Printers Propellers and Platters Oh My!

When we decided to start R&D on a new way to inspect films, we gave ourselves a blank slate. All we knew for certain was that we would take advantage of the latest technology including computer vision, computer controlled motors and transport, and the latest in materials science.

One of our pivotal choices was whether or not to use 3D printing 🖨️. There are pros and cons. Traditional methods for making metal and plastic parts are very precise. Precision is a good thing. 3D printers have a head that moves in four dimensions, melted plastic that comes out of it, and a platter to hold that plastic as it hardens, and that platter slowly moves as the plastic grows. It can’t be as precise as a laser cutter, as you might well imagine.

But speed matters too. Mostly in experimentation and trying out new ideas to make something work just a little bit better. So we chose 3D printing for some of the elements on the outside surface of the FI-16, things that we could continually improve and mail out to our customers.

Surprise!

If a film inspection station holds the film horizontal or nearly horizontal – FI-16 is about 15° off of horizontal and that’s enough to give a small amount of vertical force – then that raises the question of whether or not the film needs a platter on both sides. Gravity holds it down to one platter. So do you need a top platter?

Well the answer turns out to be – sometimes. Archival films do what they want. They don’t obey orders. So, does the top platter need to be the same as the bottom platter? The answer turns out to be – Yes or no. Sometimes.

So we ship an FI-16 with three bottom platters because the third one can be a top platter on the take-up reel if you need it. You rarely do but when you do, it’s just the thing. Then we kept experimenting with different kinds of top platters using our 3D printer.

Some of them are just like the bottom platter but made of plastic and therefore lighter. Easier to handle. Cheap to replace if you break it. Some of them have a gradual curve on the side that faces the film because the take-up reel film may want gentle nudging in the beginning and then not need it anymore after the film gets going. We call that one the UFO!

Then came the propeller.

Sometimes you want to nudge or wind the film by hand. You want to rotate the film on its platter and you want to see it while you do. So we started cutting away more and more of the UFO until it was just two straight bars in either direction. Then one of our film inspection operators said it was finicky to place her fingers on the thin plastic. Rather than make a thick chunk of plastic, we curved one edge of the bar upwards. Then we curved it upwards more. Now she can get a really good grip and she can see all of the film. And it still does its job as a top platter to keep the film winding nicely.

When we took it off the FI-16 and looked at it by itself, I swear it looks like – a propeller. With the spindle hole in the center it looks like you could stick it on your model airplane and send it off in the sky.

Printers, propellers, and platters, oh my! Hey, have a little fun while you work.

Testing that it Works

While researching and developing our film inspector and Waypoint system, we also had to research, design, and develop how we would test that it works.

There’s a scientific part and a psychological part to that. The psychological part may be the most difficult. What does it mean when we say that it works? What do you think it means? What does somebody else think it means?

I can’t settle that question in a blog post, and maybe it doesn’t need to be settled at all. Maybe it needs to go on and be debated endlessly. Think of how much more we know about film today than we knew 50 years ago. Think about how much better we have gotten at discussing what we know, sharing what we know, and learning from each other.

The scientific part is a little more straightforward. Film is plastic and it has a shape. It had an intended shape when it was manufactured. There are standards that were written by moving image engineers and scientists. There are ways to measure plastic and numbers to compare it to.

This blog post isn’t the place to explain all of the measurements that our system makes, we’ll get to that elsewhere. But I can explain how we test, and how we decide that it works.

There are two families of measurements and two main criteria of success. Measure damage and shrinkage. The criteria for success are don’t miss statistically significant damage or shrinkage, and don’t invent them where they don’t exist. The latter is called false positives.

FI-16 takes the photographs and Waypoint makes the measurements. Both are important, and Waypoint is counting on the FI-16 to do its part right. FI-16 does its part by taking the best pictures it can of the film in high illumination, consistent exposure, and consistent white balance.

Waypoint then uses computer vision, much like the computer vision that guides autonomous vehicles and thousands of other autonomous devices that need to understand what they can see around them. Except instead of trying to recognize moving vehicles and pedestrians in crosswalks, Waypoint’s computer vision looks for what shouldn’t be there.

So we took a reel of 16mm white leader film and measured it by hand. We counted every sprocket and every frame on a synchronizer. We took a hole punch and punched out a half circle on the edge in between sprockets at every foot, that’s once every 40 frames. Then we counted everything again.

