WWII-era film found. What to do with it? Need advice from film pros!

One of my co-workers has just come to me with what appears to be two 8mm film canisters she found in her father’s World War II Navy trunk. Her father served in the Pacific and participated in the Battle of Midway. She believes the film was shot by her grandfather during the war and may have footage from the battle. She wants to transfer the footage to VHS and give it as a Christmas present to a relative. The canisters are sealed with electrical tape and she has not opened them yet for fear of damaging the film, so we don’t know exactly what’s on the film. (It could very well be family vacation footage for all we know, or it could be a previously unseen historical document.)

Film folks, how do we proceed? Can we open the canisters and take a peek without fear of damaging the (presumably) 60+ year old film? Who should we take the film to for either video transfer or preservation, if needed?

If the film has been exposed but not processed (as suggested by the canisters being taped), you’re probably out of luck. Unless the film has been in a cold environment, it’s probably no good. If the original seal is on the cans, then it’s probably unexposed and also no good. About the only thing you can do is to send it to a professional lab to see if it can be processed. In any case, you do not want to open the cans to peek at it. If the film is unprocessed, then that will destroy any chance of getting it processed (which, as I said, is a slim chance in any case). You might be okay since 8mm film was usually on “daylight spools” – metal reels that allowed the user to load the camera outside of a darkroom. But who knows what’s in the cans? If you want to open them, go to a dark room – no light at all, such as an interior bathroom at night with the door shut – and open the can. If you feel a metal spool, then you have unexposed or exposed-but-not-processed film on a daylight reel.

Processed film is usually on little plastic reels. IIRC, double-8 film cans are about two inches in diameter and about 20mm thick. This is because the film is 16mm wide. The roll was put into the camera and the user would shoot 25 feet. Then the user would turn the spool over and reload the camera and expose the other half of the film. The lab would process the film, split it lengthwise down the middle, and splice it together to make a 50 foot reel. If the cans are small and thick, then you will have exposed/unexposed unprocessed film. If the cans are 3 inches in diameter and about 10mm thick, then you have a processed reel. Usually reels were put into cardboard boxes after they were processed.

But processed reels were also put into metal cans, especially when they were 200 feet or more. How big are the cans?

The cans are small. Based on your description, Johnny, i would say the film is exposed but not processed. Like I said, the reels were in a trunk containing my co-worker’s father’s mementos from his Navy days, so they were probably stored in attics or basements. That does not bode well for the condition of the film. Could she take them to a camera shop that does processing, like a Wolf Camera, to see if there’s anything on the reels?

It’s possible that there are surviving images, but not especially likely. I had a loaded film magazine from a 16mm “gun camera” (the camera that recorded that footage you see of other airplanes being shot down). The same magazines (with out the “PROPERTY OF THE U.S. GOVERNMENT” stamped on them) were fairly popular in civilian cameras as well. The footage in this magazine had been exposed in the 1950s and never processed. I paid to have it processed, and was told that the footage was blank. That is, it had deteriorated during its long storage. If you’re really interested, go ahead and see if there’s anything on the film. At worst, you’re out twenty bucks or so.

At that time, weren’t most 8mm films actually shot using Double 8 film, i.e., 16mm film with twice the number of sprocket holes, and a camera aperture using 1/4 of the 16mm frame? After 25 feet was run, the film was reloaded in the other direction, and run through the camera again. After processing, the film was slit in half to make the 8mm filmstrip.

If you do get anything interesting, have it copied onto DVD, then make VHS copies to watch, that way, you’ll have the DVD as a historical version (which will last longer than the film or VHS formats).

Either way, let us know what’s on it!