Motion Picture Film Guidance: Playback and Digitization of Materials

How Can I Play Back and Digitize My Materials?

Should I try to run this on equipment that I have?


One should proceed with extreme caution when attempting to view old films. The film may exhibit signs of deterioration (see Condition Assessment) and/or be very fragile. Home movies shot in the past few decades and stored properly may be safe to run on a projector, but only if you know that the projector has been properly maintained. Preservation copies held in archival institutions should never be projected.


Digitization of textual documents and photographs is possible with basic equipment, but it is much more complicated to make a high-quality copy of motion picture film. In addition to a plethora of specialized equipment, expertise in film handling is necessary to avoid damaging the original. Consult a professional to have preservation and access copies made. Do not discard originals even if you have had a preservation-level copy made. The original could very well outlast the copy if it is stored in proper conditions.

How do I locate a vendor who can reformat my motion picture film records?

Most professional post production houses will be able to scan your film while handling it safely. The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration's (NARA) website includes a list of vendors in the Washington, D.C area that are approved to handle our motion picture records when patrons request a broadcast-quality transfer. If you would like to find a provider in your area that can perform similar work, do an online search using the terms “film post production facilities” near your location, or visit an online directory. The Laboratories Directory on the Kodak website will direct you to full-service photochemical labs that can make new film copies for preservation purposes.

The Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) also provides the Video and Film Supplier Directory.

What should I ask the vendor to create, and how should the final product be delivered?

You should ask the vendor for a preservation copy to be stored for the long-term and for an access copy to make your content easily viewable.

  • When possible it is always advisable to create a new film copy for preservation purposes (this process is referred to as photochemical preservation). Properly stored, a film copy will last longer than digital files.
  • If photochemical preservation is not feasible, film should be digitized at the highest possible resolution to capture the intrinsic qualities of the film. Even home movie material copied for personal use purposes would best be served by being scanned in HD. As a reference, consult NARA’s Products and Services page to learn about the current NARA internal specifications.
  • The purpose of a preservation copy is to create an exact and high quality duplicate of the original record. This way, if the original film deteriorates beyond use, the preservation copy will be able to take its place. A preservation copy should last for years or decades – at least long enough to plan for making subsequent copies once these become outdated.
  • The purpose of an access copy is to create a copy of your record that you can play back easily. A new film copy made for preservation purposes is not playable without specialized equipment. An access copy should be a well-supported format that is easy to play back.

Digital preservation copies generally have the following characteristics:

Access copies generally have the following characteristics:

  • May be reduced resolutions
  • Low bitrate
  • Highly compressed

You could ask for your files to be delivered on hard drive, flash drive or optical disk; whichever method you select you should be prepared to make a second, or backup, copy to help ensure the safety of your records. Remember that each type of storage media has drawbacks: flash drives can fail, hard drives need to be replaced, and optical disks are usually highly compressed. You must choose the solution that is best for you while also understanding its limitations. More info in the Digital Preservation section.

Should I ask for anything else?

  • You may request that the vendor name your files and organize them in a certain way. Archives sometimes use a unique identifier to name their files; these can be auto-generated or they may be more meaningful identifiers that provide information about the content or creator of the item (similar to a library book’s call number).

Are there any other requirements that I should ask the vendor to meet?

  • You may also want to ask the vendor to incorporate metadata in your files. Metadata is basically information about your data. You may want to include descriptive information like a title, date, location or occasion in your metadata. You could also request that the vendor include technical metadata about what type of hardware and software was used to digitize your materials.
  • Checksums can also be a valuable tool. They help to ensure that your data does not change over time.

Where can I find more information?