The ABCs of film screening

Film formats
Projection equipment
Film packaging and labelling
Proper care of films

If you have any questions or problems related to film technology or shipping, please do not hesitate to contact EFS-Filmtechnik GmbH in Weiterstadt. Contacts:

Alexa Schmidt, Stefanie Gutsmann
Tel. +49 6150 1851072

Film formats

Since the invention of film, there have been various formats available, differing mainly in terms of size. Today we usually see only the classical 35mm feature film format and the conventional 16mm narrow film format. The Goethe-Institut also uses these formats world-wide.

Alongside these two film types, other formats may be used as original material. "Normal 8mm," "Super8" or 70mm – the largest film format ever used – are commonly encountered. Because of the high costs involved, the 70mm format was used only for a short time. The 9mm and S8mm formats were widely used by private individuals before video cameras were introduced. In the past, many filmmakers used this format for cost reasons or specifically for experimental purposes.

Nowadays it is possible to show 35mm and 16mm films in any cinema around the world, and perhaps 8mm films, but certainly not a film in 70mm format. They can probably afford that equipment only in Hollywood.

But regardless of the width of the film, it is important to know what the film material is made of.

What is film made of and how is it put together?

First, there is the classical material, "triacetate." It consists partly of natural products such as cotton and cellulite combined with organic solvents such as methyl chloride methanol and acetone. It was declared the legal standard in 1960. Until then, the industry used the famous "nitrate film," based on cellulose nitrate. The addition of nitrate to this material made it highly inflammable and volatile, which led to a legal ban. However, it is inevitable that film material of this kind is stored somewhere in the world.

Today all film material is produced using polyester. The base material is a durable plastic that is far more tear-resistant than triacetate. When stretched and folded it lasts up to three times as long. Polyester is superior by a large factor when it comes to durability, long life and storage. In the past, film material was susceptible to damage and degradation through environmental influences such as light, heat, moisture, chemical reactions etc. Today this is hardly a concern. The material can endure greater mechanical stresses than triacetate. However, polyester has its disadvantages.

Thanks to this highly tear-resistant material, it is now rare for films to tear; however, damage to film perforations and spool guides is more common. If the film tears, the projection can be stopped by an automatic film break if the projector has this feature. Otherwise the whole film can be destroyed. The take-up spool then keeps turning, but the film that has already been shown remains on the spool. It keeps running, however, and pulls the remainder of the film from the feeder spool.

Consequently, it is very important when threading the film through the passages, or placing it on the spindles and sprockets, etc. to ensure that it does not have too much slack or tension. It is equally important to check the film in advance for mechanical damage. Sticky spots, damaged perforations, creases or severe soiling of the film may cause the film to tear or even be destroyed.

Bad splices should be renewed immediately. The best approach is to remove one or two frames cleanly before and after the tear and splice the dry film again, but only if first-class splicing materials such as a film splicer, cutting tools and liquid glue are available. Otherwise it's best to mark the torn spot with a narrow strip of paper and to attach a large note for the next showing, saying "This film is torn and marked."

It doesn't matter if the film happens to break. However, you must remember to pass on this information for the next showing. Naturally, the same applies to perforation damage or creases. It is an act of negligence to show a film with any of the three kinds of damage described above!

A new 35mm copy costs an average of €2000 with subtitling. A 16mm copy costs an average of €1000. These are very high costs that can result from careless treatment of films.


Projection equipment

It would be impossible to list all makes and types of projectors, past and present. But the basic principle never changes: The film is projected by a light source onto a screen through an objective that magnifies it. The appearance of a projector is specific to the make and type, but in principle we can identify a film projector at a glance.

The only exceptions are the large, modern 35mm projectors with platter systems or long-play, single-reel technology.


35mm projector with platter system

35mm projector with single-reel techno

Stationary 35mm projector

The older projectors with their attached spool winders have been replaced in all large commercial cinemas by projectors with platter systems or single-reel technology.

Along with 35mm and 16mm projectors, there are also stationary and mobile projectors. However, portable 35mm projectors are just as rare as stationary 16mm models. The most common devices are the portable 16mm projectors.


Stationary 16mm projector

Portable 16mm projector

35-16mm stationary projector

In the meantime, however, "combo projectors," which can show 35mm/16mm have appeared on the market. The latest models are compatible with the Super16mm standard as well. These "triple format" machines are particularly recommended where space is at a premium. It is definitely worthwhile for buyers who show similar numbers of 35mm and 16mm films. Stationary projectors have the advantage of being very durable, and are very well built. They last much longer and are virtually free of wear and tear. The disadvantage: they are installed at one location and must stay there.

