How Novel Coronavirus Affected Our Manufacturing

First, the FI-16 circuit boards’ bases were manufactured in – you guessed it! – Wuhan China, the region where the novel virus originated. The circuit board bases made it as far as an airport cargo shelf in Hong Kong, where they sat for a couple more weeks waiting for a flight to USA because they were non-essential and non-medical. Essential medical supplies had first priority for aircraft cargo space at the time.

The board bases finally reached the factory in California where the chips get added on, and then they get installed inside the Scouts for final assembly and quality control. Around that time, the factory was also dealing with safety protocols for their staff working from home, disinfection protocols, social distancing, masks and all the rest. I wanted to go to the factory to be hands-on, but domestic USA flights were restricted to essential travelers.

Eventually I got to go to the factory and put hands on. The factory gave me a huge table to myself so I could spread out our circuit drawings and our parts and check everything for labeling, part numbers, wire harness lengths, connectors, etc. Some parts are custom machined in the factory so I needed to see and touch them all.

Ansync is a wonderful factory, very smart people work there, and it’s well-equipped with sophisticated computer-aided machines and diagnostic tools. But we are not the only company having their devices manufactured in that factory, and so their other customers, just like us, decided to have the factory make any components that might have been made in China faster. So the factory got slammed with additional work orders, and all their projects got bigger and needed more people on them.

Everything seems to take longer in a pandemic crisis. USA also had some social unrest (Black lives matter!), and FedEx trucks were delayed on some of their routes, affecting our shipments of parts from our lab inventory in Baton Rouge to California.

Stay safe, and talk to your loved ones whenever you can 📞.

What’s in your Vault?

What’s in your vault?

Obviously that’s a play on the funny television commercials from a bank that asks “What’s in your wallet?”

If you’re joining us on our mission to make better and faster film inspections and condition reports, then we know what’s in your vault. Films. Lots and lots of films.

You have a cataloging system so you know a lot about those films. But what do you really know? Do you know what condition they’re in? Every foot and frame of them? Do you know what they might look like on that computer in your pocket?

When those films were put into cans and stored in your vaults, there was paper money in your wallet. Times have changed. Now there’s an electronic credit card in your wallet, and maybe not even that. Maybe you’re like me and you use the computer in your pocket.

What’s in your vault? Let’s find out together. With all the powers the computers offer us today.

To AMIA and Beyond

Maybe you heard about our new film inspection tools at AMIA this year or last. Maybe you heard about them afterwards. Maybe you discovered them on our website first. Anyway, here’s the story of our AMIA exhibition and beyond.

In October we delivered our 16mm film inspection system to Northeast Historic Film in Maine. Cataloger Emma let us observe and she talked to us about the experience. We call Northeast Historic Film our beta site. The whole point of the exercise was to learn from its use in real life. Get out of the lab.

We brought the FI-16 to AMIA and rented a conference room where we invited moving image archivists to bring their own films and try it out. That was fascinating! In addition to all the wise and experienced commentary, we got to see a remarkably varied range of films in all kinds of conditions. Sorry we couldn’t do that on the AMIA exhibition floor where we had a booth, but we figured that the people who brought their films to us deserved their privacy. Hey, when it comes to film inspection you don’t always know in advance what’s going to be on that film!

We learned from our friends at Northeast Historic Film and at AMIA that there were two areas of improvement that we could implement immediately. First of all, the films we inspected were larger than we thought people would be storing and carrying. Second, people have a lot more ideas about how to do film inspection than you would think. Some like to go really slow, some like to start slow and speed up, some like to just set and forget. Some like to look at the edges while the film is running, some prefer to look at the video workprint later when they can scrub and pause and so on. 

And perhaps most interesting, we built our system for photography and video to support the film inspection workflow for humans and for computer vision analyzed condition reporting. But you know what? Sometimes film inspection just means winding. Winding loose, winding medium, winding tight for shipment, or just winding so the other end of the film is outside.

So we brought the FI-16 device back to our lab in Baton Rouge and implemented those improvements. Will be sending it back to Northeast Historic Film soon, because they’re renting it for a year. Yippee 🎉!

