by Steven K. Roberts
Friday Harbor, Washington
January, 2021

Digitized family history on a thumb drive makes an amazing and deeply personal gift. Contact Steve for Harbor Digitizing gift certificates or info on digitizing film, video, and stills for your family.

Film digitizing workstation

We operate in a commercial space in Friday Harbor, near the ferry terminal. If you happen to be in the San Juan Islands, we are here most afternoons. Wherever you may be, please contact me to discuss film, video, audio, or still-image digitizing projects (we often handle vintage media shipped from afar).

Like most businesses, this began for personal reasons. I inherited a library of 8mm movies taken by my father from 1936 through the mid-1970s, and some of the earlier stuff obviously had considerable historical value. While researching the rather overwhelming range of conversion services, I realized that the collection was large enough to justify buying my own system… so after obsessive research into professional tools, I acquired the RetroScan Universal (then upgraded it with a 2K camera and gave it a dedicated PC to allow maximum-quality scanning).

Some of the 150 or so reels of film left by my father

I continued refining the system, and in 2018 decided to set it up as a business. In addition to the machine itself and the 8mm/Super8 gate for my own projects (see examples in my Vimeo film showcase and older ones in my YouTube channel), I picked up a 16mm gate… so I can handle just about any home movie format. As the film flows smoothly through the machine (handled only by its edges), every frame is digitized down to the grain at 2K resolution by a high-speed camera, then that huge image sequence is exported to a suitable output format depending on quality of the source material.

I now have the tools to scan every detail of your old home movies and convert them into digital form, ready for editing or sharing… and since every frame is captured, there is no shortage of still images for Facebook, blog posts, book projects, and so on. Here is a marvelous recent example… New York City in 1948:

New York City in 1948 – film by Charlie Aton from Steven K Roberts on Vimeo.

I occasionally do a little post-production to stabilize old camera jitter and restore color balance; here is a moment of railroad geekery from our family vacation to Colorado in 1961 (when I was 8):

Rio Grande 5534 in Royal Gorge – 1961 from Steven K Roberts on Vimeo.

One of my favorite parts of working with old film is the stills… each 3-inch reel is a time capsule of 8,000 images including micro-expressions that are far more interesting than the frozen “say-cheese” snapshots of the era (when photos were expensive and getting the camera out was an event). I am collecting quite a library of moments… here are four frames from one of my father’s 1941 reels (regular 8 film):

Uncle George (Quaker) at Civilian Public Service Camp during WW2, Star-sailing with friends, filming out the airplane window, and folks from the Swarthmore College class of 1876/86 during the 1941 reunion.

My original intent was to offer this service only to clients here in the San Juan Islands, though I began accepting projects from afar and that now amounts to about half the business. Please get in touch if you have old movies or video tapes fading in storage and would like to preserve them for posterity. Turn-around time depends on the scope of the job… and delivery can be via thumb drive, external hard drive (including a loaner if you’re local to Friday Harbor), or cloud services.

Pricing

The most common home movies are 8mm (either Regular or Super 8) and 16mm, all of which we scan at 2K resolution and then export as MP4 or AVI video files that can be edited or shared). But there are LOTS of variables, including huge “numbered image sequences” that give you a separate file for every frame of the film. We’ll work with you to see what makes the most sense, and can deliver in different file formats if you prefer… including web-optimized for YouTube.

Here is our current price list (226K PDF, one page):



We are occasionally asked about transferring to DVD, and can do so if needed… but that is a compromise I don’t recommend. Your files will be hard to extract later… and the downgrade to 480p video quality is not nearly as high as files that play directly on your computer and already come free with the service. That optical disc medium is dying, with drives less common as the years pass, and most smart TVs have USB ports anyway. Rationale for DVD is decreasing, but if you need it, we can do basic authoring of video and film files if needed.

Digitizing my parents’ 1946 Bermuda honeymoon

The cost for digitizing is based on film length, which correlates with the time required to do the job including setup, cleaning if needed, occasional repair of old failed splices and fine-tuning (color, focus, contrast, tilt, exposure, framing, backlight) while the film is running… plus export and building the delivered filesystem. The nominal price for all that is 30¢/ft, which works out to about $15 for the common 3-inch reel (including the export), with a discount for long reels with less handling overhead.

