Film Preservation 101: What’s the Difference Between a Film and a Video?

What’s the difference between these objects?

If you’re one of the people who can immediately identify the objects in the images seen here, the answer to this question is easy.  But with the way the language has evolved to discuss audiovisual materials, it actually isn’t obvious for a good chunk of the population.  I learned this lesson well when, after giving a detailed presentation about film preservation to a group of intelligent graduate students, the first person to raise her hand asked the question.  The presentation covered the history of film technology, deterioration issues in different types of film bases, ways to mitigate deterioration, and preservation strategies.  Not once, despite an abundance of images, did I give a precise physical description of the format itself.  It just didn’t occur to me that something so basic needed to be explained.

The confusion, I believe, comes in the ubiquitous use of the verb “to film.”  It doesn’t matter if one uses a smart phone and posts a video to one’s Facebook page or Paul Thomas Anderson shoots a commercial production like The Master on 70mm film, the action is described in the same way:  it was “filmed”.  The issue is further complicated when one considers that the products we see in movie theaters are generally referred to as “films”, even though a good chunk of Hollywood output (including blockbuster films like Avatar and The Hobbit) originates on high-resolution video cameras.  Further, except for art houses and repertory theaters, it’s very unlikely that an actual reel of film is screened in a theater anymore.  This summer, when you go to the multiplex and buy your ticket to the comic book adaptation of the week, you will be paying to see a digital projection of a file called a DCP.

The conflation of the terms film and video was once a pet peeve of mine, but when that graduate student raised her hand and forced me to reconsider it, I had to admit that it’s normal for language to evolve.  What we must do moving forward is make it clear to our audience what we mean when we say that in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab we preserve film.

In the simplest terms, I am referring to the difference between two types of physical objects: a reel of film and a videotape.  It gets slightly more complicated when you throw files into the mix, but I can assure you that if you do not have an object in your hand, you do not have a film.

Here are some pictures that demonstrate the difference between film and video, using “How to Succeed with Brunettes” (Local Identifier: 330-DVIC-25147) as an example:

1)     A film reel, more precisely, a projection print, with a close-up of the individual frames at right.  This is what the Motion Picture Lab works on.

2)     A video cassette, more specifically, a betacam transfer.  Preserving these is the business of the Audio-Video Lab, which, hopefully, you now understand is different than the Motion Picture Lab.

3)     “How to Succeed with Brunettes” on YouTube, from the video file we created from the projection print.  Preserving files is the concern of the Electronic Records Archives.

If that wasn’t enough to clear it up, here it goes:  If you shot it on your smart phone, that’s a video.  If you inserted it into your VCR in 1994, it’s a video.  If you used a projector, which is in its most basic form is a machine that moves a strip of plastic past a light source at 24 frames per second, then, yes, you do indeed have a film in your hands.

We in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab take care of those pieces of plastic, and copy them to newer, more stable pieces of plastic if necessary for preservation purposes.  We also work to make the content more easily accessible, usually by digitizing the films, which creates a video file that can be uploaded to ARC or any one of the National Archives’ social media platforms.  The film is what we started with, the video is what you are able to see on whatever type of screen you may be using.

The most basic difference between the physical object of film and the physical object of a video is whether it is light-readable or you need a machine to see what’s on it.  If you unwind a bit of a reel of film and hold it to a light source, you’ll see individual images (called frames).  On the sides are perforations, or sprocket holes, that are there so that a projector can pull the film through and create moving images out of a succession of still pictures—kind of like a flip book you might have had as a child.

If you pull out a length of video from the cassette you have in a box somewhere in your basement, not only will you have possibly ruined your video (good luck not mangling that thing when you try to wind it back into the cassette), you won’t be able to see anything except a brown strip of plastic.  The video tape requires a machine in order to view it, because the visual information is an electronic signal that is recorded magnetically to a piece of tape.  At the National Archives, videos are preserved across the hall from us, in the Audio-Video Preservation Lab.

So, there you have it.  I have necessarily simplified this issue beyond a full technical explanation, but hopefully you will now have a better understanding of what we’re talking about when you read our future posts!

One thought on “Film Preservation 101: What’s the Difference Between a Film and a Video?

  1. Thanks for this article. I’m a videographer and I record digital video, but in all of my marketing material I still call it “Film” even thought that’s not the case. I personally think it sounds more pleasing and “artistic” so I stick with it.

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