Film Collecting Basics(I. HIS
A GUIDE TO BUYING FILMS
This is not intended to be an exhaustive guide to buying films, but rather a basic guide designed to get you up and running. If you read and understand what's here, then you'll be far ahead of 70% of the people who have film for sale.
Unfortunately a good number of sellers, especially since eBay evolved, have come on the scene who are honestly stupid about a film's condition or trying to greedily avoid telling you what's wrong with the print. In determining a film's value or price, nothing will help you more than experience and you'll become good at it as time goes on. However, as to a print's quality, no matter how inexperienced you may be, you have the right to honest, accurate information from the seller. He may not volunteer it, so you have to know what to ask. If a seller tells you he hasn't looked at the print in a long time or is otherwise unresponsive, then forget doing business with him. Know what you're buying. There is a big difference in value between a print that is original and one that is a dupe. A print suffering from serious vinegar syndrome is one step removed from the trash bin.
Film collectors are forced to become buyers, sellers and traders of their films. It is the way they build up their collections. Most all collectors are honest people who have no problem in telling you truthfully about their prints and selling them with the understanding that you can return a print for refund if it is not as represented and your request is a prompt one. Some dealers, on the other hand, don't bother to inspect their prints and set asking prices as high as possible based only on the title of the print.
Now let's discuss other things you should ask a seller......
Is it an Original or a Dupe?
There is a brief discussion about dupes (duplicates made from original prints) later in this tutorial. Never attempt to judge a film by holding it up to the light or even using a magnifying glass. Such an inspection will provide you nothing more than a date code and film stock. You must project the film to judge it. When you project a small picture, a good dupe will be very hard to tell from an original. When you project a larger picture, say 8' wide, you'll see the difference. A dupe usually lacks detail, especially in faces. The whites tend to "bloom" out, smearing into high contrast blacks which lack detail. Additionally, a poor dupe may look grainy, have inconsistent light balance, poor focus and any other problem imaginable. A dupe's soundtrack can be good, but most often is on the poor side. Remember, all of this is subject to the skill and equipment of the lab doing the dupe. You will find horrible dupes that have dirt marks from the negative which are printed directly on the positive. Some dupers did excellent work, printing superior images and even improving the soundtracks. You have to evaluate each print on its own merits.
In film collecting, an original print is the best, but its condition will vary and its value diminishes accordingly. A dupe is "next best" and its quality and value will also vary. An excellent (quality) condition dupe will be of greater value than a poor original. Value is also determined by a title's rarity, the buyer's desire to purchase and the seller's willingness to sell. Setting a value on any print is extremely difficult given the subjective factors which play in the process.
Any Lines and Splices?
Most folks don't mind an occasional line or scratch when viewing a print, but a 15-minute emulsion scratch running down the center of the picture is another story. There are places that you'd expect a splice, such as between lab reels, which generally come conveniently at the end of a scene and preferably between a fade out and fade in. However, a "jump splice" in the middle of a song or important dialogue is not expected. How much of this stuff is present in a print is vital information as it can mean the difference between a "mint" top price print or a "poor" piece of garbage.
Is it Vinegar?
The dreaded vinegar syndrome is discussed later. The only thing you have to know for "buying" purposes is that you must ask the question. Don't be fooled with an evasive answer. Vinegar is easily detected by a smell. if you smell it, then it's there. Just like there is no such thing as a "little bit" pregnant, there is no such thing as a little bit vinegar. What value you want to place on a vinegar print is going to be your own personal decision, the same as if your buying a print which is fading or turning color…….which takes us to the next subject.
How's the color?
Most of the color film stock that you will encounter as a collector is "Eastman". You can determine the stock and manufacturing date of a film by the printing along the sprocket hole edge of the film. Every few feet you will see the name of the stock and a date code and it is helpful to have a magnifying glass to read it. You can take your projector's lens out, turn it around and read the film edge easily with it.
