leave a few CDs or magazines under the rear window of your car. Pretty soon, they’ll be faded and useless. CDs “melt”, magazines are gradually erased by the UV light.
This is why so many people store such film in their closet, or other dark spaces. And, while that can work, closets are not a temperature-controlled option. Whether you use a specific film room, a closet, or a freezer, be sure sunlight doesn’t enter.
4. If Labeling, Use Paper That’s Acid-Free, and Applied Externally
If you have lots of film reels, you’ll need to label them. Be careful. Don’t put paper right on the film; especially if there’s some question of whether or not it’s acid-free. You should use acid-free paper on the external case of the film for best results.
Keeping Old Film as Pristine as Possible over the Long Run
Film is like anything: over time, entropy comes in and destroys it. However, there are good ways to abridge this process. Label films on the exterior of the case using acid-free paper.
Keep 16mm and 8mm film out of sunlight. Transfer the contents of film reels to DVD prior long-term storage. Finally, keep film at 40ºF and 40% relative humidity or less.