Real Doesn’t Always Equal Pretty

When we run a film inspection on FI-16 we’re not looking for pretty. We’re looking for real.

The photographs are meant to capture the reality of what that film looks like if you held it in your hands. In really good light. So the photography software has an automatic exposure and an automatic white balance. It’s not as pretty as what you expect to see from an iPhone.

Video editors know that you can turn blacks into grays but you have a lot of trouble turning grays into black. You can dim the brightest whites but you have a lot of trouble making the brightest white out of gray. Why? Because the video editing computer doesn’t know which parts of the image are meant to be gray so they get turned to black and white also. The same is true for colors. Instead of contrast we call it saturation. But the limitations are similar.

When you’re inspecting a film on the FI-16 you see video on the computer screen. That is the actual photography shown to you. Moving at whatever speed you set the film to run. It’s not meant to be pretty, it’s meant to be accurate. So you can see what the film really looks like, what it really is.

Here’s a fun experiment. Next time you’re sitting around a table with some friends ask everyone to pull out their phones 📱. Laptops and tablets too if they have them. Then everybody play the same video on all the screens at the same time. See how different they all look!

We live in the digital age and it’s not going to unwind itself, so to speak. Manufacturers of smartphones, tablets and laptops aren’t trying to make all the videos look the same on all the screens. They’re trying to please you. They’re trying to make their screens prettier than everyone else’s. That’s not reality in video, that’s the reality of commerce.

When you’re inspecting your film, photograph its reality. Pretty comes later.

Editorial Edits & Craft Edits

When a film archive sends films out for digitization they don’t see the difference between editorial edits and craft edits. They just see the final results.

Now that film archives can make their own video workprints alongside their automated film condition reports, they might learn more about the difference between editorial edits and craft edits.

Editorial edits are what they sound like. They’re edits made for content. They don’t contain every foot of the film. Leader, blank or unexposed segments are omitted, etc. Maybe there are extras that were included with the film but not meant for normal viewing. Maybe there are trims that should be edited together, and maybe they should be their own video. Or maybe they belong somewhere in the main video. These are editorial decisions.

Craft edits are artistic in a different way. Maybe it’s a black and white film that has turned brown and needs to be seen black and white again. How black and white? How much contrast? Should it look as if it was developed yesterday or should it look like it was developed half a century ago?

Maybe it’s a color film that is faded and needs to be color corrected. How much? How saturated or vivid should it look? Should it look as if it was developed yesterday or should it look like it was developed half a century ago?

Maybe the film has shrunk or has problems that vary all along its length in varying amounts in different segments. It can be stabilized. How much? Rock solid, or with a vintage look? Modern storytellers sometimes artificially induce a vintage look for artistic reasons to a film or video that they shot this week.

Editorial edits and craft edits are art. There is no right or wrong, there are only choices. Not everyone has to agree on every choice. Fortunately with video choices can be made again and again. Unlike a film print, it’s not cast forever in plastic.

But there is the original photography of the film. That can be done again but the film will be older. The original photography is digital and doesn’t age like film.

We think the original photography of the film should be realistic. Just take a good color photograph of every frame, edge to edge and some of the frames next to it. Let the editorial edits and craft edits turn those photographs into art. While the film rests undisturbed in its vault.

No-prep Workflow

Traditional archival film handling is a workflow. There’s a lot of preparation involved. What if there wasn’t?

  1. First you set up a space with winders and splicers and synchronizers and a light table and a magnifying glass and gloves.
  2. Then you open a film can and load it onto a reel, and another real onto the other winder.
  3. Then you wind the film slowly and take a lot of notes. Footage, frame numbers, visible damage, measures of shrinkage perhaps, edge codes, soundtrack type or none, credits, etc.
  4. Then you wind the film to a specific heads out orientation and put the film back in the can.
  5. Then you carry it to the scanner to make a video of it. Take the film out of the can again, thread it again except this time the rollers and film path are complex and finicky.
  6. Then you turn on the scanner and set the controls (expertise required).
  7. Then you put the film back in the can and take it back to the inspection station and wind it for archival storage again.

