What the "Academy" Uses
When it comes to film digitization services, there is a phrase that shows up nearly as often as a price list. “We use the same machine that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences uses.” I ask you this: How could there possibly be thousands of services using the same machinery for film digitization on the same level as the Academy? Is machinery of that caliber really that accessible to the average small business? Or perhaps there is some marketing language at play?
As someone who has actually done a fair amount of work for the Academy Film Archive, I can let you in on the secret. Their primary digitization utilizes machines in the $150,000 - $750,000 range. None of these are accessible to the typical small digitization service and require far more training and expertise than a service like that would be willing or capable of handling.
The confusion happens because the typical film archive usually has two digitization pathways. The primary pathway is the high-end, expensive machinery. On the other hand, the secondary pathway is merely to generate low-quality access copies for cataloguing purposes, with low-cost machinery, so that the archive does not have to spool up a projector every time they need to preview or find material. This also allows documentary filmmakers to preview collections online and purchase updated scans of the material for the use in their films. These copies usually come from a print instead of original film as to not damage it.
The secondary access process usually uses a machine called a Sniper. A Sniper is basically a modified projector, namely a projector that has had its bladed shutter and lens removed. A basic camera was attached and would be used to capture a frame from the film every time one was held by the projector, saving it digitally to a computer. The company that makes the Sniper, which is one of the few making these low-cost machines, has continued to release transfer machines with higher resolution options, including the RetroScan, which fortunately no longer uses a modified projector design.
The Academy Film Archive purchased one of these machines for this same purpose: Creating low-quality access copies of material for cataloguing and preview purposes with a low-cost machine that has minimal need for training. Because this is the only viable low-cost option (other options are incredibly slow), most of the typical film digitization services that are geared for home movies use the same machine, thus creating the above marketing strategy.
However, one might already see how it is tricky to claim the same machine as an institution using the machine for low quality access copies. Of course, for most of these services “low quality access copies” is enough for the typical home movie client. Not for me of course, because of my background in high-end preservation and restoration I know that your footage can look better.
Let’s explore the primary digitization pathway that the typical archive uses.
The Academy and other archives use high-end film scanners for their primary digitization. Namely machines such as the DFT Scanity and the Lasergraphics Scanstation:
The above machines are not low-cost options. These have capabilities such as 4K and 5K scanning, multiflash (HDR), shrunken film support, frame-accurate failed splice recovery, simultaneous capture of audio, fully uncompressed (DPX) output, 12bit and 14bit color depth, intelligent variable tension.
It is this level of quality that I strive to produce with my custom scanner. 12bit color depth is an absolute must in my opinion, even for home movies, due to its flexibility in color correction.