I spent last Friday morning in the BBC's number 4 grading suite at the Television Centre in London. For a while I'd been looking for some way of digitising the Super 8 that I shot in the late '70s and '80s, but there was always a problem.
For all its reputation as a 'bootlace gauge', the image quality of a well-exposed piece of Super 8 film can be pretty good. I'm talking now about camera original, reversal-processed film; start making prints or copies and the quality quickly deteriorates. Before domestic video came along there was a small but healthy market in Super 8 features for home screening, where the picture quality ranged from 'not unwatchable' to 'OK I suppose'. But first-generation Super 8 is sharp and stable and has an aesthetic all of its own. That's why it hasn't completely died away.
The problem was that when I investigated those ads that promise 'your home movies transferred to DVD', what I found was never too encouraging. Bear in mind that I once worked in this part of the industry, so I know how a transfer ought to look. I was seeking broadcast quality, not a 'film chain' setup where a projector throws the image for a camera to record, nor the 'domestic quality' promised by AV houses with desktop scanning machines.
Back when I'd worked in Granada Presentation the state-of-the-art was the 'flying spot' telecine machine, and apparently it still is. Such machines don't project the image but scan each frame of the film with a moving spot of light to give the sharpest, most detailed line-by-line rendering possible. The machines are the size of a double wardrobe and cost about 250 grand. But I was only planning to do this once, so I wanted to do it right.
I thought I'd reached my journey's end when I tracked down a guy in West London who owned an ex-broadcast Bosch telecine machine with a Super 8 gate. Unfortunately the person who'd sold him the business had made off with the sound heads and he could only offer mute transfers. It was friend-of-the-blog Stan who finally steered me to the last place I'd have thought to enquire... taking your home movies to the BBC feels rather like getting Rembrandt over to paint your kitchen. But you can! Hire the BBC's facilities, I mean. Rembrandt's dead.
The department in question is BBC Studios and Post Production and it's the arm of the BBC that sells the Corporation's services to the independent sector. Remember the days when neither ITV nor the BBC would acknowledge each other's existence on air, but everyone would refer coyly to 'the other channel'? No? Trust me, they did, and it was as stupid as it sounds. Now Granada makes University Challenge for the BBC, and there's a fair chance that any ITV show you're watching may have been shot in a Television Centre studio with a BBC crew (the night before my transfer booking, we watched a recording of Harry Hill's TV Burp in the same building).
Those services include the digitisation of Super 8 and even 9.5mm film to the standard seen in the BBC 2 Home Movie Roadshow. You don't have to run a production company, the service is available to all. The drawback? It's only for material you really, really care about because it doesn't come cheap. In my case this was edited footage that had been sitting in its cans for thirty years. It's both personal record and professional training. It's fragile. But for the price of a weekend in Brighton, it lives on.
For more work by the same department have a look at the Grading/Restoration/Archive page of the BBC site. If you click through to the 'case histories' you can read about how authentic colour was restored to a black-and-white Dad's Army episode using coded information hidden within the monochrome 16mm image. The account of the painstaking reconstruction of Space: 1999 for a pristine Blu-Ray release makes me wish I liked the show more - apparently the quality is staggering.
UPDATE: There's a featurette on the Dad's Army colour restoration here. Apparently it's not something that can be done with every monochrome telerecording - it depends on someone having forgotten to throw a certain switch that should have removed the colour information at the time.