What if…

  1. You open the film can and set the film on a platter. Thread it around a couple of big and airy rollers to the other platter.
  2. Type or barcode scan a reel ID and click your mouse to start the photography. Punch a button to start the film rolling.
  3. Watch the video on a computer screen and your mind is free to think about what you see. Maybe take a note or two if you see something remarkable but otherwise just let it run. It doesn’t matter if it was heads out or tail out because the video can be edited later.
  4. When the film is wound to the other platter, simply lift it back into its can, still on an archival hub. Close the can and put it away.

Done. No prep. Open the film can one time, spool it one time, put it away.

Let computer vision measure everything about the film and produce an automatic condition report. At your leisure, or someone else’s leisure, watch the video workprint. Watch it in the comfort of your own desk or on your own phone.

Sound like a good idea?

Tiny Desk Concert

When I started in the music recording business  half a century ago, nearly everything we did involved logistics and heavy stuff. The instruments were big and bulky. The recording studios were insanely expensive and had to be purpose built. They even had special doors and ramps.

Musicians today assume they can do their work anywhere. They’ve got computers in their pockets and in their backpacks. Recording studios are still nice, but not required. They just find a desk and go to work 🎶.

Some musicians can give an entire concert from a tiny desk. What can you do at your desk?

You can inspect films at any desk, and you can choose the one most convenient to the films. Bring your FI-16, pull up a chair and start the show.

We normally imagine the film inspection to be a solo endeavor and the output will be video workprints and condition reports. To be viewed later, like a music recording. Or…

It could be like a tiny desk concert! Everybody is online these days. You could share your screen with viewers near and far at the same time that you’re inspecting. It could be a community event. Or colleagues could join you from their own desk wherever they may be.

Sounds like fun to me.

Treasure Hunting

Film inspection means different things to different people. Generally they fall into two categories. What and who are in the images? What condition is the film in?And then there’s treasure hunting. What might be on the plastic that we didn’t expect? Here are a few of my favorites.

  • A filmmaker signed the film in a little bit of clear leader. That makes it another kind of artifact.
  • A film started out normal, and then it got weird. Segments of other films were spliced into it, apparently in random places. I wonder what’s the story behind that?
  • A film with an optical soundtrack had some splices in the middle, that’s pretty normal. But some of the segments were upside down, so the optical soundtrack was suddenly on the other edge. I’m guessing that film wasn’t heard from again, so to speak.
  • A film was clearly a compilation, that’s pretty normal. But each segment of this film was separated with a different color leader. What a clever way to find different sections of the film, assuming you had a table of contents listing the color of leader for each segment. We don’t have that table of contents but now that we have a color workprint video we can easily make one. Or just scrub the video and look for bright colors filling the screen.
  • Another film seems to be all of a piece except some segments seemed to go by too fast. Watching the video workprint we could see that they were multiple cameras used in this expedition but they weren’t all shot at the same speed. It’s not difficult to edit that video and make them all appear at the same speed in a video player. That’s much more difficult to do with a projector.

Treasure hunting is fun!

The Trim Tool

When you first see our trim tool you would probably call it a gate. It looks like a film gate. I guess it is a film gate. Except it’s not meant for that. It’s meant for trims. Some films are stored in an archival can along with one or many short segments of film that have been trimmed out of it. There can be many reasons for that.

  1. Maybe they are highlights.
  2. Maybe they are segments taken out for certain showings.
  3. Maybe they were censored.
  4. Maybe they were just in bad condition and got tangled up in the projector too often.

You could splice them back into the film. Assuming you know where they belong! Assuming you want to wind the film backwards and forwards enough times, spooling it out to make the splices over and over again. Or…

You could just inspect the film and make the video workprint and then run the trims through the trim tool. A foot of leader on each end, a couple of small film tape pieces, and pull them through.

You could append them all to the main films video workprint, or you could make a separate video workprint of just the trims.


Winding From an Original Metal Reel

Film archives have been inspecting films for so long, you would think it was routine. You would think there’s a right way to do everything. You would think there’s a standard way the set up a film inspection area. Oh no, film life is much more interesting.

We brought our first FI-16 and invited our friends to bring their own 16mm films to try it out. We assumed they would transport them in film cans on archival hubs and all but one of them did. That one film was on its original metal reel and its original metal can.