Unfortunately, with but one exception, all Eastman color stock manufactured prior to 1982 has faded or will fade. Numerous attempts to restore faded film have failed. Once the film has faded it cannot be reversed. Some projectionists use color filters in front of the lens in an attempt to restore the original color. It is an ineffectual remedy.
Happily, however, all Eastman color stock manufactured since late 1982 is automatically low fade, so color fading should not be an issue with post 1982 stocks.
There is an exception to pre 1982 Eastman stock fading. Some Eastman stock made in 1982 is LPP but does not bear LPP markings on the edge. LPP is a no fade stock that has a yellow-green bias in its color balance. Some collectors report that individual "airline" Eastman prints from the early 1970's, which used Mylar® (polyester) as a base, are holding up well. However, many such airline prints are fading and the group cannot be labeled an exception.
There are seven color film stocks that have proven themselves to be low fade, they are: I.B.Technicolor, distinguishing itself as the real champ in holding its color. You can easily tell this stock by its appearance. Early stock had a blue sound track and usually soft focus and the more abundant later stock has sharp focus and a solid black sound track. Fuji stock has a purple bias in its color balance and is holding up nicely. Eastman LPP is considered low fade. Kodachrome and Anscochrome are holding up nicely. Bear in mind, any stock, even I.B. Tech, will change when subjected to high heat and humidity. Contrary to early hopes and observations, Kodak SP is not a low fade stock.
The only way to fully arrest color fade in the fading stocks is to freeze the film. Second to that, one should store their films at as low temperature as possible and under controlled humidity conditions as hereinafter recommended.
THE BEST: IB Technicolor® (imbibition)- black soundtrack, clear sprocket side
NEXT BEST: Kodachrome, Eastman Rev I and II, Anscochrome.
NEXT BEST: LPP, AGFA, FUJI
THEN: Pre 1982 Eastman, Kodak SP
Through experience you will develop your own values as to how much you will spend for a print whether it is faded or pink or glorious I. B. Technicolor. Some collectors won't put any money into a print that has, will, or might fade. Others put a price limit on how much they would pay for any such print regardless of the title. These are personal considerations that you must determine.
Is it Scope or Flat?
Unlike 35mm, an understanding of 16mm aspect ratios is very basic. Unless you have an expensive theatrical 16mm projector, your projector will have a fixed permanent aperture plate with an aspect ratio matching standard 16mm stock film, which is 1.33:1. That is, the width of the frame is 1.33 times the height, so if you project a 16mm image that is 1' in height, then it will be 1.33' wide.
What about those wide screen or Panavision films? Can I get and show them in 16mm? Yes, but remember this... a film can be a scope "title", such as "Three Coins In The Fountain," which was photographed in scope, but the 16mm print may be printed in one of three ways:
- It can be done "flat", that is the entire 1.33:1 stock 16mm frame is printed with a picture that is approximately half (actually 57%) of the original 2.35:1 scope picture. A flat print is usually made with an attempt to keep the important story visual information within the 16mm frame... doing a "pan and scan". You do not need an additional "scope" lens to show this kind of print.
- A scope picture (2.35:1) can be "letter boxed" into the 1.33:1 16 mm frame. This is called "adapted scope." The wide-screen picture appears in the frame with an upper and lower black margin. You do not need an additional "scope" lens to show this kind of print. Some collectors consider this the best way to have a scope title on 16mm, others frown on it as much of the frame is wasted and blowing up only the middle section causes a loss of resolution.
- Just like 35mm film, the width of the scope image is optically squeezed down into the frame and when projected the operator places a "scope" lens in front of the projector’s primary lens which un-squeezes the image to it's proper width. A 16mm scope lens will expand the width 2 times, which makes the image a 2.66:1 picture. This is the kind of print that requires an additional scope projector lens for viewing (unless you enjoy watching very tall, skinny people, buildings, cars, etc.). True scope 16mm prints are becoming rare and are eagerly sought after by niche collectors who are taken with the wide screen scope process.
