Motion Picture Film Guidance: Identifying Motion Picture Film Formats

How Do I Identify Motion Picture Film Formats?

characteristics of film

Most people and institutions do not have the equipment necessary to view motion picture films. If you have access to a projector, be sure to evaluate both the projector and the condition of the film before you consider using it. Film may be easily damaged by a projector if it has not been maintained regularly or if the film has condition issues. If you wish to preserve and protect the content of the film, we recommend seeking out a service provider with experience working with archival motion picture film. The service provider will be able to help stabilize your film and create a digital copy for viewing or preservation.

Once you have confirmed that you have a film (refer to our Film Characteristics page) you can identify other properties that will help you talk to a service provider about it. You can do this even if you do not have film handling or viewing equipment. You should gather the following information about the film and then may use our Determining Condition webpage to perform a quick condition assessment in order to assist the service provider in planning a course of action.


  • 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.
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Note the relative difference in size between strips of 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm motion picture film. The 8mm film in this image is regular 8mm.


  • Is the film black and white or color?
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A 35mm black-and-white film print and a 16mm color film print.

Prior to modern color film processes, film was sometimes hand-painted, tinted or toned in order to add color. There are also many early processes that required extra equipment to present the image in color. More modern color processes embed dyes or pigments in discrete layers within the emulsion to create successive layers of cyan, magenta, and yellow that combine to create full color.

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Examples of common early color systems: Blue-tinted stock, yellow-tinted stock with blue toning, and untinted stock with blue toning.


  • 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.
Black-and-White Negative Film

Black-and-White Negative

Color Negative Film

Color Negative

Black-and-White Positive Film

Black-and-White Positive

Color Positive Film

Color Positive


  • Is there sound on your film? A soundtrack could appear in several ways, with the most common being a squiggly or banded 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).
Black-and-white 35mm film with a variable area optical soundtrack.

Variable Area Soundtrack

Black-and-white 16mm film with a variable density optical soundtrack.

Variable Density Soundtrack

Black-and-White 35mm film with a push-pull optical soundtrack.

Push-Pull Soundtrack

16mm color reversal film with amagnetic stripe soundtrack.

Magnetic Stripe Soundtrack

Sometimes you will see a piece of film that only contains the soundtrack and no picture. These may also be optical or magnetic.

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Examples of common soundtracks: a variable density optical track, a variable area optical track, and a full coat magnetic track.

In other cases, sound was recorded on disc or some other media meant to sync with the film during playback.


  • What identifying information is printed on the can or the film leader? Are there related printed materials available that describe the film? You may be able to gain useful clues about the format and content of your film from what is written on film containers and leader.
Film can with a label giving the title as "The Hoja Tries to Please All" and identifying the film as a silent Kodachrome print of the English version. A Kodachrome Color Safety Film box with a tag attached reading "Bund Scenes, Kodachrome, Camp Nordland". Film leader with handwriting identifying the film as an unclassified, black-and-white duplicate negative comprised of several rolls. The film is identified as "Penemunde Film:. Film roll with paper taped to it identifying the subject as "Relief Project on Yaeyama".


Where can I find more information?

  • For more technical information about film identification, see the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia’s Guide.
  • For further assistance in the identification of motion picture and other film formats visit the Rochester Institute of Technology’s
  • 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.
  • The Timeline of Historical Film Colors provides detailed information about color systems, going back to the earliest days of film.