Still frames in the Olden Days (8mm reel insert circa 1951)

Often included at no charge are still frames that catch my eye… this is fun for all concerned, and these time capsules of ancient film contain treasures in the form of fleeting smiles or captured moments. These images will be sent via email or Facebook as the scanning process is underway, giving you teasers to share with friends while awaiting your video files. They will also be included in a folder on your thumb drive. Some of them are marvelous… with rich tonal range and subjects that could never have been captured while posing stiffly for the still cameras of yesteryear.

Recent client project… a 64GB thumb drive full of video memories from the sixties

The output will be delivered on whatever media is needed to hold the file size (usually a thumb drive, or external hard disk for huge jobs)… and I pass along the Amazon cost or use media that you provide. (This is cheap; SanDisk USB3 64GB drives are $15 each, holding over fifty 3-inch 8mm reels exported from the 2K scan.)

I will save your original files until we are sure that you have them safely backed up or shared with family (and for many months thereafter, just for added security). This makes it easy for us to export additional still frames from the original scans as you discover them, or generate additional thumbs if you don’t want to do it yourself (it’s easy).

Sailing in 1941 – Edward H. Roberts – frame from 8mm film

For most 8mm jobs, that’s it — 30¢/ft charge plus media cost (and shipping if you’re not local), with a small copying fee if you want me to make additional copies for family members. There are a few other options:

Numbered image sequences (huge) – $15 per export-hour + media
Editing, stabilizing, film recovery, YouTube, embedding, etc. – $60/hour
16mm films (silent) – 35¢/ft

Audio, Video, & Stills

We can also take care of your old images including transparencies (35mm or 2-1/4), negatives, and prints. Sometimes the image quality of old photos is astounding, and we use a variety of tools to remove noise, adjust exposure, retouch, fix colors, and so on. Here is a scan of a 1970 slide, showing my father in his GE office:

Edward H. Roberts in office at GE, 1970
Edward H. Roberts at General Electric, 1970

Slide digitizing will yield a numbered archive of your entire collection, making it available for online posting, prints, and historical research. We use a dedicated slide scanner for small jobs, and for large ones there is a streamlined workflow with tethered full-frame mirrorless camera on a copy stand, color calibration tools, and dedicated Lightroom machine. We can return the slides in archival sleeves with corresponding “contact sheet” images to serve as a cross reference, if needed.

Slide workstation, with tethered mirrorless camera and multiple lighting options

In addition to all that, we handle most analog consumer video formats that have been in use over the past 40 years: VHS, VHS-C, Hi8, Digital 8, LaserDisc, and professional U-matic (Y/C DUB via TBC). Betamax is coming soon. All these are routed via matrix switcher and monitors to three Macs devoted to video digitizing, with audio taking a side trip through the MOTU interface to allow EQ or filtering. The Time Base Corrector works wonders on analog video artifacts, and it is all recombined as component signals, then handed to a digitizer running at 7-9 MMBPS depending on source. We also do miniDV tape with a direct digital feed to Thunderbolt, entirely eliminating analog conversion losses, and can also extract files from DVD if needed. All these video formats are $25 per hour of content, with discounts for longer tapes (see price list above).

The analog video department at Harbor Digitizing, showing signal routing and local monitoring as well as the transports and time-base corrector.

Please get in touch via the Contact form if you have questions or would like to have some digitizing done, and we will advise the best way to proceed and give you an idea of costs. If you include your mailing address, I’ll send a quaint hardcopy brochure… as retro as movie film! I am setting up an online storefront to make this all simple, and it will have an associated blog with featured stills and videos, tech tips, storage advice, human-interest stories, and so on. (We take checks, plastic, Zelle, PayPal, and cash.)

Over in the audio department, we can also do cassette and microcassette ($24 per hour of recording). This allows either direct-to-thumb MP3 digitizing or high-end options via Logic and Audacity on the Mac (routed through the MOTU audio network). We are currently researching which reel-to-reel deck to add to the growing system.

Audio tools

In 2020, we set up a lab in town to provide more workspace… with dedicated workstations for slides/negs, movie film, and audio/video. And you might enjoy my post, Digitizing Our Lives, which puts a personal twist on all this in the time of COVID-19.

Steve aboard Datawake