What is the Film Stock?
As noted earlier, nitrate film was in common use until the 1950s, when safety film gradually became universal. Most 35mm prints available on the collectors' market, and all 16mm prints, are on safety film. However, some older 35mm nitrate features and shorts are still to be found.
Most sellers will so identify their films, but it always pays to check any older (say pre 1950) 35mm print to ensure that the words SAFETY FILM appear along the sprocket hole edge of the film. The absence of the words SAFETY FILM is a sure indicator that the film is nitrate.
Should you acquire a nitrate print, it must be stored in a fireproof container, and shown only in a booth that is approved for nitrate film. Don't even think about running a nitrate print unless the equipment and booth are approved for its use! Your life and your equipment are at significant risk if you do.
Within the generic SAFETY FILM category are to be found cellulose triacetate and polyester stocks. Most SAFETY FILM stocks through the 1990s were acetate, while most from the 1990s on were polyester. Kodak identifies its polyester as ESTAR. How do you tell the difference?
Acetate stock is slightly thicker than polyester (about 5.6 mils) and tears easily. The thickness can be measured using an inexpensive micrometer. Tear resistance can be checked by trying to tear a piece of the leader (assuming it is the same stock as the remainder of the film). Acetate will be easy to tear crosswise.
Polyester stock is slightly thinner than acetate (about 4.7 mils) and is virtually impossible to tear crosswise without cutting or nicking the film first.
MORE DETAILED INFORMATION ON SCOPE AND OTHER FORMATS………
Scope is a nickname derived from CinemaScope®, a wide-screen format introduced by 20th Century Fox in 1953. This process uses an anamorphic lens to film the picture that compresses the image horizontally by a factor of 2 time as earlier explained.
For 35mm film with a magnetic soundtrack, which has an actual frame aspect ratio of 1.275:1, the resulting CinemaScope screen image is 2.55:1.
For 35mm film with an optical soundtrack, which has an actual frame aspect ratio of 1.175:1, the resulting CinemaScope screen image is 2.35.1. This is what is in use today in most theaters.
For 16mm film, magnetic or optical, which has an actual frame aspect ratio of 1.33:1, the projected image with the anamorphic lens is 2.66:1. The 16mm CinemaScope image loses a little off the top and bottom of the original 35mm CinemaScope image.
Flat means "not scope," but alone it doesn’t tell you all you need to know. In 35mm, "flat" can mean everything from the Academy ratio of 1.37:1, established as standard in 1932, to "widescreen" ratio of 1.85:1, and everything in between. To avoid confusion when screening a flat film, it is a good idea to follow "flat" with the actual aspect ratio (for example, "FLAT 1.85," "FLAT 1.66," or "FLAT 1.37") when marking the leaders with titles and reel number.
This is a treatment used to create a non-scope print when the original image was anamorphic, resulting in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The 2.35:1 image (which obviously would not be able to fit into a nearly square film frame) is reduced in size until the sides meet the sides of the square film frame. The top and bottom of the now reduced image now no longer meet the top and bottom of the square aperture, not unlike television’s "letterbox" format. This is done only in 16mm to accommodate the non-theatrical/non-professional market that does not have the lenses and/or screens necessary to screen real scope prints. It is a poor system since much of the frame does not carry image, thereby reducing resolution.
SCANNED WIDE SCREEN PRINTS
Some studios re-release prints of older Academy ratio (1.37:1) titles in hard matted 1.85:1 versions because the vast majority of today’s megaplex theaters don’t have the aperture plates or the lenses to show Academy ratio pictures. All they know is "flat" and "scope, flat being (if you are lucky) 1.85 – lots of them actually show both scope and flat at 2:1. After hard matting at 1.85:1, placing the familiar black bars on top and bottom of the original image, the image is moved up and down as needed to keep significant portions of the image in the 1.85:1 aperture.
