Home movie film – what is this? Basic 101 of 8mm film.

Are you the lucky owner of some home movie film?  maybe you THINK it’s film but not sure?  Maybe you don’t know how to play it, or what kind of projector to use.  Maybe you don’t know what kind of film it is?  Do you want to make some DIY home movies out of your 8mm film?

I am the lucky owner of 1000s feet of home movie film.  My cameraman father immortalised my sibling and I in our ’60s childhood and I’ll be forever grateful.   Do you have something you’d love to play? Preserve for generations to come? Copy?

This segment is about discovery.  What is that film? how do you play it? is it ok to play?
(In my next segments, I’ll describe more about projectors and screens, DIY transferring film to digital etc.)
The first step is to identify what kind of film you have, as this determines what kind of projector you need.

First: Handling the film and the reels: 

Sure, film is a little delicate, but it’s easy to handle if you take some precautions.

  1. If you’re getting your film canisters out of somewhere dusty,  get an ‘almost’ damp rag (NOT WET) and wipe the canisters down carefully to minimise dust transfer to the film.
  2. Don’t look at film on a sofa, bed or other fabric surface as the static from the film will attract dust.
  3. When the canisters are clean, carefully open the containers and tip out the reel.  Inspect it for dust/mould – any kind of detritus.   If you find some, use a COTTON or microfibre cloth to gently wipe down the sides of the reel.  Do not unwind the film at this stage or it will attract dust.
  4. At this stage, if you feel the film is really mouldy or damaged, it’s best to leave it for a specialist to look at.  (more about that in another segment.)
  5. You can wear white ‘dust’ gloves if you like, this can be a good idea, but is completely unnecessary if you’re very careful and only manipulate the film by holding it by the edges.  Of course, if you can’t trust yourself to do that, or you have ‘helpers’, or if the film is very delicate and damaged or crumbly, I suggest gloves.film cotton gloves 8mmSee these gloves from Amazon for handling film here, but otherwise handle the film by holding it only by the edges.

6.  Never look at your film with sweaty or damp hands.  Never put film or the containers in daylight or anywhere warm or moist.   Never expose the film to sunlight.


Before we go further, when you’re finished with your film, always put it back in it’s can, then in it’s container (if it has one).  Put it in a plastic, lidded box (ideally) or other container that you can mark with contents.   Keep the box in a dark (never in sunlight or….pooooff!…it will be gone), very cool, moisture free area.  A dry basement is ideal.

8mm film – what does it look like?

Generally, home movies of the current generations (30’s, 40’s…etc ….up to the 70’s) were shot on what is called 8mm film.  This describes the width of the film.  It’s just a little less than 1cm wide.   Strangely, it’s length is described in feet.   It was introduced by Eastman Kodak in the 1930s as an easy alternative to the wide 16mm film that was used by professionals.  It was also cheaper.    – that’s enough history.  So, have you got 8mm film?

  • 8mm film is 8mm wide. (funny that).
  • It comes in 25ft, 200ft, 400ft etc reels.

    film 8mm
    25ft, 200ft, 400ft reels.
  • It has holes, called sprockets down one side. (more on this shortly).
  • It usually has a ‘leader’ – a white strip of film in the front to ‘lead’ in the projector, often one on the ‘end’ as well.
  • 25ft reels often came in tiny 3″ cans – little yellow (if it’s kodak) plastic container that covers a small grey reel.  If your reel is bigger, it’s possible it has been joined (edited & spliced together) to create longer films.  The film will always be on a reel, plastic or metal, and will always then be in a ‘tin’ of some kind, metal or plastic, then often in a container or box that is able to be labelled.
    These little 3″ cans usually play for around 3-4 minutes each.
    It is vitally important that ANY LABEL or notation you find on your films is preserved.8mm film standard 8 super 8 home movies

What kind of 8mm film have I got?

So, if this is looking positive for 8mm, you might want to check the film itself as there are two distinct kinds, which require different projectors.
Using your gloves or by handling the film by holding it only by the edges,  unroll 8mm film types home movies standard super30cm or so to check the condition and have a look at the sprockets (the holes along the edge.)

The top 3 of the films in this picture are all 8mm film.
The bottom one is 16mm.
TOP LINE – Standard 8mm (or Regular) has big regular square holes.
MIDDLE TWO LINES – are Super 8 (or Super 8mm) film They have elongated sprockets.
The Third super 8mm film from the top is also a ‘sound’ bearing film, see the brown line on the bottom of the film strip?  That holds audio.
BOTTOM LINE – is 16mm film, generally either professional film, or older than 1930s.  It has two rows of square sprockets and is twice as wide, 16mm, than the 8mm film.  It also usually comes in larger cans.

If you’re a 60s child – you may have both Standard and Super 8mm film.  Super 8mm came in around 1965, and was much easier for the home cameraman to use, because it did not require emptying and rethreading half way through the filming process like Standard 8 did.

You should try to examine each reel and separate the Standard 8mm from the Super 8, because they are played on different projectors (or one that is adaptable.)

What condition is my film in?

Examine a few metres of the beginning of the film.   You can make notes on stick-it notes to attach to the containers, it may help when you go to play them, to have the correct gear on hand.

  • Does it look clean and clear? or dusty or fuzzy/crazed or mouldy?
  • Does it look/feel strong or does it appear brittle?
  • Does it crumble? or are there broken or fragmented pieces in the can?
  • Can you see any lumpy bits in the rolled up film? (these are often burn marks where the lamp has burnt a piece of film and has gone lumpy.)
  • is the film rolled smoothly and without creases around the reel?
  • Does the film smell of vinegar?  (This is called vinegar syndrome, where the acetate in the film chemically decomposes causing collapse of the structure). It often appears warped, curled and pale as the emulsion has peeled off. (see below)Vinegar syndrome 8mm film home movies

If you find any of your film is creased, crumbly, very mouldy, broken or fragmented, DO NOT REMOVE IT FROM IT’S REEL OR CONTAINER.  You will need to obtain help to restore your film.  Store it safely in a cool, dry, and dark area until such time as help is obtained.

Now you have identified your 8mm film, separated the two types and inspected it’s condition, it’s time to clean it and to play it on a projector.
Look for my next segments:-   Projectors and Screens,    and
Cleaning Your 8mm Home Movie film.


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