Then we inspected that leader film hundreds of times. Waypoint should find every hole punch, and not invent any false positives. Waypoint exported its results to a database. We gave the database to a PhD in statistics and asked him to give us statistical analyses of that database. It works.

Then we took an old and wavy film of the maximum length that FI-16 can hold, 2,000 ft. We inspected that film by hand with a synchronizer, magnifying glass, bright lights, you know the drill. We noted every damage and we took photographs.

We’re analyzing that film as of this writing. It’ll take a while. It’ll be interesting to see if anything changes after we run it a couple hundred times. FI-16 is very gentle on the film and won’t hurt it, but it will be flexed on and off its reel. Does that do anything? Stay tuned, we’ll let you know.

We’ll keep devising new ways to test that it works. We’ll keep expanding on what it means to say that it works. This never ends.

Measurement, science, statistical analyses of large databases. That’s how we do it.

Copyrights in the Digital Age

Did you know that if you make a video workprint of a film, you own that video?

I don’t think that was the intention when the US Congress wrote the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. They were thinking about video games and word processors. Then downloading happened.

Film archives don’t want to infringe on the copyrights of others. I don’t recommend it to anyone in any context. But that video workprint? Who has the rights to that?

Consult a copyright lawyer if you like but the answer will probably be a long one. It’s complicated. It’s getting more complicated all the time. A couple years ago I spoke on a panel addressing an assembly of copyright lawyers and government ambassadors from around the world. I stuck to what I know but the real surprise for me was how little anybody knows about what’s next. They’re working very hard and diligently to figure it out. One core problem is that the internet is global but copyrights are local, WIPO notwithstanding.

I don’t know what you want to do with this information. Copyrights are a fascinating subject. But that video workprint you made with your FI-16 isn’t a copy. It’s a new work. It’s video assembled from still photography aimed at a film. If you make a film copy of a film, copyrights cover that pretty clearly. If you digitize a film to make a digital copy of its content, decades of law practice cover that pretty clearly. But a video workprint made on a FI-16 isn’t the copyrighted movie. It’s photography of the plastic. It’s meant for the archivist, to help them do their work well.

What is that?

Perfect is the Enemy of Good

You can Google that title and you’ll find plenty of experts telling you all about it. I’d like to comment on it in particular for the preservation mindset and film inspection.

Cinequal’s FI-16 and Waypoint system isn’t perfect. We’re not trying to make it perfect before we ship it. We’re going to perfect it, speaking as a verb, for as long as our fans and customers need us to.

One thing needs to be as good as we can afford to make it at the outset. The photography is paramount because these photographs can persist forever. Even if the film is photographed again later, it will be older. So we spent most of our research and development on the camera, illumination, rollers, and motors.

There is software on the FI-16, and Waypoint is all software. We can perfect those and update them endlessly. And we will! We can add features and functions and tweaks and bells and whistles and with your help, really useful stuff.

It’s no secret that it’s human nature to judge the quality of our system based on the video workprints. Please don’t judge them too harshly yet because that’s misleading. They’re just video made from the photography. On board the FI-16 they’re made as quickly as possible because the machine operator has work to do, lots and lots more films to inspect. Their time is of the essence.

The photography is high-resolution, brightly lit, exposed and white balanced to suit the best that the camera sensor can make. You can make many more videos from that photography, ad infinitum. Craft editors can enhance video to be as pretty and perfect as you like. That photography isn’t meant to be pretty, it’s meant to be accurate and feed the best possible photographs that we can afford to make for video editors.

But that’s not all that film inspection is about. It’s about knowledge, and how you can interpret what you know about the films. Here again, perfect is the enemy of good.

Inspect the films now, as soon as you can. Waypoint will make a condition report the best that it can right now. It’s pretty darn good. Next time you run a condition report on that same film, using the photography and not running the film again, the condition report may be more perfect. That’s the magic of software.

Some years down the road you may inspect that film again, taking new photography of it, feeding that new photography to Waypoint for a new condition report. The difference between old and new condition reports is good information too. What changed in the intervening time? That’s a kind of film condition speedometer.

Software, software, software. It’s called soft because it’s malleable, improvable, perfectible. Join us and tell us what you think perfect looks like.