Motion Picture Film Guidance: Identifying Motion Picture Film Formats

How Do I Identify Motion Picture Film Formats?

characteristics of film

If you have film that you think might need preservation attention, the first thing to do is confirm that the object is, in fact, a motion picture film. Over time, the words "film" and "video" have come to be used interchangeably, but they are different media with different preservation needs.

Characteristics of Film:

  • A film will usually be in a flat roll, and is likely be in a plastic or metal can. A film may be on a reel if it was run on a projector in the past.
  • There are small holes on one or both sides of the film (called perforations)
  • Film is readable to the naked eye. When held up to a light, you will be able to see images on the film. A video requires playback equipment to see any images.

Once you have confirmed that you have a film, you can identify other characteristics that will help you talk to a service provider about it.

  • What is the film gauge? The primary characteristic by which we refer to film is the gauge. This tells us the width and the type of perforations in the film. Gauges range from 7.5mm to 105mm, although 8mm, 16mm and 35mm are most common. Super 8 is a common home movie format that is 8mm wide but has smaller perforations to allow for a larger image on the film.
  • Is the film black and white or color?
  • Is it a negative or a positive? A positive looks like a normal image. In a negative, the colors and densities are the opposite of how they appear in real life. In addition, the film base of a black and white negative will usually have a gray cast; a color negative will have an orange cast.
  • Is there sound on your film? A soundtrack could appear in several ways, with the most common being a squiggly line beside the picture (called an optical track) or a brown stripe that is adhered to the edge of the film (called a magnetic stripe).
  • What identifying information is printed on the can or the film leader? Are there related printed materials available that describe the film?

Use the pictures below to help identify your film. Hover over the images to learn what they are called. We have included common formats that you are most likely to encounter. Once the film type is identified, a basic condition assessment can be performed so that you are prepared to talk to a service provider about your film.

Hover over each image to learn what it is called.

35mm black and white negative
16mm black and white reversal (often a home movie format)
8mm color reversal (common home movie format)
35mm black and white print
16mm color reversal
Super 8mm color reversal (common home movie format introduced 1965)
35mm color print (with soundtrack)
16mm color negative
16mm color print (with soundtrack)

Where can I find more information?

  • For more on the difference between film and video, see this blog post from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
  • For more technical information about film identification, see the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia’s Guide.
  • For an extremely detailed flow chart of 16mm film formats, see Brian Pritchard’s 16mm Film Identification Guide
  • Pritchard also has a detailed flow chart for 35mm identification