With portable equipment, you can show films almost anywhere. Of course you'll need a white wall or screen and dark surroundings. The disadvantage of portable projectors, especially 16mm projectors, is that they are not as solidly built. Especially in this market segment, more and more plastic has been used over time. Because plastic can lose its shape or break over time, this equipment needs a lot more day-to-day attention, and must be maintained on a regular basis. Whether it's a 35mm, 16mm or Super16mm projector, the basic principle is always the same. But the many differences are soon evident when we look at the range of makes and types. And the confusion is total when we start looking at the countless available accessories. Nevertheless, it doesn't take a genius to operate this equipment. It's enough to have certain basic skills and a little knowledge of technology.

However, it is important to know that the equipment for showing 35mm films is not only very large in many cases, but that the handling of the film material and projector calls for a certain amount of tender loving care.

Unlike modern 16mm projectors, where the film is automatically inserted or threaded, stationary 35mm and 16mm projectors require the film to be threaded by hand.

Especially when presenting 35mm films, it is important to have a thorough knowledge of the equipment. For the complex mechanisms alone, projectionists need certain basic skills for a smooth film presentation. If they lack this knowledge, the result will be damage to the film and the machine. A projectionist should be able to understand the hows and whys of the machine's performance at every moment of the film showing. Only then can a projectionist claim to master the equipment perfectly.


Film packaging and labelling

Like film projectors, film packaging comes in so many types and systems that a clear overview is next to impossible. 16mm packaging in particular shows great variety around the world.


  • The film should always be wound around the spool securely and tightly.
  • Please spool the film so that the film contents are at the beginning. (Please note: this applies to 16mm films only, and not to 35mm films.)
  • And please secure the loose end with a piece of type at all times.
If the film on the spool is not secured with tape, then it will be shaken loose during transport. This may result in damage such as creases or scratches caused by rubbing, or may even cause the film to tear.


Bobbies It is also commonplace for 16mm films to be transported using only a plastic core known as a "bobby." This does not provide adequate protection for the film.


Quadcan-Dose For some years the Goethe-Institut has been using its own type of packaging that can withstand the most severe transport punishment. These blue plastic canisters have their own spools, and come in three different forms.

One is a so-called "Quadcan," which can carry up to four reels with a total length of 480 metres.

These containers are usually packed with three reels each and a foam cushion. The foam cushions are an important element of this type of packaging. To eliminate the effects of vibration during transport, the Quadcan must always be packed with foam cushions. The number of cushions needed depends on the number of reels. When films are first packed, the film canisters are always assembled as described above.

Far too often, unfortunately, the film containers returned to us after use are not in the original condition or are even damaged. The film and the packaging are the property of the Goethe-Institut and must be returned in their entirety. The same applies, of course, to the other two types of film packaging.

In addition to the Quadcan containers, we also have Dancan containers in various sizes with cartons. We have carton sizes suitable for two to four film canisters. The film canisters can hold reels up to maximum length of 600 metres.

This type of container is also available for smaller reels (500m, 400m, 300m, 250m, 150m and 50m), but these do not come with cartons.

Of course the Goethe-Institut still has stocks of an older type of packaging. However, as they are returned by film users, we plan to replace them with the new packaging. The situation with the 35mm copies is similar. Here the Goethe-Institut also uses its own blue film canisters packed in conventional black film cartons. The difference between the 35mm and 16mm copies is that the 35mm copies have no spool. This is common practice the world over. Instead, the film must be reeled onto a plastic bobby. And by the way, when sending back 35mm copies – unlike 16mm copies – please do not rewind the individual reels!

The Goethe-Institut attempts to provide all films with clear and informative labelling, in other words the title of the film, the language version, subtitles and the number of reels or acts. In addition, every film in the Goethe-Institut collection has its own GI- or IN- number, and each copy has its own copy number, for example "IN 1654/112" or "GI 5234/075." These labels on the cartons or canisters are necessary for logistics and archiving purposes, and must therefore never be taped over or removed.



What is involved in the care and maintenance of film projectors?

Every film projector has its maintenance schedule. In other words, it must be checked by a specialist at certain intervals for defects or impending defects. Worn parts must be replaced, and any parts needing adjustment must be reset. Regular lubrication is also important. Please take care not to apply too much oil or lubricant to the projector or overfill the oil container, since oil expands as the projector heats up and may overflow. The excess oil will then spill and be spattered onto the tape base of the film, resulting in considerable cleaning expense or even destroying the film.

Every projector manufacturer provides an operating manual stating when and where service and maintenance work has to be performed. To avoid damage to the equipment, it is important to follow three rules. For 35mm projectors, which are usually installed at a fixed location, maintenance work should be done by a specialised company.

A portable device such as a 16mm projector can be taken to a professional service centre for service and maintenance. Owners of projectors can usually perform minor repairs themselves, or replace consumable parts. These include bulbs, fuses and dust filters. Please remember to unplug the projector and disconnect it from any power source.

Xenon-Kurz-Bogenlampe 35mm projectors have one component that need to be treated with great care to avoid injury: the projector lam ("xenon short-arc lamp" or "xenon tube").

The power of these lamps may range as high as 10,000 watts. But what makes them dangerous is the interior pressure.