Why were we surprised? Isn’t that how nearly all films find their way into an archive? Isn’t one of the first things you do with a new film acquisition is inspect it?

FI-16’s motors and hubs are designed for archival hubs. They fit perfectly. We were very careful to make sure of that. And of course this film on its original reel did not fit at all.

We don’t expect to foresee every film inspection scenario and that’s why we expect the unexpected. A film on its original metal reel should not be a surprise, but something else will be!

This story has a happy ending. We designed the FI-16 with 3D printing in mind. So we simply printed a new attachment we call the steeple. Slide it on the motor hub and wind the film from its original metal reel onto an archival hub.

I suppose there are many other ways to do that including manual crank winders but my point is that we would like to see film inspection get everything done on whatever desk is available. Maybe with a little box of attachments in a drawer or under the desk.

With a Little help from our friends.

Skyping into Support

20 years ago I had bookshelves full of manuals. I used analog equipment in those days. Today my bookshelves are still full of valuable and interesting books but none of them are about equipment or how to use it.

Why? The digital age. But I’m still analog! And so are the people joining us in this journey to see and understand the films preserved in our archives.
Analog films persist in the digital age so we think it’s time to use digital tools to support the analog people we’re seeking to serve.
We have lots of written notes about our products but we don’t expect you to read them.
You probably have a video camera in your pocket right now. We do! That’s how we want to support you. Live and in person, as analog as we can get over digital transmissions to wherever you and your films are.
You can email us and we’ll assume you’d like an answer within a day. You can call us on the phone (347-442-7939) and we’ll answer if our hands are free. We’re a small company so none of us has a telephone headset on all day but we’ll call you back.

You know what we like best? A calendar invitation. That tells us when you’re available to talk and/or show us what you’re interested in. We can show you what we have and how we use it.

At Cinequal we use live online meetings every day. Ain’t the internet cool?

Mail Order at the Speed of Radio

“You’ve Got Mail!” is the title of a 1998 movie that highlighted our enduring fascination with near-instant connection. We can hardly imagine what life would be like without it now. 

Moving image archives still live with both kinds of mail. Email plus what we now lovingly refer to as snail mail. If a film has to go somewhere in a can, it’s going on a truck at the speed of roads. The conversation about that same film goes at the speed of radio. 

What if that truck brought you a film inspection system in a box? What we used to call mail order. Open the box, set the device near the films, run the films at their favorite frames per second and do everything else electronically at the speed of radio.

 Truck drivers and shipping companies might prefer the old way, the snail mail way. Ship the films to a device where they can be seen. Then wait for the trucks to bring something back. 

Archival films don’t really want to spend their time on a truck anyway. Let’s bring back snail mail with a modern twist. The film inspection bench that you can get by mail order anywhere in the world. Like we used to buy film projectors by mail order 📩. 

Let’s leave the films safe in their cans on their shelves. Truck the film inspection bench to the films and set it up on the closest table. Send the results around electronically at the speed of radio. 

Why not?

Run the Darn Film

Sony introduced the digital video recorder 📹 in 1986. The USA introduced its Telecommunications Act in 1996. YouTube introduced online video to the world in 2005 and Apple introduced the always-online computer in your pocket in 2007.

It’s 2020 and analog isn’t how we share anymore. Film inspection changed accordingly. We don’t inspect films so that we can ship them out again. We inspect them for health and longevity. We don’t keep lots of film copies for shipping around to projection theaters, we keep the best or the only.
What do we know about a film in a can? It’s safe, cool, and catalogued. But what’s really on it? What does it look like? How is it surviving the test of time?
Film inspection should leave a digital video record. We should let computers measure every inch and centimeter. Our records should be digital; we can print paper backups if we like.
Film inspection is an important part of providing access to what we spend our time and money preserving. Film inspection records need to be accessible by that computer in your pocket, shared the way you share information today – digital.
Access video copies for public viewing are a different matter and that’s a different post. I’m talking about professional and behind-the-scenes access.
So if you open that film can for any reason whatsoever, run the darn film and capture the video, and let a computer look at the images too and do what computers do best.
Run the darn film and make what you saw accessible. Why not?