While programming those motor control improvements we also discovered that with a little tweaking around the rollers, we no longer needed top platters resting on the films. At least most films. We’ll still ship top platters but hey, if you can remove that step from the film inspection process every little bit helps. It’s all about workflow and efficiency.

We also programmed in those new controls I mentioned. All the winding functions, film speed cruise control, manual and automatic controls, and a menu system right by your fingers so that you don’t have to look up at the computer screen because the film is right there by your fingers too.

Thanks to Northeast Historic Film, AMIA and beyond, today we’re building a production run of film inspectors. Our dreams are coming true. We hope for you too.

Object and Facial Recognition for Film and Images

No, we don’t do that. But we know that someone will.

We’re living in a time when computer vision tools are exploding in power, popularity, and use. Sometimes we know it, sometimes it’s in the background and invisible to us. That computer in your pocket already does it.

We made a list of computer vision object recognition facial recognition softwares, just the highlights that we think are most relevant to film archives. Just ask and we’ll give you a copy. We made it for our own education and we’re happy to share what we learn.

Our film inspection products, FI-16 and Waypoint, take photographs of your films so our computer vision tools can analyze their condition and produce condition reports for you. Our products also make video workprints.  This means that if you choose to send to recognition software or online services, you have video and still images to choose from. Or send them both, or send them to different softwares and services. Fun, eh?

There isn’t one best software or service and they’re probably never will be. It’s a Pandora’s box and that’s a good thing. Try them and see how you like them. Keep using the ones you like best.

We can tell you this about some of the key differences that you’ll encounter.

Some of them are optimized for video. Knowing that the source is video let’s the recognition software infer important things about the images in sequence. If a face is recognized in one frame and repeated for many more frames and then begins to turn around showing the back of that person’s face, video optimized software can figure out that it’s still the same person. If you feed thousands of still images to a recognition software and it finds a face, it won’t know that the back of that person’s head is the same person.

Video optimized recognition software can also use the soundtrack. Take the interview format for example. The camera may be on the interviewer when they ask the question but when the shot cuts or pans to the interviewee, the interviewer is still there. Humans know that intuitively. Video optimized recognition software is figuring that out too.

There can also be benefits to recognition software analyzing each frame separately. For example they could take a quick first pass through a long sequence of images and take note of which frames it can analyze the best. This will depend on computer vision factors like edges, exposure, and remember that some edges are contours of colors, not black or white, not contours of contrast.

After identifying the faces or objects in those key frames, the image optimized recognition software can then use those as a base for getting better results from all the other individual photographs.

So if all of that makes sense to you, there’s a third approach. A hybrid approach. Start by analyzing the video, but first break it out into thousands of individual still images. Then use all of the first two approaches, and compare the results to learn even more.

If it sounds repetitive, complicated, or even mind numbingly boring, please remember that that’s what computers are good at. That’s why we invented them. To do that work for us. Preferably while we are doing something else more interesting to us, things that computers simply cannot do. For example, computers don’t have social skills or empathy. That’s what humans are good at.

And that’s why we employ video everywhere in our products. Humans are incredibly sensitive to body language, motion, anything that moves or relates to human behaviors. During a film inspection the machine presents the photographs on the user’s computer screen and it looks just like video. It’s really still images going by so quickly that your brain will interpret it as video. Then your FI-16 can make a video work print, compressed so you can watch it on your computer in your pocket or any computer as far away as you’d like to send it. Waypoint overlays computer vision measured analysis in graphic form on copies of the still photographs and in video workprints that it makes from them. Again with the computer in your pocket and the computers as far away as you’d like to send them.

Object and facial recognition are wonderful tools and humans will always discover things they don’t. Work together on this. The important thing is to inspect your films, know what condition they’re in, use your judgment to apply your resources to preserve them and make them accessible. Let the computers do the boring parts.

Storage Wars

I wonder why there’s no storage device or cloud storage named Pandora’s box? Moving image archivists study storage of all types. They need more of it than most people. They need more kinds of it than most people. Film in cans in cool vaults. Digital storage of every conceivable type and price point. And they’re not just thinking about storage for convenient retrieval, some of them are thinking about storage for centuries and beyond.

