What are film cells? All about collectible 35mm film cells

We get a lot of questions from people new to collecting film cells. Sometimes we also get some comments from those expecting something different because they didn't bother to find out what they are buying. So in this post, we are going to go into what they are, why people collect them and the best ways to display them.

1. First of all, what is a film cell?

Okay, let's clear up the basics. These aren't "negatives" that so many people think they are. The word itself is a tip off. A negative would have everything inverted color and shade wise and are used to make the prints, so they wouldn't even look right. For those who grew up with film photo cameras, you'll remember receiving your negatives when you picked up your prints and they didn't look anything like the finished product. These are "prints." What these are from are from the prints the theaters recevied to project the film on to screens. These are the images you would have seen (blown up to size on the big movie screen) when you went to watch a movie. 

2. How big are these?

Once again, the description of them, 35mm, tells you a lot. Each cell measures a little under one and half inches wide. Our main line of displays measure 8x10 inches in their entirety and features six different cells so that gives you an idea of their relative size.

3. Why don't you have the scene that I want / why can't I request a certain scene?

Traditional movie film projects at 24 frames per second. This means for every second of movie, there are 24 individual cells. A whole movie takes up a number of reels depending on run time. We usually obtain these in parts since we do not cut up pristine full feature prints. Therefore, we might not even have the scene you want. This is on top of the fact it would be a logistical nightmare to try and coordinate and search through sometimes thousands of cells to find something specific. We would spend all of our time just searching through cells and would have to pass the labor time on to the price which would make these extremely expensive to make.

4. How do I display these?

Our displays are open in the back behind the cells so they can be back lit. Film cells, when not lit, will look very dark. Keep in mind these were made to have an intense projector light shine through them at the theater. If you ever run across a cell that doesn't look very dark, chances are its not a true film cell but one that was printed specifically for a display (more on that below). We personally put ours in a deep 8x10 frame with a removable back (our personal preference is the Ikea Ribba frame) and then add one of our battery powered LED backlight kits behind the cells (along the inside of the frame). 

5. How do you get these / how do I know you aren't just making these / how do I know these are genuine?

First, let us address the common question about COAs (Certificate of Authenticity). Anyone can print out a sheet and say something is genuine. They are technically meaningless. You see them a lot in the autograph market with disreputable sellers including a COA with obviously fake autos. In the interest of keeping the price down for everyone and also not wasting paper, we do not include COAs with our displays. So where do we get these and how do you know they are the real thing? Well, let us start by saying we have spent years finding and sourcing ways to get cells. A big part of our job is finding cells for movies everyone wants. You wouldn't be able to go to any store and ask them what their wholesale contacts are because part of having a business is spending time finding and developing ways to obtain product so, no, we arent going to do all the footwork for you. The major film studios have all phased out film prints for digital files. This means that a lot of the places that used to develop prints for theaters have shut down. It would literally cost us a lot more to have a huge variety of cells custom printed on film than it would to just find the real thing. There is one thing you may run into many times with things such as mass produced displays and that is something akin to a sericel (a term used for collectors of original animation art). Those are cells, usually the same exact scene, that are specifically printed to be placed on a display. You will see them a lot as a bonus item in limited edition boxed sets, promos, etc. These will seem lighter and do not need to be backlit to view. These are not real film cells that were projected. This is why almost always, they are of the same exact scene in every display.

6. Why does my cell look red / stretched, etc?

A few things may have your particular cell look "funny." Older films, usually late 80s and before, may have a red tint to them. This had to do with the ink and mediums used to print the film. The color would break down over time and things like blues and such would fade. If you actually projected them, you would be surprised how much of the color is actually still there, but when you look at them in their current size and not blown up, they will appear a dark red/maroon. This wasn't as much of a problem with newer films. Some film cells will also appear stretched or have black bars around the top and bottom. This is due to the fact that film came in two aspects - flat and scope. It had to do with how the lenses magnified the image when projected. Scope will tend to look a little vertically stretched but will fill the whole cell. The lenses would correct for this when projected. Flat cells will have the image correct ratio wise but be a little smaller and have bars on the top and bottom. Neither is more valuable than the other collector wise. It is more of a personal preference. Before you start requesting a certain aspect, understand that we don't usually get both - normally its one or the other, for any particular film.

7. How is there film for this when the filmmaker said it was film digitally?

As stated above, these aren't negatives, they are theater prints. How to film was made is irrelevant to how it was sent to theaters. If they had to send it to a theater that only had 35mm projectors and not digital, then they had to make a film print. Due to the fact that most theaters are fully digital these days, most movies post 2016 are very difficult to find film cells for as very few movies are printed to film any more.

8. Aren't you destroying movie prints that can be shown?

As stated above, we only cut up film that has been damaged in areas, not projectible or if we are receiving just a small portion. We do not cut full length feature films that can still be shown. A lot of film prints were actually destroyed by the studios once they were no longer needed.

9. Will these be worth more in the future?

Value is something decided by the public. Years ago vinyl records were considered just "old format," and you could get records for pennies on the dollar. Now, "retro media" has become collectible and an album that was once $5 a few years ago may cost you $50. Film is now considered retro as it has been overtaken by digital. Each film cell represents an actual portion of your favorite film, made for theaters, that you can now own and display. Instead of having some roll of film that isnt doing anything but looking like a black disc on a shelf, you can enjoy seeing these scenes displayed on your wall, desk, etc

10. How should I care for these?

As with any image, UV light is the enemy. Keeping them away from direct sunlight will keep the colors vibrant. We also don't recommend keeping the cells continuously lit. Having a switch you can turn on when you wish to view the cells is the best method for keeping the colors vibrant. Obviously heat and moisture can cause damage over time as well. Treat these as you would any type of image and they will be able to be enjoyed for a very long time.