For the last couple of years I have been working on a prototype film scanner. I originally started the project because I have been shooting 16mm film for about 20 years, and have accumulated a lot of footage which I would like to copy forward before film handling equipment becomes completely unavailable.

I have been doing electronics and software since elementary school, so I started putting something together.

First, the results

(Frame from a 16mm print of "Zero G Research Facility" produced by NASA, click for full size.)

30 second exert of "Zero G Research Facility", 75MB Matroska file containing H.264

Here's what it looks like

Earlier versions of my scanner were based on projectors, however projector transports can not handle shrunken film. The shrunken film does not fit on the sprockets, and gets torn apart. The final version has no sprockets, and instead has a rubber coated capstan to pull the film through the gate.

The reels have independent motors which unroll and then re-roll the film. The film tension is measured with bale arms, and actively controlled. On my scanner the motors are unusually small, they are about 2 inch cubes. The motors are physically incapable of tearing otherwise undamaged film, and I tested that during development.

The next design challenge is splices, they always break. That problem can be reduced by not bending the film unnecessarily. So with the exception of the capstan (which needs as much contact area with the film as possible), the film does not bend much more than about 120 degrees around the rollers.

Finally, in the middle of all this is the gate. This is the only part which the film rubs against. So it is mirror finish aluminum. It also has two optical perforation sensors. They shine infrared light through the film to detect the perforations and position the film. The micro-controller which is controlling the motors can handle some damaged or missing perforations.

I have fabricated film gates for regular 8, 16mm, and 35mm film.

The camera is a monochrome industrial vision camera, with field sequential color, it does not use a bayer pattern. The lens is a nikon macro lens, on a removable camera mount so the camera can be adjusted for the various film gauges.

The field of view of the camera includes most of the width of the film, including the perforations, sound track, and some of the previous and next frames. The scanner uses the image of the perforations to locate the frame. The overlapping field of view also enables the scanner to image optical sound tracks. The software can handle variable area, variable density, and variable area push-pull sound tracks.

With the camera removed, the reel arms are stowed behind the back plate and the entire film transport folds up into its case. A second case contains the scanner computer, as well as the camera assembly.

The scanning computer has enough disk space for several reels of film. The scanner can scan onto its hard disks while offloading to your computer via gigabit ethernet using a standard web protocols. The data is retained on the scanner computer until you verify it has been completely transferred to your computer.

The final result is an individual image per film frame (I typically use ppm files, but you can use anything supported by netpbm), and a wav file of the sound track. It actually generates three separate sound tracks, for 23.976 frames per second, 24.0 frames per second and 25.0 frames per second. It simulates running a projector at those three frame rates, to avoid drop frame artifacts.

This scanner is not fast, it takes about 2 seconds per frame, a 2000 foot roll of 16mm will take 45 hours. The color is field sequential, so there are three separate exposures. The film advance then takes about 1 second. It is slow and steady, gentle and cool. If the tension is too high or too low, or the perforations not where they are expected, it stops and waits.

This scanner is also portable, it can go to the film, instead of risking irreplaceable material shipping it to a lab.

Interested in getting something scanned? Interested in getting a scanner? Email for more information.

NASA Films

These are Matroska files containing H.264 video and uncompressed audio. I use mplayer and vlc to play them. They are also not small, and I don't have the bandwidth to send them to you in real time. Save them to a file, and play locally.


color sound

NASA highlights from 1971, Apollo 14, 15, Skylab construction, U2, YF-12 (SR71).


Color Sound

Describes the UK's Ariel 2 satellite, launched in the early 60's (by NASA). British... very British.


Color Sound. Yay Kodachrome

The head seems to be missing, and its been spliced a few times. Sound-track is marginal, but the color is absolutely perfect. This is why people rave about Kodachrome.


Color Sound.

Very red. Apollo-Soyuz, last flight of Apollo-Saturn.


Color sound.

Dry... very Dry... The Apollo down-link was 50 Kbit/sec, or "an encyclopedia per minute".


Color Sound

Shot on Skylab, second crew, lots of conservation of angular momentum. The down-link was field sequential video, which was then transferred to film (and now, back to video).


Color Sound.

Filename is from the can, the titles say "Rehearsal for the Moon". Shows the command module simulator Box Car, the flying bed-stand, lunar module docking simulator, vacuum chamber, vomit comet, and underwater training.


color MOS

The can is labeled gemini glider test, thus the filename. However its really test footage of a Rogallo wing and the first test is an apollo capsule so I think its later than gemini. There is a B&W picture of the test article on the Apollo wikipedia page. Gemini was originally intended to land horizontally on a landing strip with a Rogallo wing.


Color Sound

Pondering P21 Electron density profile probe payload on javlin rockets launched from wallops island. April 27, 1961. Excellent color.


Color, sound.

Shows the lunar sample receiving lab.


Color Sound Shot on Skylab, second crew, shows a magnet aligning with earth's magnetic field, and ponders the period of its oscillation to measure field strength.


Color Sound.

Illiac 4, Enterprise releasing from the carrier 747, Ospry tests, Mike Jittlov did some animation (he shows up in unexpected places).


Color Sound

Mostly shows radar images. Has launch and landing of STS-1 (might be STS-2). (note Edwards air-force base giving Columbia clearance to land, that caused some politics since only Houston is supposed to talk to the shuttle. John Young also flew the X15 which landed there.)


color MOS

Lots of medical tests on the astronauts, both on the ground and in space. Skylab had a centrifuge, also shows skylab's scale (you weigh someone in zero-G by shaking them back and forth.).


color MOS

More demos from fluid dynamics in weightlessness, magnetic effects in space, shows the object scale. And a really confused spider, and some fish.


Color Sound

Badly faded, documents surveyor mission. Lots of computers with infinitely more style than the modern stuff.


B&W sound.

Vibration testing at Goddard. The can says "1963 B&W Vibration of Space Craft Simulation Testing" GO-10-A. Extremely stereotypical 1950's educational.


Color Sound

Lewis research center zero G drop shaft. Lots of packaroni. Good color copy of the Gemini space walk.