  • Never replace these lamps when they are hot.
  • And always wear proper protective gloves and a mask when replacing them. This means that gloves and a safety mask should be part of your equipment.
It is advisable to have a professional change the lamp. These "short arc lamps" are in principle very durable and long-lasting. However, if a short arc lamp burns out during a film showing, the power supply of the projector must be shut off. Then you must wait until all components around the lamp have cooled down. Even if the audience is getting impatient, the order of the day is "safety first."


The same safety precautions apply to 16mm projectors, of course.

Even if you cannot maintain the equipment yourself, proper care must be a top priority. That means using a small brush after showing each reel to remove dust and dirt particles from the film channels and especially the film gate. Even a brand new film attracts dust and dirt that settles in the film channels and in front of the film gate. Polyester film material builds up static electricity charges and attracts all kinds of particles.

A heavy build-up of dirt on the film gate could even cause a fire. The reflex mirror focuses the light within the projector like a magnifying glass. The resulting heat could cause dust or dirt to catch fire. If the lamp is not properly adjusted, then the tape base of the film could be destroyed.

The objective is another important consideration when taking care of a projector. People who wear glasses know that they have to keep them clean to see properly. The same is true of the objective. If the film is dark or out of focus, a dirty objective may be the cause. It is therefore important to clean the objective before each film showing.

The objective of a movie projector has one unfortunate characteristic: Over the course of time it is dulled by the constant exposure to light, regardless of how well you take care of it. This is natural wear and tear, and the only answer is to buy a new objective!


Proper care of films

The care and handling of film material is now more important than ever, because film production costs have also risen. Although the quality of film material has greatly improved over the years, even the best material cannot survive without proper care.

Anyone who handles the material should treat it with kid gloves, from transport to projection to storage. Film should always be shipped early enough to give the next projectionist time to check the condition of the film and inspect it for damage. If damage is found before a showing, then there should be enough time to order a replacement copy or, in case of minor damage, to do repair work on the copy, for example

  • to splice the film if it is torn
  • replace poor or damaged splices
  • use a special cloth to clean dirty copies before showing them
This is usually done on a rewinding or viewing table.


Unfortunately, films are sometimes destroyed. Regardless of whether the damage is minor and reparable or irreparable, the important thing at first is to find out why the damage occurred.

  • If the projector is defective, it must be repaired immediately.
    Please do not show any more films until the defective projector is repaired!
  • If the problem is with the film itself, then it may not have been checked for damage in advance.


The second step is to check the extent of the damage to the film material. If the damage can be repaired and if you are able to minimise the damage, then you should do so. In case of a torn film, it is best to perform a dry splice, provided the damaged section is not longer than one metre.

However, it is extremely important not to dispose of the damaged section. It must be enclosed in the film canister. However, it is even more important to enclose a small report in the film canister in case of minor or major damage and repairs or any change in the film. This ensures that the damage can be professionally repaired before the film is shown again. Most films are returned to our depository in Weiterstadt after being shown. They are cleaned and undergo an intensive inspection. Any damage is eliminated. An enclosed record on the state of the film is an enormous help when inspecting for damage.

In Weiterstadt the film material is stored under optimal conditions: at a temperature of 15° to 25° Celsius, with humidity between 40% and 50%, and under ideal light conditions (dark storerooms).

Of course not everyone who has to store films has access to such optimal conditions. But the more closely you can approximate this environment, the better for the films. Old films in particular suffer damage under poor climatic conditions. Triacetate film is extremely sensitive to chemical processes in its surroundings. Films wound around sheet metal or iron spools that are placed in a sheet metal or iron canister will very often decay. In most cases, there is a smell of vinegar. But then it is already too late.

Over the course of time it was noticed that the coating on film copies reacted chemically with iron. The reaction first dissolves the coating and then the colour layers. The copy is then completely useless and should be separated from other copies as quickly as possible and destroyed. These problems were largely eliminated with the introduction of polyester as a film material as well as plastic spools and canisters.

Of course other environmental influences can also do harm to film copies. If copies are exposed to heat and dryness for long periods, they will dry out to the point of shrinkage. This has fatal consequences. First, the perforations become smaller, along with the spaces between them. As the first centimetres of film run through the projector, the sprockets cannot cleanly grab the perforations and the film is immediately torn lengthwise. In addition, the film material bulges, which causes scratches and runs as it moves through the guide channels of a projector.

Anyone capable of professionally operating a film projector has reason to be proud. Pushing a video cassette into a VCR and pressing the play button is child's play these days. But showing a film takes more skill. Projectionists have to understand and master the complex mechanical operation of a film projector.. In addition, they have to understand what film is made of and know how to treat it with proper care.


Being a projectionist combines tradition with expert knowledge. It's really something special. Even if the age of film and film projection is gradually drawing to a close as modern media increasingly dominate, it is good to look back at how it all began.