People Innovation Excellence

How to Convert Old Film Reels With a Raspberry Pi

My grandfather Leo was a self-taught electrical engineer and IEEE member who designed control systems for tire factories. He was also an avid photographer, and his eight children—and later, his grandchildren—were among his favorite subjects, right up to his death in 1974, when I was 5.

Fast-forward to 2013: During a move, my uncle uncovered a trove of more than 130 reels of Leo’s 8-mm and 16-mm home movies, some dating back to 1939. While commercial conversion services exist, converting so many reels would have been pretty expensive, so my cousin and I set out to preserve them digitally ourselves, to better share them with Leo’s enormous extended family.

First, a quick primer on film projection for digital natives. In a projector, a motor pulls film through a vertical “gate.” Each film frame is held still and flat in the gate while a lamp illuminates it from within the projector’s housing. Lenses on the other side of the gate focus the image so that it appears sharp on whatever surface the film is projected. Between the gate and the lamp, a rotating shutter wheel blocks the light while the next frame is sliding into position. (Without this shutter, the film would be one big blur.)

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