There’s no single right answer and even if there was, it would change by the time this blog post reaches your eyes. But I can tell you a few things about what we are throwing into the mix.

FI-16, our film inspection device, has some storage inside of it. Not a lot, just enough to capture the photographs it takes of your films. That is stored in non-volatile RAM, about a terabyte of it. After a few hours of film inspection you’ll want to move those photographs and the video workprints that FI-16 makes from them onto their next storage.

Waypoint, our film inspection computer vision and condition reporting online tool set, is hosted on Amazon Web Services. Waypoint only needs the photographs long enough to analyze them with computer vision. So that leaves a lot of options to the user.

You could connect your FI-16 to the internet and upload the photographs and video workprints directly to Waypoint. Waypoint makes more video workprints to illustrate the film condition on a frame-by-frame basis. We’ll keep those for you on Waypoint along with the inspection data that Waypoint makes for you.

You can download all of that to your own storage. You can copy it to some other cloud storage if you like. Just do that thing you do.

Or you could connect your FI-16 to your local area network and move the photographs and video workprints there first. We have an uploader program that you can install on your own server to copy the photographs to Waypoint over the internet.

After Waypoint has analyzed the photographs you could pay us or Amazon to store them very cheaply in Amazon Glacier. Or not, that’s up to you.

How many copies do you need? You could take the belts and suspenders approach and keep all the copies ever made. You could take the efficiency and preservation approach and keep the photographs and video workprints where you keep all your other digital files and backups.

Sorry for opening Pandora’s box but moving image activists are used to it by now. All we can do is make it easy, reliable, auditable, efficient, and as fast and cheap as possible without giving up those values.

And we will keep staring into Pandora’s box for as long as you do. Film inspection and moving image preservation and access is a long game. In fact I would say it’s an infinite game, the kind that gets better the longer you play.

Co-Working Spaces

What’s the first thing you see when you walk into our office? Coffee tables made out of 70mm film reels. Media production awards. An ancient film projector and display shelves of film and television devices from every era.

None of those things belong to us but they make us feel at home. This is a co-working space in Baton Rouge Louisiana. It was built by a local entrepreneur and he’s proud of his town. Lots of moving image entertainment has been produced around here.

So what’s it like building a company in a co-working space?

We’re a small company, at least here in Baton Rouge. Half of our company lives in other cities and towns and they work remotely. They’ve all come to visit from time to time. And when they do, it’s a special day.

The other companies in this space are either video production teams or administrating educational programs in the area. We’re all startups, or at least young companies. That gives us a lot in common, lots to talk about at the water cooler.

What are the things that makes life good is social interaction, particularly with people for whom you can have empathy and they for you. So we’re a happy bunch here. We think that helps us to make better products too.

We started this company to serve moving image archivists. Startups and archives and make an interesting juxtaposition. The young and the old. I don’t mean the people, I mean the newest technologies and the longest-preserved films. I might be the oldest person in this co-working space but there are people here of all ages and I love the diversity. It reminds me of my other favorite places, libraries. Retired volunteers, children just learning to read, and every stage of life in between.

I suppose we could have least a warehouse in the industrial zone so we could set up equipment benches, wire cutting benches, 3D printers and so on. But we like this social life a lot better. There’s a video production studio in the back and I love it there too. we rented one corner of it behind the curtain and set up our storage shelves and soldering bench. Some days there’s a video shoot going on and we can’t get to our shelves but hey, that’s a minor inconvenience. With a wink and a smile we can always get to our stuff in a pinch.

How did we get to Baton Rouge? We started research and development in New York. Our CTO’s partner graduated from NYU’s moving image archives program and got a job at LSU. So we’re here, with no grand plan other than making the best of it. And the best of Baton Rouge and a co-working space and the ancient trees on the lake with the egrets and ducks and turtles, well, the best ain’t half bad.

You know what I really look forward to? Our products are designed for mail order. They’ll go all over the world and they’re shipping address is:

Creative Bloc, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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.