This is another method of adapting older Academy ratio films to work with a projector outfitted with a 1.85:1 aperture plate and a lens with a focal length to produce that aspect ratio on the screen. The top and bottom are not cropped, but the entire image is reduced so that it becomes a small square in the middle of the 1.85:1 aperture. When this is projected it becomes a 1.37:1 image fitting correctly in the middle of a wide screen. This is obviously better than scanning since none of the image is lost, but what you wind up with is an image area that basically is only a little bigger than 16mm. For a short subject like an 7-minute cartoon you might put up this resolution and light loss, but you should be aware of that when buying. This is only a problem with 35mm prints.
2. FORMAT CAVEATS
In order to minimize disappointment with what you get in a print, it is best to know what the original picture format was when the film was shot and played initially in theatres. Knowing release dates will be very helpful in this. Then try to discern how the print you are getting is formatted. Both should be the same. Then show it in that format.
A good rule of thumb is that any picture prior to 1955 or so will have been shot in 1.37:1 and is intended to be shown that way. If the print you are looking to buy was made before 1955, and it was re-released recently, you need to ask if it is hard matted at 1.85:1. That tells you that you are getting a scanned print and you will be missing about a third of the original image.
3. 35MM FORMAT/ASPECT RATIO TABLE
4. FILM DATE CODES
A chart of film date codes may be viewed here.
5. THOSE "TV" PRINTS
Many 16mm prints are to be found in which the title footage refers to "C & C TV Corp." rather than the original studio logo/identification. Knowing the history behind these prints serves as a good lesson as to what is a TV print as opposed to a "theatrical print"
Around 1956 Hughes sold RKO and the first thing the buyers did was sell the library to broadcast TV. Individual stations could buy an entire package of 16mm prints and had license to play them for the life of the print. This was the first major studio package of films made available to broadcast TV and where buyers broadcast the package under a format called "MovieTime USA". C and C Cola was the major advertiser, and so "C & C TV Corp." was born. Until then, TV broadcast public domain films, Republic Westerns and a handful of near "A" titles that independent producers had sold, such as Hal Roach's "Topper," "One Million BC" or Edward Small's "Corsican Bros," "Man In The Iron Mask," etc. Once a station had purchased the C&C RKO MovieTime USA package they ran these prints "ad nauseam" and the handful of popular titles, like "King Kong" or "Citizen Kane" were popping up at 3:00 AM most every night of the week.
These were the days of early B&W TV and tele-cine film chains could not handle normal contrast "theatrical" prints. The video of the day demanded low contrast prints in order to have a video picture that showed detail in the shadows. Compared to a black and white "theatrical " print, a low contrast TV print appears to be gray and white. The RKO prints were printed on low density film stock from source material that had the original RKO logos removed and titles were edited to remove RKO from the header, and in their place "C&C Films, Inc.," "CC&C TV Corp." or "MovieTime USA" was put in. These prints are considered originals in spite of their low contrast and appearance of soft focus. (Actually the focus is not soft, rather the nature of low contrast is such that the focus gets compromised and appears soft.) These C&C prints are nice to have, but chances are you have a dupe of a C&C print. The original C&C prints, widely distributed to TV station libraries across the country became the source material for an army of basement dupers whose quality control varied from horrible to pretty good.
If you have absorbed this dissertation and have a reasonable understanding of the material, you'll have no trouble in the film buying market. Yes, you'll make some mistakes, but they will become valuable lessons that will never be forgotten.
I have left for last the most valuable tip I can give..... learn as much as you can about your seller. Check the best film collection site on the internet, eFilmForum and ask for references from people who have dealt with that person. You'll get several responses I'm sure. There are some bad apples to avoid but the overwhelming majority of collectors and dealers are fine, honest people who love the thrill of showing film on the big screen. If you have yet to experience that thrill, jump in now and join us.
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