Filmmaking: Tips, Sources & Tools — January 4, 2012 at 8:52 am

How to preserve or restore old/classic movies? Tips & sources

As digital production becomes standard, many old and classic films are being left to rot in archives around the world.

I still remember those days when I desperately was trying to find a solution for my old VHS tapes – I didn’t have a VHS-DVD player, and had to pay some serious cash for some underground services for transferring my VHS tapes to DVDs.

So, what can you do about this problem today? Because it still exists, and I am sure everyone has those old tapes that “need to be saved”.

Let’s take a look at ways of restoring old movies, and preserving them as well, in this compiled post.


Always try to handle the film as little as possible. Oil and grease from fingers can damage the film or increase corrosion and it is also very easy to tear. Also, with many old films that have already started to corrode, the chemicals in the acetate can be harmful if accidentally transferred from hand to mouth. You can usually tell if a film has started to corrode by the smell it gives off, usually known as the Vinegar Syndrome, which, if you’ve ever smelt it, is fairly self explanatory!

Keep your films cool and dry. The main cause of damage to film is caused by damp or excess heat. The ideal temperature for most old film is about 15 degrees, although its obviously difficult trying to keep a room in the house at a constant temperature, so try and keep them in a cupboard or any place that remains relatively cool and dark and receives no direct sunlight. Areas of your house where your films should definitely not be kept are places such as the attic, as this is the one area of the house that heats up the most during the summer months, whilst your cellar is often the most humid area of the house and the perfect breeding ground for mould and fungi. Your garden shed is also bad as they often switch throughout the year from being too damp and cold to being stiflingly hot.

The tins or boxes that the film originally came in are also susceptible to damage so it is worth paying attention to them too. Film cans usually start to deteriorate faster than the film itself, so it is worth buying plastic film cases if rust has started to develop on the can or, if in a box, the cardboard shows signs of damp or mildew. If the film reel also shows signs of corrosion then these can be replaced with plastic cores. The majority of these items can be purchased either online or through photographic and film specialists.

The key to preserving what is actually on your old film stock is to have it transferred onto video or disc. The majority of home movies from the 1930s onwards were shot on either 8mm or 16mm safety film so it is most likely that this is the kind of film that you have at home. Most photographic centres can now transfer this stock for you, and at a fraction of the price it would have cost a decade ago. If the film you have is of a different size however, such as 9.5mm, you will most likely have to find a specialist to transfer it for you as this was used much more infrequently, although there are many such specialists that can be found online.

More importantly, if you have any old film that has been shot on 35mm this must be handled with care, as the majority of 35mm film shot before 1950 contained cellulose nitrate which can be chemically unstable and highly flammable. If in the unlikely event that you are in possession of such film, it is best to contact your nearest film archive for advice.

Always label your movies. This is not only for your own reference, but also for anyone else who comes into contact with the film. It is best to not only label the cans or boxes that the films are in, but also, if possible, to write on the film leader itself. This is the white part at the start of the film stock that contains no actual footage. If the leader is missing for any reason, then a small piece of white adhesive tape with the film title written clearly on it can be affixed to the start of the film reel.

If you feel your films contain anything of historical value then it may be worth contacting your local film archive (if you happen to have one), or if the footage is of a particular place or historical event then a quick search online will allow you to find the archive that would find it of the most interest.

Don’t think that the home movies you are taking today should be treated any differently. Always try and make copies of whatever you have taken, especially if it is of a particular event. If you made any films in the past on a camcorder have the tapes transferred onto DVD, whilst if you are filming on digital try and make copies on disc or tape as well as storing footage on your computer. Always label your films and try and keep a catalogue of everything you have. Remember that in another 80 years it could be your films that people will be making documentaries about!

FILM RESTORATION IDEA: Crowdsourced restoration

Mark Cousins, a film writer and documentary director, has a plan to save them from obscurity: crowdsourced restoration, whereby volunteers use their personal computers to return damaged films to their former glories.

“Film restoration is incredibly labour-intensive, as the average movie contains 140,000 individual frames,” Cousins explains. “But we could take a film, find 10,000 people around the world to jointly restore it, send each of them 14 frames and ask them to erase scratches and increase chroma levels.”

FILM RESTORATION IDEA 2: Do it yourself (technical)

1. Upload the footage to the computer. If the footage is on a VHS tape, an analog video converter is needed that features an RCA input. Plug the RCA cords from the output of the VCR into the input of the computer’s capturing device. Capture footage around 10 to 15 minutes at a time to make restoration and editing easier.

2. Start a new project in Adobe Premiere Pro. Name the project “Restoration” or “Home Movies” to make it easy to remember and access later. Adobe Premiere provides all of the tools, filters and extras needed to really restore and make an old movie look new again.

3. Import the home movie files by clicking on the project window and selecting “Import . . . .” Find the files that you uploaded to your computer. Highlight multiple files by holding the “CTRL” key and clicking on each title.

4. Play the video in Adobe Premiere Pro. Take notes for key scenes where problems occur and write down a basic time line of scene breakdowns. For example, you could write “Birthday Party: Cake” for a scene and put notes like “Too Dark,” “Audio Noisy” and “Add Music/Titles.” Staying organized will make the restoration a lot easier and less time-consuming.

5. Drag and drop a video clip into the time line. Start with whatever clip you choose, because the order can always be changed later.

6. Click on the “Effects” window. Type in “Brightness and Contrast” in the search box. Click and drag the “Brightness and Contrast” filter onto the video in the time line. Click on the “Effect Controls” tab next to the preview window.

7. Click on the arrows to expand the brightness and contrast controls. To make a clip more vivid, bring the contrast up a little and the brightness down a little. If a clip is too dark, bring up both the contrast and the brightness. If it is too bright, bring the brightness down and play with the contrast until the picture looks good.

8. Use the “Color Correction” filter to fix faded color in videos. Often an older movie will look too yellow, too blue or too red, and this color is automatically adjusted by applying this filter. After the filter is applied, you can change the brightness and contrast again to make the picture appear even clearer.

9. Fix noisy audio by applying the “Denoiser” filter to audio on clips. The Denoiser helps eliminate most noises, but some distortion can occur if applied too heavily to clips. Expand the Denoiser in the “Effects Tab”” window. Bring down the noise meter to around 5 dB. Test the audio to hear how it sounds, and play with the slider until it sounds clean.

10. Add titles to video clips by going to “File,” “New” and “Title.” Use the text tools to create different titles for the home movies. Scroll through the bottom of the text window to choose pre-programmed fonts and styles.

11. Repeat this process with each clip, and order them on the time line. Press “Enter” to render the effects and see a preview of the finished video.

12. Export the final home movie by clicking on “File,” “Export” and “Adobe Media Encoder.” Choose a file format like AVI or MPEG and press “OK” to start the export process. Wait until the movie finishes, and then test it again in a separate media player to make sure it works. Compare it with the original file to see the differences and improvements.

For more information on how on preservation and restoration of movies, check the links below:

Wikipedia: film preservation
Home Film Preservation Guide

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